One of only two UNESCO World Heritage trails in the world—the other being the Camino de Santiago in Spain—the Kumano Kodo in Japan has been a pilgrimage route since 800 AD. Just south of Osaka in Wakayama prefecture, the trail has been described as a "pilgrimage of ants" due to the huge number of pilgrims that would walk the trails in the 12th Century.
While there are some major sights to be seen on the trail, smaller Shinto shrines are dotted right along the trails where you can pray for a safe journey, as well as Jizo statues, wearing their iconic red bibs, protecting hikers from evil and fatigue. You’ll also be traversing through ancient cedar forests and bamboo groves, following the Kumono River, and enjoying rolling mountain views as you make your way to the three major shrines of the trail (also known as the Kumano Sanzan), which honor the trees, rocks, and waterfall:
- Kumano Hongu Taisha — Found at the center of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage and serving as the lead shrine to over three thousand shrines across Japan, this sacred complex can be reached by climbing up 580 stone steps.
- Kumano Hayatama Taisha — A sacred space, three deities of Shintoism are said to have come to Earth on a rock near the shrine. Religious artifacts dating back to the third century are present as well as an ancient tree within the shrine area.
- Kumano Nachi Taisha — Part of a large complex with both Shinto and Buddhist influences including the Buddhist temple Seigantoji. The area is also home to Japan’s largest waterfall and a three-story pagoda associated with the temple.
During your hike, you will also be able to stop at onsen towns such as the famous Yunomine Onsen which has been an integral stop along the trail for more than a thousand years. The Kumano Kodo differs from other trails as it’s a network of various routes ranging from a three-day to a 30-day hike depending on what you’re looking for. A standard hike will take you three days, including getting there. A great resource for everything from trail itineraries to booking accommodation in advance is the Kumano Tourism Board website.
Best Time to Hike the Trail
Spring and fall are the best time to hike the trail as the weather is temperate, there’s less chance of rain, and trees and flowers will be particularly beautiful. That being said, Wakayama is a lot warmer than northern Japan, so hiking during the winter is possible, and the trails will be quieter. Plus, warming up in the onsen will also feel even more satisfying. In the summer there’s a high chance of rain and it will be incredibly humid so best avoided, and try to avoid National Holidays in Japan if you prefer a quieter trail.
Where to Stay Along the Trail
Ample accommodation is present along the trails, especially in the form of traditional Japanese inns or ryokan, but it’s worth booking your accommodation as far in advance as possible as people tend to book ahead. Whether you’re used to luxury or budget options, there are accommodation options available ranging from $20 to $200. Many smaller Japanese inns, known as minshuku, won’t have an online presence, so it’s possible to turn up and find somewhere for the night without booking ahead.
Luckily, if you’re staying in a Japanese inn or hotel, you’ll find that you will be provided with slippers, gowns, evening wear, and toiletries so you can pack light and just bring your hiking gear. Japanese inns are also more likely to provide a full traditional breakfast and dinner service, though there are restaurants, shops, and pubs at all major stopping points along the route.
Typical stopping points where you’ll find accommodation include the ancient Yunomine Onsen town, which sits at the base of two trailheads, Akagi-goe and Dainichi-goe, and features the thousand-year-old Tsuboyu Onsen, a hot spring mentioned in many legends associated with healing and rejuvenation.
While free camping is forbidden on the trail, there are several campsites that you can reserve in advance with the most popular being Kawayu Campground which is near the onsen and trailhead.
Three-Day Itinerary Along the Kumano Kodo Trail
Whichever city you’re arriving from, the best access to the trail is to take the train to the small city of Kii-Tanabe, on the west coast of Wakayama Prefecture. This serves as the main entry point to the Kumano Kodo. Here is an ideal three-day itinerary to see some of the main sights along the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail.
Day One: It will take just over two hours from Osaka or Kyoto by train to Kii-Tanabe Station. You’ll be able to pick up maps and other information from the Tanabe Tourist Information Center at the station. Take the bus from Kii-Tanabe to Yunomine Onsen which will take just under two hours and check into your accommodation. Make sure to explore and enjoy Tsuboyu Onsen while you’re there.
Day Two: It’s time to start your hike! Walk from Yunomine Onsen to Hongu so you can visit Oyunahara, Japan’s largest torii gate and the original site of Hongu Taisha, and the Hongu Taisha Shrine itself. The hike will take around four hours. After lunch, take the bus to the start of the Ukegawa Trailhead and start your three-hour hike towards Koguchi. You’ll see the immense Hyakken-gura viewpoint on the way. Check into your accommodation and enjoy the town.
Day Three: The final day of hiking takes you from Koguchi to Nachi-san and is the most challenging part of the hike with the steep first section being named the "body-breaking slope." While the steepness does make this challenging, the slippery rocks make it more difficult, which is why it’s essential to wear good hiking boots.
After two hours, you will reach the Echizen-toge pass where the trail alternates between steep and downhill. You’ll reach the remains of an old tea house where you can rest. The final part of the trail is mostly downhill for two hours until your each the Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall and shrine complex. You can stay in a guesthouse at Nachi for the evening or take the bus to nearby Katsuura where there are more accommodation options.
Tip: This is the most popular route for those taking the Kumano Kodo trail but those looking for a longer and more challenging hike can look at the 40-mile Kohechi Route that starts at Mount Koya, one of Japan’s most sacred sites and home to the country’s largest graveyard. The Kumano Tourism page has a number of alternative routes to try.
Tips for Visiting the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail
- The hike can get steep, so wear proper hiking boots and suitable clothing for the weather. Hiking poles can also come in handy, though not essential, especially for coming down some of the steeper areas and insect repellant is a must. There are shops, inns, and restaurants en route for anything you might suddenly need.
- Make sure to carry cash as most of the establishments on the route won’t take a card.
- Make onsen tamago! In the onsen towns, you can pick up bags of eggs to boil in the public onsen basin called yuzutsu. These will keep for a few days and can be taken on the trail with you for easy snacks.
- There will be many places for you to pray along the route. If you’d like to join in and pay your respects, the correct method to pray at a shrine is to toss a coin in the offering box, ring the bell, bow twice, clap twice, and bow once. At a temple, the correct way is to bring your hands together and pray.
- Don’t forget to get your shrine passport stamped at the oji (subsidiary shrines). You’ll find the stamp and ink in a little wooden box on the shrine. Collecting goshuin (passport stamps) is something you can do all over Japan and makes for a wonderful and free memory of your trip. The folding stamp books can be purchased from shrines or stationery shops.