Experience: Hiking the Kumano Kodo

If you followed me on facebook over the weekend, you’ll know that I spent my weekend in Wakayama Prefecture, south of Osaka. The initial plan was to spend three days hiking the Kumano Kodo, one of the old pilgrimage routes on the Kii Peninsula and a UNESCO recognized World Heritage Site.

Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas and we ended up cutting the hike to one day. Don’t worry – with all the onsen hopping we did, the rest of the time wasn’t wasted at all!

The Kumano Kodo has gained a lot of press lately, due partly to its UNESCO status and partly to the enterprising efforts of Canadian Brad Towle of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Board. What was once an isolated area of Japan is now accessible to Japanese and foreign visitors alike and the information available – both in print on site and online – is excellent. If you’re planning on hiking, the very portable white pamphlet entitled Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route Maps is a must.

There are several pilgrimage routes that criss-cross the Kii Peninsula. Pilgrims in times past would make the 30-40 day (round)trip from Kyoto to the Kii Peninsula to visit the Kumano Sanzan or the three main Kumano Shrines – Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha. The route would follow the western coast to Tanabe, where travelers would then turn east into the mountains on the Nakahechi Route. This is still the most popular route today and hiking from Takajiri Oji (the point where you actually enter the sacred mountains) to Hongu Taisha takes two to three days.

The trail from Yunomine Onsen to the main Nakahechi Trail
The trail from Yunomine Onsen to the main Nakahechi Trail

This route is lined with oji, subsidiary shrines of the main deities of the Kumano. There are also jizo and old stone route markers along the trail as well as the remains of the occasional teahouse. The trail itself covers a range of elevations and a variety of surfaces. On our 5 hour hike, we walked everything from paths littered with gnarled roots, leaf-covered forest tracks and pavement that meandered through small villages. The hiking booklet I mentioned above does a good job of indicating elevation changes but don’t be surprised if you suddenly encounter a bit of an uphill climb you weren’t expecting!

Nabeware jizo statue
Nabeware jizo statue

Near the main shrines themselves, expect lots of staircases. The trail down to Hongu Taisha means you only have to walk DOWN the stairs but if you arrive at the base of Nachi Taisha or Hayatama Taisha, depending on where you park, watch out for very very steep (and OLD) stone staircases. These are NOT steps to tackle in very bad weather or in the dark.

Daimonzaka stairs near Nachi Taisha
Daimonzaka stairs near Nachi Taisha

The Kumano Kodo can be a rainy destination, so bring your waterproofs or rain gear. We encountered lots of mist in the mountains on the days we didn’t hike, as well as actual precipitation. Sturdy shoes or hiking boots are also a must. There are vending machines along parts of the route where you can stock up on water (or fuel yourself on coffee!) and small local shops sometimes offer refreshments like red shiso juice. However, food options are few and far between so make sure you pack adequate supplies. One or two guesthouses on the trail offer bento lunches (available for pre-order by anyone, not just their own guests).

Red shiso juice
Red shiso juice

Despite the fact that I only got one good day on the trail, I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Kumano Kodo. We also visited all three shrines (two via car) and each was impressive in its own way. Nachi Taisha was hands down my favorite though, with its vermilion pagoda and towering waterfall.

Nachi Waterfall
Nachi Waterfall

For more on the Kumano Kodo, check out the excellent Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau website. Want to add in the Kumano Kodo to your travels but need some help? Check out my personalized itinerary services on the Uncover Japan website.

5 thoughts on “Experience: Hiking the Kumano Kodo

Add yours

  1. Mandy you are right about the special nature of the Kumano. Yes, the local tourist organisations are making great efforts to promote the area. The downloadable maps with elevations and walking distances are excellent.

    Worth the effort to get there. Our group of 50yo plus guys enjoyed a short stay at Kawayu Onsen, and a short guided walk to Hongu Taisha.

    1. Tony, you went in April of this year, right? I remember you mentioning it before on the blog. It really is a magical area. The drive for us from Hayatama Shrine area to Yunomine Onsen – through Kawayu – was spectacular. Everywhere you turned were mountains, mist and waterfalls cascading down the slopes. I loved it.

      1. Great memory! Alas, our trip in April 2014 was cancelled due to family illness. So I rest on my receding memories of June 2013.
        Each of the guys I travelled with in 2013 recount Kawayu and the Kumano as a highlight.

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