The Kumano Kodo, a 1000-year-old pilgrimage, is both easily accessible and a world away from Japan’s sprawling metropolitan centers.
Located about a hundred kilometers south of Osaka, the Kumano Kodo is the perfect antidote to a few days in Japan’s megalopolises. The network of trails snakes across the Kii Peninsula past sites significant in Buddhism and Shintoism, through small towns, and over lushly forested mountain passes. The pilgrimage holds appeal for hikers with a wide range of abilities, religious affiliations, and priorities.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range as a World Heritage Site in 2004. The distinction officially includes the mountains Yoshino, Omine, and Koyasan, and the Kumano Sanzan, the three Grand Shrines of the Kumano Kodo. In other words, it’s impossible to miss what makes the area so special because so much of the region has significance. Not only that, but the Kumano Kodo is one of only two pilgrimage routes in the world to earn the distinction of UNESCO World Heritage Site (the other is the Camino de Santiago in Spain).
INSIDER TIPIf you aspire to hike the Camino de Santiago, or already have, pick up a Duel Pilgrim Credential in either Tanabe City, Hongu, or Takijiri and collect stamps at designated sights along the Kumano Kodo to make your pilgrimage official. By showing your stamp booklet in either Tanabe City or Santiago de Compostela, Spain, you can register as a “Duel Pilgrim.” Regardless, collecting stamps is a fun way to document your progress.
The Kumano Kodo’s network of trails allows for hikers to choose a route that fits their ability level and preferences. The four main trails—Nakahechi, Kohechi, Ohechi, and Iseji—each have their merits. The Nakahechi, for example, cuts through the mountains past two of the Grand Shrines and was historically the most popular with the imperial family. The Kohechi, while more difficult, connects the three Grand Shrines with the Buddhist temple complex on Koyasan. Ohechi and Iseji follow coastal routes. The routes are well-connected to Japan’s public bus and train system, so hikers can hop a bus to bypass the more difficult sections or if they’re short on time.
INSIDER TIPThe Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Board offers example itineraries on their website. Travelers can also book accommodations and luggage transfer service through their reservation system at no extra cost.
The trails are open year-round, though summer and winter may require extra preparation. The average temperature in July and August hovers in the high 70s and the winters see rare snow. Spring and fall have the mildest temperatures and humidity levels. Cherry blossoms and colorful foliage break up the region’s lush greenery during their respective seasons.
For over 1000 years, emperors, aristocrats, and the general populace all traveled from Kyoto to hike the Kumano Kodo and worship at its three Grand Shrines. Both the walk itself and the ritual purification performed along its route were integral to these pilgrims’ journeys. While Shinto nature worship took place long before pilgrims began trekking across the peninsula, once Buddhism was brought to Japan, the area became a seedbed from which the two religions mixed. The shrines along the Kumano Kodo also influenced the style and creation of shrines throughout Japan.
Along the Kumano Kodo, it’s easy to see why early residents in the region practiced nature worship and came to see the mountains here as sacred. The trails pass through groves of towering cedar trees, cascading waterfalls, and rolling green vistas. The towns themselves are beautiful in their own right—many are examples of traditional Japanese architecture.
Upon picturing Japan, what comes to mind for many people are densely populated cities filled with workers, technophiles, and busy students rushing between high rises. Though not far from these metropolises, the Kumano Kodo takes travelers on a tour through the countryside, where life has a very different pace. Accommodation in minshukus (small guesthouses), ryokans, and homestays provides a view of Japanese culture that tourists don’t always see in the country’s urban centers.
Long days of hiking require long meals, something the hosts along the Kumano Kodo take seriously. Most ryokans and minshukus serve kaiseki meals, which are made up of numerous small dishes. While they include standard (read: amazing as usual) Japanese fare like sashimi, hikers are also treated to local vegetables like fiddlehead ferns. Kobe beef may get all the attention, but Kumano beef deserves equal appreciation.
Onsens, or hot springs, are deeply rooted in Japanese culture and can be found throughout the country. The Kii Peninsula is no different. At the end of each day, hikers can practice Japanese-style bathing while also soothing their legs in the hot water. Many guesthouses will have an onsen, but if not, there is likely one nearby in the town.
INSIDER TIPReview the steps of Japanese bathing before stripping down—trust us, public bathing can be stressful enough without any additional faux pas. Baths are separated by gender. Typically, bathers disrobe and keep their clothes in a basket or locker before entering the bathing area. Then, they shower, rinsing off all soap, before soaking in the pools.
Along the Nakahechi route in particular, travelers will pass multiple notable sights. Beginning in Takijiri and walking all the way to Nachi, travelers pass the world’s tallest torii gate at the former site of the Kumano Hongu Taisha (after a flood in the late 1800s, the shrine was moved up the hill). At 33.9 meters tall, the structure signifies the entrance to Oyunohara, a sacred site where the Kumano deities supposedly once descended.
A short bus ride away from the Kumano Hongu Taisha is Yunomine Onsen, Japan’s oldest onsen. The hot springs are thought to have been discovered 1,800 years ago and the town is now a common stop for pilgrims and tourists, who often choose to stay more than one night.
At the terminus of the Nakahechi route, Japan’s tallest waterfall pours down 133 meters. Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of three Grand Shrines on the Kumano Kodo, originated from the ancient nature worship of this waterfall.
The countless Oji shrines are as notable along the route as the natural scenery. The small stone structures, each different from the one before, are subsidiaries of the Kumano Kodo’s three Grand Shrines. Thought to be built by ascetic hermits who once served as guides along the Kumano Kodo, they range in size from a collection of stacked stones to multiple decorated buildings. Five Oji shrines are distinguished as the most important: Fujishiro-oji, Kirime-oji, Inabane-oji, Takijiri-oji, and Hosshinmon-oji.
Compared to the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago each year, the Kumano Kodo is still far off Japan’s tourist circuit—you might walk for hours without seeing another person. Staying at the family-run guesthouses is also an intimate experience; many only have a couple of rooms. The trails are well-maintained and well-marked, so the only place you’ll get lost in is your mind.
Your Own Definition of Success
Hiking the Kumano Kodo isn’t about bagging a peak or ultimately reaching one destination. There’s no official starting point or ending point. There are even multiple options for “officially” completing the Kumano Kodo if it’s a distinction that matters to you. Hikers can set their own goals and metrics for success.