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Hiking the Ancient Road of Kumano in Japan

Leave Behind the Bustle of Kyoto and Tokyo

Japan hiking 3,000 tree
A 3,000 year old tree at Tamaki Shrine, on the road to Koyasan.

Two hundred and fifty miles and a metaphorical world away from the concrete bustle of Tokyo, an ancient pilgrimage road winds through the mountains of Japan’s spiritual heartland. The Kumano Kodo, or “old road,” connects scores of temples and shrines scattered across the stunning Kii Peninsula. Recently transformed into a hiking route, the Kumano Kodo is an excellent destination for visitors who want to explore the back roads of Japan.

The Kodo is made up of about 190 miles of road and several different routes. One outlines the Kii Peninsula from Osaka to the Grand Shrine of Ise, Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine, while several others snake inland to the temple towns of Yoshino and Koyasan. Until as recently as 80 years ago, these narrow stone and dirt paths were actually the only roads connecting many of the region’s villages. Perhaps centuries of isolation explain the unique mixture of friendliness, frankness, and strength that still characterizes many of the region’s inhabitants today.

A new road was built in the early 1900s and the old mountain route was largely forgotten. Parts of the road remain as they have been for hundreds of years, while other parts were paved where they pass through towns. These paved sections are in fact some of the most interesting. Far from the highway strip of convenience stores and pachinko parlors, the Kodo leads through a jumble of small shops, elaborate private gardens, temples, and graveyards. A good rule of thumb in Japan is to get as far off the main road as possible, and that’s exactly where the Kumano Kodo will take you.

In 2004 the Kodo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a new generation of hiking enthusiasts and history buffs moved in to replace the pilgrims of old. But the Kumano region is far from becoming another overcrowded tourist hotspot like Kyoto or Tokyo. Hiking down its ancient mountain trails, one gets the feeling that the region’s culture and people neither exist for nor depend on the current wave of tourists. And in Japan, that’s a good feeling.

Planning Your Trip

There are several ways to approach a visit to the Kumano Kodo. One is to hike all 190 miles of the road. However, unless you speak Japanese, are in great shape, and are interested in obscure religious history, you’ll probably want to focus on exploring a smaller portion of the road. You can either backpack and camp the whole time, or use the local trains to get from town to town and to do day hikes along the most interesting trails.

Choose your route with care. The inland trails to Koyasan and Yoshino are strenuous, sparsely populated, and lack the stunning ocean views the coastal routes offer. It makes more sense to visit these areas by train and head to the coastal route for hiking. 

The portion of the road between Kii-Nagashima and Nachi Waterfall is a great choice for backpackers in terms of cultural richness as well as ease of trip-planning. Highlights of the area include ancient stone-paved roads and deserted beaches, the old city of Kumano, and many beautiful mountain villages, temples, and shrines. Hiking the route takes between one and two weeks. And since the Kodo more or less parallels the highway and train line, combining hiking with bus and train travel is easy.

Camping is possible along most of the route from Kii-Nagashima to Nachi. Though trailside and beach camping is done, it’s not officially approved. A safer option is to stay at private campsites, which have showers, bathrooms, and cooking facilities and are noted on trail maps. However, at some points you may have to stay at a hostel or inn. This can be shockingly expensive in Japan so plan thoroughly ahead of time.

When To Go

The Kumano region gets some of the heaviest rainfall in all of Japan. The main rainy season is in June and early July, with another less intense rainy spell in late summer. Avoid hiking during these months. Summer is hot and humid enough to make hiking unpleasant. Winter gets the least rain, and almost no snow, but the weather is chilly. If possible visit in spring or fall. Yoshino in particular is famous for its 30,000 cherry blossom trees and Koyasan for its fall leaves.

Find out if there will be any local festivals during the time you plan to hike. Festivals in Japan bring the local community out in its best colors and offer a chance to take part in vibrant cultural traditions. It’s well worth planning your trip to coincide with one. A few of note are the world-class summer fireworks in Kumano City, the winter fire festival in Shingu (called Oto Matsuri), and the springtime Yunobori procession of portable shrines at Hongu Shrine.

Safety

Remember that you will be hiking in steep mountains along some sparsely populated trails. If possible, hike in a group of two or more and carry food, water, and a cell phone. Numbered markers with emergency phone numbers are posted every 100 meters along the portions of the Kodo registered with UNESCO (generally those portions that are not paved). You can call for help from these points and give emergency workers your exact location on the trail.

Getting There

The area is easily accessible by both train and bus. From Tokyo the cheapest option is to take the overnight bus, which stops at several points along the Kodo. From Nagoya or Osaka you can take Japan Rail (JR). The Nanki line services the area. Contact: JR English Information Line: 81-50-2016-1603; Tokyo Kousoku Bus: 81-3-5910-2525.

Resources

Though the region has become much more visitor-friendly since World Heritage designation, information in English is still fairly sparse and some parts of the Kodo are poorly labeled. Do not expect local businesspeople or residents to speak English (though some do). Take advantage of the resources listed below to plan as much as possible ahead of time, bring a phrasebook and some extra cash for emergencies, and dive in!

Kumanodoconet: Detailed maps and trail descriptions in English as well as transportation information for the portion of the Kodo between Ise Shrine and Hongu Shrine (including the route recommended above). Contact: www.kumadoco.net/kodo_eng/index.html.

Kumano Kodo Center: A gorgeous new resource center offering educational workshops as well as abundant information. The website is in Japanese only, but call and ask for Sakie. She speaks English, is very friendly, and can give you advice on itineraries and accommodations. Contact: 81-597-25-2666 or www.kumanokodocenter.com.

The Guide Bears: A group of English-speaking volunteer guides for the portion of the Kumano Kodo between Kii-Nagashima and Shingu. Prices are very reasonable. For more information, send an email to iseji@ichigaku.com.

Wakayama Prefecture World Heritage Center: The website has a good basic overview of the different portions of the Kodo. Contact: 81-735-42-1044 or www.sekaiisan-wakayama.jp/english/index.html.

A good list of links for the Wakayama Prefecture portion of the road: www.tb-kumano.jp.

What To Do If You Don’t Eat Meat

Traveling in Japan, particularly in rural areas, can be challenging for strict vegetarians. A broth called dashi made from seaweed and fish is used to flavor virtually everything, so even vegetable and tofu dishes are often off limits. The best option may be to shop at grocery stores and prepare your own meals. Onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed or sesame seeds and stuffed with various fillings, are available everywhere, but be careful to choose the ones stuffed with umeboshi (pickled plums) or takuan (pickled radish). One vegetarian-friendly specialty of the Kumano region is mehari-zushi, balls of rice wrapped in pickled mustard leaves.

Staying at traditional Japanese inns (ryokan) may also be a bad idea for vegetarians, as the elaborate meals included in the price of your room are rarely fish-free. Head instead for the housing available at some temples. Aside from the wonderful opportunity to stay in a temple and partake in religious life, you will have a chance to try Japan’s famous vegetarian temple cuisine, called shoujin-ryouri. Koyasan in particular is famous for its excellent vegetarian food and large number of temples that welcome visitors. Strict vegetarians may want to check with temple kitchens ahead of time to see whether or not they use katsuo dashi (fish stock)