Thinking of doing the Kumano Kodo trek in Japan? From advice to accommodation, this is all you need to know about hiking the Kumano Kodo!
I’m going to say this right away, the Kumano Kodo trek in Wakayama is one of the best I’ve ever done in my life. Honestly, I really mean that.
With gorgeous rolling mountains, mist rising in the morning, tea houses along the route, traditional temples to stop off at – the Kumano Kodo trail has all of this and more. Also, where else in the world can you walk in the footsteps of Japanese emperors and samurai?
I recently visited Japan for the first time, and one of the things I was most looking forward to doing was hiking the Kumano Kodo. In the hiking world, this is up there as one of the most popular hikes you can do. Well, it certainly didn’t disappoint.
I’ve always been drawn to the mountains. There’s some so ethereally beautiful about hiking in this part of Japan. It gets to you, gets to your soul. After doing the Kumano Kodo trek myself, I can see why this is so high up on people’s bucket list. I really can’t recommend it enough.
So, if you’re thinking of doing the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage yourself, this is the post for you – from the history of the area to which is the best route to take, this is everything you need to know about hiking the Kumano Kodo!
What is the Kumano Kodo trail?
The Kumano Kodo is a 70km 5-day pilgrimage taking you through the most beautiful countryside in Wakayama.
I didn’t realise this before I trekked the Kumano Kodo myself, but there are only two hiking routes that have UNESCO World Heritage status – this one and the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in Spain.
Because of this, these two routes are linked together. If you complete the Kumano Kodo walk and the Camino de Santiago then you can officially refer to yourself as a ‘dual pilgrim’ – how cool is that? You even get your own certificate and everything.
The Kumano Kodō is the holiest and most sacred pilgrimage in Japan. This route used to be only reserved for emperors and samurai. Being a bit of a history buff, I loved that I actually walked the same route as the old Japanese emperors centuries before me.
Put it this way, hiking in Wakayama really doesn’t get any better than this.
The history of the Kumano Kodo
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of the Kumano Kodō before – I hadn’t either before I trekked it. However, it is old. The history of this route dates back over 1,000 years. And urban legends in this area date back even further.
At the very centre of this religious area are the three Kumano shrines: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Collectively they are known as Kumano Sanzan.
However, the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route developed over time as a way for people to move between these sacred areas on the Kii Peninsula.
By the 12th century, the Kumano Sanzan were well known shrines all over Japan pulling in people from all over the country, and the route eventually became a religious pilgrimage for all those who walked it.
Once emperors walked the Kumano Kodo searching for peace and enlightenment, the route was secured as one of the most popular pilgrimages in Japan. This is something that hasn’t changed for the centuries since.
One of the things I loved about the Kumano Kodo trek is you really get a sense of the importance and history of it. Add in the mountains and forest, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment yourself. I know I certainly did!
Nakahechi – the main hiking route
Unlike the Camino de Santiago that has a clear start point and end point, the Kumano Kodo is not one route but a network of routes all linking together.
This means you can start at different points, some trails taking 30 days and some taking just a few hours. It all depends how much time you have and how much of the Kumano Kodo trail you want to do.
However, historically pilgrims would visit the three main shrines of the Kumano Sanzan which are the three cornerstones of the Nakahechi route (the Imperial Route), the most popular and action-packed route through Wakayama.
The Nakahechi pilgrimage route starts from Tanabe on the western coast of the Kii-Peninsula and works its way east across the mountains towards the Kumano grand shrines at Hongu and then Nachisan.
This trail has traditional lodgings in small, isolated villages along the route and is a trail very well suited for those of you looking at doing it on your own. That’s one of the best things about this route – it’s really friendly for all types of hikers.
Kumano Kodo map
The three main shrines of the Kumano Sanzan
This shrine is nestled in the forests of Wakayama and is made up of three main temples.
Legend has it that the Kumano gods, in the form of three moons, descended into the branches of a giant oak tree in this clearing and laid to rest forever. Today, each of the three temples is said to have the spirit of the gods, and people prayer to the different temples for safe passage in life.
All of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes lead to this sacred site and I had one of my best days in Japan here. There are a number of market stalls selling ice-cold water and snacks if you need to pick anything up.
Also, you can buy traditional Japanese ‘charms’ to pray with at the temples. Just don’t forget to ring that bell to make sure your prayer is heard!
Hayatama Taisha is located at the mouth of the Kumano-gawa River and it is another incredibly beautiful temple in Wakayama. One of the main pulls to Hayatama Taisha is Nagi-no-Ki tree, an ancient tree that’s said to be over 800-years-old and is considered a scared site.
There’s also a museum here with dozens of national treasures including offerings brought from pilgrims from all around the world which is well worth seeing. Don’t forget, if you want to complete the Kumano Kodo you need to visit all three of these holy shrines. When it comes to what to do in Kumano, visiting Hayatama Taisha is right up there.
If I had to pick a favourite temple in Japan it would be Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple. This really is one of the best things to do in Kumano.
The photos says it all, but this is a bright orange temple overlooking Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan standing at 133m. I mean, look how beautiful it is!?
This is where I finished my Kumano Kodo trek and it was the perfect place to pause and reflect on the beauty of the area. Honestly, this is what the Kumano is all about, views like this. This is an incredibly holy place and there’s another beautiful shrine to take in at the bottom of the falls.
Kumano Kodo accommodation
Obviously there are countless options of places to stay at along the Kumano Kodo trail. These are a mixture of Japanese-style lodges and Western B&Bs/hotels.
Prices vary massively from as little as 2,500 yen (£18) per night all the way up to 25,000 yen (£180) per night for an uber lux place.
Some places offer dinner and breakfast, and some only offer a bed for the night – it all depends what you’re looking for.
I would really recommend making all reservations beforehand. Speaking to a few homestay owners, they said they’re usually booked up 4-6 weeks in advanced, so try to book everything before this.
Here are a few places I’d recommend along the route though. I had dinner at Takahara Lodge and it has the most beautiful views of the mountains.
- Takahara Lodge – this one is probably my favourite and right on the Kumano Kodo trail
- Kumano Kodo Nagano Guesthouse – this is one of the most popular places to stay at
- Guesthouse TAKAO – one of the best budget homestays around
- Kishuji Minabe – nice hotel to relax at by the ocean
- Iruka Onsen Hotel Seiryuusou – a really gorgeous property with gorgeous views
- Shiraraso Grand Hotel – fantastic views from this place
Do you need a Kumano Kodo guide?
No, you don’t!
One of the best things about this pilgrimage is its self-guided. There are lots of signposts all along the route in Japanese and English pointing you in the right direction.
However, I had a guide (Waka from Mi Kumano Guides) for the last section and she was brilliant at pointing out things I would’ve missed myself; she really brought the history of the area to life.
If you really want to learn the history of the Kumano Kodo and all about the temples along the way, it’s recommended you hire a guide. You can find out some more information about the guides at the Kumano Kodo information centre (which is here).
Don’t forget to stamp your trekking passport!
If you head to the visitors center before you start the Kumano Kodo walk then you’ll be given a passport book which you can stamp at a number of places along the route.
Even though it was a little gimmicky, I really like that stamping was encouraged and the passport book actually became a nice souvenir at the end of the trek.
You can also use this passport book on the Camino de Santiago to show you’ve done both pilgrimages. That’s when you get a special certificate saying you’ve completed both pilgrimages.
Top tips for the Kumano Kodo walk
- Insect repellent – My number one tip here but make sure you bring lots of insect repellent. Not only are there mosquitos here but there are huge horse flies too – they’re the ones that really hurt so spray up!
- Wear trousers and a long-sleeved shirt – When my guide turned up in trousers and a long-sleeved shirt in the blazing sunshine I thought “what is she wearing?” A few hours later and I was the one being bitten by bugs and she was happily drinking green tea. To further get rid of the bugs, cover yourself up!
- Bring waterproofs – If you’re hiking during the summer (also known as typhoon season) then bring waterproofs with you. Even if it’s bright blue skies the weather can change in an instant and you’ll be sorry if you don’t have any way to keep dry, especially for your camera.
- Bring money with you – With lots of tea houses on the route and places where you can buy souvenirs, make sure you bring enough money with you. I often found buying a coffee was a huge highlight of my day.
- Take off your shoes – If you’re entering someone’s house, always remember to take off your shoes. This is very important in Japanese culture and if you don’t it’ll cause offence to your host.
- Get naked – If you’re relaxing at an onsen after a long day’s hike, make sure you go in naked. Don’t worry, this is a part of Japanese culture and you’ll soon lose that self-consciousness once you get into the water. It really is the ultimate way to unwind.
Photos of the Kumano Kodo
This trip was in association with the Japanese National Tourist Office (JNTO), and with Explore Shizuoka, Hot Ishikawa and Visit Wakayama showcasing some of the different peninsulas in Japan. As always, all views and opinions are my own.
Are you doing the Kumano Kodo trek? If you have any questions at all about the trek at all then just let me know in the comments below!
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Wednesday 13th of November 2019
Hey Macca! This piece was very helpful. What’s the best way to book ahead? It’s kind of confusing because I don’t know where I’ll stop or end up?
Sunday 8th of March 2020
It depends on what you mean by book ahead. For accommodation I'd use booking.com (that's my preferred booking site), and for everything else I'd do it a few days beforehand.
Sunday 15th of September 2019
We’re planning on running the Imperial Route...I see that there are guided runs, but want to be sure it would be culturally appropriate to run the trails. Your thoughts?
Saturday 28th of September 2019
It's a really good question Kyle and thanks for asking it. You'll be absolutely fine running the trails. As long as you're respect of other hikers when passing by it won't be a problem at all. Maybe pack a spare pair of socks and shoes for the temples though!
Sunday 25th of August 2019
Hey Macca, I only have 3 days to do some of the trek. I was wondering if it was possible to start the hike at Hosshinmon-oji and finish at Nachi Taisha? Or is it recommended to start the hike at Takijiri and finish at Hongu Taisha?
Saturday 28th of September 2019
You can do the first one! I really recommend finishing at Nachi Taisha as it's such a spectacular spot. Hopefully you can find a route that works for you though!
Tuesday 9th of July 2019
Hi Macca, What is the proximate cost of the 5 days trek? Thank you
Monday 19th of August 2019
what is cost?
Thursday 11th of July 2019
It all depends on where you stay, but if you're in simple accommodation I would say it costs approximately around $200 for a self-guided 5-day trip. It can be done cheaper for sure - it all depends on your style of travel!
Wednesday 22nd of May 2019
I'm excited to hike this. I'm wondering if anyone has any thoughts on doing the Nakahechi and then turning North to the Kohechi after all the cultural stops are done?
Monday 10th of June 2019
I think it's a great idea Vita! Then you get to see more of the region - Wakayama is one of my favourite places in Japan!