The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route: The Best Hike in Japan that outshines Mount Fuji

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: Map of Kumano Kodo TrailKumano 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

17 thoughts on “The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route: The Best Hike in Japan that outshines Mount Fuji

  1. Hi Kari,
    I love your write up on the Kumano Trail. A couple of us are going to
    Nagoya for a Taiko course in June. Towards the end of June we have
    about 5 days and according to your ideas, the Imperial or Nakahechi trail,
    is the best one? Can you give us an idea of how to get to the Nakahechi
    trail head from Nagoya. Actually we will be at komaba to be exact.
    We would like to see the 3 temples and and experience the Daimonzaka
    as well. Thanks for your help. We are completely new to the Kumano.

    1. Hi Freddie,

      From Nagoya, The fastest way is to take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen. This is the fast train. It will take you around 3.5 to 4 hours to get from Nagoya to Kii Tanabe station to start the Imperial Route.

      Enjoy your journey! Send us pics and suggestion for other travelers!

  2. Hi Kari!

    Thanks for all the useful information! My wife and I will be traveling around Japan for a couple weeks and are really excited about doing a trek like this. We have backpacks, but they include all kinds of heavy stuff we wouldn’t want to lug on a trek. Would most hotels in Tanabe hold a bag or two for us until we finish the trek? Are there lockers or other ways that people handle this?

    Thanks for you help!
    Roni

    1. Hi Roni,

      Congrats on your upcoming trip to Japan! In general, Japanese inns are extremely hospitable – much more than most places around the world! I am sure it will depend on how long you plan to trek. I cannot guarantee it, but If I were you, I would just wait until I arrive and then graciously ask the front desk at your hotel. As long as it is an inn (family owned) and not a hostel – you will recieve excellent services!

  3. Thanks so much for your article – it’s by far the best I’ve come across on what looks like one of the most spectacular hikes in the world! I’m planning a trip in May, and would like to do a 5-7 day trek, I’ve read elsewhere that from Kii-Nagashima to Nachi is a good route for this type of length, would you agree? Or any other suggestions? I also love the idea of staying at a temple.

    Also – assuming blossom season is over by mid may?

    Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Sam,

      I am so glad you have found it helpful! I spent several months planning extensive programs for a travel company in Japan – and absolutely fell in love with the country. It holds a special place in my heart! I am not as familiar with the coastal route from Kii-Nagashima so I wouldn’t want to give you a bad estimate on timing. Here is a good pamphlet that gives a good overview of that and other routes to help.

      http://www.kodo.pref.mie.lg.jp/en/assets/download/kumanokodo_pamphlet.pdf

      Enjoy your trip!

  4. Hi,
    Thanks for your detailed suggestions. I have three months off from January through March and I am interested in doing this amazing pilgrimage. A few concerns about weather — will January be tolerable in the mountains? Should I be worried about snow? Of these months, when do you think it would be best to go?
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Chenoa,
      Congrats on your upcoming trip! I would suggest going in March. Although this route is not in Northern Japan – Hokkaido, it will be chilly in January. The other good part about going in March is that you may have the opportunity to see the Cherry Blossoms. They bloom around this area in March to April!

      Enjoy your trip,

      Kari

  5. Hi Kari,

    Thanks for the detailed post. I am planning my trip to Japan this November and I plan to spend 3 days in Kumano Kodo area. I read so much about this great hike and I wanted your opinion on my plan for these 3 days. I am not super fit so I don’t think I can do the whole route in 3 days, so I am mainly interested in the most scenic portions and of course to see the 3 main shrines.

    So here is my initial plan:

    Day 1: Travel from Kyoto get out near Hosshinmon-oji (trip takes about 4 hours from Kyoto, so I should be there around 11:00 am), do the hike as you outlined it till I reach Kumano Hongu Taisha (Are there enough hours since I will spend sometime on the train in the morning?)

    Day 2: take the bus to Daimonzaka to get to Kumano Nachi Taisha, start the hike back to Koguchi

    Day 3: Koguchi to the hong area, then head back to kyoto.

    Couple of questoins:

    1) Is my plan doable for a moderate hiker?
    2) Can I do this on my own or do I need a guide?
    3) Did I choose the good sections of the route?
    4) I will be doing this hike end of November, will it be cold or super wet?

    Hope this is not a super long message. Thanks a lot for your help.

    1. Hi Summer! Congrats on your upcoming hike! I think your overall plan looks doable and you picked excellent portions of the trail! The only part I am not familiar with is the last portion from Konguchi to the hong area. The other two portions on Day one and two are not incredibly long, so you should be fine – they are doable for the moderate hiker. And remember – you can always take your time. There will be LOTS of steps.

      Having a guide is always best for travelers who do not feel comfortable with a little trial and error, but if you don’t mind figuring out the bus system and just going with the flow (not worrying too much about your timing) – doing the trail alone is always more peaceful.

      The end of November will be beautiful weather. It will be crisp (but not freezing or snowing), and the leaves should be beautiful at that time of year!

      Enjoy:)

  6. Hi!
    I’ve heard that the trip from Shingu to Nachi Waterfalls along the coast guarantee amazing views. Maybe you know sth about such a trail? Is it viable/doable during one day ( assuming we’re kind of experience in climbing)?

    Thank you for any hints!

    1. Hi Kasia!

      I have not personally done the coastal hike, but have heard that it is great for it’s coastal views. It is from Kii-Nagashima to Nachi and runs parallel to the train route – so you could hop back and forth from walking to train travel. The route has ancient stone-paved roads and deserted beaches and the old city of Kumano – but hiking the route has been estimated to take between 1 to 2 weeks.

      Hope this helps!

  7. Hi Kari, Nice article!
    So it seems feasible to do all 3 shrines on the second day? Because in other articles it seemed as if we would need 3 overnight stays. Does the boats ‘run’ regularly? We are planning our trip to Japan next March. I am not used to book things ahead, especially not hiking trips. But since most of the places I’ve checked and that were suggested to us are already sold out, we are planning this journey in detail already. Do you recommend us to book the overnight stay at Chikatsuyu ahead as well? Or is it possible to find accommodation as we arrive?
    Where did you stay after the 2-day hike? What happened after the finish line? 🙂
    We have a ‘gap’ of 3 to 4 nights between Osaka and Tokyo that we are now trying to plan.
    I was thinking of taking the train & bus from Osaka in the morning, staying overnight in Chikatsuyu (like you recommend) and then I’m not sure?
    Thanks!
    Pamela

    1. Hi Pamela! Thanks for reaching out!

      The entire Nakahechi trail, as I have laid out, can be done in 2-3 days. But it really depends on your level of fitness and what kind of pace you want to keep. If you like a more leisurely walk with time to stop to take photos and veer off the path to little hidden temples, than probably 3 days is a better goal. If you are pressed on time though and prefer a more cardio vascular hike, than you could shoot for 2 days.

      The main inconvenience with starting the hike from Chikatsuyu is that from Tanabe train station it will take you maybe 2 hours by bus to the village through the mountains. If you want to cut out the beginning part of the Nakahechi route, than it’s probably a better use of time to take the bus all the way to Hongu Taisha shrine.

      From Tanabe you can take more direct bus lines to where several Onsens are located near the shrine. (Check out http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4951.html – there is a great map of the train and bus lines all the way at the bottom of the article.)

      So, if you decide to go start around this area you could lay your trip out like this:

      Day 1: Train from Osaka to Tanabe, bus to Hosshinmon-oji area/Hongu Taisha.
      Day 2: Hike from onsen to Hongu Taisha, then 90-min boat trip (at 10:00am – see link in my article) to Kumano Hayatama Taisha, overnight in Shingu area
      Day 3: Hike to Hongu Nachi Taisha shrine, then travel back by train from Shingu City to Tokyo (you could overnight in Nagoya or Yokohama on this night – these cities are very nice and have some interesting things to do/see – let me know if you need suggestions).
      Day 4: If you decide to overnight in Nagoya/Yokohama – than today would be the final leg of your train trip up to Tokyo.

      I would recommend that you book your onsen stays in advance because the spring time is sometimes busy. I like http://www.kumano-travel.com for searching onsens along the trail route (This link is also in the article).

      I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.

      Happy Hiking!

      Kari

    1. Hi David,

      I did! It actually is in Day 2 of this article, after the river boat ride from the first Sanzen – Kumano Hongu Taisha. If you need to cut your trip short or if you prefer to not walk the entire thing, don’t miss the Daimonzaka steps – the cobblestone paths are flanked on either side by giant Japanese Cedars leading to Hongu Nachi Taisha and its stunning waterfall! It’s a magical place.

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