Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route (Tips + My Experience)

Tristan Balme kumano kodo nakahechi route guide

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 and from the end to Kii Katsuura, but walked the ~70km in between. This guide will be based on my experience, plus what I’ve learned researching and talking to people along the way.

Winding through the Kii Peninsula, the Nakahechi Route connects Kii-Tanabe, on the western coast, to the Kumano grand shrines at Hongu and Nachisan, and finishes a Nachi Falls (a wonder in itself). With a history dating back over a thousand years, this trail was traversed by Japan’s imperial family, and today it welcomes travelers from around the world seeking a unique and inspiring adventure.

The hike itself takes you through cypress and cedar forests, across 3 main mountain ranges, and along crystal-clear rivers and swimming holes.

My favorite part of the Nakahechi Route is the immersion into rural Japan. Small, isolated villages offer warmth and hospitality, inviting visitors to fully experience the region’s rich culture.

In this blog post, I’ll share everything you need to know before embarking on the Nakahechi Route of the Kumano Kodo.

Read More: You can read my complete guide to the Kumano Kodo here or checkout some of my other detailed guides below.

Tristan Balme nakahechi route kumano kodo

History and Significance

The Nakahechi path, often referred to as the “Imperial Route,” was frequented by emperors and nobles from the 10th century onwards2. This famous route takes pilgrims through breathtaking mountain landscapes and sacred sites that are integral to Japan’s spiritual heritage.

Two of the major religions in Japan, Shinto and Buddhism, had a significant influence on the development and reverence of the Kumano Kodo, including the Nakahechi route3. Spiritual seekers would embark on this pilgrimage in search of purification, seeking to encounter the “Three Grand Shrines of Kumano”.

Today, this mountainous pilgrimage is still popular among both locals and foreign visitors, and I can clearly see why. The Nakahechi route not only introduces you to Japan’s rich religious history and stunning natural beauty but also offers a unique sense of connection with those ancient pilgrims that walked the trails centuries ago4. Walking the Kumano Kodo, even for just a few days, was a truly unforgettable experience of history, nature, and spirituality.

Tristan Balme Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route guide how to

Kumano Kodo’s Connection to Camino de Santiago

Interestingly, the Kumano Kodo shares a unique connection with another famous pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago in Spain. In 1998, they became sister trails, recognizing their shared cultural and spiritual significance. Both routes have attracted pilgrims for over a thousand years, making them historical treasures.

Tip: By completing the kumano kodo and at least 100km of Camino de Santiago you can get stamped a ‘dual pilgrim’. Look out for the stamp book at the Kumano Kodo visitator centres and make sure to get the Kumano stamp in the Hongu Taisha shrine to be elegable for your dual pilgrim certificate.

Getting The Dual Pilgrim Certificate

For those who complete both the Kumano Kodo and the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes, there’s a special reward: the Dual Pilgrim Certificate. You’ll need to get the stamp at hongu taisha to be able to get your Dual Prilgrim certificate.

(More on the Dual Pilgrim certificate in the article here)

Getting To The Nakahechi Trail.

The Nakahechi route begins at Takajiri Oji, where the Kumano Kodo visitor center is also located (across the road)

But your adventure actually starts much earlier, getting from central Japan down to Wakayama and eventually the start of the trail.

It’s a bit of a mission – so factor this into your planning

Kii-Tanabe, located on the western coast of Wakayama Prefecture, is accessible by express trains from Kyoto and Osaka 1. The ride takes 1.5 – 3.5 hrs depending on where you leave from and what train service you chose

Starting PointDestinationApproximate Time
Kansai Airport OsakaKii Tanabe 
Osaka CentralKii Tanabe 
Kyoto CentralKii Tanabe 

What I Did: We flew into Kansai Airport and wanted to go straight to Tanabe (and we’re glad we did. Tanabe was a cute beach town, which was really charming). We took the Airport train from Kansai station to Hineno (2 stops). Then we got off and purchased a limited express ticket on the Wakayama line to Kii Tanabe Station.

Note: These are actually 2 tickets. You need to buy the base ticket, and then also reserve a seat.

Tip: You definitely want the limited express train. There’s also the option of taking local trains but these go much slower and stop at every station along the way (and there’s a lot!). Pay a little extra and you’ll have at least 90 minutes off your journey.

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Nakahechi Route Overview

The Kumano winds through the beautiful landscapes, connecting the three grand shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha. These shrines, collectively known as the Kumano Sanzan, are the focal points of the pilgrimage.

As I set off from Kii-Tanabe, my first encounter on the Nakahechi route was Takijiri-Oji, a trailhead approximately 15km west of Tanabe. This is where many pilgrims begin their journey.

Walking along the trail, I came across several small, isolated villages that offer traditional lodgings for self-guided trekking. These are called ryokans or japanses inns. They have an old world charm about them, which is helped by the etiquete required when you’re staying at one.

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  • Day 1: Take a local bus from Kii Tanabe to the trailhead in Takijiri Oji. Sign in to the visitor centre and hike approximately 13km / 5hrs to Chikatsuyu
  • Day 2: Hike aproximatly 25km or 8-9hrs from Chikatsuyu to Hongu Taisha or Yunomine Onsen
  • Day 3: Continue 13.5km / 4.5 hrs  to Koguchi
  • Day 4: From K walk 14.5km to Nachi Falls, then take another local bus from the trail end down to kii katsura on the coast
DayDescriptionDistance To WalkTime TakenNotes
Day 0Travel Day   
Day 1Hiking Day13km4.5 hrsThe warm-up
Day 2Hiking Day25km 8-9hrsLongest Day
Day 3Hiking Day13.5km 3.5-4hrs The ‘rest’ day
Day 4Hiking Day14.5km 5-6hrsMost challenging day
Day 5Travel Day   

One of my favorite parts of the journey was reaching Hongu, the spiritual heart of the Kumano Kodo trail. Here, I visited Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the grand shrines, nestled in lush green surroundings. From Hongu, the Nakahechi route continues eastward through the mountains, eventually leading to the other grand shrines: Kumano Hayatama Taisha in Shingu and Kumano Nachi Taisha near the coast.

During my exploration, I found that the Nakahechi route is well-suited for consecutive day treks or shorter highlight walks 2. What made it even more convenient were the local buses that connect the isolated villages, making transportation and accommodation much more accessible.

Overall, my experience walking the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route left me with an appreciation for its rich history and the natural beauty that has drawn pilgrims for centuries. I highly recommend this adventure for those looking to connect with Japan’s spiritual and cultural past on a deeper level.

Getting Back Again

Once finished the route, you’ll end up at one of two trailheads. The Nachi Falls end (most common) or the Kumano hayatama taisha.

(we picked the route to Nachi Falls / Nachi Taisha as it’s the most poulatar, and the grand shrine looked stunning!)

From there you’ll take a bus into the nearest main town which is Kii Katsuura – a small fishing village, but also home to the 2nd largest tuna port in Japan outside of Tokyo (well worth a visit).

The bus from Nachi Falls to Kii Katsuura cost 630 Yen and took about 45 minutes.

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We stayed the night here (and would recommend you do the same) it’s a cute town and one of the highlights of my trip!

Next, you’ll probably want to make your way back to Osaka, Kyoto or Kansai Osaka Airport.

Key Locations along the Nakahechi Trail.

So we’ve talked about getting to and from the route, so now let’s dive in to main the stops you’ll make along the way.

Takajiri Oji

When I first started my journey on the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route, I was amazed by the beauty and serenity of the places it takes you through. The trail starts from Kii-Tanabe on the western coast of the Kii Peninsula and winds its way eastward, crossing the Kii Mountains before reaching the Grand Shrines of Kumano at Hongu and then Nachisan.

Takahara

One of my favorite stops along the way was Takahara – a small village nestled high up in the mountains, offering stunning views of the surrounding landscape. The village provided a welcoming stay for the night before I continued on my pilgrimage.

As I made my way through the pilgrimage trail, passing by sacred sites like Tsugizakura, I couldn’t help but stop and marvel at the natural beauty around me. Walking alongside the river, the sound of flowing water became a soothing backdrop to my journey.

Chikatsuyu

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Yunomine Onsen

A significant highlight of my trek was reaching the Omine mountain range, where I found myself surrounded by the lush forest and beautiful landscapes that define the Kii Peninsula. Here, I visited the ancient Yunomine Onsen, a hot spring believed to have healing properties. Soaking in the warm waters was the perfect way to relax after a long day of walking.

While on the Nakahechi route, I also explored the sacred Koyasan, a mountainous area known for its temples and monasteries. This place truly captured the essence of the pilgrimage experience, resonating with the cultural and spiritual atmosphere of the Kumano Kodo.

Hongu

As my journey neared its end, I finally reached the Grand Shrines of Kumano. The presence of these majestic shrines, located in areas like Hongu and Nachisan, filled me with a sense of reverence and accomplishment. I also paid a visit to the enchanting Nachi Falls, a magnificent waterfall that further added to the otherworldly beauty of the region.

Koguchi

This small town is nestled along a river. You’ll find a small convenience store here, an ATM (that’s only open for a few hours a day) and a couple of restaurants that are equally as sporadically open.

Tristan Balme Koguchi town to nakahetchi falls

Nachisan

Getting to and from the Nakahechi route was a breeze, thanks to the accessibility from cities like Osaka and the coastal town of Kii-Katsuura. If you’re seeking some relaxation after completing the pilgrimage, I highly recommend visiting the coastal resort town of Shirahama to unwind and celebrate your achievements.

Timing Your Visit

I found that visiting the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route can be an incredible experience, but timing is essential for an unforgettable trip. The two best seasons to explore the sacred pilgrimage route are spring and fall. In spring, from late March to early June, the countryside blooms with cherry blossoms and vibrant foliage. The weather is moderate and mostly dry, making it a comfortable time to walk the trail.

On the other hand, fall offers a different kind of beauty as the leaves turn vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow. The period from September to November is ideal for appreciating the stunning autumn colors of the surrounding mountains. Also, the cooler temperatures are perfect for hiking the Nakahechi Route.

I would caution against visiting in summer, as humidity and high temperatures can be uncomfortable for hiking. Additionally, the rainy season from June to mid-July often brings torrential downpours, making the trail slippery and potentially dangerous.

While planning your visit, remember that the COVID-19 pandemic may have an impact. As travel restrictions and safety measures evolve, it’s essential to stay informed and follow the latest guidelines. Some accommodations and facilities may limit capacity or have special protocols in place to ensure everyone’s health and safety.

In summary, I believe that spring and fall are the ideal times to experience the breathtaking scenery and spiritual journey of the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route. Just keep in mind the ongoing COVID-19 situation and plan accordingly. Happy exploring!

Hiking and Trekking

During my time hiking and trekking on the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route, I discovered an incredible experience packed with beautiful natural scenery, historic sites, and challenging trails. This ancient pilgrimage route in Japan is known for offering a unique trekking experience to adventurous walkers and pilgrims alike.

For me, the trail’s mountain environment added a sense of mystique to the overall experience. As I ventured through picturesque forests of cypress and cedar trees, I couldn’t help but feel awed by the vastness and beauty that surrounded me. Exploring the variety of terrains – such as ridges, coasts, and mountain passes – left me feeling inspired and connected to nature.

Being a multi-day walk, the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route required a certain level of fitness and preparation. But I found that the challenge was very much worth it! Each day brought new landscapes and discoveries as the elevation gain and elevation loss varied significantly throughout the trail. This also meant that the trail difficulty changed from day to day, but it only added to the excitement.

As I walked along the trail, I encountered numerous shrines and pilgrimage sites that have been visited by pilgrims for over a thousand years. It was fascinating to learn about their history and observe the deep-rooted spiritual practices that continue to thrive in modern times.

Lastly, one of my favorite parts of this adventure was getting to meet fellow hikers and pilgrims as we shared our experiences of walking the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route together. This camaraderie not only made the trek more enjoyable but also created connections that I will cherish for a lifetime. So if you’re looking for an immersive hiking experience in Japan, I highly recommend giving the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route a try.

Choosing Your Accommodation

When I embarked on the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route, finding suitable accommodation was essential to ensure a comfortable and memorable experience. From traditional guesthouses to ryokans and minshukus, there are a variety of options to fit your preferences and budget.

Along the route, you can encounter warm and friendly guesthouses, where you can immerse yourself in the local culture and interact with fellow pilgrims. For instance, I spent a couple of nights in a cozy guesthouse near Hongu area, where they offered delicious meals made from local ingredients.

Some accommodations you come across might be situated in small villages or remote locations, so booking in advance is highly recommended. Websites like the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau can help you find suitable lodging options along the Nakahechi route.

If you prefer a more luxurious experience, you can opt for a ryokan, where you can indulge in traditional Japanese hospitality, tatami-mat rooms, and onsen baths. I had the pleasure of staying at a beautiful ryokan during my journey, and it was an unforgettable cultural experience.

For those on a tighter budget, minshukus are smaller family-run lodgings offering a more affordable and intimate stay, including home-cooked meals. I’ve heard positive reviews from fellow hikers who opted for minshukus and enjoyed their warm, personal atmosphere.

As you plan your journey along the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route, make sure to research and book your accommodations ahead of time. With a plethora of options to cater to various preferences and budgets, you’ll find the perfect place for you to rest and recharge on your spiritual adventure.

Recommendation: Tanabe

Recommendation – Chicatsuyu

Recommendation – Hongu

Recommendation – Yunomine Onsen

Recommendation – Koguchi

Recommendation – Kii Katsura

Transportation and Logistics

When I embarked on my recent trek along the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route, I found that getting there and navigating the transportation system was easier than I expected. Let me share with you some essential elements of transportation and logistics that I experienced during my trip.

Firstly, I started my journey from Osaka and traveled to the Kii-Tanabe Station in about 2 hours via the Express trains. If you’re coming from the Kansai International Airport, you’ll also need to get to Osaka first; from there, you can take a train to Kii-Tanabe Station. Japan Rail Pass makes it convenient to move around if you’re planning to explore other parts of Japan as well.

Once I arrived at Kii-Tanabe Station, I found that the local bus system was well-developed and efficient. There are buses that connect the Kii-Tanabe Station to the Takijiri-Oji, the starting point of the Nakahechi route. The Kumano Kodo website offers a detailed bus timetable that helps to plan your day accordingly.

While hiking, I knew I wouldn’t like to carry all my belongings with me. Fortunately, there’s a luggage shuttle service available that transports your luggage between accommodations during the trek. This service saved me from the hassle of carrying my heavy bags and allowed me to fully immerse myself in the journey without any discomfort.

During the entire journey, I found the locals to be quite friendly, and the available resources like maps, timetables, and lodging information made the transportation and logistics aspect of the Kumano Kodo trekking experience a smooth one.

In summary, as long as you familiarize yourself with the train and bus systems, and utilize the luggage shuttle service, navigating the transportation and logistics of the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route will be a breeze. So, go ahead and plan your memorable pilgrimage without any worries!

Packing and Preparation

If you pack for your Kumano hike the same way you prepare for any other hike, I guarantee you’ll pack a bunch of stuff you never need, and miss a few things you do.

(I know, because I did it)

below is a short list of what items I found to be essential for your Kumano Kodo journey.

Read More: This topic needs a blog post of its own, so check out my guide on what to pack for your Kumano Kodo hike.

  1. Kumano Kodo Map: Grab the map from the visitor centre before your hike. its really good!
  2. Footwear: Sturdy hiking boots or trail runners that are broken in to avoid blisters and discomfort. Bring moisture-wicking, quick-drying socks.
  3. Clothing: Mix of short and long-sleeved shirts, merino wool tops or base layers, leggings, and hiking shorts. Choose materials that dry quickly and offer enough stretch for unrestricted movement.
  4. Rain jacket and waterproof pants: Lightweight and waterproof outer layers to protect against rain and cooler temperatures.
  5. Backpack: Lightweight, yet sturdy bag with padded straps and good back support. Make sure it is spacious enough to fit everything without feeling too bulky.
  6. Hiking pole: Provides stability and takes some of the pressure off legs.
  7. Hydration: Water bottle and dry bag to store it and other essential items safely.
  8. Pack cover: Waterproof cover for backpack.
  9. Camera: Extra memory cards and a durable camera case to protect it.
  10. Toiletries: Toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, razor, and small pack of tissues.
  11. Portable charger: Keep phone charged for navigation and capturing memories.
  12. Pocket Wifi / SIM Card: Stay connected with loved ones and use online maps if needed.
  13. First aid kit: Adhesive bandages, gauze, pain relief medication, and any personal medication. I packed tape to help cover any blisters as they formed.
  14. Cash Money: Bring enough cash for the whole trip, as there are few ATMs along the way.
  15. Swimming towel: Keep a lightweights travel towel handy.
  16. Insect repellent: Protect against leeches, centipedes, and scorpions.
  17. Sunscreen: SPF 50+ sunscreen for the long hours in the sun.
  18. Quick dry clothing: Breathable and stretchy clothing to prevent chafing.
Tristan Balme hiking the kumano kodo with a small day pack

Maps and Guidebooks

When I first decided to embark on the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route, I realized that having accurate maps and guidebooks could make my pilgrimage a much more enjoyable and insightful experience. The Nakahechi route is the most popular and accessible route, starting at Takijiri, not far from the city of Tanabe on the west coast of Wakayama. It’s easily reachable by express trains from both Kyoto and Osaka, which you can even use a Japan Rail Pass for.

One of the first things I did before starting my journey was to gather maps and guidebooks focused on not only the route itself, but also on the spiritual aspects, nature, and historical background. I found that the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau website offers extensive information on the Nakahechi route, which helped me a lot! They offer maps, English signs, and even luggage shuttle services to make our pilgrimage more comfortable.

Besides the official tourism bureau, there are other websites and blogs that have personal accounts, tips, and insights that may not be found in official guidebooks. Websites like One Step Then Another offer detailed maps and stages for walking the Nakahechi route, which can be beneficial for those looking for first-hand experiences from fellow pilgrims.

Something important for me was to find a guidebook focused on the nature and scenery, as well as the spiritual aspects of the Kumano Kodo. After some research, I came across Angela Goh’s Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Trail Guide: Hiking the ancient pilgrimage route, which offers an excellent mix of history, spirituality, and practical advice for the journey, alongside beautiful photos showcasing the natural landscape.

Cultural and Spiritual Aspects

When I first set foot on the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route, I could immediately sense the rich cultural and spiritual atmosphere enveloping the area. The Nakahechi Route is the main route that links the three Grand Shrines of Kumano, and it has a history that spans over a thousand years. As I walked along this ancient pilgrimage path, I quickly found myself immersed in the unique blend of Shinto and Buddhist traditions.

During my journey, I came across various Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, each showcasing the distinctive architectural styles and artwork of these two major religions in Japan. The pilgrimage itself has long been an important practice in both Shinto and Buddhism, with believers seeking spiritual purification and enlightenment.

As I delved deeper into the Nakahechi Route, I learned that Shingon Buddhism, a sect of Esoteric Buddhism, holds significant influence in this region. One of the most memorable experiences I had on my journey was visiting Mount Yoshino, a sacred mountain lined with many Shingon Buddhist temples and famed for its beautiful cherry blossoms.

Throughout my walk, I couldn’t help but marvel at the harmony between nature and spirituality along the Nakahechi Route. The pristine forests, serene rivers, and majestic waterfalls seemed to mirror the tranquil balance of the Shinto and Buddhist practices I encountered. Every step I took on this pilgrimage brought with it a deeper connection to the natural world, as well as an appreciation for the rich tapestry of beliefs and customs that have shaped the spiritual legacy of the Kumano Kodo.

In the end, exploring the cultural and spiritual aspects of the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route was an experience that went beyond mere sightseeing. It allowed me to gain valuable insights into the timeless traditions and beliefs that continue to shape and enrich the lives of the local communities along this ancient pathway.

Alternative Pilgrimage Routes

What makes the Kumano Kodo trails so special are the numerous onsen, or hot spring baths, scattered throughout the region. These naturally occurring hot springs provide a soothing respite for weary travelers, and I found them to be the perfect way to recover after a long day of hiking. While Camino de Santiago also provides some opportunities to relax, the onsen experience is uniquely Japanese and truly something to look forward to at the end of each day.

Another aspect of the Kumano Kodo that caught my eye was the remote, isolated villages I encountered along the way. These quaint locales offer a glimpse into the traditional Japanese way of life and a chance for visitors to connect with the locals. I was always greeted with a warm welcome and treated to unparalleled hospitality, a highlight of my journey. Along the Camino de Santiago, many pilgrims stay in simple lodgings called albergues, but in Japan, I had the chance to experience traditional ryokans. These Japanese inns offer a truly authentic experience, complete with tatami mat flooring, futon bedding, and delicious, multi-course meals in the evening.

One thing I appreciated about the Kumano Kodo was the option to use luggage shuttle services along the trail. This allowed me to travel with just a lightweight daypack, leaving my larger bag to be transported between accommodations. While many people along the Camino de Santiago might opt to carry all of their belongings in a backpack, I appreciated the convenience of being able to focus on the journey without being weighed down.

Lastly, the heart and soul of the Kumano Kodo trails lie in the sacred Kumano Shrines, nestled deep within the mystical Kii Mountains. These UNESCO World Heritage Sites hold great spiritual importance in Japanese culture. As I visited these ancient shrines, I felt a profound connection to the thousands of pilgrims who had walked the same path before me over the course of more than 1,000 years.

In conclusion, while both the Kumano Kodo and the Camino de Santiago offer unforgettable experiences for pilgrims in search of personal growth, adventure, and connection, the Kumano Kodo’s unique features like onsen, isolated villages, luggage shuttle services, and ryokan accommodations, together with the majestic Kumano shrines, truly set it apart.

Kumano Kodo Travel Tips

Before you head off to tackle the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route, I thought I’d share a few tips to make your journey even more enjoyable. From my own experience, these pointers proved to be really helpful.

  1. First, you should definitely pack clothes suitable for a mountain environment, as the weather can be quite changeable. Waterproof gear, comfortable hiking shoes, and layered clothing will certainly make your trek more manageable.

  2. When you’re out on the Nakahechi route, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to experience an onsen, a Japanese hot spring bath. They provide a perfect way to relax after a long day of hiking. One particularly special onsen I visited was Yomine Onsen, tucked away in the mountainside, which is not only picturesque but was a heavenly balm for my tired muscles.

  3. In addition to onsen visits, take the time to explore the nearby villages and secluded areas, such as Shima or Koyasan. They offer both history and serenity, enhancing your understanding and appreciation of the pilgrimage route.

  4. While hiking the trail, you’ll also want to keep an eye out for the stunning Nachi Falls. As the tallest waterfall in Japan, it adds a breathtaking natural wonder to your trek and makes for a great photo opportunity.

  5. Lastly, remember that you’re hiking a UNESCO World Heritage site. As such, it’s essential to be conscious of your impact on the environment. Stick to the designated paths and honor the sacred nature of this ancient pilgrimage route.

Have a fantastic time exploring the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route, and I hope these tips help you make the most of your journey.

Luggage Transfer Service

Japan has everything on tap – from vending machines for cooked wagyu beef to robots that serve you sake.

Of course, they’ve figured out a way to make hiking easier too!

The Kumano Kodo is a World Heritage Site and one of Japan’s most popular pilgrimage trails, attracting thousands of visitors every year. And while absolutely stunning, you’ll still have over 70km of ground to cover, and 4000m+ of elevation to gain – It’s also not for the faint-hearted.

One way to lighten the load, and make the experience a whole lot more enjoyable is by utilizing their baggage transfer service. Or, like we did, you can get your ‘rest of Japan’ luggage sent to the very end so you only carry what you need for the 4-6 days of hiking.

What I Did: I hiked the Kumano Kodo in July 2023 and definitely underestimated the physicality of the trail. It was peak summer – circa 35 degrees – and the thought of carrying a full 70L hiking pack was not sounding like much fun. We opted to have our ‘rest of japan’ luggage taken from Tanabe (the start of the track) to Kii Katsura (The End). That way we only had to carry exactly what we needed for 5 days hiking and nothing more..

Tristan Balme kumano kodo luggage tranfer service

Option 1: Luggage Transfer Each Day

Note: it is important to note that the luggage transfer service is not available at all accommodations on the trail. However, many of the major accommodations do offer this service, so be sure to check ahead of time and book in advance. Additionally, there may be weight and size restrictions for your luggage, so be sure to check with your accommodation or the luggage transfer service provider.

Option 2: Luggage Transfer To The End Of The Trail

This is what we ended up deciding on. We realized there was a bunch of stuff we needed for the rest of the trip (like nice clothes and toiletries and souvenirs) that we definitely didn’t need to carry over a mountain range.The obvious answer was to fill a bag with all these things and then get them sent to our final accommodation in Kii Katsura for when we finish the trail. We then packed two smaller hiking packs with our essentials like food, water, and hiking clothes

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. How long does it take to complete the Nakahechi route?

It typically takes me around 4-6 days to complete the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. This time frame allows me to fully enjoy the trail’s natural beauty and historical sites while maintaining a comfortable pace.

You’ll also need to allow a day each side for travel so you’ll need a minimum of 6 days to do the Nakahechi route of the kumano kodo.

Q. Which itinerary is recommended for the Nakahechi route?

I usually recommend a 4-day itinerary for those fitter or with more hiking experience, and a 5-day itinerary for those looking to take their time and enjoy a shorter ‘rest day’.

  1. 4 Day: Starting from Takijiri-oji, I walk to Chikatsuyu or Nonaka-no-shimizu area on the first day, then journey to Yunomine Onsen or Kawayu Onsen on the second day. On the third day, I make my way to Hongu Taisha Shrine before heading to Koguchi on the fourth day. Finally, I hike to Nachi Taisha on the fifth day. Note day two is a big day, with 25km of walking.
  2. 5 Day: Starting from Takijiri-oji, I walk to Chikatsuyu or Nonaka-no-shimizu area on the first day, then journey to Yunomine Onsen or Kawayu Onsen on the second day. On the third day, I make my way to Hongu Taisha Shrine before heading to Koguchi on the fourth day. Finally, I hike to Nachi Taisha on the fifth day. This itinerary allows me to fully enjoy the trail and take breaks at key points.

Q. Is a self-guided tour possible on the Nakahechi route?

Yes, I’ve hiked the Nakahechi route on a self-guided tour, and it’s quite a rewarding experience. This way, I can set my own pace, choose my accommodations, and explore the trail at my leisure. The trail is well-marked, so I don’t have to worry about getting lost. However, I do recommend being prepared and having some prior hiking experience.

There are helpful signposts along the way sharing the historical significance of each place (in both japansese and English) and the guide book from the visitor centre is also packed with information

Q. Where to stay while trekking the Nakahechi route?

Along the Nakahechi route, there are various accommodations that cater to us pilgrims. These include family-owned guesthouses called minshuku, ryokan (Japanese-style inns), and even some simple hotels. Booking is a bit of a ball-ache and you’ll need to make your reservation well in advance to secure a spot – especially during peak seasons.

Other options include camping at some of the many campgrounds along the way, or bussing out to one of the larger nearby towns to regular hotel-style accommodation (then bussing back the next day).

Tip: My favorite part of the whole experience was staying in the traditional ryokan and minshuka. The food was amazing and the cultural experience felt more authentic than what else I’d experienced in Japan. Sure, it costs a little more but I believe it was well worth it.

Read More: I’ve written a full guide on accomation along the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route here.

Q. What is the elevation profile for the Nakahechi route?

The elevation profile for the Nakahechi route varies throughout the trail. Some sections are relatively flat, while others involve steep climbs and descents. The highest point is around 850 meters (2,788 feet) in elevation and is climbed in less than 5km (3.5mi) so it’s pretty steep. This can be a bit challenging, especially if you’re not used to hiking in mountainous areas.

For example, on the hardest day you’ll complete 1260m of elevation gain, 830m of elevation loss, and walk a total of 15.5km

Q. What is the historical significance of the Nakahechi route?

The Nakahechi route is part of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail and has been traveled by Japanese emperors, aristocrats, and common people for over 1,000 years. Its historical significance is deeply tied to Japanese spiritual beliefs and cultural practices, making it a unique, enriching experience as I walk in the footsteps of pilgrims who came before me. Nakahechi route is also part of UNESCO World Heritage sites, further highlighting its importance and value as a spiritual and cultural trail.

Kumano Kodo Travel Planning Cheatsheet

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🚑 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.

💸How do you pay for things in Japan?

Japan may have flying robots.. but they also still use cash! So you'll want to get some folding tender out from an ATM when you land. EFTPOS / Debit / Credit Card and Paywave (contactless payments) is common at bigger businesses but small bars, and street vendors want cash.

I personally use a Wise debit card for all my international money needs as they only convert the funds when you make payment, plus they offer a much better spread (margin on the true exhange rate) than the banks do. They work in all Japanese ATMs I tried. 

🚙 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. If you are heading to a lot of off the beaten track places, then you may want a rental. I use Discover Cars to find the cheapest rates on rentals cars and remember you can save money if you avoid picking up at the airport.

🚆 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 or purchase a international SIM before you leave (I reccommend Airalo for Japan) . 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. Kumano Kodō – Wikipedia
  2. Nakahechi – The Imperial Route – Walking the Kumano Kodo
  3. Kumano Kodo: The History, What to See, and How to Start Your Hike – VOYAPON
  4. Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Trail Guide: Hiking the ancient pilgrimage route
  5. Inside Kyoto – Kumano Kodo Walking Trail Guide with Maps
  6. One Step Then Another – Stages and Maps for Walking the Kumano Kodo

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