Trekking through Japan’s ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails

A three-storied pagoda with the stunning Nashi Falls in the background. Pic: Asia Tour Packages

IN ancient times it was called the “Land of Yomi”, meaning land of the dead, a wilderness of dense cedar forests and high mountain passes, believed to be embedded with spirits of Japanese and Buddhist deities.

Located in southeast Japan, everyone from emperors to lowly peasants have ventured on pilgrimages to the region. Their pilgrim routes threaded into the landscape through the centuries, leaving a series of trails that still exist today called the Kumano Kodo.

One of only two UNESCO heritage treks in the world, the Kumano Kodo is located in the mountainous Kii Peninsula of the Kumano region, often credited with embodying the spiritual culture of Japan.

Less than a two-hour bullet train ride from Kyoto, the region is in stark contrast to the throbbing urban congestion of Japan’s old capital. One of the more unexplored parts of country, its quaint local villages, hot spring baths and breathtaking scenery are well off-the-beaten-path of Japan’s tourist hot spots.

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Despite being registered as a World Heritage Site, the Kumano Kodo is relatively unknown in comparison to its UNESCO counterpart, the well-traveled Camino de Santiago trek in northern Spain.

For travelers who dare to take the road less traveled, the Kumano Kodo is an opportunity for trekkers to step into an authentic and untouched setting of rural Japan, void of crowds and tourist cliches.

Traditionally pilgrims came to the region to visit the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha, and Nachi Taisha, collectively referred to as Kumano Sanzan.


The Hongu Taisha shrine in Kumano Kudo. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

When Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century, it merged with the local Shinto beliefs and became rooted in the Kumano region. It was during this period that temples and shrines began to be built deep in the mountainous region and the earliest Kumano Kodo trails were formed.

Along these trails were scattered the diminutive Oji shrines of the local deities, where prayers and religious rites could be given and which are still standing today.

There are five main trails that still exist, varying from-two day treks to week-long excursions, and even longer. Detailed maps of the routes are available online or at information centers, although organized trekking guides are available and recommended for the longer trails.

The Nakahechi Trail is the most popular trek for tourists. Pic: Samurai Tours

The Nakahechi Trail is the most popular trek for tourists. Pic: Samurai Tours

The Nakahechi Trail is the most popular and recommended route. It is a 30 kilometer, two-day trek that is accessible for all levels, with well-placed markers to guide trekkers throughout. Accommodation is available in the few local villages visited on the trail, and many family inns have access to the hot spring baths found in the region.

All trails, regardless of where they start, bring trekkers inland through the Kii mountain peninsula, through rural hamlets and terraced rice fields, along trickling waterfalls and over steep mountain passes to where the Kumano shrines reside and Japan’s spiritual culture began.