Kumano Kodo Pilgramage Walk (6 to 12 June 2024)

The Kumano Kodo is a series of ancient pilgrimage routes through Japan’s Kii Peninsula used by adherents of the Kumano faith to reach the three Grand Shrines of Kumano.

The belief system blends elements of Shinto, Buddhism and mountain worship.  Its deities are embodied in natural elements – waterfalls, giant boulders, sacred trees and the Kumano River.  Kumano was where the deities descended to earth and resided.

In 908CE, Emperor Uda made the first recorded pilgrimage.  Successive emperors followed suit.  In the 11th and 12th centuries, retired emperors made repeated pilgrimages undertaking rigorous rituals of worship and purification along the way.   With their rise to power, the Samurai continued the practice and over time, a culture of pilgrimage to the sacred region of Kumano filtered down to ordinary citizens.  The Kumano faith is open to all, and even today, devout pilgrims walk the trail.  Along with many others, like us!

Kumano Kodo is one of only two pilgrimages on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the other, of course, being the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

The gateway to the route is Kii Tanabe, a quiet coastal town at the foot of the mountains.  In an enclave known as Ajikoji (‘Flavour Alley’), around 200 tiny restaurants in a maze of laneways is said to be the most concentrated of its kind in Japan.  In a country where eating is practically a national sport, that’s a big achievement.

The main point of interest in town – aside from the restaurant precinct – is the Tokei-jinja shrine.

We love a story that blends superstition and animals.  This one isn’t bad.  During a war between two clans vying for control of Japan in the 1180s, both sides sought the assistance of the local ruler.  He wasn’t sure which side to support so he organised a fight between fortune telling roosters.

In this divinatory cockfight, the white roosters defeated the red roosters.   The ruler committed the Kumano Navy to the clan represented by the white rosters.  A decisive victory in the sea battle that followed ended the other clan’s bid for control of Japan.  On the outcome of a cockfight, the course of a nation was changed.

The city’s shrine was later re-named Tokei, which means ‘rooster fighting’, and there’s an annual festival commemorating the event.  Thankfully it does not involve actual cockfighting.

Day 1: Takijiri to Chikatsuyu 

The Nakahechi Route of the Kumano Kodo begins at Takijiri-oji, a shrine at the confluence of two rivers which pilgrims believed to be the embodiment of a sacred river separating the land of the living from the land of the dead.  The shrine marks the spot where passage into the sacred mountains begins.

For such an important site, the torii, a gate marking the entrance to a sacred area where deities reside, and shrine are surprisingly modest.

Behind the shrine, the trail heads into some really tough mountain terrain.   Immediately, it’s straight up, up and up on a trail of rocks and gnarly tree roots.

All along the route there are significant spots.  Many don’t look like much now.  Lots are just moss covered mounds.  But there’s an interesting story around these giant boulders about 15 minutes into the walk.

It is said that an aristocratic couple were making a pilgrimage when the wife unexpectedly went into labour and gave birth.  They left the baby in a cave under the boulders and continued their pilgrimage.  A she-wolf sustained him by dripping milk down the rock.  The parents retrieved the boy on their way back.  This resulted in the rock being named Milk Rock.  These days it would result in the parents being reported to Child Services.

It’s a tough climb but at the top – well, the first ‘top’ – there’s a side track up to a lookout with great views over the valleys and villages.  It’s so green.  The Kii Peninsula is one of Japan’s wettest regions.  But not today.  The weather was glorious.

There are hundreds of little shrines sprinkled all over these mountains.  One of the things we find endearing is the way believers place bibs on them.  They are usually red, the colour for repelling demons and illness, but these had snazzy floral ones.

High on a ridge, the village of Takahara (population 75) is known as ‘the village in the mist’ but today it was basking in the sun.  Some walkers stop here for their first night but we had another 10km to go, so unfortunately we had to resist the temptation of this cafe’s offering of draft beer and French wine.

The village is also home to one of the oldest shrines in the mountains.  The Takahara shrine dates to 1403 and is surrounded by camphor trees thought to be 800 to 1,000 years old.

For the next 5km or so, the trail kept climbing but the gradient was not so sharp, and then there was a chance to catch our breath on some gentle paths through magnificent trees.

We stopped for lunch in a clearing with yet another tiny shrine.  A boxed lunch on our European hikes usually means a ham and cheese baguette or similar.  And we love them.  But nothing beats the care and attention which the Japanese put into a lunch box.

We were closer to our destination than we thought.  Arriving in Chikatsuyu village (population 450) an hour later, we were not unhappy to find we had to cool our heels in the village’s only beer garden with an ice cold Kirin and wait for our minshuku (small family-run guesthouse) to accept visitors for the night.

After a luxurious soak in a steaming hot onsen and a dinner we rate as one of the best we’ve had over our three trips to Japan, we slept like babies sated on wolf’s milk.

Total walk distance: 14km.

Day 2: Chikatsuyu to Kawayu Onsen 

Day 2 and we headed deeper into the mountains.  In this next photo, note the tiny orange and blue dots at the bend in the path.  That’s two walkers, which gives you some idea of how tall these trees are.

The floor of this shrine is covered with oval stones.  According to local belief, travellers in the area are at risk of being overcome by daru spirits, serpent-like witch spirits which can become invisible, penetrate the human body and inflict ‘painful torments’.  Serpents like eggs, so believers leave egg-shaped stones at the shrine to distract them.

We weren’t overcome by serpent spirits but every day we saw one of these – the non-venomous Japanese four-lined rat snake.  They sun themselves on the trail, but like most snakes, unless you tread on one they are more likely to slither away than attack.

Through the mountains we passed more little shrines.  This one is dedicated to Inari, the deity of rice.  Unsurprisingly, she is one of Japan’s most loved.  The fox is considered the messenger or embodiment of Inari so many of her shrines have statues of foxes.

And some isolated mountain villages.


Tea has been cultivated here since it was introduced from China in the 12th century.

A side track, and a short lung-busting climb, brought us to a spectacular view of the mountains.  Down below, the world’s largest torii gate was our destination for the day.  Not far now, and all downhill.

But first, the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine.  It’s one of the three Grand Shrines of Kumano, and the head shrine of over 3,000 Kumano shrines in Japan.  All of the ancient Kumano Kodo routes lead ultimately to Hongu Taisha.  It’s the equivalent of the Camino’s Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Its precise age is unknown but it appears in the writings of pilgrims 900 years ago.  The shrine pavilions were previously on a sandbank in the river but were moved to their current location after floods in the 1800s.


Pilgrims queue to worship and engage in purification rituals.

Despite the presence of many people, it’s a serene place with a reverential atmosphere.

Outside it, on the banks of the river near the shrine’s original location, is that torii we could see from afar.  Built in 2000, it’s the largest torii shrine gate in the world.  33.9 metres tall, 43 metres wide and comprising 172 tonnes of steel, it’s a whopper.

Total walk distance: 17km.

Day 3: Kawayu Onsen

From Kumano Hongu Taisha, we’d caught a bus to our digs in a nearby hot springs village, Kawayu Onsen.  The walk company had scheduled two nights here to give us a rest day.  We don’t usually do rest days, but accepted the recommendation. A stop in a spa town can’t be bad.

Our weather fairy must have been whispering in their ears.  After two days of hiking in perfect sunshine we woke to drizzle which increased to a downpour by 10am and did not stop all day and into the night.

Our riverside hotel had a delightful onsen (hot springs bathing facility) in the form of pools built into the side of the river fed by 75 degrees Celsius spring water cooled to the low 40s with river water.

Sheltered from the rain by a bamboo roof, it wasn’t a bad way to soothe the muscles and wait out the weather before continuing on a trail linking Hongu Taisha with another of the Grand Shrines, Kumano Nachi Taisha.  And by next morning, the sun was shining again.

Day 4: Kawayu Onsen to Koguchi 

With clear weather, it was an easy day’s walk as the trail rose gradually through stands of cedar and cypress.

After almost 6km, we reached a lookout where the view is called ‘Kumano sanzen roppyaku po’, literally ‘the 3,600 peaks of Kumano’.   That’s an overstatement.  There can’t be more than 3,599.

It’s virtually impossible to get lost.  At anything that looks like it might be a trail junction there are signs.

In former times, there were tea houses at vantage points where owners could see pilgrims approaching from afar and begin preparing rice balls.  Like the ones in today’s lunchbox.

Now walkers get to enjoy the views.

Today’s walk ended in the sleepy village of Koguchi (population 200).

Our home for the night was a tiny minshuku which accommodates just three guests.

A lovely place and, as every night on this walk, dinner was a work of art.  The owner prepares the food himself including wild mushrooms and other produce from the mountains.

Total walk distance: 13km.

Day 5: Koguchi to Nachisan 

The final day is billed as the most difficult, starting with a 5km climb up Dogiri-zaka, which literally translates as ‘Body Breaking Slope’.  It’s not just the gradient.  The conditions underfoot are slippery, uneven rocks and tree roots.   In 1202, Imperial-era poet Fujiwara Teika  wrote that “it is impossible to describe properly how tough it is”.

And if it doesn’t break the body, it will mess with the head.  You look up and think the track is going to flatten out, but as you reach the crest, the path turns and just keeps climbing.

A deer came out of the forest, stopped and stared at us.  But as soon as Julie started to reach for her camera, it bounded away.  In the Kumano faith, deer are considered sacred messengers from the gods.   Divine encouragement!

We passed Waroda-ishi (Round-shaped Cushion Rock) where the three deities worshipped at the three Grand Shrines respectively, were believed to meet to chat over tea.

We expected the peak to have views, and maybe a shrine at which to give thanks for not dying on the way up the slope.  But no, just a simple marker.

In Imperial times there were many travellers’ inns along the path.   They gradually disappeared as times changed, but the last one closed only in the 1920s.  It once enticed pilgrims in, announcing “We have tofu.  Bath is ready”.   The ancient equivalent of “Cold beer.  Air-conditioned rooms”.  All that’s left now are a few foundation stones.

From the final peak, you can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

And then it’s just an unrelenting descent down more of the same until you reach the second of the Grand Shrines, Kumano Nachi Taisha.

Our feet were sore and we can only imagine the pain for pilgrims who wear the traditional footwear.

It’s a beautiful complex.

The focus of the shrine is Nachi-no-Otaki, Japan’s tallest waterfall, 133 metres high.  It is worshipped as a deity believed to be a sacred cascade connecting the material world to the spiritual cosmos.

One of the most recognisable images of Japan is Seiganto-ji, the three storey pagoda in the shrine complex with the falls in the background.

We were privileged to be able to stay at the only guesthouse at the site.  Just outside the main gate, we had a view of the waterfall from our room.  A soak in the onsen and a couple of celebratory glasses of sake and we were done.

Total walk distance: 14km (feels like 24!)

A beautiful walk, with perfect weather for all our walk days and a great immersion in traditional Japanese hospitality.

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11 Comments

  1. HUGH OBRIEN
    June 13, 2024 / 12:53 am

    What an incredible experience. Thanks Julie for sharing your great photos and the fascinating history of this amazing walk. The food pics alone are enough to entice me.

    • twotravelcats
      Author
      June 13, 2024 / 6:49 am

      Thanks, Hugh. You’d have loved this one – history and hiking.

  2. Becky
    June 13, 2024 / 7:52 am

    Wonderful!

  3. Becky
    June 13, 2024 / 7:53 am

    Wonderful! I love a Pilgram’s Progress and this sounds less crowded than the Camino de Santiago… thank you!

    • twotravelcats
      Author
      June 14, 2024 / 7:07 am

      We loved how un-crowded it was.

  4. David Kemp
    June 13, 2024 / 9:48 am

    Stunning and inspiring as always
    Meanwhile a little hike through the Balkans should be a piece of cake , after this one !

    • twotravelcats
      Author
      June 14, 2024 / 7:07 am

      If our knees and feet have recovered!

  5. Anna walsh
    June 13, 2024 / 11:30 am

    Did you think it was fantastic

    • twotravelcats
      Author
      June 14, 2024 / 7:08 am

      Loved it.

  6. Alan Paul
    June 15, 2024 / 5:08 am

    and so it begins…my travel bug is biting. Amazing pictures

  7. liz thatcher
    June 15, 2024 / 10:01 am

    great photos especially the tree roots look like hard work but loverly shapes
    x

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