EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE HIKING THE KUMANO KODO
Ever since Emperor Jimmu, the founding emperor of Japan & descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, landed on the beaches of Kumano, this mountainous region in Japan’s southern Kii peninsular has been considered the mythical ‘holy ground where gods dwell’. As you walk between towering cedar trees, through jasmine scented air & shifting golden light it’s not hard to imagine why.
Across this rugged terrain are the ancient paths of the Kumano Kodo. A network of sacred pilgrimage routes between three grand shrines; Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha, collectively known as the Kumuno Sanzan.
For over a thousand years, people from all walks of life have made the arduous pilgrimage between these shines; labouring over mountains, stopping in route-side tea-houses & bathing in the region’s geo-thermal onsens. This rich cultural & historical significance, along with the region’s lush natural heritage has meant the routes have been granted UNESCO world heritage status; one of only two pilgrimages in the world on the list, the other being the Camino de Santiago (or Way of St. James) in Spain.
Despite it’s accolades, hiking the pilgrimage routes is often done in solitude. Kumano rarely makes it into the plans of international travellers visiting Japan - and that is no bad thing. The Kumano Kodo offers an escape from the bustling neon-energy of Osaka or Tokyo. It is a welcome place of peace, rejuvenation & the freshest of air - all the while remaining remarkably accessible.
Upon learning about a multi-day hike, some of the most beautiful shrines in Japan, and an opportunity to shake off the crowds, the Kumano Kodo made it on to our Japan itinerary even before Osaka did.
The Kumano Kodo Routes
The Kumano Kodo is made up of multiple routes, all radiating from the grand central shrine Kumano Hongu Taisha. The most popular & accessible of these is the Nakahechi Route, starting from Takijiri-oji in the West, passing through Hongu & finishing at Kumano Nachi Taisha in the East.
This route is characterised by the Oji shrines, poem stones & Jizo statues along it’s length & is the historical route of the imperial family on pilgrimage from Kyoto. Hiking the Nakahechi route can take anything from 4 days to 6, depending on how leisurely the pace & how long you wish to stay in the villages & towns along the way.
We’ve shared a full break-down of our route, what to expect, the various villages we stayed in & accommodation options here. Have a little gander if you’re after a bit more detail.
When is the best time of year to hike the Kumano Kodo?
The best time to hike the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes is in either the Japanese spring (March to early June) or autumn (September to November). Walking in the Kii peninsular during these times of year offers temperate conditions, and either mind blowing blooms or bursts of fall colours. The summer months are notoriously hot, and winter can be achingly cold.
We hiked 4 days in the middle of April & were blessed with clear skies, warm days & cool evening.
If you do choose to hike during spring or autumn, it does pose the challenge of making sure you have enough kit for warm, cold & wet weather where you may get varied conditions. We hiked mid-April and managed to get-away with some seriously light-weight packing (many lessons learnt after our Torres del Paine experience!).
We’ve listed out what we brought with us & what you shouldn’t bring with you and some tips & tricks we find super useful when on multi-day hikes in our Kumano Kodo Packing list here.
What Altitude is the Kumano Kodo?
The Kumano Kodo is not a high altitude hike. The highest passes reach an elevation of 1000m.
How long is the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage?
This entirely depends on which sections of the pilgrimage you choose to complete. Hiking the full length of the most popular ‘Nakahechi Route’ from Takijiri-oji to Nachi is around 75km. We breakdown the Nakahechi Route with a full guide here, including all section times & distances.
What is the Accommodation like on the Kumano Kodo?
It is necessary to book accommodation for each night of your hike in one of the villages & towns that are dispersed along the route before you start. The quality of accommodation varies, but you are likely to find traditional guest-houses, ryokans & Onsen-hotels. In the larger towns there will also be hostels that provide dorm options.
Accommodation is however pretty limited, and is probably one of the main reasons the route is not oversubscribed. It is best to book places to stay as far in advance as possible, though admittedly this may not be as straightforward a process as you would like - where we were late booking we had to search each village in turn for guest-houses that had availability. Book far enough in advance and you should be fine, though always best to stay flexible with where you'll finish each day.
We've shared where we stayed on our route-guide to make life easier. Alternatively Kumano-travel.com is a good place to start, and they do have an accommodation booking facility on their website. It’s a little less than intuitive, but does have the benefit of giving you the names of towns to search if there’s no availability left for their ‘official’ guest-houses.
How to get to the start of the Kumano Kodo
Prior to our own Kumano Pilgrimage we were staying in Kii-Tanabe, a convenient gateway point to reach the trail-head of the Nakahechi route.
It is a well known fact that Japan does trains very, very well, so unsurprisingly getting to Kii-Tanabe is incredibly straight forward.
Direct trains on the JR line leave Shin-Osaka station regularly & take about 2 hours 30 minutes. Once in Kii-Tanabe, getting to the trail head (Takijiri-Oji) can be a little more challenging, though often hugely facilitated by guest-house hosts, the Tourist Information Centre (located just next to the train station), & ‘Kumano Travel’s’ own Support Centre, a short walk from the station.
There are guest-houses dotted around town, some further afield than others, but all are used to hosting hikers looking to start the Kumano Kodo. We stayed at Nagano Guesthouse, a traditional Japanese style guest-house around a 20 minute drive into the mountains run by Simon & Yumiko, they spoke great English and immediately offered to both drive us to pick up dinner supplies as well as dropping us at the trail head the next morning. Yumiko also works for Kumano Travel & was extremely helpful in helping sort our luggage shuttle & giving us some tips for the trail.
Things to Know Before you Go:
The one complication with the Kumano Kodo hike is that you don’t tend to finish where you started. Unless you’ve organised your trip with a tour who can get you back to your starting point, you’ll need to figure out what to do with your luggage, or be faced with hauling it along 80km or forest trails…
If you will eventually do a round trip you have a couple of options:
Long Term: Ask to leave the bulk of your luggage in your Osaka accommodation if you plan to return there. This didn’t work for us, but might for others.
Short Term: Coin-lockers at Kii-Tanabe station (MAX 3 Days only). Chances are you’ll be passing back through Tanabe on the train, so a quick stop-over to collect left-luggage is entirely possible. Prices for a large locker are ¥600 per day.
Long Term: If you need storage for longer than 3 days, the Kumano Travel Support Centre in Tanabe offers a storage service. They charge ¥500 per day per piece of luggage. More information & how to contact them can be found here.
If you'd rather have your luggage (and a clean set of clothes) waiting for you at the end of your hike, you can opt for an alternative:
Luggage shuttle service: This can either work by delivering your luggage to each guest-house each night (maybe bit excessive), or delivering your luggage to your final destination. We organised this at the convenience store/souvenir shop at the trail-head the day of our hike & paid ¥10,000 (so not cheap). There are plenty of companies that offer this service however & it may be worth shopping around - A list can be found here.
Note that if you want the daily shuttle service, you have to organise this up to 10 days in advance (who is even that organised?!)
Something we really appreciated on this hike was not having to carry around 5 days worth of food. We either ate at our guest-houses, which often provide breakfast, a bento-box lunch & dinner, or were able to buy snack, drinks & noodles in the towns we stayed in. It is definitely worth checking what is included in the price of your accommodation & whether it is possible to add being fed to your booking. We had one slight mishap where we had no dinner or breakfast options outside of an onsen tuck-shop - not our most nutritious day.
Whilst there are the occasional vending machines dotted along the way, and shops in villages you will pass through, it is wise to carry at least a litre of water with you - fill up before you leave each accommodation.
Dress & pack appropriately
Spring is a glorious time to hike the Kumano Kodo. Not only do you have all sorts of trees & shrubs bursting into blossom, you are also assured more balmy weather. The winter in the Kii Peninsular is notably cold, and the summers absolutely sweltering. If you do travel in Spring (or Autumn) it’s worth packing both a warm-weather hiking outfit (shorts & teeshirts), as well as long-sleeves & wind/water proofing for the occasional chilly or soggy days.
Good, well-worn-in hiking boots are essential. Hiking poles would also be helpful for those who feel long walks in their knees.
Check out our full packing list here.
Dual pilgrim status
As we’ve mentioned, the Kumano Kodo is one of only 2 UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimages globally. The other is in Spain. If you think you might fancy completing both, you can register at the information centre in Kii-Tanabe (we forgot to do this!).
Along the route, and at each shrine, there is also a unique stamp. You can buy stamp-books from the Pilgrimage Centre & souvenir shop at the Trail-Head & collect each stamp along the route (we forgot to do this too…)
Torii, Oji, Jizo: Route Etiquette
These trails between the grand shrines only exist because of the journey’s of thousands of Shinto, Buddhist & Kumano pilgrims, making the Kumano Kodo far more than just another hike. The many kilometres of forest trails & mountain passes traditionally offered a process of purification before worship, and you can find many Torii gates, Oji shrines, Jizo statues and poem stones along the length of the Nakahechi route that represent as much. We’ve provided a brief guide to these below and what the cultural etiquette is when you come across them:
Literally translating to ‘bird abode’, these often vermilion shrines can be found throughout Japan. Torii mark the entrance to a Shinto shrine. If there is no Torii gate, it’s a Buddhist temple… having said that, some Buddhist temples also have Torii gates, sooo it’s not a clear cut rule. Shintoism & Buddhism have done some merging & co-opting given the very harmonious relationship that exists between the two. They’re typically good neighbours, so different aspects of each religion can be found together. It is customary to bow before entering through a torii gate, and again when you leave.
Oji are subsidiary shrines of the Kumano Grand Shrines, they protect & guide pilgrims. These shrines house child-deities of Kumano, usually enshrining a natural landmark (an ancient tree, waterfall, spring etc). They serve as places of worship and rest. It is said that these shrines were built by the Yamabushi mountain ascetics, who historically served as pilgrim guides.
The general flow of worship at these shrines is to:
Wash both hands & rinse mouth / drink water, a stone basin & cups on poles are often near the entrance of the shrine
Make the bell ring, usually hung between the front posts of the shrine
Offer some coins if you wish
Bow deeply twice
Clap your hands twice
Pray, breathe, think, take a moment - whatever you like
Bow deeply once
Jizo is our favourite. He has the wisdom of Buddha himself, but passed on Nirvana (i.e. eternal paradise) in order to protect children, travellers & women. Top marks for self-sacrifice. What a hero.
Along the paths of the Kumano Kodo you are likely to see the face of Jizo fairly often - unsurprising really given his role in Japanese society as the guide of those travelling. It is said he is at the boundary between places: here & there, the physical & the spiritual, life & death (so be nice to him)
The latter is particularly significant as Jizo is also the protector of children, in particular those who die at a young age. Young children are understood to exist in limbo, a place called said o kawara. In order to cross the river into the afterlife these children must make piles of stones to form small towers in order to accrue karmic merit - enough to get them to the other side. Jizo helps these children to cross the river in the sleeves of his robes. People will often help these children by building small stone towers next to or near Jizo statues to help them achieve their goals. So don’t knock them over!
After our adventure on our Torres del Paine excursion, and the emotional proximity we felt to Chile after we completed it, we were determined to seek out another multi-day hike as part of our trip (we also had to get some more use out of our hiking boots!). This determination only amplified after our first couple of weeks in the illuminated, fast-paced, and spectacularly busy Tokyo, Kyoto & Osaka. We were craving big views, fresh air & solitude. The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage not only delivered but was, in no uncertain terms, the highlight of our trip to Japan.
This is in part to do with how much we learnt about the country’s socio-religious history, but principally due to the natural beauty of the peninsular, and the wonderful hosts we stayed with along the way - They shared their knowledge, their love of the Japanese country-side & their tips on where else to explore.
There is a word in Japanese that refers to sunshine filtering through the leaves of trees “Komorebi” 木漏れ日. We have no direct translation in English, but we all know that golden play of light. You reach for cameras, you stare in awe, and on the Kumano Kodo, you bathe in it.
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