Exploring the Kumano Kodo

ByJustin Hanus
Aug 30, 2023

Exploring the Kumano Kodo

The pilgrimage routes of the Kumano Kodo in Kansai have existed for more than 1,000 years. They were established as a way for people to visit sacred sites around the Kii Peninsula, but today they are a popular destination for hikers. The most important spots along the trails are three shrines called Kumano Sanzan. These are Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha, and Hayatama Taisha. The trails link the shrines to each other and to Kyoto, Koyasan, Omine, and Ise — all important religious sites. In the past, there were numerous routes, including several along the coast. Today, just two coastal and three mountain trails remain.

Nakahechi: The Imperial Route

One of the easiest trails to walk is Nakahechi. It begins in the city of Tanabe on the western coast and heads northeast to Hongu Taisha, which is best known for its towering torii gate. From here, the trail branches — one route goes to Nachi Taisha, the other to Hayatama Taisha.

If you’d like to walk just a portion of the trail, a good option is to go to Takijiri Oji where there’s a beautiful shrine in the midst of a pine forest. It’s then a 30-kilometer walk to Hongu Taisha. You can stop for the night in Chikatsuyu village where there are several bed and breakfasts.

Ohechi: The Coastal Route

Also beginning in Tanabe is Ohechi. However, this trail heads along the coast to reach Nachi Taisha. Since large amounts of the trail are away from any kind of public transport, it’s important to decide your route in advance. If you don’t speak Japanese, you’ll need to search for a map online as the signage along the trail is only sometimes in English.

Iseji: The Eastern Route

A second coastal route is Iseji, which runs along the east side of the peninsula. It begins at Ise Shrine in Mie prefecture and comes down the coast until it reaches Hayatama Taisha. Only a small portion of the original trail remains. However, some stretches have been preserved, including the Magose Pass in Owase City and the Matsumoto Pass in Kumano City. The ground here is either earthen or paved to prevent erosion from heavy rains.

Kohechi: The Mountain Route

Starting at Mount Koya where the Koyasan temple complex is located, Kohechi heads south to reach Hongu Kaisha. The entire route is about 70 kilometers of steep trails. It is even more difficult because there are few places to stay overnight near the trail — you’ll need to take a detour into one of the valley towns to find accommodation.

Omine Okugake: The Dangerous Route

The most challenging route of all is Omine Okugake. It starts in Yoshino, passes by Mount Omine, and ends at Hongu Taisha, passing through treacherous terrain along the way. The route is mostly along mountain ridges and there are almost no towns.

Depending on the amount of time you have available and your level of fitness, you may like to hike one of the trails in its entirety or sections of a route or two. Just make sure you are adequately prepared and have a clear plan for your journey before you set out.

VKaeru, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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