THE KUMANO KODO PILGRIMAGE: A COMPLETE ROUTE GUIDE
So you want to hike in Japan? We’ve got your covered.
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage is one of the worlds best multi-day hikes. For the curious traveller in Japan, hiking one or more of the routes offers an alternative experience of this varied country; one far from the Japan of neon lights, and closer to the Japan of myths & gods.
What is the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage?
The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage is the name given to several hiking routes that criss-cross Japan’s Southern Kii peninsular. These paths through towering cedar forests, around lush mountains & between rural villages lead pilgrims between the three grand shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha, collectively known as the Kumuno Sanzan. If you want to know more, have a look at our article on everything you need to know about the Kumano Kodo.
It is possible to complete multi-day hikes from one side of the peninsular to the other, day trip hikes whilst basing yourself in one town or village, or even half day hikes if you’re stretched for time. For those with time to wander, we share our full route-guide to a 4 day Kumano Pilgrimage on the legendary Nakahechi Route.
What to expect on the Nakahechi Route
We opted to complete the Nakahechi route over 4 days heading from West to East & including the grand shrines in Hongu & Nachi, our fifth day was spent exploring Nachi though it is also possible to head up river to the third & final shrine. Whilst we chose to walk longer distances each day, it is entirely possible to chop & change the hike to stretch it over as many days as you like - provided guest-house accommodation is available.
The below provides an outline of each section of our hike, where we stayed & highlights to look out for.
The start the Nakahechi route (running West to East) is the town of Kii-Tanabe, a convenient gateway point to reach the trail-head, and easily accessible from Osaka.
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 & giving us some tips for the trail.
Day 1: Takijiri-oji to Nonaka
Distance: 16.8 km
Time: 7-8 hours
When we arrived at the trail head we decided to take our time here. There is the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage centre, a small souvenir shop with coffee & vending machines (they also have a luggage shuttle service), as well as the Takijiri-oji shrine itself.
This shrine is one of the 5 major oji shrines on the trail & marks the start of the route and it doesn’t start slow. The first 2 hours of the route is predominantly uphill, occasionally booked up by some trails skirting along ridgeways. We set a slow pace & worked our way up… and up… and up.
Test of Faith
After about 15 minutes we came across some large boulders that looked as if they are blocking the way. In fact we’d stumbled upon the trails ‘test of faith’. It is possible to clamber through gaps between the boulders to re-join the trail. Women who are able to squeeze through will be blessed with an easy child delivery. Steph made it… though not elegantly. If you don’t like the idea of shimmying through a dark crack with rock pressing against your chest & back simultaneously… you can just walk round.
After around 4km we reached Takahara Kumano-jinja shrine, one of our favourites on the route. It is one of the oldest buildings & surrounded by some of the oldest trees. The towering Camphor trees are estimated to be about 800 years old. It’s worth taking a break here to enjoy the views of the Hatenashi mountain range.
We followed the mountain, up & down, back & forth before walking through Chikatsuya village making our final ascent to Nonaka. As you walk through the village keep an eye out for the house with the golf-clubs & net, If the owner of the house is about, he’ll likely encourage you to take a swing!
Once in Nonaka there is a fresh water mountain spring a short walk down from the road: Nonaka-no-Shimizu Spring. It is one of the 100 famous waters of Japan & finer than any of the water you will find in the cities (heavy with the hormones, chemicals & bleaches) - or even at home! We enjoyed filling up our bottles with icy cold spring water to rehydrate after a long day
Most guest houses for this part of the hike are in Chikatsuya village, the historical resting point. However we preferred to end our day with a hill, rather than start the next one with it, so managed to find an AirBnB in Nonaka. It was an excellent call.
Chise and her family were incredibly hospitable hosts. From the moment we arrived her and her husband Richard made us feel SO welcome. We were settled in with delicious green-tea & fresh mochi, Chise then drew us a bath! Blissful & unexpected. Their daughter Amy also happens to be a phenomenal cook, and we had a fantastic dinner of rice & Korean stew with the whole family, finished with home-made chocolate brownie. They also provide a full breakfast & pack lunch.
We honestly cannot recommend staying with them enough - you will learn so much.
Day 2: Nonaka to Yunomine Onsen
Time: 9 - 10 hours
We were lulled into a false sense of security with this one. In our guide it looks as though the majority of the section is down-hill. Whilst this is true as you weave through towering cedars & pines, our day actually ended with a vault over a mountain from Hongu to Yunomine. It is totally manageable, but probably more so if you’re expecting it. No one likes a surprise hill-climb - especially after 8 hours of hiking!
This section of the hike does include a couple of big hitters on the highlights front.
The spectacular view of the Grand-shine from Fushiogami-oji. There is a covered rest-are here and we stopped for green-tea, a somewhat disjointed chat with the locals & to finish off our lunch-boxes.
There is second breathtaking view out across the valley & towards the massive Oyunohara Torii gate via a short detour at marker 73. At the fork, make sure to take the left & follow the path up. You will not regret it.
The grand-shrine itself - Kumano Hongu Taisha & the flag lined steps leading from it
Oyunohara - the original site of the shrine before it was destroyed by a flood in 1889. An absolutely enormous Torii gate marks the entrance, standing at 34 meters tall. It is customary to bow before walking through it, and again once you leave the park through the gardens
The final part of the hike is the aforementioned mountain pass, made slightly more manageable by discovering the incredibly ancient looking Jizo statues, centuries worn steps, & the low light of the evening sun filtering through the trees - on that note, make sure to check the time of sunset, it is not a descent you’d want to do in the dark.
There is nothing quite as satisfying after a long day of hiking, than easing into a geo-thermally heated al-fresco bath. We struck gold with our choice of hostel in Yunomine: J-Hoppers Yunomine Onsen. We found clean & comfortable private bunks, a fully equipped kitchen (with free rice in the evening & rice porridge in the morning), free tea & coffee & three private onsens on-site - all fed by the hot-hot-spring in town. Very dreamy.
(Day 3: Bus transfer to Ukegawa to avoid 4km road-side walk)
Getting from Yunomine to the next section of the hike is not a particularly inspiring walk. It’s a 4km busy-road side stint that we had no desire to add on to our day. Instead we opted to catch the bus from Yunomine Onsen to Ukegawa. From memory they leave at 8:06 & 8:40, less frequently from then on - but it’s best to check with your hotel or hostel.
The bus takes about 20 minutes.
Day 3: Ukegawa to Koguchi
Time: 5 hours
The trail-head for this section is just south of the Ukegawa bus stop, and before we started on the (slightly) daunting set of steps heading up the mountain, we loaded up on snacks & sushi for lunch at the local convenience store. The first half of this day is a pretty steady hike up-hill, before skirting the side of Mt. Nyohazan. The second half of the day is descending the other side. It was one of our favourite days (and not just because it was the shortest!)
After around 5.5km we reached Hyakken-gura, a view we were not expecting, but one that immediately went into our top 5 of our entire trip. As you reach the crest of one of the ravines the fabled 3,600 peaks of Kumano stretch out in front of you in a spectacular panorama (weather dependent!). The watercolour hills seem endless, fading from green, to blue, to grey. We spent a good 20 minutes here, enjoying birdsong & big horizons.
We were a little late in booking our accommodation so for this night of the trip ended up somewhere a little left field: Taka Greenland Hotel & Onsen. Obviously the hotel having it’s own hot-spring was high on the list of decision criteria. Despite being a little way from the trail-heal for the following day, the logistics were very straight forward. We called them once we arrived in Koguchi to arrange a pick up, and jumped on their free shuttle back the next morning.
If you choose to follow suit it’s worth noting that you will have to book dinner & breakfast in advance. Ours wasn’t included and we ended up re-fuelling on pot-noodle from the hotel shop & starting the day on chocolate bars. Fine… but not ideal.
If you are more organised than us, try and get a room at the Kumano Travel recommended guest house here. It is in the centre of Koguchi, wonderfully authentic, & convenient for finishing one hike & starting the next
Day 4: Koguchi to Nachi
Time: 6 hours
The final day or the hike, and one we were dreading just a little. The name of the first part of this section is called the Dogiri-zaka - which directly translates into ‘body-breaking slope’. We genuinely had the type of fear you get when you have an exam the next morning, and kind of know you haven’t done enough revision. Probably due to too many pot-noodles, bottles of Asahi & our dwindling energy levels.
The good news is you get it over and done with relatively quickly, with the main climb being right at the start of the day - what a warm up! To add a little extra spice to the situation, the moss covering the ancient stair-case you’re climbing is outrageously slippy - so be careful. It took us 2 hours to climb 800m over 5km (quicker than we’d anticipated *so smug*).
Once you’ve summited this section you’ve reached the highest point of the entire pilgrimage - That’s not to say it’s all down hill from there but… it is mostly all down hill from there (don’t hate us if you come across a massive hill we haven’t mentioned - we’ve probably blanked it out).
This final section of the hike ends at the spectacularly beautiful Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine. A 4 storey vermillion pagoda with Japan’s highest waterfall as a back-drop - it’s the epitome of Japan’s incredibly satisfying symmetrical aesthetic. We could have stared at it for hours. This place looks good in all weather, you’re guaranteed a great celebratory finishers photo in front of it.
Sumitting the Dokiri-Zaka is definitely up there. There was a lot of sweaty high-fiving & whopping. It’s not a small hill, so it’s quite the sense of accomplishment to have it behind you
Seiganto-ji - This ancient & evocative Buddhist temple was founded in the 5th century and felt like one of the most spiritual places we’e visited in Japan. It’s wonderfully worn rather than regularly re-painted (like so many other temples in the cities). When you pay your respects be sure to swing the rope of the gong with some enthusiasm - a exaggerated whipping action will make this beauty sound with a deep reverberation. It is the largest of its kind in Japan.
Kumano Nachi Taisha - Our favourite shrine in Japan. A beautiful vermilion pagoda in honour of the waterfall deity it sits in-front of.
As we’ve mentioned, we were slow with our accommodation booking for our trip, but still managed to find this gem of a guesthouse in Nachi: Guesthouse 大崎 那智.
The house itself is relatively un-remarkable and perhaps (a little) sterile, but there are only two rooms, a fully equipped the kitchen and the house is SPOTLESSLY clean. You are pretty much guaranteed a quiet night. The real reason this place is such a gem though, is that Toshiyuki, the guesthouse owner is basically a legend. He picked us up from the end of our hike, shuttled us to and from the local onsen, and then insisted on driving us to town for dinner & back again. The next morning he dropped us at the station as well. An absolute champion for travellers without a car.
Thinking of adding it to your itinerary? We’ve written everything you need to know about Kumano Kodo here, as well as a full packing list here.
For other top Japan tips check out the rest of our Japan Content.