The Best Kumano Kodo Tours (Guided vs. Self-Guided)

Tristan Balme Best kumano kodo tours

Planning a Kumano Kodo hike can be a headache..

(it was for me at least!)

A simple search can send you spiraling down the rabbit hole as you sift through websites (half of which are in Japanese) trying to find the right combination of accommodation, transport, and routes to make (firstly) it all work – and then (secondly) try to align this to your budget, travel style, and date preferences. 

It took me weeks of research, bookings, and a month of waiting for Kumano Travel to confirm before I knew I could even do this trip!!

That’s why in this article I wanted to share an easier way, that is, of booking a Kumano Kodo tour package (as well as some tips if you do want to DIY it)

Best Guided Tours:

1️⃣ Walk Japan (My Recommendation) [Jump To Review]

2️⃣ Oku Japan (Runner Up) [Jump To Review]

3️⃣ Home Comforts Hiking [Jump To Review]

Best Self-Guided Tours

4️⃣ Walk Japan: Kumano Kodo Wayfarer [Jump To Review]

5️⃣ Samurai Tours [Jump To Review]

6️⃣ Unique Japan Tours [Jump To Review]

Guided vs Self Guided vs DIY Self-Guided

The first thing you need to do is figure out if you want to experience the Kumano Kodo as a guided or self-guided tour. The former will cost a bit more, but you’ll learn a great deal about the history and significance of the trail.

  • Guided: All your bookings are handled, you just turn up and meet your native-language-speaking guide. You can book as a group or privately depending on your preference.
  • Self-Guided: The agency will handle all your accommodation bookings and itinerary. You’ll also get luggage transfers and a driver to drop off/ pick up as required.
  • DIY Self-Guided: You’re doing it all yourself; planning and booking routes, accommodation and any logistics along the way.

I opted for DIY self-guided as I love the freedom to take days at my own speed (often fast) and was probably more interested in the food and swimming holes along the way than 4 days of history lessons. It was A LOT of planning, and a huuuge amount of anxiety waiting for almost 6 weeks for Kumano Travel to lock in our reservations. If you value your time, booking a package is a lot easier!

Guidance and support

A guided tour provides you with professionals who will lead you along the trail. They’ll share their knowledge and insights, and assist with any issues or emergencies. 

On the other hand, tackling the route on your own gives you more freedom and flexibility. You’ll have access to detailed maps and instructions. The only drawback is you’ll have to do more research and preparation and be responsible for your own safety and navigation. You’ll also not be able to mingle with a group (if you’re into that) and won’t get as much local lore and history along the way.

Accommodation and Meals

Both tour types arrange your accommodation and meals for you. You’ll be staying in traditional Japanese inns, temples, or guesthouses along the trail. They have a cozy and authentic feel and are paired with delicious home-cooked meals. Most of them also feature onsens (hot spring baths) where you can relax and soothe your muscles after a long day of walking. 

Some tour operators work closely with guesthouses, and they often ensure their guests get the most comfortable stay, but bascially the accomodation and meals will be the same with whatever option you chose.

Luggage and Transportation

Because you’ll be staying at different places for the duration of your hike, tour operators will take care of your luggage and transportation for you, either by daily luggage shuttle or by private vehicle. This means you only have to carry a day pack with your essentials and enjoy the scenery and the walk without worrying about your belongings. 

Going the DIY route means you have to carry your own luggage or arrange your own luggage shuttle or transportation, which can be costly and complicated.

Cost and Value

Choosing to hike with a guide is a hassle-free and immersive experience. You’ll have access to expert guidance and support, and exclusive activities. But it also means more expenses because you’ll pay for the guide’s fee, accommodation, meals, luggage, transportation, and other add-ons. 

Traveling on your own is budget-friendly. You’ll still pay for the basics, but you have more time to enjoy the scenery. If you relish a bit of independence in your travels, this might appeal to you. Bear in mind that you’ll handle all the logistics. This entails investing more time and effort in doing thorough research and dealing with more challenges and uncertainties. 

FeatureGuided TourSelf-Guided TourDIY Delf Guided
Guidance and SupportProfessional guide leads the way, shares knowledge, assists with issuesDetailed maps & instructions, local phone/email support, self-reliant planning & navigationInternet research and the Kumano Kodo guide book
Accommodation and MealsPre-arranged ryokan/minshuku with delicious meals, onsensPre-arranged ryokan/minshuku with delicious meals, onsensMore flexibility, finding & booking accommodation/meals yourself but harder to secure a spot and more admin!
Luggage and TransportationDaily luggage shuttle or private vehicle, carry day pack onlyDaily luggage shuttle or private vehicle, carry day pack onlyManage your own luggage (if going completely DIY), potentially higher costs
Cost and ValueHassle-free & immersive experience, expert guidance, exclusive activities, higher expensesHassle-free way to book and organise your trip but more expensive than DIY optionHassle-free & immersive experience, expert guidance, exclusive activities, higher expenses

The 3 Best Guided Kumano Kodo Tour Packages

The tours below are what I believe are the best-guided packages for the Kumano Kodo. While I didn’t take any of these tours myself we met people along the way who were on a Walk Japan tour and couldn’t speak highly enough of it!

1️⃣ Walk Japan (My Recommendation)

Walk japan best kumano kodo tours

Walk Japan is one of the most reputable and experienced tour operators. They have been operating since 1992 and have a team of knowledgeable and friendly guides. Their guided tour–the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage–to be an excellent package and is good value for money given the iternary and number of nights.

Price: Around $3,395 per person but check their website for the latest deals and updates.

Highlights and Features 

  • 9 days, 8 nights
  • Hike from Koyasan to Ise
  • Visit three Grand Shrines
  • Stay in temples, ryokan, and minshuku
  • Small group size, maximum of 12 people
  • All meals included
  • Luggage transfers included
  • Entrance fees included
  • Pricing is twin share so minimum of 2 people is generally required.

2️⃣ Oku Japan (Runner Up)

Oku Japan

Oku Japan is well-known for its off-the-beaten-track adventures. They have been offering guided tours since 2003 and boast a knowledgeable team of local and international guides. They offer 2 packages: the Kumano Ancient Trail and the Japan Hiking Highlights: The Kumano Kodo and the Nakasendo Trail.

Kumano Ancient Trail

  • 9 days
  • From imperial Kyoto to Kii-Katsuura
  • See the Three Grand Shrines 
  • Exclusive Shamisen musical performance
  • Full-time services of an English-speaking tour guide
  • 8 nights in hotels and Japanese-style inns
  • Daily breakfast and dinners
  • Transportation between tour locations
  • Boat ride on the Kumano River
  • Forwarding of 1 item of luggage on 2 occasions
  • Price: ~$3,395 per person (last checked)

The Kumano Kodo and the Nakasendo Trail

  • 11 days, 10 nights
  • Hike from Takijiri to Nachi, covering the Nakahechi route
  • Visit three Grand Shrines of Kumano and Nachi Falls
  • Stay in ryokan and minshuku
  • Small group size, maximum 12 people
  • Walk and discover historic Kyoto and visit Zen temples
  • Enjoy lunch with a Maiko apprentice geisha
  • Boat ride along the Kumano River to Hayatama Taisha 
  • Visit an artisanal Miso producer 
  • Full-time services of an English-speaking tour guide
  • All meals
  • Transportation between tour locations
  • Luggage transfers
  • Price: $6090 per person

3️⃣ Home Comforts Hiking

home comforts hiking

Home Comforts offers a 6-day and 5-night walk along the ancient pilgrimage routes of the Kumano Kodo. They offer a truly memorable cultural experience through Kumano’s spiritual countryside.

Highlights and Features 

  • Accommodation in comfortable ryokans and minshukus with onsens
  • All meals
  • Luggage transfer
  • Local transport
  • Entrance fees
  • Professional guide
  • Price: $AU2,390 per person

The Best Self-Guided Tour Packages

As mentioned before, self-guided tours are a great option if you want to take the hassle out of booking (and figuring out an itinerary), but don’t want to be accompanied by a guide.

I’d definitely consider this if doing the walk again as doing the bookings yourself was haaard work and very confusing.

4️⃣ Walk Japan: Kumano Kodo Wayfarer

walk japan self guided

Walk Japan also offers self-guided tours called the Kumano Kodo Wayfarer. 

Highlights and Features 

  • 7 days, 6 nights
  • Hike from Yuasa to Shingu, covering the Nakahechi route
  • Visit two of the Grand Shrines of Kumano
  • Stay in ryokan and minshuku, with onsen and local cuisine
  • Accommodation
  • All meals
  • Luggage transfers
  • Route Booklet and Supplementary Information
  • Rail tickets
  • One pre-booked taxi transfer
  • 24-hour English language emergency support.
  • Price: Around $1,495 per person

5️⃣ Samurai Tours

Samurai Tours

This US-based agency has been providing self-guided tours since 2000. Their comprehensive tour package includes accommodation, meals, luggage, transportation, local support, and a detailed tour handbook. You walk at your own pace and schedule, but you can also join optional group activities and experiences. 

Highlights and Features 

  • 7 days, 6 nights
  • Hike from Kyoto to Kii-Katsuura
  • Visit the three Grand Shrines of Kumano
  • Visiting the Kumano Sanzan
  • Kumano Kawabune Boat Ride
  • Travel Guard Gold Policy (for American tour members only)
  • Baggage transfer from city to city
  • Stay in temples, ryokan, and minshuku
  • Price: $ 1,495 per person

6️⃣Unique Japan Tours 

unique japan tours

Unique Japan offers a variety of self-guided, fully tailored, and small group tour adventures in Japan. They have been operating since 2004, and have a knowledgeable team of travel specialists. 

Features: Unique Japan Tours 

  • 7-night and 8-day 
  • Kyoto to Nagoya
  • Stay in temples, ryokans, and minshukus
  • All meals
  • Luggage transfer
  • Local transport during the tour
  • Entrance fees
  • Professional English-speaking local guide
  • Detailed tour information pack
  • Price: $2,390 AUD per person

Best Kumano Kodo Tour Company: Summary

CompanyRoutes AvailableGroup type and sizeTour type AccommodationHighlightsDuration (days)Price Range (USD)
Walk JapanNakahechi, Kohechi, Iseji, Koyasan, Hayatama TaishaPrivate (6-12) & Shared (4-12)Guided and Self-guidedMinshuku, hotels, templesExperienced guides, cultural experiences3-7 2,295 – 8,295
Oku JapanNakahechi, Kiiji, Kohechi, Ohechi, IsejiPrivate (1-8)Guided and Self-guidedMinshuku, traditional innsFlexible pace, local expertise3-7 1,495 – 3,695
Home Comforts HikingNakahechi, Kohechi, IsejiShared (4-8) & Private (1-6)Guided Traditional inns, minshukuPersonalized service, focus on comfort5-8 3,200 – 4,800
Samurai ToursNakahechi, Kohechi, Iseji, KoyasanShared (2-12) & Private (1-8)Guided and Self-guidedTraditional inns, minshukuHistorical focus, immersive experiences4-7 3,495 – 7,995
Unique Japan ToursNakahechi, Kohechi, Iseji, KoyasanShared (2-10) & Private (1-8)Self GuidedTraditional inns, minshukuDiverse activities, flexible options4-7 3,995 – 5,995

How To Book Your Own Kumano Kodo Experience (Do It Yourself Booking)

Step 1. Choose your route and itinerary

Decide which route and itinerary you want to follow. The most popular and accessible route is the Nakahechi. It’s often completed within 8 days, but if there are other attractions you’d like to explore (and plenty of time and energy to spare), you can combine it with the Kohechi or the Iseji routes.

Step 2. Book your accommodation 

I recommend staying in Ryokans or Minshukus as opposed to hotels. They offer the most comfortable stay with a homely feel. Some also have onsen or hot spring baths, which are a great way to relax and rejuvenate after a long day of walking. 

My go-to online agencies are Booking.com and Kumano Travel. I especially love the latter because it offers accurate and updated information, which helps me make a more informed decision. 

Step 3. Arrange your luggage and transportation

It’s a lot easier and more comfortable using a luggage shuttle service. Your luggage will be transferred from one accommodation to another, so you only have to carry a day pack with your essentials. Again, an excellent provider for this is Kumano Travel (if your accommodation doesn’t have the option). You can expect to pay around 1,000 yen per bag per day. 

Alternatively, you can carry your own luggage. But I don’t recommend it. This will make your hike more difficult and less enjoyable.

Step 4. Get your local support and tour guidebook

Even if you’re hiking all by yourself, having local support is a smart idea. You’ll never know when issues may arise. Most tour operators provide you with maps, instructions, history, culture, and contact details for any emergencies.

What To Watch Out For When Booking The Kumano Kodo

Tip 1: The Weather and Seasons

You can hike all year round, but the best time to visit is spring. The weather is mild and pleasant, with the most stunning scenery. This also makes it the most popular and crowded of times. So you can expect higher prices. 

If you opt for summer, be prepared for frequent rain and typhoons. There is a lot more scenic diversity, and the rainfall contributes to the refreshing waterfalls, but be prepared for the heat and the insects.

In this guide i share my thoughts on when’s best to walk the Kumano. 

Tip 2: Plan For The Difficulty and fitness

The Kumano Kodo is not a walk in the park, but a serious hike that will test your fitness and stamina. It’s steep, rocky, and sometimes muddy and slippery. You might also find yourself walking for several hours a day in challenging weather conditions. While it’s safe to say you should prepare yourself physically by hiking on similar terrains, you should also prepare yourself mentally before embarking on the hike. 

Tip 3: Pick A Good Tour Operators

Don’t just go for the cheapest option. Look for companies with experience, good reviews, and clear communication. This will make for a fantastic experience. 

If you’re planning on guided tours, decide if you prefer the personalized attention of a small group or the social interaction of a larger one. Consider your comfort level with shared accommodation and transportation. 

Another aspect that’s often overlooked is the inclusions and exclusions. Carefully read and understand what’s covered in the tour price (meals, accommodation, luggage transfers) and what’s not (flights, insurance, tips). 

Tip 4: And book well in advance!!

Accommodation and services along the trail are in high demand. Book your trip as early as possible, especially if you are traveling during peak seasons or holidays. Some places have different policies and conditions–check-in times, cancellation fees–so be mindful of that before booking.

Here are the places i reccommend staying if you’re doing the Nakahechi Route.

Tip 5: Pack smartly

Packing for the hike requires a balance of comfort, preparedness, and minimizing your load. Here’s an overview of essential gear to bring along. 

  • Hiking boots
  • Day pack
  • Clothing: Layering is key, but ensure it’s adjustable for the season
  • Sun protection
  • Map, compass, or GPS
  • First-aid kit
  • Headlamp
  • Trekking poles (optional but recommended)

You can checkout this article of mine on what to bring for the Kumano Kodo here.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which Kumano Kodo route is best?

The best route is the Nakahechi Trail. It’s the most popular, offers scenic diversity, and is moderately difficult. You can read my full guide on it here.

How many days do you need?

Depending on the route you choose, you can expect to complete the entire trail in as short as 4 days for the Nakahechi Route, or 8 Days for the Ise Route. This all depends on your speed and fitness, as well as what accommodation you end up securing. 

Is the Kumano Kodo Worth It?

Although the hike is physically demanding, I believe it’s worth it. It has the most breathtaking scenery and gives you a chance to experience Japan’s rich culture. 
If you love a good challenge, it’s a fantastic way to test your physical and mental limits, conquer rugged terrain, and experience a sense of accomplishment and inner peace., while connecting with fellow travelers.

Kumano Kodo Travel Planning Cheatsheet

 

🚑 Should I buy travel insurance for Japan?

100% YES! — Japan has “free” healthcare but it’s only for citizens! Tourists need travel insurance in case anything happens on your visit. Also be aware many policies won't cover hiking as it's a high risk activity! (that's right, check the t&c's on your complimentary credit card insurance

I highly recommend World Nomads as you can get specific add-ons for the crazy activities you're doing – and starts at just $7 a day!

🏩 What’s the best way to book my Kumano Kodo accommodation?

Your only realy two options here are Kumano Travel and Booking.com. Its a complicated process so I wrote this guide here on the best kumano kodo accomodation options

If you don't want to figure it all out (it's meant to be a holiday after all) you can book a package tour. Here are my recommendations for both guided and self-guided.

🚙 Do you need to rent a car in Japan?

I wouldn't reccommend it — Transport in Japan is expensive whatever mode you chose, but fortunalty the publc transport system is out of this world in terms of both freqency and coverage. 

🚆 What about the JR Rail Pass?

We didn't - but it depends on the length and itenirary of your trip. The JR Pass is expensive (and just went up in price again!) and if you're walking the Kumano Kodo you wont need it for probably 6 days straight anyway. 

Do the math, but in most cases buying the train fares you need, when you need it will work out more afforably overall - and give you more flexibility (as the JR Pass doesn't cover all lines)

📲 How do I get internet/data/wifi in Japan and on the trail?

This one needs a whole nother article, but the short version is local SIM cards are cheaper but generally require a fixed term contract. Tourist 'short stay' SIMs are a bit more expensive but will give you plenty of data while your visiting and are best for solo travelllers. If you're travelling as 2 or more people, renting a pocket WIFI unit from the airport is the most economical option.

✈️ What’s the best site to buy flights to Japan?

For finding cheap flights, I recommend Skyscanner. Once you find the flight you're looking for, I'd then suggest booking directly with the carrier (even if it costs a few $$ more than with one of the agreggators/agencies).

💧Can you drink the water on the Kumano Kodo?

Yes — Japan is very clean. In all townships you'll pass through and stay along the Kumano Kodo the tap water is drinkable. If you want to drink water from the rivers and streams you generally can but should do so at your own risk. ALWAYS follow best practice and drink from fast flowing water as far up stream as possible. I drank the water and was fine.. but i'd generally recommend a Brita Water Bottle for rehydrating on the trail safely. 

🎫 Do I need a visa for Japan?

Likely Not — Japan now recognises 70 countries as 'visa exempt' for short term stay. So if you're a US, UK, NZ, AU and EU passport holder you don’t need a Japansese visas. However, some other countries do (check here!). And if you plan to stay for more than 90 days (an average tourist visa length), you will need to look into the Japanese working holiday visa scheme, or the new Digital Nomad visa scheme. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Kilimanjaro Park Fees 2024 (This Is How They’re Calculated)

Climbing Kilimanjaro is not cheap. When I was planning my trip back in 2019, the...

The Best Kumano Kodo Accommodation Options (My Recommendations)

One of the most distinctive features of the Kumano Kodo track is the accommodation. There...

The 7 Best Kilimanjaro Tour Operators (And Who I Used!)

I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2019. But choosing the right tour operator wasn’t an easy...

Where To Stay In Tanabe, Japan (My 4 Picks!)

I spent a couple of nights in Tanabe while hiking the Kumano Kodo trail. The...

The Best Kumano Kodo Tours (Guided vs. Self-Guided)

Planning a Kumano Kodo hike can be a headache.. (it was for me at least!)...

The Best Food In Vanuatu (12 Local Delicacies To Try!)

When I visit a new country or culture, I make it a point to indulge...