My Kumano Kodo Trail Complete Guide (With Maps and Photos)

Tristan Balme My complete guide to hiking the kumano kodo

Preface: I hiked the Nakahetchi route in July of 2023. I chose to do it in 4 days / 5 nights, starting in Kii Tanabe and ending in Kii Katsura. We took a local bus to the start of the trail at Takajiri Oji and from the end at Nachi Falls to Kii Katsura but walked the ~75km in between.

This guide is a high-level overview of all the Kumano Kodo options (because there’s a lot!). For a detailed guide of the Nakahechi Route read this article here.

As someone who has always been fascinated by Japanese culture, I was eager to take on the challenge of hiking the Kumano Kodo. This ancient pilgrimage trail has been in use for over 1000 years and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of the most famous pilgrimage routes in Japan and is said to have spiritual power.

Unfortunately finding good information about what the Kumano Kodo is is kind of hard..

For instance, it’s actually a series of trails, not just one – so you can’t do it all at once.

It’s also best to book your accommodation through the Kumano Travel website, but you’ll need to do it at least 2 months in advance!!

In this blog post, I will share my experiences hiking the Kumano Kodo, and provide you with a detailed guide to help you plan your own trip.

Why is the Kumano Kodo so famous?

The Kumano Kodo has been a pilgrimage route for over 1000 years. It is said to have spiritual power, and many people believe that walking the trail can help purify the soul. The trail was used by emperors, samurais, and common people alike, and it is still an important part of Japanese culture today. In 2004, the Kumano Kodo was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognizing its cultural and historical significance.

Tristan Balme Kodo pilgrimage in japan

A summary of the hike

The Kumano Kodo is a 75-kilometer trail that takes 5-6 days to complete. The trail is divided into several sections, each with its own unique challenges and rewards. The trail is well-marked, and there are plenty of rest areas and accommodations along the way. The trail is open year-round, but it is recommended to hike it during the spring or fall when the weather is mild.

Choosing your route:

The route described in this article is the Nakahechi Route, which is the most popular and well-known route of the Kumano Kodo. However, there are two other routes: the Kohechi Route and the Iseji Route. The Kohechi Route starts in the city of Kyoto and ends in the Hongu area, while the Iseji Route starts in Ise City and heads towards the Kumano Sanzan. Each route has its own unique challenges and rewards, and all three routes are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Here are the details of the three routes for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage:

Option 1: The Nakahechi Route

(AKA The Imperial Route)

The Nakahechi Route is the most popular and well-known route of the Kumano Kodo. It starts at takajiri Oji and ends in Nachi Taisa. This route is divided into four main sections, each with its own unique challenges and rewards. The trail is well-marked, and there are plenty of rest areas and accommodations along the way.

It’s typically hiked in 4 or 5 days, but can be done in 6 with a rest day or a side quest to Yunomine Onsen.

  • Duration: 4-6 days
  • Distance: 70 kilometers
  • Difficulty: Moderate to challenging

Kohechi Route

  • Duration: 6-7 days
  • Distance: 70 kilometers
  • Difficulty: Challenging

The Kohechi Route starts in the city of Kyoto and ends in the Hongu area. This route is less popular than the Nakahechi Route, but it is known for its challenging terrain and stunning scenery. The trail is well-marked, but there are fewer rest areas and accommodations along the way.

Iseji Route

  • Duration: 5-6 days
  • Distance: 170 kilometers
  • Difficulty: Moderate to challenging

The Iseji Route starts in Ise City and heads towards the Kumano Sanzan. This route is the longest of the three routes and is known for its rugged terrain and stunning coastal views. The trail is well-marked, but there are fewer rest areas and accommodations along the way.

Each route has its own unique challenges and rewards, and all three routes are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hiking the kumano kodo

A summary of the hike (My Experience on the Imperial Route)

Day 1

The first day of the hike starts in Takijiri-oji and ends in Tsugizakura-oji. This section of the trail is 11 kilometers long and takes approximately 5 hours to complete. The trail starts with a steep climb up a mountain, but the views from the top are spectacular. Along the way, there are several rest areas and waterfalls to admire.

Where To Stay – Takijiri-oji Community Center

If you’re looking for a budget-friendly accommodation option on the first night of the Kumano Kodo trail, the Takijiri-oji Community Center is a great option. This community center is located in Takijiri, near the start of the trail, and offers a unique and authentic Japanese experience.

The price for one night at the Takijiri-oji Community Center is 2,000 yen per person. You can book a room by calling the center directly at +81 735-42-0739.

The community center features simple but comfortable Japanese-style rooms with tatami flooring and futon beds. There are shared bathrooms and showers on each floor. The center also has a common room where you can relax and socialize with other hikers.

Day 2

The second day of the hike starts in Tsugizakura-oji and ends in Kumano Hongu Taisha. This section of the trail is 14.5 kilometers long and takes approximately 7 hours to complete. The trail follows a river for much of the way and is relatively flat. Along the way, there are several shrines and temples to visit.

Where To Stay – Kawayu Midoriya

Kawayu Midoriya is a budget-friendly accommodation option located in Kawayu Onsen, which is near the end of day 2 of the Kumano Kodo trail. The inn offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and is known for its hot springs. Staying here is a unique and authentic Japanese experience that won’t break the bank.

The price for one night at Kawayu Midoriya starts at 6,000 yen per person. You can book a room on their website or through Booking.com.

The inn features simple but comfortable Japanese-style rooms with tatami flooring and futon beds. There is also a communal bathhouse where you can soak in the hot springs and relax after a long day of hiking. The inn serves delicious Japanese-style meals made with local ingredients, which is a great way to experience the local cuisine.

Day 3

The third day of the hike starts in Kumano Hongu Taisha and ends in Yunomine Onsen. This section of the trail is 20 kilometers long and takes approximately 8 hours to complete. The trail is challenging, with several steep climbs and descents. Along the way, there are several hot springs to soak in and rest areas to take a break.

Where To Stay – Yunomine Sanso

Yunomine Sanso is a budget-friendly accommodation option located in Yunomine Onsen, which is near the end of day 3 of the Kumano Kodo trail. The inn offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and is known for its hot springs. Staying here is a unique and authentic Japanese experience that won’t break the bank.

The price for one night at Yunomine Sanso starts at 5,000 yen per person. You can book a room on their website or through Booking.com.

The inn features simple but comfortable Japanese-style rooms with tatami flooring and futon beds. There is also a communal bathhouse where you can soak in the hot springs and relax after a long day of hiking. The inn serves delicious Japanese-style meals made with local ingredients, which is a great way to experience the local cuisine.

Day 4

The fourth day of the hike starts in Yunomine Onsen and ends in Koguchi. This section of the trail is 16.5 kilometers long and takes approximately 7 hours to complete. The trail is challenging, with several steep climbs and descents. Along the way, there are several rest areas and waterfalls to admire.

Where To Stay – Minshuku Momofuku

Minshuku Momofuku is a budget-friendly accommodation option located in Koguchi, which is near the end of day 4 of the Kumano Kodo trail. The inn offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and is known for its warm hospitality. Staying here is a unique and authentic Japanese experience that won’t break the bank.

The price for one night at Minshuku Momofuku starts at 8,000 yen per person, which includes dinner and breakfast. You can book a room on their website or by calling them directly at +81 735-85-0026.

The inn features simple but comfortable Japanese-style rooms with tatami flooring and futon beds. There is also a communal bathhouse where you can soak in the hot springs and relax after a long day of hiking. The inn serves delicious Japanese-style meals made with local ingredients, which is a great way to experience the local cuisine.

Day 5

The fifth day of the hike starts in Koguchi and ends in Nachi Taisha. This section of the trail is 14.5 kilometers long and takes approximately 6 hours to complete. The trail follows a river for much of the way and is relatively flat. Along the way, there are several shrines and temples to visit.

Where To Stay – Ryokan Kajinoko

Ryokan Kajinoko is a budget-friendly accommodation option located in Nachi-Katsuura, which is near the end of day 5 of the Kumano Kodo trail. The inn offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and is known for its hot springs. Staying here is a unique and authentic Japanese experience that won’t break the bank.

The price for one night at Ryokan Kajinoko starts at 6,000 yen per person. You can book a room on their website or through Booking.com.

The inn features simple but comfortable Japanese-style rooms with tatami flooring and futon beds. There is also a communal bathhouse where you can soak in the hot springs and relax after a long day of hiking. The inn serves delicious Japanese-style meals made with local ingredients, which is a great way to experience the local cuisine.

Days 6

If you have extra time, there are several side trails you can explore. The most popular side trail is the Daimon-zaka trail, which is a 600-meter long stone staircase that leads to Nachi Taisha. This trail is lined with ancient cedar trees and is said to be one of the most beautiful parts of the Kumano Kodo.

Where To Stay – Kiri-no-Sato Takahara

Kiri-no-Sato Takahara is a budget-friendly accommodation option located in Takahara, which is near the end of day 6 of the Kumano Kodo trail. The inn offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and is known for its warm hospitality. Staying here is a unique and authentic Japanese experience that won’t break the bank.

The price for one night at Kiri-no-Sato Takahara starts at 6,000 yen per person. You can book a room on their website or through Booking.com.

The inn features simple but comfortable Japanese-style rooms with tatami flooring and futon beds. There is also a communal bathhouse where you can soak in the hot springs and relax after a long day of hiking. The inn serves delicious Japanese-style meals made with local ingredients, which is a great way to experience the local cuisine.

Sights to see along the way

1. Kumano Hongu Taisha

Kumano Hongu Taisha is one of the most important shrines in Japan and is the spiritual center of the Kumano Kodo. This shrine is located in the village of Hongu and features a massive torii gate that welcomes visitors. What I loved about Kumano Hongu Taisha was its beautiful architecture and serene atmosphere. The shrine is surrounded by towering cedar trees, and the air is filled with the sound of chanting and prayer.

2. Nachi Taisha

Nachi Taisha is home to the tallest waterfall in Japan and is a popular destination for pilgrims. This shrine is located in Nachikatsuura and features a massive wooden gate that leads to the main hall. What I loved about Nachi Taisha was its stunning location and the dramatic view of the waterfall. The shrine is perched on a hill, and the waterfall cascades down the mountainside behind it. It’s truly a breathtaking sight.

3. Yunomine Onsen

Yunomine Onsen is one of the oldest hot spring towns in Japan and is said to have healing properties. This town is located along the Kumano Kodo and features several ryokans and public baths. What I loved about Yunomine Onsen was its relaxing atmosphere and the opportunity to soak in the hot springs after a long day of hiking. The water is rich in minerals and has a soothing effect on the muscles.

4. Daimon-zaka

Daimon-zaka is a stone staircase that leads to Nachi Taisha. This trail is lined with ancient cedar trees and is one of the most beautiful parts of the Kumano Kodo. What I loved about Daimon-zaka was its serene and mystical atmosphere. The trees create a canopy overhead, and the sound of water trickling down the mountainside can be heard in the background.

5. Hosshinmon-oji

Hosshinmon-oji is the first of the three grand shrines on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. This shrine is located in the town of Nachi and features a massive wooden gate that leads to the main hall. What I loved about Hosshinmon-oji was its historic significance and beautiful architecture. The shrine has been a pilgrimage destination for over 1000 years, and it’s easy to see why.

6. Hayatama Taisha

Hayatama Taisha is dedicated to the god of the sea and is located near the mouth of the Kumano River. This shrine is located in Shingu and features a massive wooden gate that leads to the main hall. What I loved about Hayatama Taisha was its beautiful location and the stunning view of the river. The shrine is perched on a hill overlooking the water, and it’s a great place to take in the scenery.

7. Oyunohara

Oyunohara is the site of the original Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine, which was destroyed by a flood in the 1800s. This site is located in the village of Hongu and features several stone markers that indicate the location of the original shrine. What I loved about Oyunohara was its historic significance and the opportunity to reflect on the power of nature. The site is surrounded by towering cedar trees, and it’s a peaceful place to contemplate the past.

Tristan Balme views from the kumano kodo

Accommodation

There are several accommodation options along the Kumano Kodo. You can choose to stay in traditional Japanese inns called Ryokans, or you can stay in more modern accommodations. Here are some of the most popular accommodation options:

  • Ryokan Kaminoya: This traditional Japanese inn is located in Yunomine Onsen and is known for its hot springs.
  • Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie: This guesthouse is located in Koguchi and offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
  • Kumano Kodo Nakahechi-no-Sato: This guesthouse is located in Takahara and is known for its traditional Japanese architecture.

Getting There (And Back Again)

The Kumano Kodo can be accessed from several cities in Japan, including Osaka and Kyoto. From there, you can take a train or bus to the starting point of the trail. At the end of the trail, you can take a bus or taxi back to the starting point, or you can continue on to other parts of Japan.

Getting there from Osaka

By Train

If you are starting your hike from Takijiri-oji, the closest train station to Takijiri-oji is Kii-Tanabe Station. You can take a train from Osaka to Kii-Tanabe Station, which takes approximately 2.5 hours and costs around 4,000 yen.

From Kii-Tanabe Station, you can take a bus to Takijiri-oji. The bus ride takes approximately 1 hour and costs 930 yen.

By Flight

If you prefer to fly, you can take a flight from Osaka to Nanki-Shirahama Airport. The flight takes approximately 1 hour and costs around 10,000 yen.

From Nanki-Shirahama Airport, you can take a bus to Kii-Tanabe Station. The bus ride takes approximately 1 hour and costs 1,340 yen.

Getting there from Tokyo

By Train

If you are starting your hike from Takijiri-oji, the closest train station to Takijiri-oji is Kii-Tanabe Station. You can take a train from Tokyo to Kii-Tanabe Station, which takes approximately 6 hours and costs around 14,000 yen.

From Kii-Tanabe Station, you can take a bus to Takijiri-oji. The bus ride takes approximately 1 hour and costs 930 yen.

By Flight

If you prefer to fly, you can take a flight from Tokyo to Nanki-Shirahama Airport. The flight takes approximately 1.5 hours and costs around 20,000 yen.

From Nanki-Shirahama Airport, you can take a bus to Kii-Tanabe Station. The bus ride takes approximately 1 hour and costs 1,340 yen.

My Top 5 Recommendations For Tackling The Kumano Kodo

  1. Take your time:
    The Kumano Kodo is a beautiful trail, and it’s important to take your time and enjoy the scenery.
  2. Pack light:
    You’ll be carrying your own backpack, so it’s important to pack light and only bring the essentials.
  3. Wear comfortable shoes
    The trail can be challenging, so it’s important to wear comfortable and sturdy shoes.
  4. Bring a camera:
    The Kumano Kodo is a beautiful trail, and you’ll want to capture the scenery.
  5. Try the local food: The Kumano Kodo is home to several delicious local dishes, including Kumanofu and Kishu Nankou.

My Gear and Packing Recommendations

  1. Hiking boots: Good quality hiking boots are essential for the Kumano Kodo. You’ll be walking long distances on varied terrain, so it’s important to have sturdy and comfortable footwear. Here is a great pair of hiking boots from REI.
  2. Backpack: You’ll be carrying all of your gear with you, so it’s important to have a backpack that fits well and is comfortable to wear. Here is a great backpack from Osprey.
  3. Water bottle: Staying hydrated is important on the Kumano Kodo, so make sure to bring a water bottle with you. Here is a great water bottle from Hydro Flask.
  4. Rain gear: The weather on the Kumano Kodo can be unpredictable, so it’s important to bring rain gear with you. Here is a great rain jacket from Patagonia.
  5. Headlamp: You’ll be staying in accommodations along the trail, some of which may not have electricity. A headlamp is essential for navigating in the dark. Here is a great headlamp from Petzl.
  6. Trekking poles: The Kumano Kodo has some steep and challenging sections, so trekking poles can be helpful for stability and balance. Here is a great pair of trekking poles from Black Diamond.

I found these items to be essential for my Kumano Kodo hike, and I highly recommend them. You can find all of these items and more at REI.

Total Cost

The cost of hiking the Kumano Kodo can vary depending on your budget and travel style. Here is a breakdown of the major expenses you can expect:

  • Accommodation: Budget-friendly options like ryokans and guesthouses can be found along the trail for around 5,000-8,000 yen per night. More luxurious options can cost upwards of 20,000 yen per night.
  • Food: Meals can be purchased at local restaurants or from convenience stores along the trail. Expect to spend around 2,000-3,000 yen per day on food.
  • Transportation: The cost of transportation to and from the trail can vary depending on your starting point. From Osaka, expect to spend around 5,000 yen each way. From Tokyo, expect to spend around 15,000 yen each way.
  • Gear: If you need to purchase gear or equipment for the hike, expect to spend several hundred dollars.

Overall, budgeting around 50,000-60,000 yen for a 5-6 day hike is a good estimate. However, this can vary depending on your travel style and preferences.

Final Thoughts

The Kumano Kodo is a beautiful and historic trail, and hiking it was an unforgettable experience. If you’re looking for a unique and challenging hiking experience, I highly recommend the Kumano Kodo. I hope this guide has been helpful, and I wish you the best of luck on your own Kumano Kodo adventure!

Choosing a Route

When I first considered hiking the Kumano Kodo, I quickly realized that there are multiple routes to choose from as it’s a network of trails running through the Kii Mountain range in Japan. Based on my research, I found the most popular route to be the Nakahechi Route, which offers a moderate trek and is accessible from the towns of Kii-Katsura, Tanabe, and Shingu 1.

The Kohechi Route, on the other hand, is a more challenging option. This trail traverses the Kii Peninsula and connects the Kumano Sanzan shrines with the famous temple complex of Koyasan. It requires more preparation and physical fitness due to its steep ascents and remote nature.

If your goal is to explore the spiritual side of the Kumano Kodo, then the Hongu Route might be a better option for you. This path leads to the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine, one of the most important spiritual sites in the region. Along the hike, you’ll also have the opportunity to visit other power spots, such as temples, forests, and waterfalls thought to enrich the soul 2.

Before you begin your adventure, it’s essential to consider how much time you have available and your comfort level with hiking. You can find hikes that last a few hours to several days across the different routes. Personally, I found it helpful to review maps and resources to determine the best option for me.

Planning your trip to the Kumano Kodo is fairly easy, especially if you’re coming from major cities like Tokyo or Kyoto. Transportation options like trains and buses are available, and you can find detailed information online to help with your travel planning 3.

Ultimately, choosing the right route for your Kumano Kodo adventure comes down to your personal preferences and hiking experience. Just remember to pack appropriately, wear comfortable shoes, and most importantly, embrace the journey through Japan’s beautiful, ancient pilgrimage trails.

Best Time to Hike

While planning my hike on the Kumano Kodo trail, one of the crucial factors I considered was the best time of year to embark on this journey. After some research, I found that the most enjoyable times for hiking the Kumano Kodo are during the Japanese spring (March to early June) and autumn (September to November).

During my hike in spring, I was delighted by the mild temperatures, making the journey comfortable and enjoyable. The mesmerizing cherry blossoms in late March and early April added an extra layer of beauty to the landscape. On the other hand, autumn offers a breathtaking experience as well, with vibrant fall colors engulfing the trail.

I learned that it’s possible to hike the trail during winter or summer, but they come with some drawbacks. While fewer crowds can make winter a more peaceful time to hike, it’s essential to be prepared for potentially colder temperatures and slippery conditions.

As for summer, it’s important to be aware of the heat and humidity. However, I found that the trail wasn’t as hot as the cities, so it can still be a viable option for those who prefer a warmer climate.

In my opinion, the choice ultimately boils down to personal preferences and how prepared you are for the specific challenges of each season. By considering these factors, I believe you’ll be able to enjoy the best of the Kumano Kodo trail, regardless of when you decide to hike.

Accommodation Options

When I was planning my Kumano Kodo hike, I discovered that there are different types of accommodations available to suit various preferences and budgets. The most common options include ryokans, guesthouses, and minshuku, with each offering a unique experience for travelers.

One of my favorite types of accommodations along the Kumano Kodo trail is the ryokan. These traditional Japanese inns provide a comfortable and authentic experience, with tatami mat floors, futon beds, and communal hot bath facilities. Ryokans usually include a delicious dinner and breakfast featuring local seasonal ingredients. Staying in a ryokan was a wonderful way for me to immerse myself in Japanese culture and hospitality.

Another great option for lodging along the trail is a guesthouse. Guesthouses are similar to bed and breakfasts or small inns, with private or shared rooms and a more informal and cozy atmosphere. Breakfast is often included, and some guesthouses even offer a packed lunch option for your day on the trail.

Minshuku are family-run, smaller-scale versions of ryokans, typically located in rural areas of the Wakayama Prefecture. They offer a more intimate experience with locals, providing home-cooked meals and a glimpse of daily life in the region.

During my Kumano Kodo adventure, I also learned about luggage transfer services, which can be very helpful for those who prefer not to carry their heavy bags during the multi-day hike. There are companies that transfer your luggage from one accommodation to the next, allowing you to enjoy the trail with a lighter load.

In summary, the Kumano Kodo trail offers a variety of accommodation options, including ryokans, guesthouses, and minshuku, allowing you to find the perfect place to rest and recharge after a day of hiking.

Kumano Kodo Travel Planning Cheatsheet

🚑 Should I buy travel insurance for Japan?

100% YES! — Japan has “free” healthcare but it’s only for citizens! Foreigners visiting need travel insurance in case anything happens on their visit. Also be aware many policies won't cover hiking as it's a high risk activity! 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. 

Footnotes

  1. https://theworldpursuit.com/kumano-kodo/
  2. https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/hiking-the-kumano-kodo-japans-ancient-pilgrimage-route
  3. https://kumanokodo.com.au/getting-there-transport/

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