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May 25, 2015

Kumano Kodo : Five Days of UNESCO World Heritage Hiking

Last week we took a five-day hiking trip in Kii Peninsula of Wakayama Prefecture on a UNESCO World Heritage listed pilgrimage known as the Kumano Kodo: a grand adventure. 

There are many routes of the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage that lead to the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano. We took the popular Nakahechi route through the mountains and villages towards Kumano Hongu Taisha and Nachisan.

For over 1,000 years people have made the difficult journey, but I never thought I would be one of them. Infact, I hadn't even heard of the trek until Kamil's parents invited us to join them.

So, the day after my 26th birthday, I found myself starting out on an incredible journey, not quite sure what lay ahead or whether my legs make it. What followed were five days of breathtaking scenery, fantastic food, friendly people, incredible accommodation and lots of walking.

Day 1: Takijiri-oji to Takahara (Nakahechi) 3.7km, 2 hours, 317m elevation.

On a peaceful Thursday morning, we took two trains and a bus from Nara to the starting point of our Kumano Kodo adventure in Wakayama Prefecture. There were a lot of first day nerves buzzing around; There was no turning back now and I wondered if I was up to the task.

Day one was thankfully the shortest day of hiking (a nice two hour trek) as we made our way from the trailhead at Takijiri-oji to the ridge-top village of Takahara. Although short in distance, the trail starts off very steep and climbs steadily towards the destination so it was a good warm up for the longer days of walking to come. 

On the way we passed landmarks including the Chichi-iwa rock, linked to local legend, and a lookout point with beautiful views of the mountains. 

At around 3pm we reached Takahara-Kumano-jinja, a shrine surrounded by camphor trees (some between 800 to 1,000 years old) before checking into our accommodation for the night in Kiri-no-Sato. 

Kiri-no-Sato means "Village in the Mist" however we didn't encounter any mist during our stay. Instead, we had clear, stunning views of the Hatenashi mountain range from the balcony of our amazing lodging. 

With a bath and an incredible meal (the first of many), day one was finished and I was more confident about venturing further into the unknown...

Day 2: Takahara to Tsugizakura-oji (Nakahechi)
13km, 5-8 hours, 690m elevation.

We set alarms to get dressed, packed and ready before our 6:30am breakfast so that we could set out as early as possible on day two. This pattern worked well and so we stuck with it for the rest of the trip. Getting up early meant that we would arrive at our accommodations by around 3pm with lots of time to settle in and rest up before the next day. 

Day two started with a steep walk past houses and fields which met up with a path into the mountains. We spent the morning climbing through the forest up to the Uwada-jaya Teahouse ruins, then descending to the creek by Osakamoto-oji. 

Lunch was a simple, hot serving of cup noodles in the valley. There, we chatted to a lovely trio of elderly female hikers before continuing on our way. 

After another climb, we descended down into Chikatsuyu village. 

The sun was hot as we climbed another long section of paved road with no trees for shade. 

Along the way, though, we were treated to small glimpses into the Japanese country lifestyle: old women making green tea on the roadside, children running around the oval for P.E. class, farms and old houses engulfed in the peace of the surrounding mountains.

Finally we made it to the final landmark for the day, a shrine called Tsugizakura-oji with huge 'one direction' cedar trees (Nonaka-no-Ipposugi). 

After exploring the shrine a little we made our way down to the Nonaka-no-Shimizu spring, one of Japan's 100 famous water sources with delicious fresh water, where we waited to be picked up by a little van to take us to our lodging for the night.

Day 3, Part 1: Tsugizakura-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha (Nakahechi)
7km, 2.5hours

Unfortunately a recent landslide closed off the first section of our intended trail and we were faced with the option of a 4km detour along forestry roads or taking a bus for the first section. 

Due to the heavy rain we decided to choose the bus, and soon found that all the other hikers on our schedule had chosen the same option. 

So we started day three at Hosshinmon-oji, headed for Kumano Hongu Taisha: one of the three grand shrines of the Kumano Kodo. 

Our morning was filled with beautiful forest trails and isolated mountaintop villages. It had rained all night and morning, easing just as we started our walk so we were able to quickly shed our rain gear and enjoy a forest full of mist. 

Along the way we came across tea plantations, villages and gorgeous countryside scenery before our descent to Kumano Hongu Taisha.

Kumano Hongu Taisha was lovely and full of eager tourists. Nearby, Japan's largest torii gate was also a sight to behold. 

Day 3, Part 2: Kumano Hongu Taisha to Yunomine Onsen Town
3.5km, 1.5hours
After lunch we decided to forgo a second bus for the day and instead walk to our night's accommodation in Yunomine. It only seemed a short distance, less than 3km away, but we ended up finding out the hard way that it was a tough, steep climb up and down a small mountain (Mt. Dainichi) to get to the onsen. 

The worst part about this detour was that we didn't plan on taking it so none of us knew how long the climb would go on, which subsequently made it feel like an impossible task at the end of the day. 

It's an understatement to say I was happy when we made it down the other side and saw the onsen town we would stay in for the night. 

Yunomine Onsen Town was one of the best accommodations of our trip. The town is considered one of Japan's oldest onsen areas and is home to the only hot spring bath that you can bathe in that is UNESCO World Heritage listed. 

After a much needed bath, Kam and I took a walk around the tiny and charming town, watching families boil onsen eggs and vegetables in a hot spring next to the little river. 

The dinner at our ryokan was especially impressive, and the old woman running the place was a true gem. 

Day 4: Kogumotori-goe (Hongu area to Koguchi) (Nakahechi)
13km, 4.5~6 hours
I woke up feeling a little off colour on day four. I could barely stomach the morning's traditional breakfast with fish, pickles, rice and miso. Instead I got my energy from the muesli bars Kam's parents had brought over from Australia. 

Unfortunately another landslide on the first section of the trail meant another detour. This time we opted to walk the detour, starting our day with an 8km trek up a paved road in the sun. 


The break from the usual terrain of rocks and roots underfoot was welcome and the gradual but steady incline allowed us to make good time, distance and elevation in the morning. 

We met up with the Kumano Kodo trail after Hyakken-gura, where we started towards the Sakura-jaya teahouse remains. The trail rose and fell a few times through the forest; a pleasant walk, and we were lucky enough to spot a squirrel on the trail! 

Spirits were high in our group this morning with 8km already behind us and a lovely sunny day ahead. The teahouse remains made a wonderful spot for lunch (cup noodles again, and tea of course!)

This lookout spot was blessed with beautiful views of the mountains of Wakayama, which seem to go on forever into the distance. 

After lunch we went quickly down into the valley, traversing lots of mossy cobblestone and rocky steps. 

Soon enough we were at the bottom of the trail, heading across a bridge and through a tunnel towards our night's accommodation in Koguchi. 

One of the highlights of this trip was without a doubt the accommodation at Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie, an old Junior High School that was closed 30 years ago and converted into lodging for travellers on the Kumano Kodo route. 

It was simply an amazing experience, unlike any other ryokan or minshuku in Japan. Right next to the old school house we spotted a river. 

As soon as we arrived, we changed into bathers and cooled off in the shallow water with great joy before checking in for a great night at Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie. 

Day 5: Ogumotori-goe (Koguchi to Nachisan) (Nakahechi)
14.5km, 6 to 8 hours

The last climb. We had been told by almost every Japanese hiker we encountered on the route that our toughest day would be the final one. Old ladies held their arms at steep angles to illustrate to us how difficult the climb would be, and we had read with trepidation about the "Dogiri-zaka" or "Body Breaking Slope" which climbs around 800m in elevation over 5km at the start of the day five trail.

The guide we read quoted a famous pilgrim who wrote "This route is very rough and difficult, it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is".

So, you may understand that I was not exactly looking forward to day 5.

Starting out at 7:15am meant no time for second thoughts, and before I knew it we were there climbing the never-ending mossy stairs I had dreaded so much. But, as we got into the rhythm there was a sense of relief. Having been told repeatedly how difficult the section would be, we were all mentally prepared for hell, and the reality of it was not so bad.

Yes it was a difficult, steep, long climb. But if you took care not to look up and see how far you had left to climb, if you focused on each step, each new rock your foot was to find, then the climb became bearable.

I think that's the essence of hiking - to place each step thoughtfully, not to get caught up in how far away your goal is, or how steep the path is - but to just keep going. Taking it at your own pace is also a skill to master, and one that made the climb easier.

So we made our way up the endless stairs until they weren't endless anymore, and we were at the top.

After a little rest we continued on with a series of shorter climbs and descents on our way to the Jizo-jaya teahouse remains. Here, the onigiri bento box we had packed for lunch went down very well.

Then we started out again on a road, through the forest past Mt. Myoho, and up to the Funami-toge Pass where the view was lovely. It was starting to sink in that the end was near, and it was bittersweet. By now the thought of not being in the mountains was starting to seem strange.

From here it was a sharp and long descent with stone staircases that went on forever, putting pressure on the ankles and toes and building frustration that mixed with the mounting anticipation of reaching the goal. Weren't we supposed to have finished the most difficult part already?

The thing I find incredible about hiking is that going down a mountain is often much more difficult than climbing it.

More than two hours later, the Nachi-no-Otaki falls appeared in the distance and pure joy spread across my face as I realised we had made it.

A great rush of excitement flooded our group as we high-fived and congratulated each other and ourselves.

The 133m tall, 13m wide waterfall at Nachi is Japan's tallest waterfall, and the shrine grounds are sacred to the ascetic mountain monks. Ordinarily it would be a wonderful spot to visit, but on that day I was the most enthusiastic I had ever been to see a shrine!

We all indulged in celebratory soft-cream and wandered the grounds in elation before checking in to our final accommodation for a bath, luxurious ryokan-style dinner.

We spent the night chatting and laughing, as we reflected on the grand adventure we had just completed.


  1. Hello, The Brown Felt Hat!

    I am planning to visit Kumano-Kodo this May with my husband and I found this post very helpful. As we have only three days for this part of Japan, we would like to ask you for advice and opinion on our "schedule"
    We were thinking to start in Tanabe, overnight in Chikatsuyu and Hongu. By your experience would that be a good choice given that we only have two days to hike and one to spend around Hongu, or would you recommend another segment & overnights?

    Regarding accommodation we found it difficult to pre-book. The places we found online are around 150 USD per night or above.
    By your experience, is pre-booking necessary or is there plenty of local accommodation to walk into in? Is the price level we found reasonable? All other accommodation we booked in Japan up to now was less than USD 60 per night for a double...

    We would really appreciate if you could share your experience with us on this one and hope to hear from you soon!

    Thanks in advance!

    Sonja & Julian

  2. Hey Sonja and Julian, great to hear you enjoyed reading and that's exciting you guys are going to Kumano Kodo. It is such a beautiful part of Japan, I'm sure you'll love it.

    Your planned course seems like you'll be able to fit in a lot of great hiking and sights into three days. Your other option could be to start at Hongu and hike to Nachisan ( the main shrine, with a huge waterfall, incredible shrine grounds etc.) Either way, walking any part of the route is a joy.

    As for accommodation, you definitely need to book in advance as the places are very small and there are not many options in each town. We saw one couple who hadn't booked a place to stay begging the staff at an accommodation to be given a room. We booked our accommodation from within Japan and spoke directly with the owners, so the pricing may have been different than what you get through a booking site. We were paying around USD$100 per person per night, with two meals included (sometimes cheaper). We found the food and accommodation quality to be really high, so that price was definitely worth it. Ooh, and try to visit or stay overnight in the Yunomine Onsen town near Hongu if you can!

    Hope that helps - have a great hike :)

  3. Hello there,

    Thanks a lot for the information! For the moment we made the reservations for those nights, just to be sure to not be without accommodation, but we will then try to re-book it once we arrive to Japan. That is really a useful hint you gave us. :)

    And we will definitely try to visit Yunomine Onsen!

    Btw, is there any other direct way to contact you in case we have some additional questions later (email or so) so we don´t keep spamming the comment area? :)


    Sonja & Julian