Weaving across the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka, the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail is essentially a vast network of hiking courses that take worshippers through three grand shrines in the area, Kumano Sanzan. Kumano Sanzan is an umbrella term given to three immensely revered holy grounds on the peninsula; Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha. Resting amid densely populated forests, deep valleys, and towering mountains, the three abodes of nature Kamis (gods), draw large crowds of believers and trekkers for a life-changing experience.
The Kii Peninsula has been associated with nature worships for over a thousand years, attracting followers from all over Japan. In the early days, getting to the mountaintops housing deities was trickier than it is now as there weren't many tracks leading to the scared destinations. In the present, however, the journey to the shrines in the Kii peninsula is much easier, especially if rambling towards the three grand shrines.
The stretch of land supporting the Kumano Sanzan lies at the center of four modern-day Japanese Prefectures, Osaka, Nara, Wakayama, and Mie, connecting these western regions. Because of Kii Peninsula's geographical location, there are multiple ways of getting to the Kumano shrines. Travelers can arrive at the Kumano Sanzan from any of the four neighboring prefectures. This means there is no one set-in-stone way of completing the holy walk to the grand shrines; every wanderer can decide which trail they wish to take to perform the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage. Some pathways leading to the Kumano Sanzan are more popular and commonly explored than others, such as the Nakahechi trail.
If you want to explore the rich religious history and exceptional natural beauty in the Kumano region on the headland, you should plan a trip to the west of Japan and venture out on the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage trail. Here is a detailed guide to help you understand what the thrilling journey will have in store for you.
As noted above, the Kumano Kodo trail is a web of hiking routes connecting the three grand shrines in the sacred Kumano region. Treading along the winding course to pay homage to the nature deities resting in the Kumano Sanzan is an ancient practice performed by the elites and civilians the same.
However, initially (up until the 14th century), the sacred trails were primarily taken by high-profile dignitaries, monks, samurais, and emperors. It was in the 15th century that the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage trail became one of the most popular religious practices in Japan, drawing pilgrims from all across the country.
Although there is no fixed starting or ending point on the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail, most pilgrims start their journey from any of the big cities, like Osaka, Kyoto, or Nagoya. Travelers use the Kisei Mainline to board a train or bus to reach the Kumano region.
Let's go over all the trails to make the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage.
The Nakahechi was the most favored of all the routes leading to the Kumano Sanzan during the 10th century and onwards. Members of the noble families would embark on this trail to pay their respects to the tremendously venerated Kumano gods. And that is why the Nakahechi course is called 'the Imperial Route.'
Despite being a frequently chosen route, the Nakahechi trail has maintained its original state over the years. Only a handful of infrastructural advancements reached the Imperial Route, which is why it is exceptionally well-preserved and takes the modern-day traveler back in time.
People who take the Nakahechi Trail get to experience the native culture firsthand and witness the riveting religious history of the Kumano region while being enveloped in breathtaking nature.
If you wish to walk the purist path, here's how you can do it.
Begin your journey from any of the big cities, such as Kyoto; hop on a train on Kisei Mainline to get to Tanabe, which is the official entrance to the Kumano region. The train ride will bring you to Kii-Tanabe Station. Once at the station, you will board a bus to the Shinto shrine in Takijiri-Oji, the trailhead that marks the start of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage through the Nakahechi Trail.
For an authentic experience, wash yourself at the healing river near the Takijiri-Oji Shinto Shrine to prepare for the journey ahead. The monks in the early days believed that bathing oneself in the purifying river is a great way to begin a spiritually enlightening trip. Therefore, devout believers follow their spiritual leaders and perform the cleansing rituals near the Takijiri Shinto Shrine.
After you have looked around Takijiri, you will move towards the next town, Takahara. A 4-km uphill hike from Takijiri leads to the succeeding village. Keep in mind that this stretch of the trail is quite steep and runs across dense forests dotted with massive rocks.
Takahara, also called the Village of Mist, is a good resting option if you wish to take a breather and spend the night comfortably. There are many lodges in the area, most of which are run by unbelievably welcoming hosts. So, if you decide to stay the night, you will get scrumptious food made with organic ingredients and a cozy room to sleep in.
Many people choose to forgo the peaceful sleep in the Town of Mist and charge on towards the next town; Chikatsuyu. A quiet small village with many family-run inns, Chikatsuyu is another suitable option for spending the night. The travelers who do not bed down in Takahara do so in Chikatsuyu.
The lodges in this peaceful town offer homey environments to people looking for a place to crash and recharge. If you stay the night in Chikatsuyu, you will enjoy a simple yet delicious meal-monk-style cuisine, and get some shuteye. The next day you can resume your walk or look around a bit and visit the popular tourist sites in the area, an ancient weeping cherry blossom tree, an ancient graveyard for warriors, a local experience center, and Chikatsuyu-Oji. Once you are satisfied with your adventures in Chikatsuyu, you can get back to the trail and head towards Nonaka (also called Tsugizakura-oji).
If you are not up for some more walking, you can skip the stretch leading to Nonaka and board a bus instead. Either way, follow the trail out of Chikatsuyu and continue on to reach Nonaka.
After reaching Nonaka, you can visit the town's shrine, Tsugizakura-Oji, which is surrounded by thick cedar trees all around. Continue moving forward from the shrine, following the hiking course out of the village. At first, the road will be flagged but soon it will turn earthen, entering a second-growth forest. Eventually, you'll come across three passes; Waraji-toge, the Detour Pass, and the Mikashi-toge pass. Cross them and soon you'll come across Hosshinmon-Oji, a shrine in the woods. It's a serene place, ideal for some soul-searching. From this point, walk down the hill to get to the bus station or the next village to reach Hongu Taisha- the first of the three shrines.
Many travelers are pretty exhausted by this point and choose to board a bus to get to Hongu Taisha. However, if you power through and hike for the remaining way to the first sacred house, you will enjoy some absolutely magnificent views en-route, such as lush blooming farms and cascading rice terraces against a gorgeous mountainous backdrop.
The entrance to Hongu is marked by Japan's largest torii, shrine gate, which towers over the area. It is a tourist hotspot for photo-shoots.
Once you reach Hongu Taisha, take your shoes off at the entrance and walk inside the truly magical place to feel the serenity that lies within its walls. The wooden corridors lined with majestic paintings are worth exploring. Pay your respects at the consecrated destination then exit the place using the main steps down the road. Keep on walking until you reach the town center, where you can board a bus back to Kii-Tanabe or explore the nearby natural sights.
The Nakahechi Trail
The Ohechi Trail is a lesser-known course of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage trails. Like the Nakahechi Trail, the Ohechi track also begins at the town of Tanabe and winds up at Nachi Taisha along the coast. The full route takes about 3 or 4 days depending on how often you stop. The start of the route is pretty well paved, making it more straightforward, but also less traveled because of how it’s changed since the Edo period. But later days on the road you’ll find yourself wandering rugged paths past forests and gorgeous coastline, which more than make up for route’s more civilized beginnings. You’ll find yourself winding through three mountain passes – Tonda-zaka, Hotoke-zaka, and Nagai-zaka, which feature delightful mountain and seaside views as you gain or lose elevation. Keep watch for the little shrines that dot the coastline, as well as a tall Buddha statue looking out over the sea.
Nachi Taisha is one of the three grand Shinto shrines that rest on the Kii-Peninsula. It is a vermillion building next to the mountain supporting the tallest waterfall in the Land of the Rising Sun, Naki-no-Taki. The quaint traditional holy site reveres the 133m high, one-tiered waterfall as the deity.
Nachi Taisha is perhaps the most aesthetically exquisite of the three holy sites, thanks to Naki-no-Taki and the surrounding lush greenery. Travelers love to spend a while here and capture the splendid views on their cameras.
Another attractive feature of this sacred location is its proximity to the coastal resort of Katsuura. Travelers who want to rest a bit and reenergize themselves can stay at the onsen resort.
The Ohechi Trail
The Iseji trail begins in the Mie Prefecture and runs all the way to Hongu Taisha. Like Ohechi, the Iseji trail has also been transformed into a much more modern, flagged road. However, you can still catch a glimpse of the course's history.
Connecting the most popular shrine in Japan, the Ise-Oji, to the Kumano region, the Iseji trail still holds some original elements along the stretch, such as the Magose Pass and Matsumoto Pass. It's only through these sections of the track that you can see its indigenous state.
The Iseji Trail
The Kohechi trail is arguably the most challenging of all the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage courses. It can take 4 or 5 days, and It runs between Koyasan (one of the chief temples for Shugendo mountain worship) and the Kumano region. People who mount the Kohechi route end up at Hongu Taisha, but after trekking along a twisting path.
The Kohechi hike is best suited for seasoned hikers as the trail doesn't have very many inns along the way and takes rather sharp turns. Therefore, only those travelers should take on the Kohechi course who can sustain for long durations without staying at any rest houses on the way.
The Kohechi Trail
The last of all the existing Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails, Omine Ogutake, begins in Nara Prefecture and runs from Yoshino to Hongu Taisha. It is also a dangerous route as it doesn't go through any villages and consists of steep elevations and descents. So if you decide to embark on the rugged Omine Ogutake trail, you will have to hike for hours without resting and sustain yourself on the refreshments you pack for the journey.
Getting to Hayatama Taisha, the last of the three grand shrines, you could hike either the Nakahechi or Ohechi Trails, but it doesn't have to entail intensely risky hikes. To get to this sacred spot on the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage, get on the Kisei Mainline and get off at JR Shingo Station. From there, walk for 15 minutes and you'll be at Hayatama Taisha.
This Shinto shrine is believed to be on sacred ground due to a Shinto creation myth that tells of how three kamis (deities) came to earth, landing on a particular rock on the shrine ground. The rock has been venerated ever since, as well as a nearby ancient conifer tree over eight centuries old. The consecrated main building of the shrine was last renovated in 1951 and was painted a bright vermillion color that remains in all its glory to this day.
Hayatama Taisha Shrine
Making the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage is unquestionably a heartening experience for anyone looking to break away from the hustle of daily life. If you want to recharge your body and mind while discovering the religious history of Japan, you need to head towards the Kii-peninsula and walk the time-honored trails to the Kumano Sanzan! Once you experience the serenity along the Kumano Kodo Trails, you will want to keep going there again and again.