Experience Japan’s ancient walking pilgrimage.
For more than 1,000 years, Japanese people have made the arduous pilgrimage to the Kumano region in search of healing and salvation. Accessible to all regardless of position or belief, the trail has been travelled by both the humble and the exalted, peasants and emperors. The Kumano Kodo traverses the dense cedar and cypress forests of the mountainous Kii Peninsula, which is south of the ancient capital Kyoto.
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage is not a single route, but rather a network of trails with a common destination. The destination is the ancient and important Grand Shinto shrines of Kumano Hongu, Hayatama and Nachi, collectively referred to as the Kumano Sanzan.
Pilgrims walk this path seeking purification of both body and spirit. This stems from the physical challenge of completing the pilgrimage. The asceticism of the hike is believed to be a personal sacrifice to save people suffering from agony.
The temples that one encounters during the pilgrimage reflect a mixture and fusion of Buddhist and Shinto beliefs. People of all persuasions and beliefs have always been welcome to observe and, if they wish, to participate in some of the rituals that accompany this journey.
UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site
The mystical Kii Mountains are a spiritual hot spot that have attracted, connected and inspired people since prehistoric times. Due to the outstanding universal value of the sacred sites and corresponding pilgrimage routes, they were recognized in 2004 as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site under the name “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.”
There are only two UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage networks in the world, the Kumano Kodo and Way of St. James in Spain. The cities from each country have worked together to promote world pilgrimage culture and share knowledge, while respecting each other’s unique spiritual and cultural heritage.
Kumano Kodo offers many options for walking, from short walks you can complete in a day to week-long hikes through the rugged and lush mountains. There are two popular longer routes in the area: the Nakahechi route and the Kohechi route, both with a common destination, the Kumano Sanzan.
The Nakahechi route
The Nakahechi route starts from Tanabe on the western coast of the Kii Peninsula and traverses east into the mountains toward the Kumano Sanzan. Pilgrims and hikers will experience its deep history dating back to the 10th century, when the Nakahechi route was extensively used by the Imperial Family on pilgrimage from Kyoto. The Nakahechi is a popular route with visitors and hikers. It is easily accessed, meaning you will encounter more hikers on the trail.
The Kohechi route
The Kohechi route cuts through the centre of the Kii Peninsula from north to south, linking the Buddhist temple complex of Koyasan, a centre of Buddhist study and practice located on an 800-metre-high mountaintop, and one of the most important grand shrines, Kumano Hongu. At the start of the Kohechi route, you have the opportunity to stay in a temple lodge for a taste of the monastic lifestyle in Koyasan. Staying overnight at one of 52 temples offering accommodations in Koyasan is an amazing cultural experience.
The Kohechi traverses dense forests, passes through small villages deep in the valley and offers stunning viewpoints of mountains, rivers and villages in the valley below. You will be able to learn about the unique history of Kumano’s spiritual countryside while travelling on this route. Walking the Kohechi is a great way to explore lesser-known areas where an unspoiled, picturesque Japanese landscape still remains. Interaction with locals while travelling the Kohechi route will be a highlight of your trip in Japan.
The Kohechi route is suitable for those seeking to combine a unique cultural and deeply spiritual experience with a beautiful and sometimes challenging hike. With few lodgings available and limited accessibility, the Kohechi route is much less travelled than other routes, thus you will encounter far fewer hikers on the way. If you would like to attempt this route, hiring a local guide or taking a guided hike is highly recommended.
Diversity of experiences
There are some options for lodging in the Kumano region including ryokan (traditional inns) and minshyuku (guesthouses). Staying in traditional-style accommodations is one of the highlights of travelling in the region, especially in a hot springs village where you can soak in healing mineral waters and dine on fresh local cuisine.
A hike along the Kumano Kodo is also a culinary journey. Meals are authentically regional, with emphasis on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients.
If you plan to travel to Kumano Kodo, travel responsibly, respect the locals’ faith, take your time, open your mind and enjoy.