Travel

The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails

When you ask foreign tourists what they want to see in Kansai, it’s mostly Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Wakayama Prefecture is often ignored although there are many interesting spots you should check out!

I’m sure some of you have heard of Mount Koya, but did you know that it’s connected to the “Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails”? In 2004 these routes were registered as UNESCO World Heritage and they’re definitely something you don’t want to miss. Here’s why:

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails

The sacred Pilgrimage Trails of Kumano Kodo

Kodo (古道, koudou) means “old roads”. Kumano Kodo (熊野古道) refers to an ancient network of pilgrimage trails spread throughout the Kii Peninsula, the largest peninsula in Japan. The sacred routes can be found in several places of southern Kansai including Wakayama, Mie and Nara Prefectures.

They are the only pilgrimage trails in Japan that are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For more than 1000 years these routes have been and still are used by pilgrims. Besides praying and other religious rituals, purification plays a big role during the pilgrimage. Some of the trails go through mountainous terrain, thus they are not easy and sometimes even dangerous. However, overcoming hardships like that is part of the religious background of the pilgrimage.

The mountain trails are still intact nowadays, but most of the coastal routes have disappeared. The major pilgrim trails that people still can access are called “Kumano Sankeimichi” (熊野参詣道):

 

Nakahechi Trail:

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails Map
Map of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails
© Wakayama World Heritage Center

The most popular pilgrim route was and still is the Nakahechi (中辺路) one. Since the early 10th century many pilgrims from Kyoto used this route. It’s a comparably easy trail and you can enjoy some small isolated villages and beautiful forest landscapes on the way. It connects Tanabe in the west with the Kumano Grand Shrines in the east. From the start point “Takijiri-oji” in Tanabe to the end point Hongu Taisha it’s about 30-40km – a distance that can easily be managed in 2 days. In Chikatsuya Oji there are a few accommodations where you can stay overnight.

 

Kohechi Trail:

The sacred Mount Koya is connected to the Kumano Grand Shrines by the ~70km long Kohechi Trail (小辺路). It runs through the center of the Kii Peninsula from north to south. Compared to Nakahechi it’s not an easy route as it consists of steep slopes. If you try to take this trail, please prepare accordingly. There are almost no accommodations or villages on the way, so you shouldn’t go alone!

While the more popular Nakahechi trail was used by pilgrims from all social ranks departing from Kyoto, the Kohechi trail was mainly used by Mount Koya’s Buddhist monks.

 

Ohechi Trail:

The Ohechi Trail (大辺路) used to be the most scenic one as it was mainly running along the coastal area of the Kii Peninsula. A major part of the original route has disappeared as modern roads were built instead. It connects Tanabe with the Fudarakusanji Temple (補陀洛山寺) which is close to Nachi Taisha, one of the Kumano Grand Shrines.

 

Iseji Trail:

The Iseji Trail (伊勢路) leads from the famous Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture to the Kumano Grand Shrines in Wakayama. The route offers picturesque sights such as terraced rice paddies, bamboo forests and beaches along the coast of the Kii Peninsula. In order to prevent erosion the trails have mainly been covered by paved roads just like the Ohechi trail.

 

Omine Okugakemichi:

Maybe less important nowadays, but yet another major pilgrimage trail is the connection between the Kumano Grand Shrines and Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture. Omine Okugakemichi is a very difficult and dangerous route, so it’s only recommended for experienced hikers.

 

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails Maps:

If you’re interested in trying any of the introduced trails, I highly recommend that you prepare accordingly. Luckily there are a lot of good maps and websites that will help you do so. Here’s a really good pamphlet for starters, providing some general information in English.

You should also check out the following websites:

 

Kumano Grand Shrines (Kumano Sanzan)

The major destination of pilgrims using the Kumano Kodo are the three Grand Shrines of Kumano also known as Kumano Sanzan (熊野三山). They are connected to each other through the Nakahechi Pilgrimage Trail. The distance between the shrines is about 20-40km.

The shrines are all located in the Kumano region of Wakayama Prefecture (map) which shouldn’t be confused with Kumano City in Mie Prefecture. If you have a car, you can probably visit all three shrines in one day, but it’s safer to calculate 2 days so you can really enjoy the ancient atmosphere and walk along (a part of) the Kumano Kodo.

Actually more than 3000 Kumano shrines exist in Japan nowadays. However, all of these originated from the head shrines, the Kumano Sanzan. Each of those shrines has received their kami (god) from another shrine. Predating all modern religions in Japan, the religious cult originating from the three Kumano shrines has a very long history. While each shrine once worshiped its own distinctive form of nature, they were later worshiped together as the three deities of Kumano under the influence of the Shinto-Buddhism fusion.

More detailed blog posts about each of the three shrines will be published soon. Here’s a short introduction of the Kumano Sanzan:

 

Kumano Hayatama Taisha

Kumano Hayatama Taisha (熊野速玉大社) is located in Shingu City (Wakayama Prefecture) near the Kumanogawa River. Some of the shrine buildings have been rebuilt, but the location has not changed since at least the 12th century.

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails

Every year on February 6th a traditional fire festival called “Kumano Otomatsuri” is held.

 

Kumano Nachi Taisha

Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社) is located in the Higashimuro District of the Kii Peninsula (Wakayama Prefecture). It’s about 350m above sea level which is halfway up Mount Nachi.

The nearby waterfall, Nachi no Otaki (那智の大滝, lit.: the big waterfall of Nachi), has been worshiped since ancient times and is the religious origin of the shrine. In the past the shrine was located at the foot of the waterfall.

Annually on July 14th the fire festival “Nachi no Himatsuri” (那智の火祭り) is held to celebrate that the god is coming back to his original place, the waterfall.

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails

Nachi no Otaki: One of the best-known waterfalls (133m) in Japan is near the Nachi Taisha.

Besides the three Kumano Grand Shrines there are two temples, Seigantoji Temple and Fudarakusanji Temple. Located near Nachi Taisha the temples have been connected with the shrine since the Sinto-Buddhism fusion. Seigantoji and Nachi are even seen as one religious institution.

 

Kumano Hongu Taisha

Kumano Hongu Taisha (熊野本宮大社) was originally located next to the Kumanogawa River (Oyunohara). The area was hit by several typhoons and a flooding of the river in 1889 destroyed parts of the shrine buildings. The remains were moved to the present location. In September 2011 another strong typhoon hit the area.

The world’s largest shrine gate (33m) marks the location where the shrine was originally located.

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails

Luckily the main buildings of the shrine survived the flooding in 1889 as well as the typhoon in 2011.

 

Travel Tips for Kumano Kodo:

Do you feel like visiting now? Great! smilie

I understand that not everybody has the time to walk along all the pilgrimage trails. You can still get a feeling for how the pilgrims must have felt and experience it a little bit yourself.

I recommend visiting the Kumano Sanzan. You should have time to visit all three, but if you don’t, then my first choice would be Kumano Nachi Taisha. It’s by far the most interesting and scenic! It’s also the one that gives you the quickest and best “pilgrimage trail” experience. I highly recommend accessing the shrine via the “Daimonzaka Trail” which is part of Kumano Kodo.

32 Comments

  • Jasmine, your every post provides so much interesting info about Japan. Can’t wait to go there :)
    The top photo of the trail looks like a scene from fairyland.

    • Thank you! :D
      If it’s not crowded and you’re almost the only one walking there, it’s truly a magical atmosphere! Walking through the forest with all these tall trees is a great experience!

  • Definitely feel like visiting now! Thanks for all the great information. I’d love to spend a few days in Wakayama and walk some of these pilgrimage trails. That top photo is magnificent as well :)

    • Glad you think so! :D
      Wakayama, especially the Kii Peninsula, is so beautiful. You can relax in an onsen in Shirahama and then approach the Kumano Sanzan. Makes a great long weekend trip I’d say.

  • Thank you for the lovely post!
    I have always wondered where this beautiful temple with the waterfall was!

    Definitely want to visit there :heart:

  • Hi Jasmine, I didn’t realize you were a girl until I read a few of your articles. Forgive me for that, but mostly blogs about Japan that I follow are written by male foreigners hahaha..

    Anyway this is the kind of place I’d like to visit in Japan. I’ve been to Kansai once and honestly I like it more than Tokyo and around. This should go to my list for my next trip! ;P

    • Haha, for some reason a lot of people think I’m male. No idea why. I thought the cute emoticons and the cat cursor give my gender away. *g*

      I’m so happy to hear you think so! I also prefer Kansai a lot to Tokyo.
      After having traveled to all of Japan (well, at least all 47 prefectures) I decided I want to move to Kansai. Maybe you can understand why. There are so many beautiful things to discover! :D

  • Now that you mention about it, i should’ve thought you’re female. But then again, some Japanese guys that I know love cats and use a lot of cute emoticons. So anything can happen! It’s just that mostly those who are fascinated by Japan and decided to write blogs about it are guys hehe..

    I really envy you for having been to all prefectures in Japan. And yeah absolutely I can understand why. I fell in love with Kansai in general and 関西弁 in particular. すごくおもろいよね。

  • Lol I sub-consciously thought you were male. To be fair the first blog I read was the medical one. So two minutes later when i hit the gynecologist bit I figured it out ^^

  • Hi,

    I just had to write when I read that I´m not the only one who thought that you were a man :D And I don´t know also why I thought that :D

    I really like your posts and tips! This summer we are going to Japan with whole family for one month, me, my husband and three children. For me it´s a third time, for my husband second time and for our children first time to be in Japan. I have had some great ideas from your page. We aslo have Nachi no Taki and Kumano Nachi Taisha in our travelplans.

    Yesterday we made a 40 sec video about our travel excitement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjqFvDR3J7c
    Can´t wait to get there (66 days! to wait)!

    • Hi!

      Haha, I give up! I really have no idea why this always happens! *g*

      Awww, such an adorable video! ^___^
      I hope you and your whole family will enjoy Japan to the fullest (especially your kids as it’s their first time).
      I’m glad my blog can be helpful at times like this. :D

  • Hi, thanks for the post and the photos – it makes me want to visit this beautiful place even more.

    I am not a very good hiker and plan to visit Kumano for 1 day only, no overnight stay. Which trial would be good for me? Would “Kumano Nachi Taisha” route be good for 1 day?

    Also planning on going to Yoshino and Koyasan on other days – wonder would it be a case of visiting the same thing too many times as they all form part of the Kumano Pilgrimage?

    Never visited this part of Japan before so apprehensive, especially when I am not in “shopping areas”. Visited Kyoto only :P

    Your advice is appreciated.

    • Hello, Val! :)

      If you only have one day there I wouldn’t bother walking along the trail at all. You can access a part of the trail, though. That should be enough. ;)
      If I had to choose I’d definitely go to Nachi Taisha. That’s by far the most impressive one followed by the Hongu Taisha. ^^

      I don’t think it will get boring. Yoshino and Mt. Koya are different after all.
      If you have to choose just one, I’d go for Mt. Koya unless it’s cherry blossom season than Yoshino should be preferred. :)

      • Thank you! Could I also ask, if you got any JR Pass while you are in the area? I plan to tour Wakayama for about 5 days and would like to know the options available (if it is necessary).

        • Unfortunately I didn’t get any JR Pass as most of them are only available to non-residents of Japan. :(
          There is a Kansai JR Pass, I think. There’s also the Seishun 18 Kippu.
          I would see if that covers the routes / trains you intend to take and then use hyperdia.com to calculate if it’s worth obtaining such a pass.

  • Hi Jasmine, thank you for your post!
    Me and my wife are planning a 6-day hike of the Nakahechi route, with overnight stays in Takahara, Chikatsuyu, Yunomine/Hongu, Koguchi and Nachi.
    On the internet I could find only a few Ryokans, and I am wondering if minshuku’s or other basic accommodation can be easily found once we arrive in those places, without advanced reservation?

    • Hi Giulio,
      It really depends on the season. I wouldn’t recommend doing this during popular times such as Golden Week, cherry blossom and autumn foliage time and also not around the New Year.
      What I’d suggest is that you reserve something for every night, but somewhere where you can easily cancel without having to pay a cancellation fee until the actual day of your arrival. That way you have something for sure and still can look for something else spontaneously. That’s what I usually do. ;)

      I remember seeing a couple at a tourist information booth in Beppu shortly after Christmas. It was already late evening and they were desperately looking for an accommodation. I couldn’t believe they were so naive to not make reservations in advance during “nenmatsu season”. ;)

  • Hello,

    I am planning a trip to Kimuno Kodo with 8 to 10 friends from May 10 to 20, 2016. It is our first time to do such walk in Japan. Looking for a group or a Guide who can assist us organise the trip and all the bookings for accommodation, bags shuttle etc. Perhaps even walk with us the entire trip.

    Anyone can recommend / advise ?

    Thank you

    • Hello Shean,

      That’s actually quite a nice idea.
      Unfortunately nobody comes to my mind. Have you tried the official Kumano Kodo website? Maybe you can find something there?

      I’m sure it’ll be a great experience!
      It would be great if you could report back once you’ve done it! ^___^

  • Hi how are you?
    I’m arriving may 11. I love Japan
    I was wondering about bears? And anything else scary out there, when I walked Shikoku pilgramage a few years ago I came across some sort of animal totally freaking me out alone in the bush 🙀I have 3 weeks to hike and experience as much of this beautiful kumano region as I can. I would also like to camp and minshiku! Should I take food any route suggestions I’m travelling alone would really appreciate any advise
    Maree

    • I don’t think there will be bears. o_O; ….
      You might run into suzumebashi, although early May might be too early for that.
      There are snakes, but only the ones in Okinawa are dangerous.

      I haven’t done the whole pilgrimage myself, so I cannot give you any valid advice for best route, I fear. ^_^;
      Maybe try to google it or find a forum where you could find people who’ve already done it. They ususally can give the best advice.
      Good luck and enjoy! ^^

  • How did it go maree? we just went the nakahechi trail from takijiri to hongu; no sign of big animals, some suzumebatchi hovering in the air on some parts, one attacked another insect midair about two meters from my head, the quick approaching sound was scary ( i think of them as and insect helicopters) but they didnt come close to us apart from that. some warning signs about mamushi snakes on the last part of that trail, but the only snake we saw (maybe 50-100cm, dont know which kind) was a dead runover one near iris camp ground on a street. if you’re alone you could contemplate taking a noisy bell or something but it’s so well signed and a marker about every 500 meters, some villages on the way – the risks are limited. btw the kurhaus camping at wataraze onsen is nice and cheap, they also rent block huts. we took three days for the trail, taking an easy second day by taking the bus from kobiro-toge bus stop, and come back the next day without pack and with our tent already pitched to finish the track from kobiro to kumano-taisha. also, take a 100 yen stamp book at takijiri pilgrim center and collect the free stamps along the way as a souvenir!

  • Anybody used to go to Kumano-kodo during February, could you please share experience and picture.

    I quite wonder whether it will be full of snow?

    Thank you :)

    • As the Kumano Kodo is very, very long and streches through different areas, it probably depends on where exactly you plan to access the Kumano Kodo. :)
      Some roads lead along the coasts and not through high mountains and I suppose you wouldn’t find any snow there in February.

      Closer to the mountains away from the coasts, I can imagine that there might be snow in February.