Experience the Kumano Kodo - A Complete Guide to Hiking One of Japan’s Great Pilgrimage Routes

For a unique and eye-opening exploration of Japan’s natural beauty, history and spirituality, you couldn’t do better than the Kumano Kodo, one of Japan’s great ancient pilgrimage routes. Located in Kansai south of Nara and Kyoto, these exceptional walking paths will lead you deep into one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Japan, with views over the stunning Pacific coastline. In this guide you will find information on the history of the pilgrimage, details of the different trails, and how to hike the pilgrimage. Read on to find out why the Kumano Kodo has been awarded a UNESCO World Heritage status, and for everything you need to know to visit the routes for yourself.

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What Is the Kumano Kodo?

The Kumano Kodo is one of Japan’s most ancient pilgrimage routes located in the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture. Earliest records of the pilgrimage date from the early 10th Century. For over 1200 years, nobles, monks and ordinary pilgrims from all across Japan have walked along these impressive routes and the majestic sacred sites along them, nestled deep in the densely forested mountains, in search of spiritual enlightenment.

Many historic and important shrines are located along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails. The larger shrines are supported by many smaller "oji" shrines en route; these are subsidiary shrines of the Kumano Sanzan with the purpose of providing focus and encouragement for pilgrims making the arduous journey. The large concentration of shrines and spiritual sites in this otherwise remote wilderness has led to the area being called the "Land of the Gods".

What Does Kumano Kodo Mean?

The name Kumano Kodo comes from the sacred Kumano Region, the namesake for the three shrines at the heart of the pilgrimage. The word kodo translates to "old ways," and refers to the pilgrimage paths themselves.

The 3 Grand Shrines of Kumano Kodo - Kumano Sanzan

Originally, the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes were developed to connect the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara with a trio of sacred shrines located deep in the heart of the Kii Peninsula. The network of paths that make up the Kumano Kodo all converge on the Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine, the main shrine of the sacred Kumano region and the ultimate destination for those making the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage trails connect the Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine to the Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine and Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine. These three shrines are collectively known as the Kumano Sanzan, and they are three of the most important shrines in Japan.

Where Is the Kumano Kodo?

The network of trails that make up the Kumano Kodo stretch across the Kii Peninsula in the Kansai Region of Japan’s main Honshu Island. It is the largest peninsula in Japan, and it is primarily mountainous and covered in thick forest, with a rugged coastline. The pilgrimage trails connect the modern-day prefectures of Osaka, Nara, Mie and Wakayama. In addition to providing routes to the Kumano Sanzan, the pilgrimage trails also lead to the sacred mountains of Koyasan, Yoshino, and Omine.

History of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage

Why Did People Visit the Kumano Kodo in the Past?

Since ancient times, Shintoism has held that deities dwell in natural elements such as rocks or waterfalls. The Kumano area, with its unique natural feautures, has been a place of ascetic practice since the Nara Period (710-794), while the veneration of the Kumano shrines as holy sites precedes the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. Once Buddhism arrived in the area, it began mixing with the indigenous religion. For this reason, the Kumano region is particularly notable for its unique fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism. The fusion is known as "shugendo," which is a mountain-based religious practice stressing the importance of pilgrimages and spiritual awakening through physical rituals.

People first journeyed to this remote region for pilgrimage purposes during the Heian Period (794-1185). At first, only Japan’s Emperors and aristocrats could travel along the arduous Kumano Kodo, but in the Edo Period (1603-1868), anyone who could afford the journey were allowed to make it. The reason why people aimed to travel the Kumano Kodo was their desire to reach the World of the Pure Land (the Buddhist Celestial Realm), as the mysterious, far-away Kumano area and Kii Mountains were associated with it and the possibility of gaining merits in this world.

Why Was the Kumano Kodo Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

The Kumano Kodo embodies a unique fusion of religions, and its shrines and temples and their related rituals are a testimony to the development of Japan’s religious culture over the millennia. The Kumano Kodo and its well-preserved sacred sites contributed to the creation of unique forms of architecture that influenced temple and shrine buildings all across Japan and to the maturing of a cultural landscape that includes places of worship, the surrounding forests, as well as religious rituals which all retain a significant degree of integrity and authenticity.

This was all recognized by UNESCO when it registered the Kumano Kodo as a World Heritage Site in 2004. The Kumano Kodo is one of only two pilgrimages in the world to be given this designation, the other being the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Why Do People Go to the Kumano Kodo Today?

Today, the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes are a popular destination for visitors and locals alike. The serenity of the landscape and the sheer beauty of the natural environment will wow anyone who makes the trip. While there are still people who visit for the purification ritual of the pilgrimage, for most visitors the Kumano Kodo offers a way to discover the history and spirituality of old Japan. To follow in the same footsteps as noblemen, monks and laymen for over a millennium, immersed in breathtaking forested mountains, passing rugged coastlines, bamboo groves, quaint villages, terraced rice fields and onsen is an opportunity that continues to draw people from around the world. 

The Different Routes of the Kumano Kodo

Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route

This is the most popular of the pilgrimage trails, and for good reason. It is the most accessible and easiest of the paths, and it is beautiful to boot. The Nakahechi Route takes you through breathtaking forested mountains, passing by quaint villages and sacred historical sites full of atmosphere. With refreshing onsen popping up to relax weary limbs after long treks, the Nakahechi route offers riches at every turn. 

The trail starts at the coastal town of Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture, on the western edge of the Kii Peninsula. As with all the pilgrimage trails, the Nakahechi route’s final destination is the Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine. 

The Nakahechi route was the chosen route of Emperors and the Imperial family from as far back as the 12th century, so you will be walking in the footsteps of nobility. It has even been nicknamed the "Imperial Route." Originally beginning in Kyoto, the trail now starts at Takijiri-oji, a 40-minute bus ride from Kii-Tanabe Station.

The route is well sign-posted in Japanese and English. Most of the route is an escape into the wilderness and a chance to witness the purity of Japan’s natural beauty. There are places where you will come across modern infrastructure, so don’t be surprised if you have to cross the occasional highway. While this might be the easiest walking option, it is still remote, with long stretches of trail passing through forests, with large sections having no places to stop and eat or sleep. So it is best to prepare well before you go.

Highlights of the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route

・Takijiri

Takijiri is the traditional starting point of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. Here visitors can find Takijiri-oji, one of the five major oji shrines of the pilgrimage. Takijiri means “base of the waterfall,” a reference to its location at the confluence of two sacred rivers, the Tonda (Iwata) and Ishiburi Rivers. So, the site has buckets of spirtiual and historic significance.

・Takahara Kumano Shrine

Takahara Kumano Shrine is located in the atmospheric mountain village of Takahara, also known as the "Village in the Mist" because the scenic panorama is often blanketed with mist, or the valley below is filled with a beautiful sea of clouds. It is one of the region's oldest shrines and is appreciated for the view of giant camphor trees.

・Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine and Nachi Falls

Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine is one of the Kumano Sanzan. It is a spectacularly located shrine, offering exceptional views over the Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan. The scene is one of the most picturesque spots in the whole of Japan. Here at Daimonzaka Chaya, visitors can also rent costumes from the Heian Period to feel like they stepped back in time. 

・Yunomine Onsen

Yunomine Onsen was discovered roughly 1800 years ago. It is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan. Traditionally, pilgrims would perform purification rituals in the onsen waters before visiting Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine. Magically, it is said that the waters change color 7 times over the course of a day. The Yunomine Onsen continues to provide weary travellers with much-needed relaxation to this day.

・Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine

The Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine is the ultimate destination of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes. It is the head shrine of over 3000 Kumano shrines in Japan, and is beautifully preserved.

・Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine

Nature is a fundamental part of the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, as there are many natural spots of interest in the precincts of the shrine. Visitors shouldn't miss the 800-year-old Nagi no Ki, a sacred conifer tree, as well as the nearby Gotobiki Iwa, a gigantic rock which is the focus of a traditional festival held every year on February 6th.

How Do I Get to the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route?

Kumano Kodo Ohechi Route

The Ohechi route will take you along the rugged coastline of the Kii Peninsula, through forested mountains opening up to expansive views over the Pacific Ocean. The natural beauty of this route was eagerly sought out by poets and painters of the past in search of inspiration. Unlike the Nakahechi route, ordinary people, not necessarily in search of spiritual enlightenment, would trek the Ohechi trail to admire the beautiful views.

Also starting at Tanabe, the Ohechi trail used to finish at the stunning Nachi Taisha, but unfortunately modern development has interrupted the latter section of the route. As a result, today most walkers finish at Mirozu Station to avoid long stretches along paved highways with no pedestrian footpaths. It is less popular than the Nakahechi route, so could be a good option if you are seeking a more solitary experience.

Highlights of the Kumano Kodo Ohechi Route

・Shirarahama Beach

Shirarahama Beach is a beautiful long stretch of sandy beach with crystal clear waters, and plenty of onsen spots to stay at. 

・Katsuura Onsen

Katsuura Onsen is a picturesque onsen resort with stunning scenery over the coast and surrounding islands. Many open-air baths overlooking the ocean are available, both public and at private ryokan.

・Susami Village

Susami is a quaint seaside village along the Ohechi route, with a rocky shoreline, atmospheric shrines and small train station.

How Do I Get to the Kumano Kodo Ohechi Route?

Kumano Kodo Iseji Route

The Iseji route is best-known for its extensive cobbled stone paths that meander across the densely forested mountain along this section of the Kumano Kodo. The stone paths have been developed for centuries and sit harmoniously in their natural surroundings. They ensure the pilgrimage trail remains clear and passable for future generations. On this trail you will also come across sandy beaches, bamboo forests and impressive shrines.

The Iseji route connects the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture and the Kumano Sanzan in Wakayama Prefecture. Due to its location it is often termed the 'Eastern Route'. The Ise Jingu is one of the most important shrines in the whole of Japan, and so it has attracted pilgrims for millennia. It is a shrine to the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu who is said to be the Mother of Japan. By connecting the birthplace of Japanese spirituality and the Kumano Sanzan, the Iseji route of the Kumano Kodo is one of the most spiritually significant options available to travelers.

It is a well-maintained trail with abundant natural beauty, variety and spirituality, yet it is generally overlooked by both local and foreign visitors. For a chance to be at one with nature without interruption from other hikers or modern developments, then consider opting for this route.

One of the attractive features of the Iseji route is its adaptability. It is a long route, starting in the town of Ise on the east coast of the Kii Peninsula and stretching for 170 kilometers (106 miles), but you can pick and choose the stretches that you're most interested in.

Highlights of the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route

・Ise Grand Shrine

Ise Jingu is one of the most important shrines in Japan, and the starting point of the Iseji Route. It enshrines Shinto's most venerated deity and the ancestral deity of the Imperial family, Amaterasu Omikami (the sun goddess), and it is believed to have been established over 2000 years ago.

・Maruyama Senmaida

The Maruyama Senmaida, or the Maruyama Thousand Terraced Rice Fields is a spectacular site full of the charm of old Japan. It is considered one of Japan's best landscape of terraced paddy fields as it is an Edo Peroiod, preserved agricultural area with 1,340 rice paddies of all shapes and sizes.

・Shishi Iwa

Shishi Iwa, also known as the Lion Rock, is an enormous 25m high rock with the appearance of a lion roaring over the sea. It is a designated Natural National Treasure, and is said to be one of the guardians of Kumano's Oma Shrine.

・Onigajo Rock Formations

The Onigajo rock formations are located along a 1km stretch of coastline by Shichirihama Beach that has been transformed into magnificently unsual rock formations. Hardened volcanic ash was pushed out from the ground by earthquakes, and then eroded by the sea. It has been designated a Natural National Treasure.

How Do I Get to the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route?

Kumano Kodo Kohechi Route

The Kohechi route is more demanding than either the Nakahechi or the Ohechi routes, and is recommended for experienced hikers only. Those up for the challenge will be rewarded with exceptional views and the chance to experience the serenity and spirituality of Mount Koya.

The Kohechi route is the most remote and difficult of the four main trails of the Kumano Kodo. At 65 km (40 ml) long, taking in 3 mountain passes and reaching elevations of over 1000 metres, it is not for the faint hearted.

The trail was set up for Buddhist monks living on Mt Koya, looking to make the pilgrimage to Kumano Sanzan. The path was treacherous, which was part of the point. As with all pilgrimages, the journey is as important as the destination. The Kohechi route is very isolated and demands detailed planning and preparation. It is worth preparing for difficult weather conditions such as fog and heavy rain, and few places to eat and rest.

If you brave the narrow cliff-side paths and steep rocky terrain, then otherworldly sites await! You will encounter breathtaking views and moss-covered ruins as though from a fairy tale peeking out from behind cedar and bamboo groves. Sleepy mountainside villages lost to time, and ryokan with natural onsen baths will appear like an oasis after a difficult day trekking. It is a special experience, but one that requires skill, good health and fortitude.

The hike begins at Mount Koya, one of Japan’s most sacred sites. It ends at Hongu Taisha of the Kumano Sanzan after passing through Nara and Wakayama Prefectures. There are 4 main sections to the Kohechi Route, each taking about a day to complete. Check here for details of the different sections.

Highlights of the Kumano Kodo Kohechi Route

・Mt. Koya

Koyasan is a sacred mountain and one of Japan's most important spiritual centres, as it is the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhism that was introduced to Japan by Kobo Daishi (one of Japan's most significant religious figures) in 805. There are over 100 temples on Koyasan, but the main ones are Kongobuji Temple (the head temple of Shingon Buddhism) and the Okunoin Temple, the site of Kobo Daishi's mausoleum.

・Totsukawa Onsen

Totsukawa Onsen is a spectacularly located onsen village deep in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. It is famous for its "kakenagashi" waters, which means the hot-spring keeps running in and is kept fresh and clean. Look out for the Yaen Bridge, a self-propelled cable car that will take you across the rivers and steep gorges in the area.

How Do I Get to the Kumano Kodo Kohechi Route?

Guide to Hiking the Kumano Kodo

How Long Is the Kumano Kodo Trail?

The Kumano Kodo is made up of 307 km of pilgrimage trails, connecting different urban centres to the various sacred sites located across the Kii Peninsula. The longest of the main routes is the Iseji Route, at 170 km. The Kohechi Route is 70 km, but the terrain is difficult. The total length of the Ohechi Route is 92 km, but due to modern intrastructure across the end of the course, most people don't walk the entire route. While the Iseji Route may be the longest trail, it is also very easy to split into shorter sections, as the entire route is well-connected and accessible. 

How Long Does It Take to Walk the Kumano Kodo?

This depends on which route you choose, and whether you do the entire course or split it up. For example, to walk the whole of the Iseji Route would take about 2 weeks, but it can also be done more leisurely with frequent stops. The Nakahechi Route typically takes about 3 days and 2 nights, but again, this will depend on your abilities and preference. It is best to consult the maps of the different sections, check the difficulty ratings and sites on route, and come up with a course that suits your individual needs.

How Difficult Is the Kumano Kodo?

Certain sections are for experienced hikers only, while others are easy walks. To do the entirety of any of the routes will require you to be in good shape, but you do not need to be an experienced hiker to tackle the Nakahechi Route, or sections of the Iseji and Ohechi routes. If you are not sure what your abilities are, then check this handy difficulty rating guide. It explains what the different difficulty ratings mean, and how they apply to different sections of the Kumano Kodo. 

Best Time to Walk the Kumano Kodo

If you are hoping for a solitary experience, then avoid the Japanese holidays of Obon (August 13th - August 15th), New Year (December 31st - January 3rd), and Golden Week (April 29th - May 5th). Certain sections of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails are popular, so mid-week trips will guarantee smaller crowds. 

The Kii Peninsula is fairly temperate all year. The coldest month is January, but even then snowfall is rare and the skies are usually crisp and bright. The summer months of July and August are hot and humid, but the elevation and thick forest provide some respite from the worst of the heat. Spring and autumn are the best times to go in terms of the weather, but they will also be the busiest.

Where to Stay and How to Book Accommodations

Camping is possible on the routes if you are after a fully immersive experience and don’t mind roughing it a bit. Most people opt to stay in one of the many homely and comfortable "minshuku" (traditional guest house) or "ryokan" (traditional Japanese inn) along the routes. Many have access to natural "onsen" (hot springs), offering the chance to soak weary limbs after a long day of trekking, as well as excellent and nourishing food. There are many options to choose from on all of the routes, but it is best to book in advance and plan your walk around the stopping points. 

It is possible to plan your trip by yourself, but it is recommended to use the Kumano Travel reservation service. It is a local, community-run site that can help to plan all aspects of your trip to the Kumano Kodo, including accommodations, tours, and itineraries. 

In addition to the above, you can also take advantage of Kumano Travel’s luggage forwarding service. With this service, you can have your baggage forwarded between each accommodation on your planned trek, so you don’t have to lug it around with you. 

You can also order lunch boxes (bento) to be prepared for you each day by your chosen accommodation, ensuring you won’t be caught out without food on route. Taxis, rental cars or special access buses can be arranged if you are not up for sections of the walk, but still want to have access to the highlights on the trail.

Hiking the Kumano Kodo - Sample Itinerary

Kumano Travel has a range of model itineraries on its site, ranging from day hikes to 6-day treks. You can either choose one of these ready-made options, or customize an itinerary to your own preference. The site is keen to stress that these are not package tours, but fully customizable sample itineraries.

Many hikers opt for a 3-day, 2-night trek. If you are not an experienced hiker but want to visit the Kumano Kodo and take in the highlights, then the 3-day Kumano Kodo Highlight Walk would be a good option for you. This is based on the Nakahechi Route, and takes in two of the most popular Kumano Sanzan Grand Shrines (the Kumano Hongu Taisha and the Kumano Nachi Taisha). You will stay at a ryokan in onsen villages on route, the first in the mountains at Kawayu Onsen, and the second on the coast at Katsuura Onsen. 

The walking option on this itinerary is easy, with one 7 km, 3 hour walk, and one 1.5 km, 1 hour walk. It is designed to enable walking on scenic sections only, while taking in the sacred highlights of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. 

This is the easiest sample itinerary on the site, but there are plenty more to browse through, with many different accommodation and walking options suggested. Booking through this service offers great peace of mind, and allows you to plan the perfect trip to the Kumano Kodo.

Experience the Spirituality of Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes

The Kumano Kodo promises an epic experience, whether you are in search of spiritual enlightenment or a hike through breathtakingly beautiful scenery with regular soaks in some of Japan's most pictureque onsen. The Kumano Kodo's adaptability means there is truly an option for everyone, including experienced thrill-seekers and flip-flop wearing day-trippers. Steeped in spiritual significance and awe-inspiring natural beauty, there is no better place than the Kumano Kodo to immerse yourself in the wonders of old Japan.

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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