Walking the Kumano Kodo Trail: 5 Popular Routes

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The Kumano Kodo trail is a network of spectacular paths that crisscross their way across the largest peninsula in Japan, the Kii Hanto. The beautiful trails in Kumano Kodo lead through lush forest, along sandy beaches, and up glorious mountainsides, offering breathtaking views over the peninsula. Previously used as pilgrimage trails to reach the sacred site of ‘Kumano Sanzan,’ the trails are now predominantly used as exceptional hiking routes. Offering many routes, each varying in difficulty and length from half-day walks to multi-day treks, the Kumano Kodo has something for everyone!

The network of Kumano Kodo trails is quite extensive and you’ll find many different Kumano Kodo hikes to enjoy, each varying in duration and difficulty. Below we’ve listed the most popular routes, with a brief description of each trail along with the highlights and lowlights, to help you pick the best route.

1. Nakahechi trail – Kumano Kodo in 3 days

The sacred trail of Kumano Kodo trails is quite extensive.
Nakahechi trail is popular among pilgrims, as the route passes all three Kumano grand shrines
Hayatama is a sacred site that goes through the Kumano Kodo trail sits on the mouth of the Kumano-gawa river.
Don't miss the 800-year old Nagi-no-Ki tree at Hayatama shrine. Photo by: Nekosuki [CC by SA-4.0]

The Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage network is possibly the most popular of all the trails and has been used since the 10th century. The well-marked route is suitable for self-guided trekking and starts from Kii-Tanabe on the west coast, and makes its way across to Hongu.  

Quick facts

Distance:

70 km

Difficulty level:

Intermediate. The walk reaches a maximum altitude of 836 m which novice walkers may initially find challenging. Otherwise, the trail is fairly easy.

Highlights

  • Take a relaxing dip in the hot springs at Yunomine Onsen. The hot springs village is at the end of Dainichi-goe route. 
  • Don’t miss the spectacular Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine! The shrine is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is quite a sight to behold.  

Lowlight

  • Because of its popularity, the trail can be incredibly busy, and much like a pilgrimage, you will be walking in crowds. 

2. Kohechi trail – Kumano Kodo in 4 days

The third and final shrine in Kumano Kodo trail is found on a ridge surrounded by giant cedar.
Gaze at the awe-inspiring architectural pavilions of Hongu Taisha. Photo by: Nekosuki [CC by SA-4.0]

The Kohechi trail connects Kumano with Koyasan and was used largely by Buddhist monks traveling from the temple complex of Mount Koya. Today the route is tackled by well-seasoned hikers who are familiar with rough and isolated terrain. 

Quick facts

Distance:

70 km

Difficulty level:

Demanding. You’ll climb through rugged forest and up steep mountain passes gaining a maximum altitude of 1,719 m. It’s considered one of the toughest trails of Kumano Kodo for its incline and duration.

Highlights

  • Don’t miss the teacups dotted along the trail. If you see one it means there’s a freshwater spring there, so fill up your bottles and have a drink!
  • The route cuts through the very heart of the Kii Peninsula allowing you to enjoy the very best of the area including Koyasan and the Kumano Hongu Shrine. 

Lowlight

  • Inns on the route are few and far between, with most walkers having to go off-piste to find a place to sleep. 

3. Iseji trail – Kumano Kodo in 7 days

Visit Ise Jingu shrine, an important shrine as you walk the Kumano Kodo trail.
It is believed that the sun goddess, Amaterasu, dwells in Ise-Jingu shrine. Photo by: z tanuki [CC by- 3.0]
The Japanese traditional gates can be found in shrines throughout the Kumano Kodo trail.
Walkthrough the Torii, a Japanese traditional gate at the entrance of Ise Jingu shrine. Photo by: [CC by - 3.0]

The Iseji trail runs along the east coast of the Kii Peninsula and was used during the Edo period by pilgrims visiting the Ise-Jingu Shrine. It is still the most popular route to Ise-Jingu shrine and the Kumano Sanzan. There is a real mix of terrain on this walk including forests, rice fields, beaches, and mountain passes. 

Quick facts

Distance:

170 km

Difficulty level:

Intermediate. This route involves walking on cobbled paths in places that can be difficult on the ankles. Otherwise, the route is rather pleasant.

Highlights

  • Pay a visit to Ise-Jingu shrine which is considered to be the most important shrine in Japan and where the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, is enshrined. 
  • Follow the Iseji seaside route known as Hama-Kaido, which is particularly scenic and offers a chance to take a dip in the ocean if you’re feeling brave!

Lowlight

  • The trail is quite challenging due to multiple hills and cross paths, novice hikers may find it tiring. 

4. Omine Okugake – Kumano Kodo in 5 days

Pay tribute to the 75 sacred sights containing small shrines as you walk along the Kumano Kodo trail.
Don't miss the 75 scared sites containing small Buddhist shrines and images dotted along the trail

Connecting Kumano with Yoshino, the Omine Okugake route is a challenging pilgrimage up mountains and along remote stretches of forest. The route was primarily used by followers of the Shugendo mountain worshipers. 

Quick facts

Distance:

170 km

Difficulty level:

Difficult. This route is not recommended for novice hikers as parts of the trail run along high mountain ridges with rough and uneven paths underfoot.  

Highlights

  • As you walk the trail, visit the three sacred shrines in Wakayama including the Okunoin Temple, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and the Kongobuji Temple!
  • Pay your tribute to the 75 sacred sites which are well-preserved shrines and Buddhist images dotted along the 170 km trail.

Lowlight

  • The route is rather long and dangerous as it passes along high mountain ridges and shouldn’t be attempted by the inexperienced or the unprepared.  

5. Ohechi trail – Kumano Kodo in 3 days

The Ochechi trail follows the coast from Tanabe to Nachi Taisha and was once walked by over 30,000 people each year! Today the path is the most popular way to visit the Nachi Taisha shrine. As the walk is along the coast, it is particularly enjoyable in the summer months with the cooling sea breeze.

Quick facts

Distance:

92 km

Difficulty level:

Easy. The route is relatively flat and easy and never strays too far from civilization.

Highlights

  • The views from the passes are incredibly scenic and offer spectacular glimpses of the Pacific Ocean — make sure you stop at the ramen shack by the beach for a bite to eat!
  • Don’t miss out on a chance to dine at Kanteki Izakaya, an authentic Izakaya restaurant serving delightful Japanese dishes. 

Lowlight

  • The trail has virtually disappeared due to modern infrastructures including roads, which may be disappointing. 
An overview map of Kumano Kodo trails
An overview map of Kumano Kodo routes

How to get there

Accessing the Kumano Kodo trail is relatively easy (so long as you don’t mind a long train ride), but varies depending on which part of the trail you’d like to visit and which city you’re coming from. Kumano is easily accessible from the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Nagoya by rail and bus. It’s also accessible from Kansai International Airport and visitors are advised to purchase a rail pass and ride the Shinkansen trains.

The Japan Rail Pass is a super cost-effective rail pass used predominantly for long-distance rail travel in Japan. The pass is only granted to foreign tourists and offers unlimited use of JR trains. You can choose whether you want it validated for 7, 14, or 21 days, costing you USD 309, USD 486, and USD 608 respectively. There’s also an option to upgrade to ‘Green Car’ JR Pass which is equivalent to first-class and has additional facilities.

Best time to visit

The Kumano Kodo trails are open year-round, so the best time to visit depends on what type of weather you enjoy walking in.

March and April are popular months to visit due to the cherry blossoms flowering, however, it can be quite busy so make sure you book your accommodation well in advance. If you can handle the heat and the crowds from May to September, you’ll be rewarded with golden lighting and extra daylight for more hiking!

October and November bring autumnal foliage, colorful forests, and mild temperature. If you don’t mind the odd bit of rainfall, this is the perfect time for a colorful and cool Kumano Kodo walk!

December to February bring with them the slight chance of snow on the Nakahechi route and hiking the trails at this time of year is only recommended for experienced trekkers due to the cool temperatures and short daylight hours. Note that most accommodation is shut between Christmas and mid-January too.

Accommodation

When it comes to accommodation on the Kumano Kodo trail, you’ve got a couple of options to consider ranging from small-town hotels to off-the-beaten-path ryokans (traditional Japanese inns).

  • Hotels: There aren’t many hotels on the trails. But you can definitely count on one at the start and end of your trip. Prices range from USD 40 – USD 162 per night.
Ryokans offer a very relaxing environment and one must stay in a ryokan when you're hiking the Kumano Kodo trail.
Spend a night at a ryokan to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle. Photo by: Espen faugstad [ CC by 2.0]
  • Ryokans and minshukus: The majority of the time on the trail you’ll be staying in ryokans or minshukus, traditional Japanese-style inns that feature basic décor but are full of character. In both these types of accommodation, you must remove your shoes before stepping into your room. Prices range from USD 18 – USD 36 per night.
  • Hostels: Hostels are more prominent in the larger towns along the Kumano routes. Prices tend to be on par with ryokans and minshukus, if not a little more expensive. Prices range from USD 16 – USD 40 per night.
  • Shukubo: Some temples on the Kumano Kodo route offer accommodation to passing travelers. The facilities here can sometimes be as good as ryokans, making them a popular and cheap option for lodging. Prices range from USD 18 – USD 80 per night.

Among various trekking trails in Japan, the Kumano Kodo trail is one of the most challenging, but it is also very rewarding. Whichever trail you choose, get ready to enjoy the ultimate outdoor Japan tour as you immerse yourself in rural life and culture, and soak up the very best of Kii Hanto peninsula!

 

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