The mountains of the Kii penisula have been a pilgrimage destination for centuries, with the network of trails and sites of worship, now called Kumano Kodo, registered on UNESCO’s world heritage list in 2004.
We hiked on the Nakahechi route in autumn of 2019. It is one of the most popular routes of the Kumano Grand Shrines, and was previously travelled by the imperial family on pilgrimage from Kyoto. We enjoyed the relaxed pace, moss encrusted steps winding through the forests and the hospitality of small minshuku (family guest houses) in rural Japan.
Setting out from Osaka, we took the slow countryside train to Kii-Tanabe. We had lunch near the train station, picked up a trail guide and most importantly collected a walk ‘passport’. By collecting stamps at various sites, you can become a credentialed walk pilgrim, and if you also complete the Camino De Santiago in Spain (it’s on the other side of the booklet) you can become a dual pilgrim. I was very excited about collecting stamps along our journey!
The start of the trail at Takijiro-oji was reached by local bus. This is one of the five major Oji shrines, subsidiary shrines of the Kumano Grand Shrines which protect and guide pilgrims, serving as both places of worship and rest.
A group of older Japanese pilgrims, who were also setting out, gifted us a small slipper charm for good luck on our hike. We watched them do their pre-start stretches, met the Kumano Kodo cat (who has an Instagram account), stamped our booklets and begun our pilgrimage into the sacred mountains.
The first section was a bit of a heart starter (i.e. uphill walking) through the forest. Before long we reached a set a large boulders which formed a cave called Tainai-kuguri. We squeezed through the boulders in a “test of faith”.
As we continued walking through the forest, the air became increasingly heavy and it was about to start bucketing down with rain. Luckily, we arrived at our accommodation for the night, the lovely Hoshizora no Yado in Takahara village. This log house was custom built by the owner, Mr Nishiyama, and had beautiful rafters and natural wood features. Mark was quite impressed.
We took off our hiking boots, slipped into house slippers and enjoyed some tea. Mr Nishiyama ushered us to our room which had traditional tatami mats and thin paper walls. We were also shown the bathroom and the awesome wooden bath. Even though we had hardly walked at all, the bath was lovely to soak in. If it hadn’t been so rainy we would have been able to see the plum blossoms from the window, as the house was in the middle of an ume orchard.
After bathing, we changed into the yukata provided. One of the things we’d been looking forward to on the trail were the home cooked meals, and we were not disappointed. Out host’s sister had cooked a feast including sashimi, pickles, tempura, soup, hot pot and rice. With some broken English and Japanese we conveyed our thanks!
Today was an easy walk, so we took our time to enjoy a breakfast banquet. We farewelled Mr Nishiyama and not much further down the path was Takahara Kumano-jinja shrine and another stamp!
The path continued past houses and terraced fields, with some lovely views. Then we were back into the forest journeying past old moss covered statues, tea house ruins and more stamping locations! We had lunch at Nakahechi Michi-no-Eki and then continued on to Chikatsuyu Village. This was a large village, compared with most on the trail, with a population of 450! However, there were a few abandoned buildings, as younger people had been leaving for the cities and more opportunities. The Kumano Kodo trail seemed a positive step both as a different way to experience Japan (outside of the more popular Tokyo and Kyoto tourist locations) and to help the economy of the rural Wakayama area.
After admiring some plum blossoms in the local park and trying to visit the Chikatsuyu art centre which was unfortunately closed, we continued along the back roads to Tsugizakura-oji. This shrine has huge cedar trees, with circumference of 8 meters and thought to be over 800 years old. The trees were very impressive, though they did make you feel quite small and insignificant in the scheme of things.
Not far past the shrine was our accommodation for the night at Guest House Mui, complete with some friendly goats! The minshuku had upstairs rooms for the guests (more tatami and futon), and a bathroom which was shared with the owners. We relaxed in the common room and did some reading.
In the late afternoon we visited the nearby Nonaka-no-Shimizu spring, which is one of the 100 famous waters of Japan. There was even a lovely haiku about the springs written over 300 years ago by Hattori Ransetsu: “Crystalline Clear / Inundating the Trail / Mountain Spring Water”.
The guest house had a separate building for dinner and we chatted to an older Australian couple who were also doing the Kumano Kodo, and the friendly hosts who had excellent English. The dinner spread was very tasty – probably the best of the walk. There were heaps of small dishes of tasty morsels and a bit of a fusion influence going on. We even got to try some home made plum wine.
Today was our longest day of walking, plus sightseeing, so we set off early – after a great breakfast of course! We said farewell to the goats and headed down the road. Before long we veered off the bitumen and into the forest. As we climbed up the Waraji-toge pass, we noticed lots of ice on the plants and steps from the cold night.
Unfortunately the original path was rerouted in 2011 after a typhoon caused a landslide making the original path unsafe. We followed some logging tracks as part of the detour and up another pass, climbing to nearly 700m. After descending we were happy to make it back onto the original path and the familiar statues, shrines and stamps!
From Hosshinmon-ji down to Kumano Hongu Taisha was very pleasant with the trail winding above tea plantations and small orchards. There were fruits for sale outside on the road – Mark should have got some ume boshi (pickled plum), but I knew from previous experience they weren’t something for my taste-buds.
Before too long we were at Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the three grand shrines of Kumano. We approached from the back, so walked through the gardens to enter properly up the flag lined main stairs.
The shrine was a lovely old wooden construction, with nice gardens and everywhere was Yatagarasu, a three-legged crow. Yatagarasu is a divine messenger and guide who helped the first emperor of Japan navigate the Kumano mountains in the Japanese creation myth. The three legs represent heaven, earth and mankind; interestingly the three-legged crowed is also the logo of the Japanese football team.
After paying our respects at the temple (and collecting some stamps) we had rather large slap-up lunch down in the village, and visited the Kumano Hongu Heritage Center. Built alongside the river the were lots of interesting displays about the route and the world heritage listing. Also down by the river, was the original location of the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine which was destroyed by floods in 1889. Now the site at Oyunohara is marked by the largest tori in the world at 34 m tall and 42 m wide.
The last section of walking for the day was the Dainichi-goe, a short but steep trail over Mt Dainichi that links Kumano Hongu Taisha with Yumomine Onsen. There were lots of twisted roots and stone steps on the 2km trail (but 250m of elevation gain). With the dappled late afternoon sun, it was beautiful climbing the old pilgrimage steps.
Just as it was nearing dusk we arrived at Yunomine Onsen, an onsen town in a deep valley of the Kumano mountains. There are lots of quaint inns, visitors have been attracted to its hot springs for over 1800 years. We headed to our minshuku which was larger and more commercial than the others. The food was ok, but not the special touches of the previous two evenings.
After dinner we explored the main street, with our main objective to cook some eggs in the hot springs at the public cooking basin! The cooking area had hooks to hang your egg basket from, and there were also some other items cooking away like sweet potatoes. Care was needed though, as the springs were really hot!! It was good fun and the town was very pretty at night.
Of course, we couldn’t visit an onsen town without having a bath. There is a very famous public path here, Tsoboyu, but we went to the baths at our minshuku. Although a little run down, they were very relaxing and had lots of onsen crystals. After ~ 25km of hiking, it was good to have a soak!
To avoid walking along the road, we took the bus a short distance from Yumomine Onsen to Ukegawa bus stop (though it did seem a bit like cheating). We picked up some lunch items at a local shop and then began our walk for the day. We only had 13km to travel today so took our time and enjoyed the views. Being a Saturday, we saw some other groups out for organised walks – they were even slower than us!
The main highlight was the Hyakken-gura look out where you can see the 3600 peaks of the Kumano. Later we had a leisurely lunch including some of our onsen cooked eggs. As it was a bit warmer we also saw a snake. Luckily we didn’t see the other ‘safety’ items on the guide – the giant Mukade centipede or the large Suzumebachi Hornet.
The trail then descended into the valley on the Akagi-gawa river. In the olden days this is where the pilgrims would take a ferry. We enjoyed spending some time by the river and then continued on to the tiny Koguchi Village.
We checked into our accommodation at Minshuku Momofuku and explored the small village. There were some nice blossoms by the river and it was very peaceful. Yet again, our hosts cooked us a massive spread for dinner.
After having nice weather for most of the hike, rain was forecast for the last day. The final section of the Ogumotori-goe route was also the most demanding, with a fair elevation gain on the 14km leg.
Cloaked in our rain coats, we set off at a brisk pace through the misty forest. We powered up Dogiri-zaka, “body breaking slope”, gaining around 800m elevation in about 3km and before long were wet with sweat inside our rain coats! In spite of this it was actually quite fun to traipsing in the drizzle. The moss covered stone stairs were beautiful (though slippery), and we had the path to ourselves – no one else was hiking in the inclement weather!
After hiking for a couple of hours with no sign of civilisation (except logging roads) we stumbled across a vending machine at Jinzo-jaya tea house remains. It seemed very incongruous plonked in the forest and I made Mark buy a (terrible) coffee as I wanted to warm up my hands!
The rest of the walk was gentle undulations with a steeper descent through the cedar and cypress into the Nachi Kogen Park. According to the walk notes, there were supposed to be some good views out as far as the ocean, but we could just see mountains, trees and low lying clouds.
As we had smashed out what was supposed to be 7-9 hours of walking in about 5 hours, we arrived for late lunch in the temple area, but found there was no-where to sit and enjoy our bento. So we huddled on the stone steps before checking out the rest of the temple complex.
Finishing at Kumano Nachi Taisha was a lovely end to the trek. The shrine complex was built halfway up the Nachi mountain with lovely views, including vistas across to Nachi-no-Otaki, the largest waterfall in Japan which has been worshipped since ancient times. The scene of the three-stored pagoda with the the water fall in the background was beautiful. We visited the brightly painted Kumano Nachi Taisha, the wooden Buddist temple Seiganto-ji and admired the gardens and other buildings in the area. I found it very difficult to find the last stamp!
Finally we walked down to Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall, where a small wedding was occurring. Then as we headed back to the bus stop, there was suddenly lots of people with their umbrellas everywhere as a tourist bus spilled out masses of people. It was a big contrast to the previous days of mainly solitary walking through forests and backroads.
We tool a local bus back to Kii-tanabe and the the train back to Osaka. It was extremely rainy and we were happy to have finished our walk in reasonable weather.
- This wasn’t our usual kind of multi-day walk, with distances being relatively short. However, this allowed lots of time for relaxing and there was no rush to get to the next location. The overall distance for the 4 nights / 5 days was a very manageable 68km.
- It was luxurious to have such light packs – we just had a change of clothes, toiletries, camera and some drinking water. We bought lunch or had a packed bento lunch so didn’t have to carry any major food supplies.
- Nice to stay in family houses/small guest houses and experience Japanese hospitality. We would recommend booking through Kumano Travel website as they contact the owners, who may or may not speak much English, and the whole process was very smooth.
- Very clear signs (in Japanese and English), unlike some trails in other countries! There were sign posts every 500m, in some places made of beautiful stone carvings.
- The trail was not crowded and it was good to support the smaller towns in the region.
- Even though we are not religious, the walk did feel quite spiritual (the mountains are our cathedral anyhow) and we really enjoyed the experience.
- Highly recommended!!