Visiting Japan has always been a dream of mine from a childhood filled with watching Japanese anime and reading manga; I would picture myself soaking in a onsen drinking sake with a tiny towel on my head. Side note, the Japanese love their small towels – every souvenir shop I’ve been to sells towels emblazoned with what the area is famous for.
When I came across a CNN article online that wrote about the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage in Japan’s Kii Mountain Range, accompanied by an inspiring photo of Kumano Nachi Taisha with the waterfall in the background, I knew I had to do it. Like John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
Not many people outside of Japan know about Kumano Kodo, it showed in my research when I was trying to figure out how I was going to do this pilgrimage. So if you’ve been thinking about visiting Japan, love hiking, nature, history, sacred temples, and something to invigorate your spirit – look no further!
This post describes my experience hiking the Nakahechi route. Kumano Kodo is comprised of a network of trails that lead to Kumano Sanzan which is the three grand shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. Over the years as Japan has developed, very little of the original trails are left – the Nakahechi and Kohechi route I believe are the closest to the original with the least amount of development and the most trail. Other routes such as Ohechi and Iseji have been mostly developed over, with only small sections of the trails remaining – this I learned the hard way when I had grand plans of walking Iseji on foot but ended up taking the train, which is going to be in another post!
Most people opt to do the Nakahechi route, in parts or all of it. I chose to do my pilgrimage in early March; the reason being that the Kii Mountain range receives the most amount of rainfall in all of Japan and the winter and spring have the least amount of rain while the summer gets the most on top of being really hot and humid. Since Winter may be too cold, Spring seemed like a good compromise. While I did try to strategize with the weather, that didn’t stop heavy rain from pouring down on the first day of my journey.
My master plan was to walk Nakahechi from Takijiri to Kumano Hongu Taisha, then downwards to Kumano Nachi Taisha and upwards to Kumano Hayatama Taisha which would then connect to the Iseji route and finish at Ise Jingu shrine. As I mentioned, my Iseji plan didn’t quite work out which I’ll detail in another post, but Nakahechi was smooth as freshly churned butter in comparison so we’ll start there!
I spent most of the first day traveling on train from Nagoya where I was staying with a friend, to Osaka and then to Kii-Tanabe station. The Nakahechi route begins in Takijiri, and to get there you first need to get to Kii-Tanabe station by train then take the bus from Kii-Tanabe to Takijiri. There is a tourist office right next to Kii-Tanabe JR station, and here you can get a handy Kumano Kodo route map in English detailing the entire Nakahechi route from Takijiri to Kumano Hongu Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
*Note: There’s no details for getting to Kumano Hayatama Taisha because the trail doesn’t exist anymore, you can still walk but it would be along roads that follow the JR (Japan Rail) railway track and there’s no signage to guide you.
The Ryujin bus to Takijiri only runs during certain times, you would want to know the timetable so you can catch the bus you want. In fact, since most of the pilgrimage takes place through trails and very small towns, busses and trains don’t run frequently – expect to wait or know the schedule if you plan on doing a combination of hiking and taking the bus/train. At the tourist office you can buy Ryujin bus tickets using the vending machine and all the available stops are written in English. Tickets are one way and need to be used the day they are purchased. Money goes in first then you can choose your ticket choice; I struggled with this at train stations wondering why I couldn’t choose a ticket until I realized you put your money in first, then you can choose your ticket choice and the machine dispenses change if any.
*Tip: If you don’t have time to hike the whole Nakahechi route, you can take the Ryujin bus from Kii-Tanabe all the way to Kumano Hongu Taisha and make some stops along the way such as the famous Yunomine onsen (hot spring) nearby!
While waiting for the bus, I went to a konbini (Japanese convenience store) to buy my food and water for tonight and the next day. My whole pilgrimage was mostly fuelled by cheap but filling and tasty konbini food. You can buy onigiri which is a rice ball for 130Y or less ($1.50 CAD) that can be plain or with a filling inside. I believe I ate almost 40 onigiris over my 8 day trip! You can also buy meal sets, salads, all sorts of deliciousness! I wish the convenience stores we have in North America would be similar and not just a stop for awful coffee and junk food snacks. The route goes through small towns that have a konbini or small grocery shop, so it’s easy to find food and get water.
It costs ¥960 ($11 CAD) one way from Kii-Tanabe to Takijiri and it’s about a 45 minute bus ride to the trailhead. Next to Takijiri-oji is the Kumano Kodo Kan Pilgrimage Center. Here you can pick up any maps or last minute items you might need – there is a small outdoor shop and you can also buy a stamp book for ¥100 ($1 CAD).
I didn’t have any accommodation booked because I planned on camping along the trail to save money and give me flexibility with my time. Technically I’ve read that wild camping for free isn’t allowed in Japan, but just don’t go off trail damaging vegetation, set up in the evening when nobody is using the trail, leave early morning and there won’t be any issues.
If the weather turns and camping out in the pouring rain and howling wind doesn’t sound enjoyable, there are plenty of comfortable accommodation options to stay along the route called minshukus which are small Japanese inns. Most of them speak limited English however, so the easiest thing to do would be the ask the tourist office to help you book in advance and give them your price range (the average price ranges from ¥5000 ($59 CAD) no meals to ¥10000 ($117 CAD) with meals). You can also book a self-guided tour with accommodation in advance through Tanabe’s Tourism website reservation system.
*Tip: Buy a cheap poncho. In a downpour, it’s guaranteed to keep you dry and while it’s not breathable it’s easier to dry sweat out than it is a dry a completely soaked through jacket and baselayer. Also make sure you have good waterproof hiking shoes.
Oji are small subsidiary shrines of the Kumano deity, guiding and protecting pilgrims on their journey. The Nakahechi route is known for its many Oji shrines that mark the way. The start of the trail is marked through Takijiri-oji, where “the passage into the precincts of the sacred mountains begins”. And to really welcome you to your pilgrimage, the journey starts with a nice uphill in the first 9km, almost 600m gain in elevation to the highest point. Because it was also raining heavily, it was like I was hiking up a stream but my trusty Asolo boots kept my feet bone dry.
*Note: At each Oji there are stamps and I read that if you collect enough you can get a small token at Kumano Hongu Taisha.
How quickly you hike through will depend on your level of fitness, how much you’re carrying in your pack and how often you want to stop and soak in the views. Since I was solo and camping along the way I had to carry all my gear. I brought the minimal amount of gear I needed which meant sacrificing my larger Sony A6000 mirrorless camera and tripod, and only bringing my Sony RX100 digital camera and iphone to take photos. I was really happy with this decision once I was on the trail, since my pack already weighed almost 13kg with my tent, sleeping bag and mat, stove and fuel, water and food, clothes and first aid kit. It was a difficult choice to make not bringing my A6000, I love taking photos and this was going to be one of those once in a lifetime journeys, but I can’t eat my camera if things go wrong and looking at how the RX100 photos turned out I’m overall happy with the result! The photos from my iphone aren’t too bad either – goes to show that the best camera is really the one you have on you. Unless you want really large prints, you don’t need a fancy bazillion pixel camera.
I had started my journey late – it was 4pm by the time I got to Takijiri so I only had about 2 hours of daylight left to hike. I hiked about 6km in and found a spot to pitch my tent for the night. There are spots along the trail that are relatively flat and usually the best spots to pitch a tent are close to the rest stations and toilets. If you’re thinking about camping along the trail, remember to choose your spot wisely, don’t damage any vegetation and pack out what you pack in, don’t leave any trace that you were there. Also no open fires, use a camping stove.
Camping in BC I always need to worry about where to store my food because of bears and other wildlife, you don’t need to worry about that along the Kumano Kodo. I believe there’s deer around but I didn’t see any throughout my trip and I kept my food in a dry bag in my tent without any issues. If you want to play it safe, you can store your food and garbage in a food grade seal bag to keep the scent in and then put it in a dry bag.
It’s really easy to follow the Nakahechi route thanks to the abundance of signage and marker points that mark every 500m along the trail. There are 75 numbered markers that line the route from Takijiri to Kumano Hongu Taisha – and the Kumano kodo route map lists out all the markers along the trail so that you roughly know where you are and the distance to the next Oji, rest stop or town. There are also “Not Kumano Kodo” signs up to make sure you don’t go off route.
Choosing to camp along the route it’s made easier by knowing that there’s some nice toilets at the rest stops along the way. Being Japan, I’ve used some of the cleanest and nicest toilets on a trail I’ve ever used and all of them are well stocked with toilet paper. So spoiled. There’s usually also flowing water from a water hose, but of course it’s nicely hidden within a bamboo pole that you can use to wash up with. There’s no soap though so make sure to bring your own soap with you – use natural biodegradable soap.
Day 2 on the trail was cloudy with some wind chill but thankfully no rain. I started my hike at 9.30AM and reached a michi-no-eki after marker 23 by noon after 6km. Michi-no-eki are roadside rest stops with toilets and stores, they vary in size depending on their location – some are like small complexes with restaurants and convenience stores, others like this one here only contain one small shop.
Japan has thousands of michi-no-eki scattered throughout the country, which I think shows strong road trip spirit! I’ve read that it’s possible if you’re on a budget to just rent a car and drive through rural Japan, staying overnight at michi-no-eki where it’s free to park and you can buy food. There’s also free wifi at most michi-no-eki, tourist information centres and major JR train stations, though I find the connection can be spotty and hit and miss if you can even connect at all. I wouldn’t rely on having internet through these places, but it’s a nice surprise when it does work! I bought some lunch here, discovered a love of meiji black chocolate which has since become a staple part of my Japanese diet, and of course a souvenir towel! If you’re looking for souvenirs to buy, this little shop actually has a few postcards, trinkets and is cheap!
After lunch I continued on and passed through the town of Chikatsuyu where most people choose to stay the night after hiking from Takijiri. It’s about 15km from the start, and a nice place to stop and rest after the initial uphill hike in the first 6km. But since it was early afternoon and I had plenty of daylight left, I chose to continue. There is the A-Coop grocery store close by the trail (about 15 mins walk), where I again stocked up on food and water. The area also has some restaurants and a toilet.
From Chikatsuyu, it’s a 25km hike to Kumano Hongu Taisha which can be done in one long day if you start early with few breaks. Since I was moving on from Chikatsuyu at mid-day I knew I would have to camp somewhere along the trail again. This next section of the trail is the most isolated travelling through old forestry road and a short mountain pass – the next bus stop is 10km away after you pass marker 41 closest to Kobiro-toge bus stop. This section also has a detour route that is well marked but doesn’t have the usual number markers so you can’t tell how far along you are until you connect back to the trail at marker 50. There is also no cell reception along most of this part of the trail.
I managed to hike about 17km in 7.5hrs on this day, and I was relieved to be able to finish going through the mountain pass which was along a narrow trail and set up camp on a clear forestry road close to the portable toilets. The mountain pass once you get on the detour route is short, only about 100m in elevation gain over 1.2km so it can be done in about 30mins. After that, you’re back on the forestry road that goes mostly downhill until the end of the detour route.
One of the best parts of camping aside from the views and peace you get in the wilderness? Snuggling up in your sleeping bag, eating a tasty well earned dinner while boiling water on the stove to make a hot cup of tea. mmm…
I woke up at 6.30am to the sound of light drizzle on my tent fly. The hardest part is always getting the engine started – peeling off the warm cozy cocoon of your sleeping bag, putting on cold clothes, and to start packing up while shoving some more onigiri down for a quick power breakfast. It took me about 4.5hrs to hike the remaining 14km to reach Kumano Hongu Taisha by noon. This part of the trail was much quicker to hike as most of it was going downhill. Over the hours the clouds started to clear and with some sun making an appearance! With the slight spring chill in the air, and not having seen the sun yet on my trip, this was an exciting weather development.
One of my favourite things about doing the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage was also learning about what existed during the ancient times when the pilgrims would make their way from the ancient capital of Kyoto or from other parts of Japan towards the grand shrines. Along the route there are signboards with historical tidbits describing how a former teahouse was built there, or quotes from pilgrim diaries about the area. The entire route is filled with history, and you can’t help but feel lucky you get to travel along the same path that pilgrims did a thousand years ago. Though it would have been nice to still have all the teahouses along the route so I can snack all I want along the way!
8.5km before reaching Kumano Hongu Taisha, at marker 59 is Funatama-jinja where you can then take the Akagi-goe trail to Yunomine Onsen. The trail is 6km long and takes 2hrs, most people chose to spend the night at Yunomine Onsen resting tired muscles in its healing bath waters. Yunomine Onsen is one of the oldest in Japan, and was used for purification rituals in ancient times; it’s a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. I chose to go to Kumano Hongu Taisha directly and skip Yunomine Onsen to continue hiking towards Kumano Nachi Taisha. If you’re on a more relaxed schedule and want to include an onsen experience in your Kumano Kodo journey this is probably a good choice!
I can feel my excitement build over reaching the first grand shrine, and the viewpoint of the Torii shrine gate (the largest in the world) only 1km before reaching the shrine added more zest in my steps towards reaching Kumano Hongu Taisha.
As this post is quite long, it will be broken into 2 parts! The next post will show the rest of my Nakahechi journey with my first visit to Kumano Hongu Taisha, continuing my pilgrimage to Kumano Nachi Taisha, and finishing the Nakahechi route at Kumano Hayatama Taisha.
- Bring good rain gear – this region is wet and when it rains it pours. Rain pants, jacket and a cheap waterproof poncho as backup. Wear good waterproof, sturdy boots.
- Check the weather in Wakayama in advance, be prepared. Bring enough clothes to be warm, the weather in the mountains is unpredictable.
- Travelling solo or in a group be sure that you leave your itinerary with someone and check in when you can. There is cell phone coverage on most of the trail but there are some deadspots so be prepared.
- Tourist information centres are usually located next to train stations. They can help you find cheap accommodations and help with bookings. You can also get maps and other useful content.
- You can buy water and food along the way at small grocery shops and convenience stores since the route travels through several small towns.