A Beginner’s Guide to the Kumano Kodo
For over 1,000 years, people from all levels of society have journeyed to the tranquil Kii Mountains in Japan, following the many pilgrimage routes to the revered Kumano Sanzan Shrines. The Kumano Kodo (熊野古道), comprised of seven routes to the region’s holy shrines, is one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimage sites, along with Europe’s Camino de Santiago.
Developed as routes for pilgrims to move between the sacred areas on the Kii Peninsula, the pilgrimage trails were designed to be a religious experience in themselves. At the center of this religious area are the three Kumano shrines: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha, and Nachi Taisha, collectively known as Kumano Sanzan. In addition to linking the shrines to one another, the Kodo pilgrimage trails link the Kumano area to Kyoto, Koyasan (the headquarter of Shingon Buddhism), Yoshino and Omine (centers of mountain worship) and Ise (Japan’s most important shrine).
WALKING THE KUMANO KODO: THE ROUTES
Nakahechi – The Imperial Route
The Nakahechi Route is the main route that links the three Grand Shrines of Kumano. It has a rich historical, cultural, and spiritual atmosphere. There are local busses that lead to isolated villages where accommodations are located. The infrastructure — such as English signage, maps, and luggage shuttle services — is developed.
The Nakahechi is the core trail of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage network with a history of over 1000 years. It can be walked in consecutive day treks or experienced with shorter highlight walks. It is a mountain environment so if your planning to do a multi-day walk please be prepared.RESOURCE Stages and Maps for Walking the Kumano Kodo – Nakahechi Route
Kohechi – The Mountain Route
The Kohechi Route of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage network links two sacred sites in the Kii Peninsula: Koyasan and Kumano. There are four mountain passes of over 1,000 meters along the more than 65-km route, with small settlements located in the river valleys.
The journey takes approximately four days with overnights in Koyasan, Omata, Miura-guchi, Totsukawa Onsen, and the Hongu area (Yunomine Onsen, Kawayu Onsen & Watarase Onsen). The northern sections are isolated with limited transportation and facilities. It is technically closed from mid-December to mid-March because of the possibility of snow-bound passes, although the most southern, Hatenashi-toge, is open year-round.
This route is for experienced walkers and can be walked in both directions. The passes are high and subsequently, the weather is variable with much rain, wind, and fog. Please be prepared.
Ohechi – The Coastal Route
The Ohechi Route runs along the southwest coast of the mountainous Kii peninsula through smaller villages between Tokei-jinja in Tanabe and Fudarakusan-ji in Nachi. Signage along the Ohechi route is variable with some sections that only have Japanese signs, especially in the areas that link trailheads to train stations through settled areas. Once away from the train line, public transportation is limited, so plan accordingly.
Iseji – The Eastern Route
The Iseji is ~170 km long trail on the east coast of the Kii peninsula connecting Ise Jingu with the Kumano Sanzan and consists generally of north, central, and south sections. To trek the full length can take one to two weeks, but many of the shorter passes can be enjoyed as shorter day hikes because trailheads are often located near train stations.
ACCOMODATIONS ALONG THE KUMANO KODO
Please be aware that just walking up to accommodations is not common in Japan. Pre-booking accommodations is very important and recommended, especially in the mountains for some of the reasons below.
- The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes run through an isolated, mountainous region, so planning is important.
- There are limited places to stay along the trail, especially in the smaller settlements.
- Accommodations may be full, or not have food prepared for meals, or sometimes closed if there are no reservations on that date.
- English is not widely spoken, so miscommunications can happen onsite.
- There are limited busses in the evening, which makes it difficult to return to the coast if there is no place to stay.
Planning ahead and making reservations will make your trip smoother, safer, and more enjoyable.
WHEN TO WALK THE KUMANO KODO
While the seasons bring unique aspects to the Kumano Koda, generally the pilgrimage can be walked year-round with preparation. Spring and fall offer the most ideal temperatures and scenery; however, these periods are the most popular so you will encounter many more people along the trail during these peak times.
Spring: Picturesque cherry blossoms and most ideal temperatures; larger crowds along trails
Summer: High heat and humidity; daily rains should be expected; heavy rains/typhoons may close trails in August
Fall: Comfortable temperatures and stunning foliage; very popular season with local hikers
Winter: Cold temperatures, occasional snows; the lowest number of pilgrims on the trails
No matter what time of year you plan to hike, be prepared for rain, as the weather in the mountains can change quickly and can be quite different from the weather in surrounding cities. Be sure to get trail updates from the information centers before you head out.
DUAL PILGRIMS: KUMANO KODO & CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
A “Dual Pilgrim” is someone who has walked both the Kumano Kodo and the Way of St.James (Camino de Santiago). This program was developed to celebrate, honor, and share the stories of those who have completed both of these UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage routes. Dual Pilgrims receive a limited edition “DUAL PILGRIM” pin badge by completing at least 100km on the Camino de Santiago and one of the options for the Kumano Kodo.
For Dual Pilgrims registering at either Kumano Hongu Heritage Center or the Tanabe Tourist Information Center next to the Kii-Tanabe station, a completion certificate is presented. This certificate, made from local Washi Japanese handmade paper, is from the Head Priest of the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine to offer gratitude and congratulations to Dual Pilgrims.
Pilgrims walking the Kumano Kodo should collect a pilgrim passport from a local site or online and stamp their passports along the walk. Stamps are located in wooden stands at most sites. The Kumano Kodo completion stamp is the Kumano Hongu Taisha one, so please remember to stamp this on the first page of the Kumano Kodo side of the credential under the heading “COMPLETION OF PILGRIMAGE”.
For registered Dual Pilgrims, Kumano Hongu Taisha has a special “Dual Pilgrim Taiko Ceremony”.
During this short ceremony you can drum on the sacred Taiko to express your feelings, emotions, and thoughts—an experience of the body, to complete your spiritual journey.
Please visit the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine office to register for the ceremony.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE KUMANO KODO
- PILGRIM RESOURCES FOR COVID-19
- Layering Ultralight Clothing for Pilgrimage Backpacking
- Stages and Maps for Walking the Kumano Kodo – Nakahechi Route
- A Beginner’s Guide to the Kumano Kodo
Husband. Father. Backpacker. Pilgrim. Author.
My recent treks include the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain as well as section hiking along the Florida Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Provided I can do so safely, in 2021 I’m walking the California Missions Trail in the United States, as well as England’s ancient Pilgrims’ Way from London to Canterbury. Afterward, I’ll begin the Via Francigena, the historic way in Europe connecting Canterbury to Rome.