Nestled amidst a rugged expanse of nature lies a hidden gem of Japan—the Kumano Kodo. From the moment Emperor Jimmu, the esteemed founding emperor of Japan and descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, set food on the shores of Kumano, this mountainous region in Japan’s southern Kii Peninsula has been revered as the legendary “holy ground where gods dwell.” As you traverse through towering cedar trees, breathing in the scent of jasmine and basking in the ever-shifting golden light, it becomes effortlessly clear why this sacred place holds such profound reverence!
Japan’s Rich Pilgrimage Heritage
The Kumano Kodo is an ancient network of sacred pilgrimage trails that unite three magnificent shrines: Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. For centuries, people from all walks of life have embarked on this challenging pilgrimage, trekking through majestic mountains, stopping at tea-houses along the way, and indulging in the region’s geothermal onsens. This remarkable blend of rich cultural heritage, historical significance, and lush natural beauty has earned the Kumano Kodo the prestigious status of a UNESCO World Heritage site, alongside Spain’s iconic Camino de Santiago.
Despite its well-deserved recognition, the Kumano Kodo remains relatively undiscovered by international travelers visiting Japan, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It offers a peaceful escape from the bustling energy of cities like Osaka and Tokyo, providing a sanctuary of tranquility, rejuvenation, and fresh air—all while being remarkably accessible.
Upon discovering the opportunity to embark on a multi-day hike, visit some of Japan’s most beautiful shrines, and escape the crowds, the Kumano Kodo quickly found its place on our Japan itinerary, even before Osaka.
The Kumano Kodo Routes
The Kumano Kodo comprises several routes that radiate from the central shrine, Kumano Hongu Taisha. The most popular and easily accessible route is the Nakahechi Route, which starts from Takijiri-oji in the west, passes through Hongu, and concludes at Kumano Nachi Taisha in the east.
This route is distinguished by its Oji shrines, poem stones, and Jizo statues that line the path. It is historically significant as the pilgrimage route of the imperial family traveling from Kyoto. The duration of the Nakahechi route can vary from four to six days, depending on the pace and the desire to spend time in the villages and towns along the way. The Mountain Travel Sobek itinerary follows the four day Nakahechi route.
For a more detailed breakdown of our route, expectations, and accommodation options, refer to our Japan Kumano Kodo Walking Tour.
When is the Best Time to Hike the Kumano Kodo?
The best time to hike the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes is during the Japanese spring (March to early June) or autumn (September to November). Walking through the Kii Peninsula during these seasons offers pleasant temperatures and the vibrant colors of blooming flowers or autumn foliage. The summer months can be oppressively hot, while winter brings chilling temperatures.
What is the weather like in the Kumano Kodo?
We embarked on our four-day hike in mid-April and were fortunate to experience clear skies, warm days, and cool evenings. If you choose to hike during spring or autumn, be prepared for varying weather conditions and pack accordingly. We managed to pack light during our mid-April hike, having learned valuable lessons from our previous Torres del Paine experience.
What is the altitude of the Kumano Kodo?
The Kumano Kodo is not a high-altitude hike. The highest passes along the route reach an elevation of 3000 feet.
What’s the accommodation like on the Kumano Kodo?
When embarking on the Kumano Kodo, it is essential to secure accommodation for each night of the journey in the scattered villages and towns along the route. You can expect a range of lodging options, including traditional guest-houses, ryokans, and Onsen-hotels.
Note that accommodation options are limited, which happens to be one of the primary reasons why the route isn’t overrun with hikers. To guarantee a comfortable stay, make reservations as far in advance as possible! We understand that this process may not always be straightfoward, but when you travel with Mountain Travel Sobek, our team of travel experts take care of all the arrangements for you!
Exploring the Kumano Kodo Trail: A Journey of Serenity
As we embarked on the Kumano Kodo trail, we found solace in the unmarked stretches, where towering cedars embraced us in their majestic presence. However, along the Nakahechi Route, there are remarkable points of interest that should not be missed. Here are some highlights from our enchanting journey.
Our adventure commenced in Takijiri-oji, the starting point of the Nakahechi Route on the Kumano Kodo trail. Here, we immersed ourselves in the Kumano Kodo Kan Pilgrimage Center and had the privilege to visit one of the five major Oji shrines.
As we ventured further on the Nakahechi route, we encountered the picturesque settlement of Takahara. Known as the “Village in the Mist,” this place mesmerized us with its rolling fog, creating a captivating sight from the lofty vistas above.
A visit to the small shrine of Tsugizakura-oji was an awe-inspiring experience. Surrounded by massive 800-year-old cedar trees, this sacred site captivated us as their branches gracefully pointed south, leading us to the magnificent Nachi Falls.
Yunomine Onsen on the Kumano Kodo Trail:
Yunomine is a popular “hot spring” location
Nestled in the mountains, we discovered the charming village of Yunomine Onsen, which holds the distinction of being one of Japan’s oldest onsen towns. Here, we indulged in the tranquility of Tsuboyu, one of the rare UNESCO World Heritage hot springs in the world. As a delightful treat, we purchased a bag of raw eggs from the nearby convenience store and relished the experience of hard-boiling them in the hot springs. These eggs made for a delightful snack to energize us for the next day’s hike.
Hongu Village on the Kumano Kodo Trail:
Home to a popular tourist landmark, the Hongu Taisha Temple
After an invigorating hike from Yunomine Onsen, we reached Hongu Village, home to the revered Hongu Taisha Temple—one of the three grand shrines. Here, we delighted in acquiring snacks for the day and gathering any necessary trail updates from the Kumano Kodo visitor center.
Oyunohara on the Kumano Kodo Trail: Oyunohara Torii Gate:
Home to the world’s largest Torii Gate
At Oyunohara, we encountered a significant historical site. The original Hongu Taisha Shrine once stood at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers until a devastating flood in 1889 swept away most of the structures. Today, we can still witness the remnants of the platform where these sacred buildings once stood. The entrance to Oyunohara is marked by the world’s largest Torii gate, towering at 33.9 meters tall and 44 meters wide. While visitors are welcome to enter, it’s essential to approach this sacred place with reverence and respect.
Torii, Oji, Jizo: The Art of Navigating the Kumano Kodo
These sacred paths connecting the majestic shrines owe their existence to the journeys of countless Shinto, Buddhist, and Kumano pilgrims. The Kumano Kodo is far more than a mere hiking trail; it embodies a profound spiritual pilgrimage. Along the extensive forest trails and mountain passes, one can witness various Torii gates, Oji shrines, Jizo statues, and poem stones that hold deep cultural significance. Below, we offer a concise guide to these sacred landmarks and the etiquette associated with them.
Known as ‘bird abodes’ in literal translation, these vibrant vermilion shrines are ubiquitous throughout Japan. Torii gates symbolize the entrance to Shinto shrines, while Buddhist temples typically lack them. However, there are exceptions, as some Buddhist temples also feature Torii gates. The harmonious relationship between Shintoism and Buddhism has led to their merging and coexistence. It is customary to bow upon entering and exiting a Torii gate, paying respect to the spiritual realm it represents.
Oji shrines serve as subsidiary sanctuaries of the revered Kumano Grand Shrines, offering protection and guidance to pilgrims. These shrines often enshrine child-deities of Kumano and are situated near natural landmarks such as ancient trees, waterfalls, or springs. Oji shrines serve as places of worship and respite. Yamabushi mountain ascetics, historically acting as guides for pilgrims, were believed to have built these shrines.
The customary worship rituals at Oji shrines include:
- Purifying oneself by washing hands and rinsing the mouth with water from stone basins or cups placed near the shrine entrance.
- Ringing the bell, usually suspended between the front posts of the shrine.
- Optional offering of coins.
- Bowing deeply twice.
- Clapping hands twice.
- Engaging in personal prayers, reflection, or contemplation.
- Concluding with a final deep bow.
Jizo, a beloved figure in Japanese culture, possesses the wisdom of Buddha himself but chose to forgo Nirvana in order to safeguard children, travelers, and women. His selflessness and heroism are truly remarkable.
As you traverse the paths of the Kumano Kodo, you will frequently encounter Jizo statues, given his role as the guardian and guide of travelers. Jizo is believed to dwell at the boundary between realms, bridging the physical and the spiritual, life and death. It is crucial to treat Jizo with respect and kindness.
Notably, Jizo is revered as the protector of children, especially those who departed this world prematurely. These young souls are said to reside in a realm known as ‘said o kawara.’ To cross the river into the afterlife, these children must accumulate karmic merit by building small stone towers as a testament of their virtuous deeds. Jizo aids these children, carrying them in the folds of his robes, helping them transcend the river. To support these young souls in their quest, people often construct small stone towers near Jizo statues, contributing to their spiritual journey. Thus, refrain from knocking over these stone towers, as they hold deep significance and assist the children in their passage.
As you embark on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, remember to immerse yourself not only in the natural beauty but also in the rich cultural tapestry woven by Torii gates, Oji shrines, and Jizo statues. Respect the customs, embrace the spirituality, and let the wisdom of these sacred landmarks guide your path!