Walking in Japan... the Kumano Kodo

| March 8, 2018

The Kumano Kodo is a network of pilgrimage trails around the mountainous Kii Peninsula in the south of Honshu, Japan’s main island. The Kodo (“old ways”) have been in use for over 1,000 years and, along with the Camino de Santiago in Spain, this is one of just two pilgrimage routes to have been designated a Unesco world heritage site.

Kumano Kodo mountains

The Kumano Kodo is dotted with shrines, large and small, many of which derive from the indigenous Shinto religion and predate Buddhism's introduction to Japan in the sixth century. Once Buddhism arrived in Kumano it took root very quickly, but rather than competing with Shintoism to be the dominant religion there was a long process of harmonious mixing, evidence of which can be found in many of the shrines.

Even if you are not fully (or remotely) tuned in to the complexities of Shintoism and Buddhism, following these trails is an enchanting experience. My wife and I arrived at the start of the route, having travelled by train from Tokyo, though the central belt of Honshu to Kyoto and then on to Osaka. The whole experience had been enthralling and each of those three great cities were thrilling to explore and very distinct in character. However, our journey had also revealed how extraordinarily developed and urbanised that whole central belt of the country is, and we were ready to take our leave of massed humanity for a while and spend some time communing with nature. The five days we spent following the Kumano Kodo were ideal for the purpose.

We were taking on the Nakahechi route, which is well-maintained and, though strenuous, very manageable for the moderately fit. The starting point was Takijiri-oji, a short winding bus ride from the town of Tanabe, which itself was a two-hour train ride south of Osaka, following the coast. At the Kumano Kodo visitor centre in Tanabe we were given a very brief briefing (in English) and provided with our map plus a detailed route guide. We also handed over our luggage (which, magically, was always waiting for us on arrival at each of our lodgings en route) and then we were released into the wild.

The first part of the walk was unrelentingly uphill to reach the high ground. Anyone who has ever embarked on a long walk of unknown severity will have muttered to themselves, typically about ten minutes in and already in a muck sweat, something like: “Am I going to cope with this? It’s already feeling like quite a slog”. Then, as sure as wasabi goes with sushi, you find your pace and rhythm, your body adjusts to the job in hand, and the pleasure of the whole venture reveals itself.

The 'husband' and 'wife' cedar trees

'Husband' and 'wife' cedar trees

The Nakahechi route is very well signposted — in English as well as Japanese script. Every 500 metres there is a numbered marker, every fork in the trail has a direction sign and “Not Kumano Kodo” signs are planted down any wrong turnings. I would have said that you can’t really get lost, except an unfortunate American couple who had started the trail immediately behind us resurfaced when we were having a break an hour or so later having managed to take a wrong turning at the very start and headed well into thick undergrowth before realising the error of their ways. By the time they caught up with us they were clearly just getting over something of a ‘marital’ on the subject.

This was a fairly rare encounter with fellow walkers. One of the pleasures of the trail is that despite being popular with Japanese and visitors alike, for the majority of the time we were walking in happy solitude, but with the reassurance that if any disaster should befall us someone should turn up before too long to help. The most likely mishap would be to take a tumble, because the stones can get extremely slippery when it rains, which it often does (a walking pole and grippy boots are highly recommended); we were thoroughly drenched on one day. Otherwise, it’s worth keeping an eye out for mamushi vipers, although we didn’t see one, and the suzumebachi giant hornets (known colloquially as ‘yak-killers’!), which are a common sight and fine as long as you don’t disturb a nest… but what’s an adventure without the frisson of danger?

The path turned waterfall

The path, turned waterfall

For most of the way, the scenery follows mountain ridges cloaked in ancient forests, which periodically open up to reveal spectacular views. Occasionally the path plunges down into valleys alongside mossy streams. The cool shade of the trees was very welcome, as the sun was beating down strongly, and the walking was never monotonous as the trees were generally well spaced, allowing glimpses of very varied scenery. Also welcome was the very occasional pilgrims’ cafe or shop in the small villages we passed through along the way. The Japanese are the masters of the vending machine, so even if the cafes or shops were not open you can always get a cold drink, or a hot drink or some manner of snack… although, unless your Japanese is up to scratch, the identity of the snacks often remains a mystery until they pop out of the machine.

The mountains and hut

Mountain 'hut' accommodation for the first night

At regular intervals there are small shrines, with signs explaining their significance. Also, as with many places in Japan, they all offer the opportunity to mark your notebook with an inky stamp to show you were there — a little like autograph hunting for travellers.

Our accommodation was quite a mixed bag and it is certainly worth planning and booking a visit to the Kumano Kodo well in advance to ensure you get some of the better places to stay, as there is not huge choice, although they will always speak at least some English. In most you will leave your shoes at the door, you will sleep on a futon mat on the floor in a room with sliding rice-paper screens, and you will be served a ‘kaiseki’ meal (multiple courses, including many varieties of raw fish, tempura prawns and veg, sushi and sizzling beef) in private. Aside from that, the character and comfort of the guest houses and hotels along the way are very varied.

Nakanoshima room with view

Nakanoshima's room with view

Nakanoshima kaiseki dinner

Our first night was our favourite. After the long steady ascent, we were hosted by a delightful young couple who had built a glorified mountain hut near their home, which offered all mod-cons and sweeping views. The couple came over with their toddler at supper time bearing a selection of bento boxes and served a really delicious dinner. They then returned in the morning with more boxes of breakfast goodies and there, as everywhere else, we were sent on our way with a very tasty packed lunch.

The second stop was a much more basic B&B, light on frills, but home to a very friendly goat. On the third night we were in a proper hotel beside a river. It was a ryokan — essentially a health spa fed by natural hot springs. The river itself was delightful for bathing in steaming water and each room had its own hot tub. By the end of the fourth day we had reached the coast at a fishing harbour called Kii-Katsuura, where our accommodation, Nakanoshima Hotel, was a bizarre resort-style hotel, perched on an island in the harbour. Looking like the kind of place that the head of Spectre would have been based in a Connery-era Bond film, it had a faded late-Sixties feel and interminably long corridors. However, the room was airy and spacious, with a balcony from which to watch the fishing boats and sea birds going about their business. The dinner here, served in the room by a lady in traditional Japanese attire, was spectacular in terms of appearance, flavours and quantity.

Nakanoshima island

Nakanoshima island

PagodaAlong the way we had passed many shrines, of all shapes and sizes, however the three Grand Shrines are the real show-stoppers: on the third day we reached the Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine, with its massive torii gate; the following day a relaxing boat trip took us to the Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, at the mouth of the Kumano river; and, on the final day, the culmination of our journey was the Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, where the beautiful pagoda of Seigantoji stands beside the spectacular Nachi no Taki waterfall — a rich reward for clambering up the 600-metre staircase to get there.

For the traveller, Japan is probably best known for its distinct culture, both ancient and modern. It is also home to glorious natural scenery, which is just as distinct from the landscapes we encounter at home. A walk on the Kumano Kodo is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in that nature while also getting a greater understanding of the ancient spiritual traditions that still lie at the heart of Japanese culture.

Cox & Kings can include the Kumano Kodo as part of a tailor-made holiday to Japan. You can speak to one of our Japan experts or find out more here.

Bathing in a hot spring river

Bathing in a hot spring river

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