10 tips for hiking Kumano Kodo, Japan

I meant to post this sooner, so sorry for the delay!

Hiking is still a rather fresh part of my life. I’m not terribly experienced at it, and my idea of hiking in the UK is actually very different when applied to hiking in Japan, which is a very mountainous country. Following my trip to Kumano Kodo, an ancient pilgrimage route which connects some of the oldest temples in Japan, I thought I might share some of the things I learned for those who are less experienced in hiking in Japan.

  1. Bring trekking poles- or a stick.

The Kumano path, being as old as it is, is incredibly uneven in places and the steps are covered in moss and can get very slippery. We had no rain during our hike but I can only imagine how much more difficult it would have been had the path been wet. In some easy to reach places, the local trust has been able to restore part of the path, however this is a very small portion in comparison to the length of the path itself.

If you are just doing a day’s walk, and not carrying everything on your back, then on a few routes you can get by without a pole. However, many guesthouses will offer walking sticks for you to borrow for the day, and they do help a lot! Also you get to feel like Gandalf (YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!). What’s not to like?

  1. Wear long sleeves/ trousers

Japanese summers are horribly humid, and your clothes will be stuck to you within the first ten minutes after stepping out of the shower. Wanting to wear as little as possible is understandable, but for that same reason, if you plan on trekking during the hotter months then the insect repellent you use will be sweated off in a matter of minutes. There are a LOT of insects about and in Japan they tend towards the larger, more aggressive variety, than those found in Europe. Also, although it might repel the mosquitos, bug spray doesn’t work so well on the dreaded suzume-bachi (also known as the Sparrow Bee or the Japanese Giant Hornet).

Furthermore, if you’re wearing long sleeves you won’t have to worry about applying sun cream, which will either sweat off immediately, or smell very yummy to the local insect population.

  1. Don’t wear bright colours.

This may seem obvious to some more seasoned hikers, but it was very far from my mind when I treated myself to a new backpack before our trip. I love my backpack. It’s has tons of storage, is super comfortable and is the perfect size for me.

It’s also bright orange.

Needless to say, I did not have giants wasps on my mind when I purchased the bag. As it turned out, they loved the bag almost as much as I did, and I was escorted through far too many parts of the trail at a rather brisk pace by over-curious hornets.

If you already own a beautiful orange, or other similarly attractively coloured backpack then I would advise wearing it with the rain cover on whilst you hike.

  1. Zip lock your food and rubbish.

Again, another obvious tip for some of you but the bugs smell any strong smelling foods, and wasps LOVE banana skins. Wrap it up or deal with the consequences.

Note: although the route is called Kuma no Kodo (kuma means bear) there haven’t been any bears in the area for a long long time so you can get by without a bear bag- unless you plan on camping in the forest, in which case there are still other critters which might take an interest.

  1. Stay calm with Suzume-Bachi (Japanese Giant Hornet)

Whilst I was hiking, I was much too tired to get all worked up about the bugs, which is probably just as well. If a suzume-bachi takes an interest in you then stay as still as possible then move gently out of its way; picking up the pace as you move past it until it loses interest. A lot of the time they will come in pairs to scout you out, just keep calm and keep moving. The worst thing you can do is swat them away, it’s an easy way to get stung.

vespa_mandarinia_japonica1
Japanese Giant Hornet (picture sourced from Wikipedia)

Suzume-bachi have a very potent sting and it doesn’t take much to aggravate them.  Also note that they tend to be more aggressive in the Autumn than at any other time. If you are stung by one you are advised to seek medical attention as soon as possible. One sting can be enough to give you a bee or wasp allergy for a lifetime and I am frequently told by Japanese friends that two stings can be deadly. In any case, every year these giant Japanese hornets are responsible for the deaths of 30 to 40 people in Japan every year, so its best to take every precaution.

  1. Call 119 in an Emergency.

If it is indeed your misfortune to get stung, or to twist an ankle on those slippery stairs, make sure that you’ve memorised this number.

The Kumano Kodo route is well sign-posted, and at regular intervals there are small numbered posts with emergency contact details for police and ambulance services. Take note of your nearest post number so that a rescue team can locate you quickly.

  1. Bring enough money.

But I’m going to be hiking through the mountains, living off protein bars and rice balls- surely that’s not so expensive? You’re right. That part isn’t so pricey. But Kumano Kodo is located in Wakayama Prefecture, and Wakayama is notoriously difficult to get around due to its mountains and out-dated train lines. The cheapest way to get around is by rental car, but then of course you have to forgo on the whole backpacking experience.

Trains and buses in, out, and around Wakayama are expensive and you are required to transfer a lot. Also trains run to a more local schedule so remember to factor in long waits at stations whilst you wait for your next ride.

Our train from Osaka KIX to Kii-Katsura (our starting point) cost around 6000 yen per person. Accommodation can also be quite expensive as there isn’t always an awful lot of it available. Another thing to bear in mind is that some of these out of the way places DON’T accept credit cards. Before you know it, you’ve burnt through your wallet. Bring some contingency cash- just in case!

  1. Avoid summer and Golden Week.

Peak hiking season in Japan is Autumn (Late September to November) and during May, especially in Golden Week (a cluster of national holidays in May). In Golden Week everyone is off work and generally everywhere is packed full of people. The Japanese love nature, and hiking routes will be very crowded. The weather is lovely in May, not too hot and not too rainy. If you happen to visit during this time just be prepared for a bit more traffic along the trail then one would usually find, and you would do well to book places to stay well in advance.

If you hike in the summer you’ll be hard pressed to find many Japanese- why? Because it’s far too hot and humid for hiking. Always listen to the locals. In our case we could only get a long holiday in August so we had no choice, but if you can you should aim for the cooler months. In Autumn the colour change in the leaves is really spectacular. But this can also be quite a busy time so aim for a normal working day rather than a weekend hike.

  1. DO go to the onsen or public bath at the end of each days hike.

This is not the time to feel shy about our bodies. Get over the fact that you have to shower and bathe with other naked strangers and get yourself into that bath (a shower won’t cut it). Your muscles will thank you for it. And don’t forget to stretch!

There are some onsen in the area with medicinal properties which might be more potent, however they can be expensive and sometimes require you to stay the night at their hotel in order to use the onsen. If you’re running low on cash and aren’t too fussy then a public bath will do just as well and only cost around 250 yen to use.

  1. Book hostels, guesthouses, hotels, in ADVANCE

This is especially if you stay somewhere like Koguchi (as we did). Koguchi is the small village on the route between Nachi Shrine and Hongu Shrine, a lot of people come through here, but there are only two guesthouses to stay at- Momofuku, or Koguchi Shizen no Ie. We stayed at Koguchi Shizen, which has been converted from a Junior high school, into a guesthouse. I highly recommend it. The food was delicious, the rooms were super comfortable and the staff were all extremely helpful. Also if you stay we recommend you try the Kumanogawa sake with your evening meal. It is by far one of the best we have ever had.

Also please be aware that in many towns along the Kumano Route, places will all shut up by six so it can be really hard to find food in the area (these are onsen towns so no one is usually around after this time)- the best thing to do is to stay at a minshuku which will provide dinner, breakfast and a bed. It’s more expensive but at least you’re guaranteed to be fed and watered- and they will often supply a bento for your next day’s trek.

If you are interested in staying at Koguchi Shuzen no Ie, you can get more information and book via this link http://www.kumano-travel.com/index/en/action_ContentsDetail_Detail/id133

Bonus Tip

Kumano Kodou is located in one of the wettest areas of Japan. One of our friends hiked during the summertime with no problem, as did we, but another experienced torrential downpours. Don’t forget your waterproofs!

I hope this was of some help. If you want any more information feel free to ask away in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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2 thoughts on “10 tips for hiking Kumano Kodo, Japan

    1. Hi Otto,
      Camping is not technically prohibited along the trail, but Japanese manners dictate that you request permission from whoever owns the land you want to camp on. Alternatively, there are a lot of campsites in and around where you can camp quite cheaply. The place we stayed at also offered ground for camping for 500 yen per night.

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