Are you thinking of doing the Kumano Kodo trek in Wakayama, Japan? 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!
I’m going to say this right away, the Kumano Kodo trek in Wakayama is one of the best I’ve ever done.
Gorgeous rolling mountains, mist rising in the morning, tea houses along the route, traditional temples to stop off at – the Kumano Kodo trek has all of this and more. Also, where else can you walk in the footprints 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 the Kumano Kodo. In the hiking world, this is one of *the most popular hikes you can do* and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It really was a highlight of my trip.
I’m always drawn to the mountains and 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 myself, I can see why this is so high up on people’s bucket list. I 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?
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, and if you complete the Kumano Kodo and the Camino de Santaigo 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 Kodo is the holiest and most sacred pilgrimage in Japan, one which was once 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.
The history of the Kumano Kodo
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of the Kumano Kodo 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, and 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 – something that hasn’t changed for the centuries since.
One of the things I loved about the Kumao 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!
Kumano Kodo 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 you want to hike.
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.
Nakahechi Route map
The three main shrines of the Kumano Sanzan
This shrine is nestled in the forests of the Kumano Kodo 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.
If I had to pick a favourite temple in Japan it would be Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple. The photos say it all, but this is a bright orange temple overlooking Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan standing at 133m.
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 Kodo and Wakayama 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
- Kishuji Minabe
- Iruka Onsen Hotel Seiryuusou
- Kumano Kodo Nagano Guesthouse
- Shiraraso Grand Hotel
Do you need a guide for the Kumano Kodo?
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.
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 visitors center.
Don’t forget to stamp your Kumano Kodo passport!
If you head to the visitors center before you start the Kumano Kodo trail 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 enouraged 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 trek
- 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 about the hike the Kumano Kodo? If you have any questions at all about the hike then just let me know in the comments below!
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