If you’re considering hiking Japan’s Kumano Kodo trail, you are in for a real adventure. Deep in the Kii Peninsula, you can easily find yourself lost in another time.
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail is why you travel to Japan. It’s where you can disconnect and feel at peace with the nature around you. In my opinion, it’s Japan’s best-kept secret, but one that could easily blow up in future years – so go now! Here are helpful tips to know before you go.
All about Japan’s Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail
What is the Kumano Kodo?
Kumano is an isolated, sacred site of healing and salvation. It is the Spiritual Heart of Japan and all around you can feel at peace with nature.
This spiritual origin of Japan has been a pilgrimage destination for over 1000 years. People from all levels of society would make the pilgrimage using a network of routes across the Kii Peninsula. Emperors, artisans, aristocrats, and even peasants would travel for over 30 days hubs like Osaka and Kyoto.
Those network of paths is the Kumano Kodo, which many still walk to this day. Since it was a network of trails, there is no one set trail. The Kumano Koodo is a maze of trails that travel up and down ridges, along the coast, and through old Japanese forests full of cypress and cedar trees. Scattered across the ancient network are around 3000 shrines and plenty of amazing sites.
As of 2004 three sacred sites (Kumano Sanzan, Yoshino, and Koyasan) and the routes that lead and connect to them are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Along with the Camino De Santiago in Spain, the Kumano Kodo is one of TWO UNESCO pilgrimage routes in the world.
Now pilgrims and travelers come around the world to enjoy the spirituality and tranquility of these old mountains, trails, forests, and shrines. The trail is not a camping experience, although there are a few campsites, the majority of pilgrims stay in guesthouses and ryokans along the way. It is in many ways similar to the Camino De Santiago and accommodation often comes with dinner and breakfast with the option of a packed lunch.
Where is the Kumano Kodo?
The Kumano Kodo trail network is in the Kii Mountain range of Japan. They are easily accessible from the towns of Kii-Katsura, Tanabe, and Shingu. The majority of the trail network lies in Wakayama Prefecture but extends into parts of the Mie and Nara Prefectures.
You can get here via rail in about four hours from the Japanese cities of Osaka and Kyoto. To check the train schedule look on Hyperdia, and make sure you grab a JR Pass before you arrive in Japan. JR West offers a regional pass for tourists that should cover most necessary public transport around the route.
When Is The Best Time To Hike The Kumano Kodo?
We had no idea what to expect out of our Kumano Kodo hike in late May, but we were pleasantly surprised by the mild temperatures. Unlike the Japanese cities where May and June bring high heat and humidity, we were quite comfortable hiking the Kii mountains in pants and a breathable shirt We were never dying of heat exhaustion or sweating through our clothes; it felt like the perfect time to be on the trail.
However, early June is the start of the rainy season in Japan, and we did get poured on our first day in Shingu. If you want the best temperatures and beautiful weather on the Kumano Kodo I would suggest trying to visit during the month of May. Don’t forget to bring a packable rain jacket with you anyways!
Another great time and most popular would be September for a gorgeous fall hike. Fall is lovely in Japan, as it’s cooling down from the hot and humid summer, but still not too cold. Along with changing leaves, you’ll find fall harvest specialties and any cool day can be washed away in an onsen. See the best times to visit Japan here.
There Are Many Kumano Kodo Routes to Choose
There are so many routes on the Kumano Kodo to choose from it will be hard to narrow down which ones you prefer. A few of the main ones are the Nakahechi Main Route, Dainichi-goe, Akagi-goe, Kogumotori-goe, and Ogumotori-goe.
The best thing I can advise you to do is to pick up a brochure and map from the visitor centers in Tanabe and Shingu to help make these decisions. You’ll want to look at how many days you have available to do this pilgrimage and your budget for accommodation/food/camping when making plans.
Most consider a full trek to start in Tanabe and end in Kii-Katsuura with about five to six days of time complete the trek. This gives time for a night to start and end without any ridiculous long days of hiking.
Furthermore, since there is no set route, no start, and no end, there is no right or wrong way to enjoy the Kumano Kodo. However, most would agree that a visit to one of the three grand shrines on the trail is necessary. The three grand shrines are named the Kumano Sanzan, and they are Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
It’s Suitable for All Ages
We saw all ages hiking the Kumano Kodo. I would say if you are between 10-90 years old, you’ll have a fantastic time hiking these trails in Japan. Of course, there are more challenging parts and steep inclines and descents, but anyone in reasonable shape should be able to enjoy sections of this spectacular pilgrimage. Hiking poles are recommended though – Black Diamond make our favorites.
Furthermore, you don’t need to hike if you’d like to visit one of the Kumano Sanzan. If you are of limited mobility the shrines of Kumano Hongu Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha have some very steep stairs to note. While Kumano Hayatama Taisha is the easiest to access with no stairs and level walking paths.
You Don’t Have to Do All of the Kumano Kodo Routes
The Kumano Kodo is not a set route, and there is no set number of days you have to be on the trail. You can do one route in a day and have just as lovely of time if you do a five-day trek, or you can even stay on the Kumano Kodo trail for three weeks.
It’s all up to you, your budget, and your time in Japan. We would suggest carving out at least five days for the Kumano Kodo to embrace the beauty of it all and get in some good hikes.
We had four days on the trail due to last minute planning, but still saw stunning sites and felt the forest all around us. It gave us a proper introduction to the Kumano Kodo and now we can’t wait to return. It’s one of the most magical regions of Japan!
The Kumano Kodo Day Trips
We booked our Kumano Kodo trip super last minute, and because of this, we had very few accommodation options along the route. With that in mind, we used an Airbnb in Shingu as a base to make day trips around the region. Was it ideal? No. But I certainly still had a fantastic time.
A typical day, involved the first bus from Shingu to Yunomine Onsen in the morning and then hiking around the area. We had a full day on the trail walking up to Hosshinmon Oji and down to Kumano Hongu Taisha before we finished our day in the onsens back in Yunomine Onsen. Only then to take the last bus back to Shingu. I can’t lie – I wanted to stay in Yunomine Onsen so bad, but we couldn’t so we have vowed to return one day.
Book in Advance
Which brings me to my next point you should book your accommodation in advance. As soon as you know you want to walk the Kumano Kodo in Japan, you should start looking at routes and booking your accommodation or campsites if you are camping. Now is the time to reach out to travel agencies if you want them to handle the work for you.
The vast majority of ryokans and guesthouses are not listed online outside of Tripadvisor reviews. In order to book you either have to call (not great English) or you can use the local agency called Kumano Travel. They can help you sort out an itinerary and book your accommodation.
This pilgrimage is becoming more and more popular year after year. However, these are still small Japanese villages and ryokans we are talking about, and there is not enough supply to meet demand. The result is sold out properties and high last-minute pricing in the high season.
I would say planning a year out is ideal to give you a plethora of choices. We decided on this trip about two weeks out and were left with very few accommodation options.
Wear Proper Hiking Footwear
Proper trekking footwear is a must while on the Kumano Kodo. If you’re only on the trail for two or three days I would say you are okay in typical trainers and trail running shoes (my favorites are Hoka One Ones), BUT any longer and I would suggest hiking boots.
I traveled here with my Helly Hansens and they were perfect – comfortable and waterproof (there are a few river crossings. You can see what else we recommend on day hikes here.
There is a Kumano Kodo Luggage Shuttle
Of course, you don’t want to carry everything you brought to Japan with you on your back as you take to the trail. That’s why there are luggage shuttles to take your belongings from accommodation to accommodation. This makes hiking the trail much easier as you only need to carry daily essentials. See here for all the info.
Cash is King in Japan
Like the rest of Japan, having cash is vital on the Kumano Kodo. Most facilities do not accept credit card so you will want to make sure you have enough yen on you to get you through to the next ATM. Of course, if all of your accommodation is set and you have meals included, you’ll only need to cover basic things along the way like donations to the temples, coffee, snacks, and souvenirs. See more of our travel banking tips here.
There Are a Few Dangerous Animals on the Kumano Kodo
While you don’t have to be on the lookout for grizzly bears and cougars, there are a few dangerous creatures to still be aware of on the Kumano Kodo. One is the Mamushi Snake, a venous pale gray, reddish brown, or yellowish brown snake that can grow up to 80 cm long. Watch where you step and long pants with socks also can help avoid a disaster.
If you see a centipede on the trail steer clear and don’t mess with it. The Mukade Centipede has a painful bite and likes to hide in hiking shoes. Lastly, the Suzumebachi Hornet is your typical giant hornet with a nasty sting, they can be aggressive so don’t go near them.
Wild boars, are also a thing on the trails although far less common than the creatures listed above and you will likely never seen one. As always, don’t forget travel insurance in case something unexpected happens. The Japanese emergency number is 119 should you happen to be in a life-threatening emergency.
Kumano Sanzan Are A Highlight, but so is Everything Else!
Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha are the three grand shrines of Kumano. They are amazing and highlights on the trail. While you’ll want to have a goal of visiting all three, don’t forget all the other temples, shrines, and beautiful nature you’ll be passing by on the trail. Take everything in throughout your time in the Kii mountains, and you never know when you will return to this mystical place!
Practice Proper Pilgrimmage Etiquette on the Kumano Kodo
I’m sure you know this, but as always when you are in the great outdoors practice responsible traveler etiquette. On the Kumano Kodo that means:
- Don’t build open fires
- Stay on the trails
- Don’t remove local flora and fauna and don’t introduce your own.
- Pack in/Pack out
- Don’t litter! And pick up any trash that you do see on the trails.
- Respect other pilgrims
- Greet others with a Konnichiwa!
You’ll also visit a lot of shrines, Taisha, along the route so you should so respect. When you enter and exit the main torii or gate, you should bow from the hips (face the torii on exit). The torii marks the entrance into a Shinto shrine and separates the everyday life from the sacred.
When you make an offering:
- Slight Bow
- Give Your Offering (There is no set amount, no need to leave a 500 Yen coin or 1000 bill. Some Japanese even believe a 5 yen is good luck.)
- Ring The Bell
- Bow Deeply Twice
- Clap Twice
- Make Your Prayer
- Bow Deeply Once
The Kumano Kodo is a Culinary Journey
You’re going to get hungry after all that trekking! Thankfully you are in a country with extraordinary food. Breakfast is essential to have before you start your day on the Kumano Kodo. Most guesthouses will provide a light and simple breakfast for you, and you can also grab snacks at convenience stores and the occasional vending machine.
When you’re on the trail and passing through towns, there will be places to stop and grab a bite for lunch. If you’re staying in guesthouses and Ryokans many should provide dinner. Most ingredients are fresh and local, with rice always being a staple. Higher end accommodation options will serve a Kaiseki style meal (multiple grand courses) – it’s truly a treat!
Is the Kumano Kodo Expensive to Hike?
Like the rest of Japan, the Kumano Kodo is not a cheap affair. But once you pay for your accommodation and bust out a bit of cash for food (about ¥600-1000 per meal) you don’t have any expenses. Nature is free!
Of course, there are exceptions to this. If you want any alcohol, partake in excursions, or decide you are tired and want to hop on public transport you’ll have to have a budget for that.
What are the highlights of the Kumano Kodo?
- Nachi Falls, Japan’s Tallest Waterfall
- Kumano Kodo Daimonzaka Slope
- Kino Matsushima Islands
- Hotel Urashima Bokido Cave
- Kumano Nachi Taisha
- Nachisan Seigantoji
What to Bring on the Kumano Kodo
If you have plans to take part in a long day or multi-day hikes a pair of hiking poles are a great way to save your knees and prevent injuries. If you’re on a full day of hiking in the mountains you’ll gain and descend a lot of elevation. So, it’s easy for your legs to get tired so a pair of hiking poles will pay off.
We really love and recommend these “Z-Poles” from Black Diamond as they fold up easily for travel and are sturdy enough to lean on. We’ve used them when mountaineering in the Rockies and if they can stand up to that they’ll handle anything the Kumano Kodo can throw at them.
Grayl Ultralight Water Bottle
It’s not always safe to drink water from rivers and streams, giardia is common in Japan. We previously used the Lifestraw Go for all those times during our travels when the water is questionable.
However, over time we became annoyed with the water bottle as the filter aged and clogged. Plus the Lifestraw leaks when it is on its side. We now switched to the Grayl Ultralight Purifier. It’s a simple design that is effective and does not leak.
Most importantly it is a purifier, not a filter. The Grayl water bottle system purifies water vs. filters which removes viruses and virtually removes all threat of waterborne illnesses. The only drawback is it costs double the Lifestraw Go.
Skin cancer is for real! Not having sun protection can lead to sunburn and in the long term skin cancer/skin aging. You will spend a lot of time outside and therefore under the sun. We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals.
It’s a good idea to bring a small mat to sit on during breaks if you’re in the mountains. The stone and ground can often be much colder than the air so it conducts heat and will make you cold. A pad can serve a lot of purposes to like backrest, pillow, cooking surface, or a place to change your clothes.
We travel with a bunch of cameras, but the one we universally recommend is the RX 100. This camera is tremendous for a day hike as it fits in your pocket and still packs a punch.
They make a number of models at different price points, but it’s a simple to use point-and-shoot camera that anyone can operate. It also takes superb images with a 20mp resolution and full manual controls.
Your body heat fluctuates naturally throughout the day and activity this is why layering is key. Beyond that it’s always a good idea to bring an extra layer beyond what you think you will need in case something gets wet or you find yourself with a chill. Maintaining your temperature is key because once you get a chill it’s very tough to shake it. A down jacket is lightweight and perfect for insulating your body.
If you’re not on a long hike a large multiple day hiking backpack may not be necessary. Expect to still cary several pounds of gear on your pack so it’s important to have a backpack that sits well on your back with good suspension. However, you don’t need a 50L+ backpack instead opt for a size around 35L that should be enough to carry all of your necessities.
We have a large number of hiking backpacks and they range in sizes. If you have plans for other short treks that may or may not have a porter you can go with a 50L that will lend more versatility without being so large its unnecessarily cumbersome on the trail.
We personally like to use 50L packs for most day hikes in the mountains as it allows for us to carry everything we could need. Major plus side is a large bag means we can bring things like a stove to make coffee or a hot meal for a nice rest. As far as our recommendation on smaller backpacks we love the Traverse from REI and the Exos/Tempest from Osprey.
Merrell Moab 2
These aren’t the poshest shoes in the world, but they retain some style for hiking shoes. After trying on close to 30 pairs of different shoes, the Moab Ventilator shoe is a great all-around hiking shoe for both men and women. Plus they’re affordable at around $100!
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