Whether you’re after a rewarding outdoor experience or an enriching spiritual journey with one-of-a-kind hospitality, the Kumano Kodo has it all. Hiking the Kumano Kodo was one of our absolute favourite experiences in Japan (and indeed, of all times). In this guide, you will find all the information you need to create your own unforgettable memories hiking the ancient trails in the Kii Mountains of Japan.
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What is the Kumano Kodo?
The Kumano Kodo is a network of ancient pilgrimage trails stretching across the lush and mountainous Kii Peninsula in Wakayama, Nara and Mie prefectures, Japan. The trails lead to and connect three sacred sites (the Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan and Yoshino/Omine). The sacred sites and pilgrimage routes have been a UNESCO World Heritage since 2004.
Overview of the Kumano Kodo
These days, the Kumano Kodo comprises the following six routes:
Kumano Sanzan - the three Grand Shinto Shrines of the Kumano Kodo
Kumano Hongū Taisha
Kumano Hongū Taisha [Official website, Google Maps location] is located in the centre of the Kii Mountains, at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers. Its original entrance is marked by the world's largest shrine gate (called Torii) - the Ōyu no hara Torii - which is 34 metres high and 42 metres wide. Being destroyed by floods (and rebuilt) a few times in its history, Kumano Hongū Taisha was relocated from its original position by the Kumano River to higher ground nearby in 1889. Among others, Kumano Hongū Taisha enshrines Izanagi, the founding father deity of Japan.
Kumano Nachi Taisha
The second Grand Shrine in the Kii Mountains is Kumano Nachi Taisha [Official website, Google Maps location]. It's uniquely positioned on the side of a mountain high above the Nachi River and next to Nachi Falls - at 133 metres, Japan's tallest single-drop waterfall and the home of Hiryū Gongen, another important Shinto deity. Nachi-san (as the sacred complex is often called), is also home to Seiganto-ji, a Temple of the Tendai School of Buddhism, and a sacred 850-year-old Camphor tree, which is said to grant wishes to worshippers who walk through its hollow trunk.
Kumano Hayatama Taisha
The third Grand Shinto Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Taisha [Official website, Google Maps location] is located on the east coast of the Kii Peninsula, in Shingū City near the mouth of the Kumano River. The Grand Shrine is home to a sacred 850-year-old Podocarp tree, called Nagi no Ki. It is said that Izanagi and Izanami, the mythological couple that created Japan, first arrived in the area on a rock named Gotobiki Iwa. The rock marks the location of Kamikura-jinja, the original shrine, which pilgrims can reach by climbing a narrow 500-step stairway a few hundred meters south of the main complex.
What to expect when hiking the Kumano Kodo (compared to the Camino de Santiago)?
The Kumano Kodo and the Camino de Santiago are both religious/spiritual pilgrimages. However, while all routes of the Camino de Santiago end at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela [Official Website, Google Maps location], the Kumano Kodo leads to and/or connects three sacred sites (the Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan and Yoshino/Omine) – which means, between those sites, pilgrims may hike in either direction.
Both pilgrimages have pilgrim passports, and stamps can be collected along the route to receive official recognition:
- The minimum distance required for ANY of the Camino routes is 100 kilometres on foot or 200 kilometres by bicycle.
- The Kumano Kodo offers official recognition only on two of its six routes: three recognised options on the Nakahechi route and the Kohechi route from Koyasan to Kumano Hongu Taisha.
Unlike the Camino de Santiago (and surprising to us), many of the people we spoke to on the Kumano Kodo did not choose it for religious or spiritual reasons. Instead, they sought refuge from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, and a peaceful and immersive outdoor experience.
Terrain and Climate
Another significant difference between the two pilgrimages is the level of difficulty. All Kumano Kodo routes are (significantly) shorter but the three mountain routes – the Omine Okugake Michi, Kohechi and Nakahechi – are (significantly) more physically demanding than the Camino routes. To give you an idea: On the Nakahechi (the easiest of the three mountain routes), we hiked 67 kilometres over five days, with an elevation gain of 3,400 meters. Long stretches of uphills and downhills, often on slippery terrain, put a strain on your feet, legs and knees. Therefore, on the mountain routes of the Kumano Kodo, a decent level of fitness is a must, and the use of trekking poles is highly recommended.
Both pilgrimages take you through some of the wettest regions of their respective countries: Galicia in Spain and the Kii Peninsula in Japan, so carrying a raincoat or poncho is essential in both cases.
Logistics and Infrastructure
While both pilgrimages pass through beautiful natural landscapes, the mountain routes of the Kumano Kodo – the Nakahechi, the Kohechi and the Omine Okugake Michi – lead mainly through forests and over mountain passes, and (significantly) fewer (and smaller) villages compared to the Camino. The coastal routes of the Kumano Kodo – the Iseji, the Kiiji and the Ohechi – on the other hand reminded us a bit of the Camino Portugues de la Costa.
Unlike the Camino de Santiago, where pilgrims can usually find accommodation upon arrival (especially in the off-season), lodging on the Kumano Kodo mountain routes must be booked in advance, with the availability and location of accommodation dictating the distance hiked each day. On the most challenging route, the Omine Okugake Michi, you need to bring your own camping gear.
Way markers are present on both pilgrimages, helping pilgrims to keep to the trail. In many places, signs even indicate trails that are not part of the Kumano Kodo, making it hard to get lost. Most way markers are made of wood or stone, but in some cases, especially on (parts of) the more remote mountain routes, it may just be an arrow and ribbons. So, check your whereabouts regularly using offline maps that track your GPS location.
Distance markers on the Camino count down the kilometres to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (and on to Cape Finisterre). On the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route, numbered markers (approximately every 500 meters) count up towards Kumano Hongū Taisha (and down towards Kumano Nachi Taisha). On the last stage of the Kohechi route, 33 statues of Kannon (the Buddhist deity of compassion and mercy) count down your distance to Kumano Hongū Taisha.
What Kumano Kodo route to choose?
Which of the six Kumano Kodo routes to choose will depend on the following:
- how many days you want to spend hiking the Kumano Kodo,
- the time of year of your visit,
- your fitness levels,
- your thirst for adventure/risk tolerance, and
- the gear you have (and are happy to carry on your back).
The three coastal routes (Iseji, Kiiji and Ohechi) are relatively easy (and easily accessible) routes that can be hiked in (shorter) parts (including as day hikes). The Nakahechi route is more challenging but still easily accessible. It can also be done in parts.
The Kohechi takes it up a notch from the Nakahechi. The complete route can only be done as a 4-day through-hike. Alternatively, the last section (from Totsukawa Onsen [Google Maps location] to Kumano Hongu Taisha) can be done as a day hike. The Omine Okugake Michi is the most challenging route. It can only be done as a through-hike, though it can be shortened by two days avoiding the Ōminesan-ji Temple area.
To help you decide which Kumano Kodo route is the right one for you, we compare all six routes in more detail below (in alphabetical order):
When is the best time to hike the Kumano Kodo?
The best time to hike any of the Kumano Kodo routes is in Spring (March to May) or Autumn (mid-September, through October and November, and into early December): The temperatures are perfect for hiking, there is enough daylight to finish each day’s stage without stress, and all service providers are open for business. On top of that:
- In Spring, you can witness the beautiful blooming of flowers and trees (including cherry trees).
- Autumn is a great time to enjoy the vibrant colours of the foliage change.
If you want to hike the Kumano Kodo in Winter (December to February), we can only recommend the coastal routes (Iseji, Kiiji and Ohechi) and the section from Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongū Taisha on the Nakahechi route. Hiking all other Kumano Kodo routes in Winter is not recommended (even impossible) for various reasons: the days are shorter leaving you insufficient time to finish stages during daylight hours and alpine mountain passes are snowed in (and thus closed from mid-December to mid-March).
Summer (June to August) is typhoon season, which means it is hot and humid, with a lot more rain (and wind), making it less ideal for hiking. Summer also means some nasty critters are way more active (more on that below).
How to get to the Kumano Kodo?
The Kii Peninsula is south of and roughly halfway between Osaka and Nagoya. The nearest international airports are Kansai International Airport [Google Maps location, IATA: KIX] located on an island south of Osaka, and Chubu Centrair International Airport [Google Maps location, IATA: NGO) on an island south of Nagoya. The closest regional airport is Nanki-Shirahama Airport [Google Maps location, IATA: SHM], south of Kii-Tanabe, which has regular flights from/to Tokyo International Airport (Haneda) [Google Maps location, IATA: HND].
The most common access points to the Kumano Kodo are as follows:
Given the time it takes to get to most access points, it is not recommended to travel from Nagoya, Osaka or further afield on the day you plan to start your hike. Likewise, we do not recommend booking your flight out of Kansai International Airport [Google Maps location, IATA: KIX] or Chubu Centrair International Airport [Google Maps location, IATA: NGO) on your last day of hiking.
Is there public transportation along the Kumano Kodo?
The short answer: It depends. The three coastal routes are loosely traced by railway lines (and some local buses), making it relatively easy to join/leave the routes.
It’s different for the three mountain routes where buses are the only form of public transportation (if they exist at all). The ancient Kumano Kodo mountain routes do not follow the modern road network (or vice versa), so the opportunities to join/leave the mountain routes of the Kumano Kodo are limited to the few occasions where the routes meet the roads on the bus network. Furthermore, buses go very infrequently. So pending the schedule, you may have to wait a few hours until the next bus arrives.
Out of the three mountain routes, the Nakahechi is best serviced by buses, and you can join/leave the Kumano Kodo at various points. Check our itineraries for recommendations on common entry/exit points and the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau website for up-to-date bus timetables.
If you want to leave/join the Kohechi, the best option to do so is at Totsukawa Onsen. If you want to leave/join the Omine Okugake Michi, the best entry/exit point is the Wasamata-guchi bus stop (for Mt Daifugendake/ approximately km 24 which is also south of the Ōminesan-ji sacred boundary/exclusion zone for women).
Where to stay and how to book accommodation on the Kumano Kodo?
- You will be sleeping on futons in rooms with tatami floors and paper-thin sliding doors (if you’re a light sleeper: bring earplugs, just in case).
- Bathrooms are shared among the guests.
- Many of these inns have onsens (hot springs), which provide a blissful way to relax and rejuvenate after a long day of hiking.
- Most inns also offer home-cooked meals by way of meal plans (more on that below).
Traditional inns are run by local families, who often don’t speak English (or very little). If you speak Japanese, you can contact the inns and make your reservation by phone (or fax) – email is still relatively uncommon.
If you don’t speak Japanese use booking platforms such as Agoda or Booking.com, which list some guesthouses along the trail and provide a convenient and familiar way to secure your accommodation (we booked three of our five nights through these platforms), or make your reservation via the Kumano Travel website.
For easy reference, here are our accommodation recommendations on the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route (* where we stayed):
Kumano Travel [Official website] is a locally run agency that connects pilgrims with guesthouses and local activities. The Kumano Travel website provides a list of guesthouses in each location, along with details on meal plans, pricing and reviews. Once you have found an inn you like, complete a booking request and send it off. Kumano Travel typically responds within 24 hours, either confirming your booking or providing alternative options if your preferred guesthouse is not available.
It is important to note that Kumano Travel’s cancellation policy is quite strict, so it is essential to review the terms and conditions before making a booking. Once you have paid for your accommodation through the booking system, you will receive a booking confirmation, which you then present to your inn upon arrival.
Is (wild) camping allowed on the Kumano Kodo?
On the Kumano Kodo, camping outside of designated campgrounds is only allowed on the Omine Okugake Michi route, where the Misen Hut is the only serviced accommodation option among otherwise basic unstaffed mountain huts and other shelters (the latter operating on a first come/first served basis).
There are a number of campgrounds on the
- Iseji: Naosobimura, Ise-Kashiwazaki, Furusato Onsen and Owase
- Kohechi: Omata
- Nakahechi: Chikatsuyu, Kawayu Onsen, Watase Onsen and Koguchi
- Ohechi: Kii-Tanabe, Tonda and Susami.
Some campgrounds may be located off the actual Kumano Kodo trail, requiring additional walking from/to the trailhead. Advance booking is recommended (especially during Golden Week). Other than dedicated campgrounds, you may also be able to camp on private land in the villages you pass through (after asking for permission).
What about food (and water) on the Kumano Kodo?
How much food and water you should carry when hiking the Kumano Kodo will depend on the route you choose and the number of days you are planning to hike. Also, when booking accommodation in Japan (not just on the Kumano Kodo), you are commonly offered a meal plan – for example, dinner only / breakfast only (one meal), dinner and breakfast (two meals) OR dinner, breakfast and lunchbox (three meals). It may make sense to book a meal plan depending on the route you choose.
We’ll talk about both in more detail below.
What to do with excess luggage during the Kumano Kodo?
Chances are that you don’t just come to Japan to hike the Kumano Kodo. So what do you do with any luggage you don’t need to be schlepping around with you on the trails? You can either store any excess luggage (and pick it up afterwards) or forward it to your next destination.
Luggage storage options
Before we headed to the Kii Peninsula, we reduced the content of our travel packs to the absolute minimum, leaving everything we didn’t need (including our laptops) in a separate bag in Osaka. If you need a place to store your excess luggage, Daikoku near Osaka’s Shin-Imamiya Station is a safe and convenient option. With storage costs for a medium-sized bag of JPY80 per day, Daikoku is also significantly more affordable than coin lockers (which have a time limit as well).
If you’re travelling through Kii-Tanabe, you can also store your excess luggage at the Tanabe Tourist Information Center (next to the train station) for JPY500 per bag/day.
Luggage forwarding options
If you only want to carry a daypack with food and water but have your main luggage available at your accommodation each night, same-day luggage forwarding services are available along the Nakahechi and Kohechi routes. The best is to ask your accommodations (or Kumano Travel) to organise this for you. The service is not cheap though: budget between JPY2,500 and JPY5,500 per bag/day.
If you want to hike the Kumano Kodo with a reduced pack and have your excess luggage join you after your hike, you can also forward your excess luggage to your post-hike destination. We did this when hiking the Nakasendo, using Yamato and paying JPY1,620 for one travel pack from Osaka to Matsumoto.
How much does it cost to hike the Kumano Kodo?
Over the six nights we spent on the Kumano Kodo (Nakahechi route) in March 2023, we spent an average of JPY7,150 per person per night. This includes four night’s accommodation in traditional Japanese inns and two nights’ accommodation in a hostel (all private rooms), all food/beverages, luggage storage (one bag/one week) and luggage forwarding (one bag/same day) as well as public bus transportation on the Kumano Kodo. Not included is the train journey to Kii-Tanabe/from Kii-Katsuura.
For more details, check out how to budget like a pro: How much does it cost to hike the Kumano Kodo?
What else to know before hiking the Kumano Kodo?
Ten essential tips for a safe Kumano Kodo pilgrimage
For over 1000 years, people from all levels of society have attempted the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage - sadly not all of them survived it. Even today, some areas along the Kumano Kodo don't have mobile phone coverage and/or offer limited access to emergency services to reach injured pilgrims.
So, do heed our advice to make sure you and your hiking pals have a safe and enjoyable experience:
- Do not attempt to hike in the dark. Make sure you leave early in order to have plenty of time to enjoy your hike, take sufficient breaks and arrive well before sunset at your next accommodation.
- Carry enough food and water to sustain yourself. Many of the routes are physically demanding, so it is vital to stay hydrated and keep your energy levels up.
- Protecting yourself from the sun is also important. Apply sunscreen and wear a hat, especially on sunny days - while you hike through forests for most of the day, you can get sunburned.
- Insect repellent may also be necessary during the summer months to protect yourself from bugs and mosquitoes.
- Most injuries on the Kumano Kodo are from slips and falls as many of the old moss-covered stones or wooden planks are slippery (even when not wet). Take your time and watch your step, especially on downhill sections. Where possible, walk along the side of cobble-stoned sections where leaves and tree roots provide a safer surface. Trekking poles are also recommended.
- Bring a Personal Locator Beacon if you are planning to hike one of the more remote routes (especially on the Omine Okugake Michi) - mobile phone coverage on those routes is limited to non-existent.
- While you are not likely to encounter bears on the more frequented routes (including the Nakahechi), Asian black bears do roam the Kii Mountains, and carrying a bear bell is advised when hiking more remote trails. For further information on bear safety check out this post.
- Other potentially dangerous animals include the venomous Mamushi snake (a small pit viper 50 to 80 centimetres long), the Mukade (a black centipede with orange legs about the length of an adult hand with a very painful bite), and the giant hornet known as Suzumebachi. These critters are most active during the summer months. If you are bitten by a snake call emergency services (119) immediately.
- Summer (June to August) is also typhoon season. Typhoons can bring very strong winds, heavy rainfalls, flash floods and landslides, making it unsafe to hike (you will see some of the damage from prior typhoons along the trails). Stay up-to-date with the latest weather conditions to ensure your safety.
- In the event of an accident or bite, you may end up in hospital. While Japanese medical facilities are great, they are not cheap. So, do make sure to buy travel insurance for your trip.
Do you really have the right insurance coverage?
Having insurance can be a lifesaver (or a nuisance). Our step-by-step guide helps you find a policy that suits your needs.
Bring enough cash
It is important to bring plenty of cash as very few businesses along any of the Kumano Kodo routes accept credit cards, and ATMs that accept foreign cards are not readily available (and may charge withdrawal fees). Read more about how much it does cost to hike the Kumano Kodo.
Get your (dual) pilgrimage recognised
If you want to have your pilgrimage recognised (particularly if you have completed or are planning to also walk the Camino de Santiago)
- Pick up a pilgrim passport free of charge at the Tanabe Tourist Information Center [Official website, Google Maps location].
- Make sure you collect stamps along the route. They can be found at many of the small shrines (oji) along the trail (look out for the small huts on poles) and are proof that you actually walked the route. Also, don’t forget your completion stamp.
If you’ve already completed the Camino de Santiago and would like to be recognised as a dual pilgrim, head to the Kumano Hongu Heritage Center [Official website, Google Maps location] across the road from Kumano Hongu Taisha OR to the Tanabe Tourist Information Center for your dual pilgrimage registration:
- You need a copy of your Camino de Santiago Pilgrims certificate – a digital copy is sufficient.
- The registration process takes about 10 minutes.
Where to find further information about the Kumano Kodo?
- grab a paper copy of the Kumano Kodo route maps and an up-to-date bus schedule;
- check for any route adjustments (typhoons in prior years have closed routes/required detours to be put in place).
The Kumano Hongu Heritage Center [Official website, Google Maps location] across the road from Kumano Hongu Taisha is a great place to learn more about Wakayama Prefecture and its UNESCO World Heritage sites.
What was your Kumano Kodo experience like?
Have you hiked the Kumano Kodo? What route did you do, when did you do it and most importantly, how was your experience? And if you have any questions we haven’t answered please contact us. We’d love to hear from you.