The Kumano Kodo Trail – an Ancient Japanese Pilgrimage
One of our favourite walks, Explore Kumano Kodo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tucked into the mountainous Kii Peninsula and discover Japan’s rich history
What is the Kumano Kodo?
In the mountains of the Kii Peninsula is an area known as Kumano, where an ancient network of pilgrimage routes to the Kumano Sanzan shrines of Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha are etched into the earth. Five prominent pilgrimages form the Kumano Kodo:
- The Nakahechi Route
- The Kohechi Route
- The Ohechi Route
- The Omine-Okugakemichi Route
- The Iseji Route
These pathways offer travellers an authentic experience of Japan as the locals welcome walkers into the region that showcases the island nation’s cultural roots. As you walk across the landscape, you will pass through small Japanese towns, beneath cedar trees, and across paths that follow the shoreline. Each pilgrimage is quite different from the others; some present more challenges, some are longer, and some have rare sights that can only be explored on foot.
History of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route
The route is considered to be one of the country’s most sacred trails.
During Japan’s formative years, the native religion of Shinto was formed, a way of life that worshipped the natural world and the sacred sites of Kumano. As Buddhism was introduced to Japan, the mountainous area became a training area for Buddhist monks. Eventually, Shintoism and Buddhism merged, creating a syncretic belief system. Over time, the Shinto deities were believed to be emanations of Buddha, and the monasteries became a place of worship.
For over a millennium, the routes became a pathway for those travelling to the Kumano shrines in search of spiritual enlightenment. These trails were crossed by emperors, the nobility and their families, and in later years by samurai warriors and then the people of Japan.
Seven things to expect on the Kumano Kodo
These sacred pathways are rich in history, with each route offering something different. If you have chosen to embark on the Kumano Kodo trail, here are a few things you can expect along the way:
- The Kumano Kodo trail is open year-round, but there are ideal times to visit if you want to ensure the best hiking experience. We recommend you hike between April and November for the great weather this area enjoys.
- Accommodation is available for hikers along the trail, from lodges to ryokans and minshukus. You must book accommodations before your arrival.
- Being fluent in Japanese is appreciated but optional. Most directions and information about the trail are displayed in Japanese and English for international travellers.
- Most of the accommodations along the trail have Wi-Fi access for guests.
- You can access luggage shuttle services that will transport your belongings from your last accommodations stop to your next. These services are available when you are booking your Kumano Kodo trail, especially through an established service provider like Auswalk.
- You have the option to hike the trail independently, guided or self-guided.
- The guesthouses and ryokans that hikers stay at along the trail can provide meals during your walk, from dinners to packed lunches, as you make your way to the next town.
Essential Supplies for Kumano Kodo
If you are an avid hiker, you will know that there are essentials to every great hike to make the journey as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Before walking on the Japanese mountainside, it is important to research and seek out information about supplies that locals and seasoned hikers suggest for this area.
Our research suggests a few essential items you won’t want to forget. Firstly, quality hiking boots. The terrain and duration along the trail can vary, and sturdy and supportive boots can make all the difference. We suggest wearing your boots before you leave to avoid any initial discomfort with new shoes.
Another valuable item is hiking poles. It can be challenging to climb up and down uneven paths, and the added stability will support you as you climb. Many hiking poles have a lightweight, compact design; therefore, they can fold down and be stored in your backpack in between use.
Next, invest in a good-quality backpack that is weather resistant, versatile, and includes a hydro pack for water. It is also essential to fill your backpack with a few bare necessities. A few practical items all hikers should carry include a first aid kit, weatherproof clothing, food, water, a flashlight, and a whistle. Other essentials may be toiletries, a camera, chargers, and clothing.
For those fortunate enough to walk the paths of the Kumano Kodo, take a moment to imagine the lives of those whose footsteps are etched into the earth in the same way yours will be when you leave this sacred place.
- Is the Kumano Kodo like the Camino de Santiago?
Only two pilgrimage routes in the world are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites—Kumano Kodo and Camino de Santiago.
There are a few differences, including distance. The Camino de Santiago covers 790 km, while the Kumano Kodo covers 68 km. The conditions are also very different, with the Kumano Kodo weaving through rugged mountain terrain and the Camino de Santiago predominantly winding through rural Spain ( and parts of Portugal and even France).
- Is Kumano Kodo crowded?
The Kumano Kodo walk is a relatively quiet journey, with hikers occasionally crossing paths. Due to the limited trail accommodations, travellers can avoid large crowds.
- Can you walk the Kumano Kodo trek solo?
Yes, hikers can trek Kumano Kodo by themselves. Booking accommodations at the lodges along the trail ensures that staff in the area are aware of your movements and can account for you at every stop. If you are looking for recommendations for walking companies for the Kumano Kodo trail we suggest Auswalk.
- Is the Kumano Kodo a hard hike?
The Kumano Kodo hike offers many different paths, each of which is moderate to challenging. However, these trails vary in difficulty depending on the individual, so thoroughly research each before embarking.