Sacred (Cheapo) Pilgrimages: Hiking the Kumano Kodo

Chris Kirkland
sign for kumano kodo
Sacred sites (and good coffees) await.

Thousands of feet on spiritual journeys have beaten the paths of the Kumano Kodo over the past thousand years. The network of pilgrimage routes runs across the mountainous Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture, down in the southern part of the Kansai region. Whether you find solace in Buddhist tradition, something Abrahamic or simply see Nature as your temple, it’s easy to see why the Kumano Kodo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the only other place of pilgrimage on the list is the Camino de Santiago in Spain).

A sacred triangle of temples

The Kumano area has been considered a sacred site since prehistoric times. First associated with nature worship, it became something of a super spot for ascetic training when Buddhism rolled into Japan around the 6th century. Over the years, Buddhism and Shinto mingled, and the worship at the shrines in Kumano changed shape.

There are three major shrines in Kumano: Hayatama Taisha, Hongu Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Together, they are known as the Kumano Sanzan; each enshrines one of the area’s mountains, and under the influence of Buddhism came to be worshipped as the three deities of Kumano. There are two Buddhist temples in the complex, too—Seiganto-ji and Fudarakusan-ji. It’s all rather complicated, and I’m certainly no expert in Japanese religion—have a look at the Wikipedia page for more insight.

Over the centuries, the Kumano Kodo became popular first among members of the imperial family and aristocrats, and later among the general populace. People of all shapes, genders and sizes made the holy trek, sometimes more than once. Fast-forward to the present, and not much has changed, there. Thousands hike the trails each year—and I’ve recently added my name to that list.

The here and now

As part of a cheapo mission, I strapped up and set off to cover at least some of the Kumano Kodo (the routes are seven-fold, varied and long), and now, based on my experience, I’ve put together this guide to make it easy for you to venture out there too.

kumano kodo forest
Man-made cedar forest covers much of the trail. More on that later.

Hiking Kumano Kodo: The basics

Hike itineraries are typically 4-6 days, but you can extend or shorten them as you like. The altitude is fairly low (most of the hiking is below 600m), and the routes are relatively easy, provided you’re in good health. If you’re keen on roughing it, you can pitch a tent at campsites along the routes, but a big part of the charm of the whole experience is staying at a small traditional B&B or hotel (minshuku or ryokan) in the villages and hot spring spots. It’s also a lot kinder to tired muscles!

You can take a completely DIY approach to the Kumano Kodo, but we recommend booking your trip with the community-run Kumano Travel. They are reasonably priced, have an intimate knowledge of the area, and are proponents of responsible, sustainable travel—which we like. You can opt for self-guided or guided tours, and pick accommodations to suit your budget. Oh, and they didn’t pay us to say all that.

teishoku lunch at Mako in Kii-Tanabe
Good grub abounds on the Kumano Kodo. Be sure to refuel at cheapo “one-coin” teishoku lunch spot Mako in Kii-Tanabe.

When to go

Like anywhere else in the country, the Kumano Kodo can get a little crowded on Japanese national holidays and weekends. Golden Week (the slew of holidays at the end of April and early May) and Obon (mid-August) are perhaps the busiest (and therefore best times to avoid). If you can manage a mid-week trip, do that—most people will be at work.

How to get there

The Kumano Kodo is quite a distance from Tokyo (about six hours by various train combinations), so your best bet is to spend the night before in Osaka, and take the ~2-hour train ride from Tennoji Station early in the morning. The start of the main trail is reached by train to Kii-Tanabe (where a helpful visitor center is located), then a bus outside the train station to Takajiri (about 40 minutes).

There’s a handy and cheap luggage-forwarding service available, which is a very welcome option if you are on a longer trip and have regular suitcases. This is basically just a local chap who drives your luggage to your next accommodations whilst you hike un-burdened.

Sample itinerary: The Nakahechi route

The photos and ramblings you’ll see below (and above) are from this 4-day/3-night itinerary, which I recommend for everyone, really. It takes you from Takijiri-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha, requiring one half-day and two full-day walks.

The Nakahechi route takes you east into the mountains, towards the Kumano Sanzan, and is the most popular route for pilgrims from the Western regions of Japan. It was favored by the imperial family back in the day, so you’ll be following in the footsteps of royalty.

Day 1: Takijiri-oji to Takahara

The first day eases you into the hike, with a 3.7-km walk that takes 2.5 hours or so, depending on your fitness levels. I managed it with no trouble, and booked into a lovely ryokan called Kiri no Sato in Takahara (organized in advance). After chomping down some fresh, healthy local food, taking in the awesome mountain views, and getting a good night’s sleep, I was ready for the full day’s hike ahead.

View from deck of Kiri no Sato in Takahara
Kiri no Sato in Takahara is not so cheapo, but offers excellent value.

Day 2: Takahara to Tsugizakura-oji

This was a 14km, seven-hour walk (you can do it in six or under if you are super fit) that took us high up into the mountains and along forested paths. We walked under and over massive Cryptomeria trees and past abandoned tea houses, seeing several shrines and statues dotted about. The day was made easier by the man in the picture below, who serves up surprisingly excellent coffee.

Man roasting coffee at Cabelo in Nakahechicho
You can caffeinate at Cabelo, an excellent coffee shop and roastery in Nakahechicho.

I overnighted at a quaint little place called the Iriorian Minshuku in Nonaka, which was simple but eminently sufficient. It was a good place to put my feet up and get in some chill-time in the last rays of the afternoon sun.

Fun fact about Nonaka: You can find one of “the 100 famous waters of Japan” at the Nonaka-no-Shimizu spring. This is a cool spot to fill up your canteen.

Relaxing at Irorian Minshuku in Kumano Kodo
The Irorian Minshuku makes for a good chill spot. Yours truly pictured left.

Day 3: Tsugizakura-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha

This is the day you’ll need to mentally prepare yourself for, as it’s a 21-km trek that easily takes the whole day (think 7-8 hours). Demanding is one way to describe it; lengthily scenic is another. The route takes you through mountain-top villages and past pretty awesome lookout spots (have your camera ready) as it meanders towards the grand shrine that is Kumano Hongu Taisha.

red torii gates in Kumano Kodo
Red torii gates are common sightings on the routes.

A word of warning—there aren’t any eateries until you get close to the shrine. When you get to a place called Fushiogami-oji (where you’ll catch your first glimpse of the Kumano Hongu Taisha in the valley below), you might find a few vendors selling snacks and coffee (but only if you happen to catch them on their somewhat erratic business days).

Scarecrows
The villages on the route are stocked with friendly residents and scarecrows.

A long stone staircase will lead you up to the shrine, which is on a ridge and surrounded by huge cedar and cypress trees. Entrance is free, but if you want to peek into the Homotsuden Treasure Hall, you’ll have to pay 300 yen (it’s cheaper for youngsters) and make sure you get there between 9am and 4pm.

Hongu Taisha Shrine
Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine used to be housed elsewhere.

While the shrine may look really old (and to be fair, it is), it was originally built on a different site called Oyunohara. That’s the name of a sandbank at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers. Unfortunately, a flood wrecked the place in 1889, and Kumano Hongu Taisha was relocated to its current spot. You can still see Oyunohara; it happens to be marked with the largest torii in the country—42m wide and 33.9m tall. The torii gate is steel and brand new, having been erected in the year 2000. Look out for it.

Concreted stream
Less-than-natural scenery.

Sad sidenote: While all three days offered beautiful hikes, sadly the overzealous Japanese bureaucracy-plus-construction engine has run deep into the countryside. Concrete-lined mountain streams are all too common a sight all over Japan, and the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo is no exception. This is a real pity, as the ubiquitous concrete and man-made cedar forest with little biodiversity (almost no bird song) at times threaten to spoil the historical pilgrimage.

Yunomine onsen town
Yunomine, the hot spring town at the end of our trip (the baths were a welcome sight for sore toes).

Day 4: Bus back to Kii-Tanabe

The end point of Day 3 is the old hot spring town of Yunomine. After a good soak in the steaming baths and a solid night’s sleep, you simply hop onto a bus the following morning and head back to Kii-Tanabe. From there, you can board the train home.

Lunches and snacks: The ryokan usually provide a packed lunch for you to take on your hike (they certainly did in my case), but be warned that the portions are a little on the, well, little side. It’s a good idea to stock up on protein bars and snacks in Osaka before you head off on your hike.

For a more detailed guide to the Nakahechi and other routes of the Kumano Kodo, have a look at Kumano Travel. They have PDFs and everything. Respect.

Have you trekked the Kumano Kodo? What was your experience of it? Post in the comments below.

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