For those of you who wish to experience spiritual Japan, Kumano Kodo(literally translated as The Old Kumano Road), is a road worth taking. It is a pilgrimage that is over a thousand years old, and countless men and women, known to history or not, have walked its paths in pursuit of their goal. The route is focused on reaching the sacred “Sanzan”, the three Kumano Grand Shrines, Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha. These shrines are among the oldest in Japan, and are said to be the places where the gods of Kumano, or kami as they are known in Japan, first descended to earth.
Kumano Kodo is located in Wakayama prefecture, most of its roads bridging the Kii Peninsula. There are four main routes you can take whilst on this pilgrimage. One of the most popular, and the route we took, is the Nakahechi Route, or the Imperial Route.
Trekking the entire stretch of this route would have taken weeks, and we only had a few days, so after arriving at Osaka KIX we took several trains down to Kii-Katsura Station and then a bus to the base of Daimon-Zaka. We chose to do a small triangle, hiking from Daimon-zaka to Koguchi, then from Koguchi to Hongu Taisha for the first two days. The final day would see us finish at Hayatama Taisha
Day one: Daimon-zaka- Nachi Taisha- Koguchi (c. 16km, 8 hours)
Daimon-Zaka, the Daimon Gate slope, is also referred to as “the beautiful path”, and is a UNESCO world heritage site (the first of many along this route!). The start of the path is framed by two great cedar trees, referred to as the husband and wife couple. If you’re lucky you might even get to see couples in Heian period dress walking up the slope. (These can be rented to really complete the experience of walking the route as a Heian noble).Unfortunately we left much too early in the day to see this though!
From here it’s a 1km walk up the hill to Nachi Taisha (as pictured at the top of this post). Nachi Taisha certainly has one of the most striking views in Japan; it overlooks a small buddhist temple and Nachi Falls, which at 133m, is the tallest single drop waterfall in Japan. This picture postcard view features heavily in Wakayama prefecture’s advertising- and why wouldn’t it?
Nachi Taisha is the first of the sacred triad of shrines in Wakayama which we visited. All three of these shrines have the yatagarasu as their sigil; the three-legged crow which according to legend, led Japan’s first Emperor, the mythical Jimmu to Kumano, from which he founded Yamato, (old Japan). Incidentally, Japan’s National football team also use the three-legged crow on their crest. They also made offerings in the formed of a signed football strip to the shrine.
From Nachi we started our course in earnest.
I’m not going to lie. From here it was an uphill struggle (figuratively and literally!) I had done very little preparation prior to this (which I don’t advise!) and we were also hiking during the height of Japanese summer (again- not recommended!). The rucksacks were heavy, the road was slippery and uneven, and the bugs were persistent. Although the road was in better condition in some places than others, for the most part it looked like this:
Very beautiful, but very tiring! Yet, in spite of all that, we couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by all the nature on display. There is a word in Japanese: shinrinryoku, or “forest-bathing”. This eloquently sums up my experience of the Kumano Road, bathing under the leaves of the magnificent mountain forests. Shinrinryoku. (This is my new favourite word).
And amongst all this beauty and wildness you are reminded of the pilgrims that took the path before. There are ruins of old teahouses along the route (which would have been greatly appreciated if they still stood into the modern age!), there are small stacked stone offerings to Jizo the guardian of travellers, left along the trail, as well as the occasional sacred tree or boulder.
Wakayama prefecture has the reputation of being one of the wettest prefectures in Japan (so don’t forget your wet weather gear). We were fortunate enough not to have any rain during our trek- and we struggled enough without it! Imagine walking hundreds of years ago, in your geta (traditional wooden sandals), no bug repellent, likely no umbrella… it must have been tough indeed.
We reached our first stop over at Koguchi just after 5pm. Fitter hikers who don’t intend to spend so much time at Nachi Taisha should arrive a few hours earlier than that. We had left over 9 hours before and despite the trail only being around 16km, it had been quite the challenge, but our sense of achievement was profound. That night we stayed at the wonderful Koguchi Shizen no Ie, and after a good soak in the bath, good food, and an even better bottle of sake (try the Kumanogawa!), we retired to bed to rest up for the next day.
Day 2: Koguchi to Hongu Taisha (13km)
The next day we completed the last leg of our trip in less than 5 hours. The path was a little kinder to us this time, and more well trod. Our spirits were up, and the previous day’s hike had given our muscles an intense warm up.
My favourite spots on the walk to Hongu Taisha included the Hyakken-gura look out point. You could see the many mountain peaks of Kumano spread out before you.
The other was the small glade where the ruins of the Matsuhata teahouse, once stood. The atmosphere here was so tranquil, it would have been lovely to see the teahouse as it once was.
The end of the path finishes at Ukegawa, and from there it is a 3 minute walk to the bus stop and then a 10-15 minute ride to Hongu Taisha-Mae. These buses run fairly regularly during the daytime but stop running around 7pm (see the bottom of this post of a timetable). During the journey we passed by a lot of onsen resorts, which are a popular choice for tourists. One of the most famous onsen resorts in the area is Yunomine Onsen, one of the oldest onsens in Japan, which was used by pilgrims to purify themselves before heading to Hongu Taisha.
Most onsen resorts are very pricey to stay at, but if you want to experience a natural onsen for free then you can take a bus down to Kawayu Onsen. Here there is a gravel beach by the river where you can dig a hole into the shore and hot water will bubble up. I’m told it is very hot though so take care!!
The Koguchi to Hongu Route is my recommendation for those of you who want to experience Kumano Kodo but don’t want an intense hike. You can catch a bus from Hongu to Koguchi and walk back to Hongu along Kumano Kodo, which takes about 4-5 hours. We saw a few families along this route as well as hikers.
Day 3: Hongu Taisha to Hayatama Taisha
After paying respects at Hongu Taisha we embarked on the final leg of our trip and the last point in the sacred triad of shrines, Hayatama Taisha. This time we packed off our muddy boots and chose to travel as much more affluent pilgrims: by boat, down the Kumano River. The journey to Hayatama takes 90 minutes from Hitari (with aid of a small engine), and you are treated to epic scenery as you travel down the river. This tour was definitely worth it, the guides are very passionate, and try to recreate as authentic an experience as possible. If you go during the summer months, the water is spectacularly clear.
To take the boat tour simply catch a bus from Hongu Taisha-Mae to Hitari, where members of the tour group will be waiting to meet you. We recommend booking in advance if possible, as tours are limited to ten people per boat and only take place a few times a day.
We reached Hayatama Taisha in the early afternoon, thereby finishing our brief pilgrimage to the sacred three. For me, Kumano Kodo will have always have a special meaning. It represents something I never thought I could do. The hardships I experienced, lugging a heavy backpack up and down mountains, sweating in the heat and humidity, and being chased by giant wasps, (which I’m sure compares nothing to what those pilgrims experienced- after all, they travelled a LOT farther than I did), are already a fond memory.
For me it’s the beginning. I want to get out there and walk more, experience more nature (and get a bit fitter!). I think we miss out so much in this day and age, we are so swamped by information, many of us unable to keep off of our phones and away from technology. I think taking a time away from it now and then, slowing the pace of life down, has done wonders for me. One day I hope to return and complete a different part of the trail.
It is said of Kumano Kodo, that it is not the ultimate goal that is of importance, it is the journey you take, both physically and spiritually, which matters.
Thanks for reading!
If you are interested in hiking part of Kumano Kodo yourself the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau offer a lot of comprehensive information on their english website.
Koguchi Guest House Koguchi Shizen no Ie
Here is the booking page for the guesthouse we stayed at in Koguchi (which as I said before- HIGHLY recommended!!) Note: there are only 2 guesthouses in Koguchi so booking in advance is essential.
Kumanogawa River Boat Tour (3,900 yen per person).
Bus timetable for Shungu region (Ukegawa to Hongu Taisha-Mae)