17 Things to Know BEFORE Hiking the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail

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 at 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. I think 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.

Largest O-Torii in the World

Traveling on the Kumano Kodo Trail

What is the Kumano Kodo Trail?

Kumano is an isolated, sacred site of healing and salvation. It is the Spiritual Heart of Japan, and 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 to hubs like Osaka and Kyoto.

This network of paths is the Kumano Kodo trail, which many still walk to this day. Since it was a network of trails, there was no one set trail. The Kumano Koodo is a maze of routes that travel up and down ridges, along the coast, and through old Japanese forests full of cypress and cedar trees. Around 3000 shrines and plenty of excellent sites are scattered across the ancient network.

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 worldwide.

Now, pilgrims and travelers come worldwide to enjoy the spirituality and tranquility of these old mountains, trails, forests, and shrines. The course is not a camping experience. Although there are a few campsites, most pilgrims stay in guesthouses and ryokans along the way. It is 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 Trail?

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. Most 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 Trail?

We had no idea what to expect from 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 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 May. Don’t forget to put a rain jacket on your Japan packing list, just in case.

Another great and popular time 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 Trail 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. When making plans, you’ll want to look at how many days you have available to do this pilgrimage and your budget for accommodation/food/camping.

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 ridiculous long hiking days.

Furthermore, since there is no set route, start, or 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.

The Kumano Kodo Trail is Suitable for All Ages

We saw all ages hiking the Kumano Kodo. I would say if you are between 10 and 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 makes 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 trail is not a set route, and there is no set number of days you must be on the trail. You can do one route in a day and have just as much 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 we 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 vowed to return one day.

Book in Advance

This 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. 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 many choices. We decided on this trip about two weeks out and we’re left with very few accommodation options.

Wear Proper Hiking Footwear on the Kumano Kodo Trail

Kumano Kodo

I didn’t find the network of trails to be anything like climbing in the Canadian Rockies, but you are still in the mountains, and there are still plenty of ups and downs on the Kumano Kodo.

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 the Salomon Speedcross), 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 luggage shuttles 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

Kumano Kodo

Like the rest of Japan, having cash is vital to the Kumano Kodo. Most facilities do not accept credit cards 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 Trail

Kumano Kodo
You’ll spend more time hugging trees though

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 see 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 is 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 highlight 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 Pilgrimage Etiquette on the Kumano Kodo Trail

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 them. You should bow from the hips when you enter and exit the main torii or gate (face the torii on exit). The torii mark the entrance into a Shinto shrine and separate 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 Trail is a Culinary Journey

Cold Soba Noodles on the Kumano Kodo – Yum!

You’re going to get hungry after all that trekking! Thankfully you are in a country with extraordinary food. Before starting your day on the Kumano Kodo, breakfast is essential. 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 Trail Expensive to Hike?

Kumano Kodo

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 Trail?

What to Bring on the Kumano Kodo Trail

You’ll want to pack hiking gear for this trip. That means hiking shoes, lightweight pants, and hiking boots.

Japan Travel Planning Resources

About Natasha Alden

Natasha is the co-founder of The World Pursuit. She is an expert in travel, budgeting, and finding unique experiences. She loves to be outside, hiking in the mountains, playing in the snow on her snowboard, and biking. She has been traveling for over 10 years, across 7 continents, experiencing unique cultures, new food, and meeting fantastic people. She strives to make travel planning and traveling easier for all. Her advice about international travel, outdoor sports, and African safari has been featured on Lonely Planet, Business Insider, and Reader’s Digest.

Learn more about Natasha Alden on The World Pursuit About Us Page.

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