Deep in the verdant mountains of the Kii peninsular in Wakayama prefecture south of Nara is a network of ancient pilgrimage trails like spokes of a wheel radiating into Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine. Of these 6 trails the Nakahechi route from the town of Kii-Tanabe on the west coast through to Kumano Nachi Taisha in the south-east is the most well-known, well-maintained, well-signposted and thus well-walked. A more remote trail requiring full pack and tent is the Kohechi Trail starting at Mt Koya, the sublime Buddhist mountain-top town, centre of Shingon Buddhism introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, famous founder of the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage. Including a visit to Mt Koya before any of the Kumano Kodo walks is regarded as particularly devout.
Both Koya-san and the Kumano Kodo trail are UNESCO World Heritage Listed, reflecting the ancient heritage and spiritual nature of this area of Japan. The trails were once walked by the Imperial family and though you seldom encounter royalty, Yamabushi monks still walk these trails in their distinctive white robes, straw sandals and conch shell trumpets. Yamabushi are followers of Shugendo, a derivative of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism which incorporates Shinto animist beliefs, mountain worship, purification training through physical endurance, and mysticism.
The Nakahechi route can be done over 5 days with village to village walking, averaging 14 km per day. The 71 km trail ascends pine-clad mountains and meanders through rural backwaters, providing immersion in a very Japanese landscape of misty valleys, rushing streams, bamboo groves, forests and the occasional monkey. Accommodation is simple farmstay ‘minshuku’ and ryokan, often with natural hot spring baths. The grade is on the difficult side of moderate – steep at times with some killer steps, and slippery after rain, and Wakayama is a very wet part of Japan. There are also many snakes in warmer months – mainly the harmless sort. The hot springs village of Yunomine Onsen is worth the detour – remote, atmospheric and a great place for a rest day – hire bikes and swim in the river to find the hot spots!
Descending from the Kii mountain range to the magnificent red shrine buildings, pagoda and waterfall of Nachi Taisha is a grand reward for an amazing walk.
Tips for walking the Kumano Kodo:
- http://www.tb-kumano.jp excellent local tourism website with maps, guides, bus timetables
- http://www.kumano-travel.com online booking site for self-guided Kumano Kodo
- use the luggage forwarding service on this walk and carry a daypack
- avoid the typhoon months of August and September as this area can be just too wet
- well-worn-in hiking boots required (I use gaiters and walking poles as well)
- good quality wet weather gear and a dry-sack for your tech inside your pack
- stay overnight in Kii-Tanabe to make your first day an easy one, as you will need to take the bus up to Takijiri which has an information centre and the trailhead
- plan your walk on the last day so that you arrive at Nachi Taisha in time for the local bus (last bus at 5.40pm) to Kii-Katsuura train station, and be aware that express trains back to Osaka are infrequent
The Kumano Kodo is a dual pilgrim trail with the Camino de Santiago de Compostela