It’s 473 treacherous steps to reach Nachi Taisha, the final shrine on the Kumano Kodo Trail in Japan. The strenuous trek to the top, although painful for most, is certainly worth it. As you approach the peak, its red and gold shrine emerges with Nachi-no-taki falling behind it – the highest waterfall in Japan at 436 feet (133 meters). Its water source is the surrounding primeval forest, protected since ancient times and used as a base for ascetic training by mountain monks. Today, the falls still cast an ethereal mist on the shrine, a fitting touch to the finish line of the pilgrimage route.
Nachi-no-taki, although splendid, it is just one of the hidden treasures along the Kumano Kodo Trail. Including seven routes that span 25 miles (40 kilometers), the hike winds through the gorgeous landscapes of the Kii Mountain Range. Ancient cedar trees tower over moss covered, stone paths that have been used for over 1,000 years by Japanese citizens and emperors alike. Along the trail, charming hot spring villages provide a place to rest your tired feet and dine on local home-style cooking.
I can easily say that it is the best hike in Japan. I would also argue that it ranks as one of the top treks in the world. This is in part because it falls off the radar for most international travelers who don’t venture past Tokyo and Kyoto into the forests of Kii. But most importantly, it ranks high on my list because of its natural beauty and challenging, mountainous landscapes combined with Japan’s cultural, rural life that is not often intertwined with treks around the world. The United Nations certainly agreed, naming the Kumano Kodo as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Accompanied by the “Way of Saint James” to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, they are the only pilgrimage routes in the world holding such a title.
The goal of the route is to reach the “Kumano Sanzen” as there are called, referring to the three main shrines of the route: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and of course, Nachi Taisha and its magnificent falls.
There are five main trails leading to the sanzen. I have borrowed this map from Japan-guide as an overview. Detailed maps can be downloaded from the local tourism board here.
Many of these routes are now overgrown and no longer have navigable, continuous mountain trails. For a true Kumano Kodo experience, trekkers should take the Nakahechi trail starting from near Tanabe all the way through to the three sanzen.
Koyasan and the Kohechi Trail
Alternatively, serious hikers who are well equipped and trained could begin from Mount Koya, and make their way down to Hongu Taisha first. The eight forested peaks of Koya are surrounded by a plateau containing over 100 temple complexes. Several of these temples, known as shukubo allow pilgrims to spend the night to experience daily life of the monks.
Visit the Koyasan website for information about temple stays and book reservations through the shukubo association. My suggestion is Souji-in; it’s a bit more upscale than the others with air-conditioning and a few rooms with en-suite bathrooms (most others have only public baths which is traditional in Japan.). Bedding is on Japanese futon mats and vegetarian meals are served in your room to keep with the customs as well. It’s cultural immersion at its best.
Koya-san has several highlights as well, so even if you don’t take the strenuous Kohechi trail, a detour to spend the night on Mount Koya is certainly a good stop on the way back to Osaka and Kyoto after your trek.
The Imperial Route
For the majority of day hikers, Nakahechi provides cultural immersion, and splendid scenery without the dangerous trails and sparse villages of Kohechi.
Nakahechi is considered “The Imperial Route”, as it was used by the emperor’s family for centuries. Its well preserved trails lead through hilly, forested countryside.
From Osaka Kansai Airport, take the JR train line to Hineno Station; located in the Wakayama prefecture. From here, transfer to an express train headed for Kii Tanabe Station. Once in Tanabe City, take the local Ryujin bus from Kii Tanabe station to the traditional trail head of the Imperial Route – Takijiri-oji.
The information center at this trail head is the perfect place to get free maps and bamboo walking sticks for your journey ahead! As an international trekker, you will surely stand out from the Japanese pilgrims surrounding you at the trail head, wearing business slacks or even dresses. But don’t be fooled by their lack of gear; these fit citizens will do laps around you in all your hiking gear! In fact, thousands of Japanese do the route annually dressed this way.
Heading from Takijiri-oji, hike around 10 miles (16 kilometers) to the small village of Chikatsuyu-oji where you can rest your head. This small village has several small ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and minshuku (cheaper guest houses). The quaint wooden buildings, warm hospitality, home cooking and hot spring baths are all highlights of the Kumano Kodo. If you can keep going a little further past Chikatsuyu-oji, you will reach the old hot spring towns of Yunomine Onsen and Kawayu Onsen, where several bathing pools are actually dug into the ground. Accommodations can be booked here.
Day 2 – Cedars, Rivers and Waterfalls
The next day is a Goliath of a hike! Start the morning with your lunch box packed away and walking sticks in hand. Today’s day-hike to the first sanzen spans 10-16 miles (depending on where you spent the night) and has several inclines and descents. Pass by ancient cedars, cypress, low mountain peaks and smaller shrines before reaching Kumano Hongu Taisha, considered the head shrine of all 3,000 Kumano shrines across Japan. For those who may not be physically fit enough to take on the entire trail, don’t miss out on the portion from Hosshinmon-oji and Kumano Hongu Taisha, as it is considered to be the top short walk of the route.
From Kumano Hongu Taisha, take the traditional pilgrim route by boat on the Kumano-gawa River. Its 90 minutes of relaxation on a small wooden boat, the same type used by pilgrims for centuries.
The cliffs along the river and the peaceful, quiet surroundings are worth the wait as you lead up to the second sanzen – Kumano Hayatama Taisha. At its entrance is an 800 year-old nagi tree!
If you have some fuel left in you, make the ascent up to Kamikura Shrine, located at the top of over 500 steps on a gigantic rock overlooking Shingu City.
To reach the grand finale of the Kumano Kodo at the end of the day, take one of the regular buses that run through the town of Shingu, and get off at Daimonzaka. The steps at the beginning of this trail head look as if they came straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie and are a fitting beginning to the end of the hike.
This last section at Daimonzaka is made up of cobblestone paths flanked on either side by giant Japanese Cedars. Along this path that gently slopes through the forest, you will see several locals dressed in traditional Heian-era kimonos from the 8th century walking alongside you toward Nachi-no-taki.
The Finish Line
As you make the final climb to Hongu Nachi Taisha shrine, you will not only have a sense of accomplishment for completing 1 of 2 UNESCO pilgrimage routes in the world, you will also have immersed into traditional Japanese culture unlike the majority of international tourists who visit Japan.
As you hike the ancient paths of Kumano Kodo, remember to talk with the locals, stay in authentic temples and guests houses, enjoy hot spring bathing and dine on home-style cooking. Don’t rush through. Stop to reflect on the peaceful scenery around you and leave Wakayama with a better understanding of the Japanese way of life.
Feature Photo Credit: Jordi Solé Marimon/iStock/ThinkStock