Hiking the Kumano Kodō: Japan’s ancient pilgrimage route

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One of Japan’s most remote and rewarding journeys, the Kumano Kodō hiking route weaves through the mountainous Kii Peninsula, south of Osaka. Once a sacred pilgrimage reserved for emperors and samurai, the ‘Kumano Old Road’ is today open to all modern-day seekers and wanderers.

Walkers on the Kumano Kodō in the Kii PeninsulaWalkers on the Kumano Kodō in the Kii Peninsula © JTB Photo / Getty Images

From old road to World Heritage Site

Even before organised religion existed in Japan, locals worshipped nature in the mystical landscape of the Kii Peninsula. Towering trees, the nation’s tallest waterfall, and the mountains in between were themselves considered kami (gods), and a walk among them became a sacred act. Emperors and samurai kept detailed diaries of their pilgrimages here; one of the earliest was by Fujiwara-no-Munetada (1062–1141), an aristocrat who travelled to Kumano in 1109.

Over the years Buddhist temples and shrines of Shintō, Japan’s native religion, were built, making the route’s iconography more familiar for the common folk. And in 2004, the Kumano Kodō and its sacred sites were given World Heritage status – one of only two pilgrimage routes recognised by Unesco (the other is the Santiago de Compostela in Spain and France).

A priest at Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of the three grand shrines of the Kumano KodōKumano Nachi Taisha, one of the three grand shrines of the Kumano Kodō © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

Pick your pilgrimage

The Kumano Kodō is actually not one route but a network of trails through the deeply forested mountains, with no official start and end point and no prescribed order for approaching a hike. There are moderate to strenuous hiking options lasting a few hours to several days, taking in some of Japan’s top ‘power spots’ – temples, forests and waterfalls thought to enrich the soul.

Historically, pilgrims would visit the Kumano Sanzan – the three grand shrines of Kumano – which are the cornerstones of the Nakahechi route (aka the Imperial Route), the most action-packed route through the region.

Two trails diverge in the woods on the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage routeTwo trails diverge in the woods on the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage route © Eiko Tsuchiya / Shutterstock

This main trail traverses the peninsula from Takijiri-ōji in the west, 38.5km east through to the first of the three grand shrines, at Hongū. Here, the trails diverge toward the other two shrines, either southeast through the mountains toward the waterfall Nachi-no-taki or eastward along the river Kumano-gawa to the town of Shingū.

There are several possible hiking itineraries along the Nakahechi route. While purists may want to hike the entire way, there’s no shame in taking buses between the sights and trailheads, especially if time is limited.

Hiking the Nakahechi route

On the Kii Peninsula’s west coast, Tanabe is the gateway to Kumano, offering one last micro-glimpse of the modern world to hikers before they set out. Fortify yourself with sashimi, yakitori, sake and the local speciality umeshu (Japanese apricot liqueur) in one of the many izakaya (Japanese pubs) in the restaurant-filled warren of alleys called Ajikōji.

The route starts at the Shintō shrine Takijiri-ōji, reached by a 40-minute bus ride east from Tanabe. It’s here that centuries of pilgrims used to perform ablutions in the healing river waters before commencing their journey. A 4km hike opens with a steep uphill climb and rambles along tree roots and boulders before arriving in Takahara, nicknamed ‘the village in the mist’, a good place to bed down for the night.

An old farmhouse along the trail on the Kumano Kodō An old farmhouse along the trail on the Kumano Kodō © Alon Adika / Shutterstock

It’s about a 13km hike – with an elevation gain of 830m – to the next town of Tsugizakura and its groves of ancient pines, some up to 8m in circumference. Many visitors opt to hike 25 minutes from Takahara to catch a bus instead; it’s another 25 minutes’ walk from the bus stop to Tsugizakura.

Fit hikers can cover the next 21.5km in about 8 hours, via isolated villages, forest trails and an inspirational lookout point to Kumano Hongū Taisha, first of the grand shrines, perched over a tree-covered ridge. Near the shrine is the very modern Kumano Hongū Heritage Centre, providing museum-quality descriptions in English about the route and World Heritage Sites. Look for Japan’s largest torii (shrine gate), nearly 40m tall, behind the centre.

Japan's largest Shintō torii gate sits amid rice paddies in HongūJapan’s largest Shintō torii gate sits amid rice paddies in Hongū © Andrew Bender / Lonely Planet

Midway through the next 27.5km (about 1.5 days) is the toughest part of the hike. Walkers encounter the forebodingly named Dogiri-zaka (body-breaking slope) – about 5km straight uphill for an 800m gain in elevation. In the words of one 13th-century poet hiker, ‘it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is.’

After a series of ups and downs paralleling a service road, the reward is a view of Nachi-no-taki, Japan’s tallest waterfall (133m), which appears in countless travel photos as the backdrop to the brilliant orange pagoda across the valley. The waterfall is the kami (god) enshrined at the adjacent Kumano Nachi Taisha, the second of the grand shrines of the area.

Vermilion pagoda with waterfall Nachi-no-taki © cowardlion / Shutterstock

To reach Kumano Hayatama Taisha, the last of the three shrines, traditionally pilgrims would travel from the Hongū area down the river Kumano-gawa to where it empties into the vast Pacific at the town of Shingū. Today’s travellers can still make the journey by traditional flat-bottomed boat, though kayaking and motorised boats are also available. At the shrine, taking a moment to gaze at the 800-year-old pine tree – itself considered sacred – makes a fitting end to the Kumano experience.

Detour to hot-spring villages and Kōya-san

With more time to explore this region, there are a couple of worthwhile side trips.

An easy bus ride or about 3.5km walk from Hongū is a trio of connected hot spring villages that have soothed the feet and souls of travellers for centuries. If you have time for only one, a good choice is picturesque Yunomine Onsen, where a stream rushes downhill through the village centre. Small ryokan (traditional inns) boast some rustically beautiful baths, alongside public baths. Watarase Onsen is home to a large indoor-outdoor bathing complex surrounded by larger inns. The most unusual of the trio is Kawa-yu Onsen, where hot water bubbles from beneath the ground into the riverbed and bathers carve out makeshift tubs in the river stones. Kawa-yu’s riverside is one of the few hot spring resorts in Japan where a swimsuit is required.

Sunlight through the trees at Oku-no-in cemetery, Kōya-san Sunlight through the trees at Oku-no-in cemetery, Kōya-san © Neale Cousland / Shutterstock

North of Kumano Kodō, mountaintop Kōya-san is a palpably spiritual temple complex, headquarters of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism and also on the Unesco World Heritage list. Only the fittest, most dedicated hikers will want to hike the 70km Kohechi trail from Kumano; there are a couple of daily bus connections for the rest of us. Or for a separate trip, Kōya-san is served by several daily trains from Osaka.

Day-tripping Kumano

If you’re making a day trip out of it, head to Nachi-no-taki and Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine. From Osaka, limited express Kuroshio trains circle around the peninsula to Kii-Katsuura station in about 3.5 hours; from here it’s a 25-minute bus ride to the shrine area. You can break a serious sweat by ascending to the shrine via a fantastical, 800m tree-lined arcade. With a little extra time, return to Kii-Katsuura station and continue by train to Shingū and the Kumano Hayatama Taisha shrine.

Old pine tree at shrine Kumano Hayatama Taisha, said to be 800 years oldOld conifer at shrine Kumano Hayatama Taisha, said to be 800 years old © JTB Photo / Getty Images

Where to stay

The greatest concentration of accommodation is in the towns of Tanabe in the west, and Shingū on the east end of the Nakahechi route, while all along the route are small guesthouses and ryokan. Expect an authentic Japanese experience in these remote villages; even in recently constructed lodgings, most accommodations are traditional style with futon bedding on tatami mat floors, shared baths and local cuisine. In Hongū is the Blue Sky Guesthouse, a more modern B&B secluded in a glen. In Tanabe, simple, mid-century Miyoshiya Ryokan is a traveller favourite; while in Shingū, the Hotel New Palace lets you decompress with contemporary, Western-style rooms. Lodgings in the hot-spring villages near Hongū are well worth the detour, especially the atmospheric, riverside Ryokan Yoshino-ya in Yunomine Onsen.

Make it happen

The Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Board is one of Japan’s best and is an excellent resource for planning a visit. It publishes detailed guide maps to the region, available online, can point you to restaurants with English-language menus, and runs an online, multilingual accommodation booking service. Reserve well in advance, especially if travelling during summer and the autumn foliage season.

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