The thing that struck me the most on the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route is this: I passed dozens of statues just sitting by the trail. Many of these are, according to the excellent signage, hundreds of years old. There are no railings or cages; in fact no protection whatsoever. I could have touched them. I could have picked one up and stuck it in my backpack (not that I would want to as aside from the illegality, I couldn’t have carried a couple of hundred pounds of stone).
That’s how ancient this route is. And that’s what’s so lovely and moving about it: to walk in the footsteps of people who’ve been this for hundreds and hundreds of years is simply amazing. That the trail itself is soft, lush, green and features ever changing and sometimes spectacular views is a bonus.
What Is the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route?
Although I refer to it as a “route,” it’s actually four routes, all in the same region of Japan, the mountainous Kii Peninsula south of Osaka on the main island of Honshu. People from all walks of life (from the Imperial family to commoners) have been coming here for over a thousand years. (Read more about the history on the excellent Tanabe City Kumano Tourist Bureau site.) The goal is to visit various important shrines along the way, but in addition to these large shrines, there are numerous small shrines and temples.
The whole thing is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and so the signage is excellent and informative.
How to Get There
Tanabe, on the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, is the gateway city to the Kumano Kodo routes. It’s a lovely small city situated on a beautiful bay that really goes out of its way to welcome tourists. It’s an easy train ride from Osaka via a coastal route that’s often spectacular.
From Tanabe, there are buses you can catch to the start of the routes. Since I chose the Nakahechi route (known as the Imperial route), I caught a bus from the train station to Takijiri, about 35 minutes away nestled in a river valley with an information bureau and one of the first shrines.
Which Route to Choose
That’s really up to you! I can only tell you why I chose the Nakehechi route. It was the right length for me: two days covering about 40km (so an average of 20km per day) with significant ups and downs: 1260m of climbing on the first day and 970m on the second. It looked beautiful from various videos and blogs I read. And I liked the fact that it has the major shrines along it.
The Kohechi route was too long and isolated for my schedule. The Iseji route has a lot of cobbled sections that looked uncomfortable for walking. And I can’t remember why I didn’t chose the coastal route!
Where to Stay
The aforementioned tourist bureau has a centralized reservation system that works wonderfully. I booked a minshuku (traditional Japanese inn) in Tsugizakura on the first night, and then a Swiss-chalet-styled pension in Kawayu Onsen (an easy bus ride from Hongu at the end of the route).
I would recommend both places without hesitation. The minshuku was absolutely lovely, and the hosts couldn’t have been nicer. I had an amazing meal in the company of five Japanese sisters traveling together to celebrate their mother’s life (she had passed recently).
The pension was more like a small hotel but again the owners were wonderful, the food was great, and the views over the river were sweet. You can go out, dig a hole in the riverbank and then sit in it with hot water mixing with cold river water. Just keep working with the shovel and moving rocks to get the mix right.
What to Expect and What to Bring
This is a good solid hike with excellent trails. Much of it follows forest trails that wind up and down mountain ridges. You’ll encounter smooth dirt paths as well as root- and rock-covered climbs. Near the towns, you’ll find yourself on pavement walking alongside or on narrow mountain roads. The signage is excellent, in English as well as Japanese, and easy to follow. The one (slight) exception was on Day 2 when there’s a long detour to bypass a dangerous section of potential landslide from a 2011 typhoon. It’s not that the detour isn’t marked; it’s that the beginning and end are, but there were almost no signs in between. Since it’s not quite as well worn as the rest of the route, I did occasionally feel like I might be lost, but there were no alternatives to follow so it was really just psychological.
I did not see a lot of other people (in mid-May) so it was quite peaceful and isolated. I would assume it’s busier in other seasons and particularly on holidays.
Bring all the gear you would bring for a serious day hike, including first aid supplies, really solid hiking boots (you could wear shoes but given that there are some slippery sections with roots and mud, I’d want to have the ankle protection), extra socks, rain gear, hiking poles, a solid hat, and extra layers. It was pretty humid and warm while I was there but it is a mountainous region and could be cool. I carried my backpack with everything I was carrying for my trip in Japan but they have a luggage drop service if you’d rather just travel with a payback.
For food, I purchased lunch in Tanabe for the first day, and then ordered a bagged lunch at my minshuku for the second day. Water is crucial so bring a lot as I found there weren’t a ton of places to pick it up along the way. I was saved by the amazing Japanese vending machines on the second day when I discovered I’d broken a water bottle.
Other than that, just wander and enjoy. Every few kilometers, there’ll be a shrine, a statue, a gate, or something similar. Relax, get into the rhythm of the hike, and feel the sense of peacefulness and spirituality in these ancient places.