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Japan’s sacred pilgrim trail

Japan’s sacred pilgrim trail

Kumano: land of the gods

Once a sacred pilgrim route for emperors and samurai, this trail is now a fascinating hike for travellers with wanderlust. Towering trees, sacred mountains and the tallest waterfall in the country: are you ready to explore the Kumano Kodō?

Let’s go
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The Kumano Kodō is about an hour by train from the lively city of Osaka on the southern part of the peninsula Kii. Far off the beaten track, the Kumano region is still undiscovered by mass tourism. Even before Buddhism was introduced in Japan in the 6th century, local residents believed these mountains were sacred. They regarded the mountains, waterfalls and trees as kami (gods) and a hike through this natural wonderland became a sacred exercise. Emperors and samurai warriors kept detailed diaries of their journeys. One of the most famous descriptions dates back to 1109.

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The Nakahechi Route

The Kumano Kodō isn’t actually a single route, but a network of trails without an official start or finish point. Some routes take a few hours to complete, while others may require several days. Historically, the Nakahechi Route (also known as the Imperial Route) has been the most interesting one and runs from Tanabe in the west to Nachisan in the east.

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Gonzalo Azumendi
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Ippei Naoi

This route is a favourite among pilgrims as it goes past the Kumano Sanzan: the 3 largest shrines of Kumano. A visit to all 3 shrines is said to bring good fortune to your past, present and future.

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Benjy Meyers

From Tanabe to Hongu

The road to the first shrine

From Tanabe you travel by bus to Takijiri-oji, the start of the Nakahechi Route. This route leads deep into the mountains through small villages where you can spend the night in traditional ryokans. A highlight is Takahara, nicknamed ‘the village in the mist’. After approximately 40 km (allow 2 to 3 days to cover this stretch) you reach Hongu, home to the first sacred Shinto shrine: the Kumano Hongu Taisha (Taisha means ‘large shrine’). Here you will also find a traditional torii (gate), which at almost 40 metres high is the largest in Japan. 

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Tom Bean / Alamy Stock Photo
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Yunomine Onsen

A visit to the hot springs

At Hongu take the time for a short stroll to the 3 onsen, or Japanese hot springs. This Dainichi-goe route leads along the Yunomine Onsen, Kawayu Onsen and Wataze Onsen. The village of Yunomine was founded around 1,800 years ago. 

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Paolo Patrizi / Alamy Stock Photo
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Lucas Vallecillos / Alamy Stock Photo

Traditionally, pilgrims stopped here to cleanse themselves as part of their sacred journey. Spending the night here is a magical experience. And the warm water is also very soothing for your tired feet. 

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cowardlion / Shutterstock.com

From Hongu to Nachi Taisha

Japan’s tallest waterfall

It will take you one and a half days to hike the next 27.5 km, from Hongu to the second shrine: Nachi Taisha. But don’t underestimate this stretch: this is the toughest part of the hike. It is also known as the Dogiri-zaka, the backbreaking hill. In only 5 kilometres you gain around 800 metres in elevation. A 13th-century poet wrote in his diary: “It is impossible to put into words how tough this is”.

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Lucas Vallecillos / Alamy Stock Photo
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Tom Bean / Alamy Stock Photo

But don’t let it scare you off. You will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi-no-taki. The waterfall is the backdrop for the second large shrine, Kumano Nachi Taisha, with its characteristic pagoda. 

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cowardlion / Shutterstock.com

From Hongu to Nachi Taisha

Japan’s tallest waterfall

It will take you one and a half days to hike the next 27.5 km, from Hongu to the second shrine: Nachi Taisha. But don’t underestimate this stretch: this is the toughest part of the hike. It is also known as the Dogiri-zaka, the backbreaking hill. In only 5 kilometres you gain around 800 metres in elevation. A 13th-century poet wrote in his diary: “It is impossible to put into words how tough this is”.

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Lucas Vallecillos / Alamy Stock Photo
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Tom Bean / Alamy Stock Photo

But don’t let it scare you off. You will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi-no-taki. The waterfall is the backdrop for the second large shrine, Kumano Nachi Taisha, with its characteristic pagoda. 

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Tip

The shortcut

If a 70-kilometre hike is not exactly your idea of a holiday, don’t worry. Various stretches of the route can also be covered by bus. The perfect way to enjoy all the beauty of the trail while foregoing the effort. No time to complete the entire route? Plan a day trip from Osaka to visit the Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine and the waterfall.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha

Boat trip

Kumano Hayatama Taisha, the last of the 3 shrines, can only be reached by water. Choose from a traditional flatboat, a motorboat or a kayak. The Kumano Hayatama Taisha lies at the mouth of the Kumano-gawa. This is where the water from the sacred Kii mountains flows into the Pacific Ocean. 

Don’t forget to view the 800-year-old pine tree next to the temple complex. Regarded as sacred, the tree makes for a worthy end to your pilgrimage along the Kumano Kodō. 

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Tip

Mystical Koyasan

Would you like to see more of the Kii region? Then continue your travels to the nearby Koyasan. Here you can immerse yourself in the Buddhist temple life on Japan’s most sacred mountain. 

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Veerachart / Shutterstock.com
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Lucas Vallecillos / Alamy Stock Photo

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