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The Kumano Kodo Walk is Full of History, Nature and Culture
If you want to get off the beaten track in Japan and immerse yourself in Japanese history, religion and culture, all while enjoying beautiful natural scenery, there’s no better way to do it than the Kumano Kodo walk.
I first heard about the Kumano Kodo when walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail across Spain. The Kumano Kodo and the Camino de Santiago are the only two pilgrimage routes in the world that are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and in 2015 a dual pilgrim program was created for pilgrims who walk both routes.
Some Camino de Santiago pilgrims even refer to the Kumano Kodo as the “Japanese Camino” or the “Camino Kumano”.
I’ve walked three different routes of the Camino de Santiago, and each one has been a very special experience. My Camino time is a time for me to destress, get back to nature, and travel slowly.
My husband Nick and I love it so much that we’ve started a tradition of walking a different Camino every year. So when we visited Japan, hiking Kumano Kodo seemed like an obvious thing to include on our itinerary.
What is the Kumano Kodo Trek?
Kumano Kodo History
Kumano is a sacred land of mountains and forests that has been a place of spiritual pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, the emperors and their families made the pilgrimage to Kumano dozens of times. In later eras, the practice was taken up by samurai warriors and then by the common people of Japan.
Kumano Kodo is generally thought of as a Shinto pilgrimage, although in past centuries the Shinto and Buddhist religions of Japan were very much intertwined.
Today, you will see a few scattered reminders of Buddhist practices along the Kumano walk, such as jizo images believed to protect travelers, children and women. However, most of the Buddhist statues and other objects were removed in the 19th century, when Shintoism and Buddhism were forcibly separated by law.
Most visitors to Japan tend to stick to big cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. And while those places are all worth visiting, I highly recommend venturing out to the countryside for a bit of "forest bathing", as the Japanese call it.
There's nothing like a walk through the forest to recharge your batteries and find inner peace.
Speaking of peace, you should also visit Hiroshima to see how this city that was destroyed by the atomic bomb has redefined itself as a beacon of world peace and hope.
Also check out my guide to vegan-friendly restaurants in Hiroshima.
Kumano Kodo Routes
I was surprised to find out that the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route is not a single route, but rather a network of pilgrimage routes in the Kii mountain range on the Kii Peninsula, which is part of the Wakayama prefecture.
These routes lead to the three grand shrines of the Shinto religion: the Kumano Hongu Taisha, the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and the Kumano Nachi Taisha.
Collectively, these three shrines are known as the Kumano Sanzan. They lie within 20 to 40 kilometers of each other and are connected by various pilgrimage trails.
There are a number of different possible walking routes, ranging from easy half-day walks to multi-day treks.
The basic Kumano Kodo map below shows the various Kumano Kodo trekking routes. You can pick up a much more detailed Kumano Kodo trail map for your chosen trail at the tourism bureau in Tanabe.
To visit all three of the main shrines on foot, you would need eight or nine days. Like most visitors to Japan, we didn’t have that amount of time to spare, so we chose a shorter Kumano Kodo itinerary lasting two days and three nights.
This one is called the Nakahechi Route, and it’s one of the most popular Kumano Kodo trails. Also known as the Nakahechi Imperial Route, it’s the trail that many emperors walked, starting in the 10th century. It starts at Takijiri-oji and ends at the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine.
Even though a two day walk is much shorter than my previous pilgrimages on the Camino, I found it to be long enough to get rejuvenated by being in nature and also get a feel for what the Kumano Kodo is all about. And who knows, maybe I’ll return one day and walk to the other two shrines.
How to Get to the Kumano Kodo from Kyoto or Osaka
The Kumano Kodo is located on the Kii Peninsula, south of Osaka and Kyoto. A small city called Tanabe serves as the gateway to the region. I recommend spending your first night in Tanabe, though you could also go all the way to Takijiri-oji and spend the night there.
JR Kuroshio trains run roughly hourly between Shin-Osaka Station in Osaka and Kii Tanabe Station in Tanabe, taking about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
If you’re coming from Kyoto, you’ll just need to switch trains at Shin-Osaka. JR rail passes are valid on all trains in this region. For the best views, sit on the right-hand side of the train.
What to See in Tanabe
While you’re in Tanabe, check out the Tokei-jinja shrine, which was built in 419 AD and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Emperors and aristocratic pilgrims used to pray here for safe passage before setting out on their pilgrimage.
lt's also worth taking the short walk to the coast to see the sunset. There you’ll find a fountain for performing the ogigahama shiogori saltwater purification rite. Based on the diaries kept by aristocratic pilgrims, it seems this was an important ritual in centuries past. It’s unclear exactly what was involved, but there’s a sign next to the fountain that reads:
“If you choose to perform this unique salt-water purification rite, the best approach is one with an open heart and pure mind”.
Be sure to stop in at the very helpful Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau next to the train station and pick up some of their free literature.
They have brochures with route maps, charts showing the elevation gain on each route, and lots more info. The staff at the information center are very helpful and willing to answer all your questions.
Transport from Tanabe to Takijiri-oji
From Tanabe, you will need to catch a bus to the trailhead at Takijiri-oji. Pick up the latest bus schedule from the tourism bureau before you set out. We caught the 6:50 am bus to get an early start.
Japanese buses have an elaborate system for determining the fare, and it can be quite confusing for foreigners. Generally, you take a paper ticket when you board, which will have a number on it indicating where you got on.
When you’re ready to get off, the chart at the front of the bus will tell you how much you owe, based on the number on your ticket. For this journey, it should be 970 yen.
Fares must be paid in cash; JR rail passes are not accepted, nor are IC cards. Be sure you have the exact fare or a 1,000 yen bill, as the driver cannot change anything larger.
When you exit, show the driver your ticket, get change from him if needed, then put the exact fare into the machine next to him.
The bus from Hongu back to Tanabe costs 2100 yen, so be sure you have enough 1,000 yen bills and coins to cover the fare at the end of your walk.
Walking the Nakahechi Route of the Kumano Kodo
From Takijiri-oji to Hongu is about 38 kilometers, which most people take two days to walk, overnighting in Chikatsuyu.
The trail is well-maintained and well-signposted the whole way. It does get a bit hilly, and the stone paving can be slippery when wet, so I recommend bringing a walking stick.
Before you set out, ask the tourism bureau in Tanabe about any temporary detours or trail closures, which can sometimes happen due to typhoon damage. We did come across a detour towards the end of the trail and were quite confused by the signage, so it would have been helpful to get advice beforehand.
Along the trails, you will pass by many small shrines, called oji. The first of these is the Takijiri-oji, which marks the classic start of the Nakahechi Trail.
There's a Kumano Kodo Kan Pilgrimage Center just across from the oji that has info and exhibits on the Kumano Kodo. It's only open from 9 am to 5 pm, though, so it was still closed when we arrived.
However, the minshuku (local guesthouse) at the trailhead has an attached shop that opens early. I bought a bamboo walking stick here for 500 yen, which was a wise investment.
We also bought stamp booklets here on a whim, and I was so glad we did! Collecting stamps along the way was one of the highlights of the Kumano Kodo for me. More on that later.
Our first day of walking from Takijiri-oji to Chikatsuyu was relatively short, roughly 16 kilometers. We arrived in Chikatsuyu at around 2:30 pm, checked into our minshuku, and rested for the remainder of the afternoon.
Our second day was longer, something between 24 and 34 kilometers, depending on which map/health app you believe.
Wayfinding on the Nakahechi Route
Shortly after the Waraji-toge pass, you’ll have to take an obligatory detour for about four kilometers. This is because of a major crack in the mountain that appeared after a typhoon in 2011.
But don't worry that you're missing out on anything. While you won't find any ancient shrines along this newer section, it boasts some of the most beautiful scenery of the whole trail.
Just before the Inohana-oji, there’s a fork in the road for the last few kilometers. The main Nakahechi Route is the northern trail, which is what we took. If you take the southerly route, called the Akagi-goe Route, you can pass through the Yunomine hot springs on your way to Hongu.
At first, we considered doing this, but then we realized we wouldn’t have time to enjoy the hot springs and still make it to Hongu before dark. As it was, we started out at 7 am and didn’t arrive in Hongu until 5 pm.
So instead we visited the hot springs the next day, which was amazing!
After staying overnight in Hongu, the next morning we visited the huge torii gate nearby, called Oyunohara, and then continued along the trail to the Yunomine onsen.
At just under 34 meters tall, the Oyunohara is the largest torii gate in Japan, and therefore in the world. Some people say it’s also the most beautiful.
The trail from Hongu to Yunomine Onsen takes about 50 minutes and starts with a pretty steep ascent, then flattens out before descending down to the hot springs.
Yunomine is a cute, quiet little village strung out along a stream, which is also where the hot springs are. It’s one of the oldest hot springs in Japan and was used by pilgrims for purification rites in the past.
Historic Tsuboyu Onsen
There are several guesthouses in town with attached hot spring baths, and also a public bath. But the most atmospheric place to bathe is definitely the historic Tsuboyu Onsen. This tiny pool is protected by a wood cabin that juts out over the stream.
It’s only big enough for one or two people max, and you can book it for 30-minute intervals at the public bath down the street.
I’ve read several articles claiming that Tsuboyu Onsen is the only hot spring in the world recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When I dug a bit deeper, though, I couldn’t find anything on the UNESCO website to support this.
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes and sacred sites as a whole are listed by UNESCO, but that listing doesn’t mention anything about the onsen. This is the second site I’ve visited this year that was touted as a UNESCO site but actually wasn’t one.
But in both cases, the sites were nonetheless spectacular! In case you’re wondering, the other one was the Rainbow Mountains in China.
Despite its lack of World Heritage status, having a historic bath like Tsuboyu all to yourself, either on your own or with a partner, is a pretty special experience.
To reserve your spot, go to the public springs and buy a ticket at the vending machine. It costs 770 yen per person for 30 minutes. When we went around 9 am there was no wait at all. Keep in mind that bathing suits, soap and shampoo are all prohibited.
Kumano Kodo Stamps
Every so often on the trail, you’ll come across what looks like a little birdhouse. Inside is a stamp and an ink pad, which you can use to stamp your booklet and mark your progress along the trail.
They’re often found at oji or other small monuments, and each stamp is unique to the particular spot it commemorates. Sometimes the stamp stations are right on the path, while other times they require a small detour from the trail.
Most of the stamps are really beautiful, and the completed stamp book makes an inexpensive and lightweight souvenir of your journey. Collecting stamps is also a big part of the Camino de Santiago experience, so it was nice to see this connection between the two pilgrimages.
We ended up seeing some shrines and statues just off the path that we probably would not have visited otherwise, which was great. However, there were a couple of times when we got really confused and went off on a wild goose chase looking for stamps that weren’t there.
In total there are 18 stamps to collect on the Nakahechi Route. Here’s a list of all the stamp stations:
Stamp Stations on the Nakahechi Route
- Takahara Kumano-jinja
- Gyuba-doji Statue
- Hidehira-zakura cherry tree
- Jagata Jizo
- Inohana-oji (currently off-limits due to repair work, but you can collect the stamp at the Hongu Heritage Center)
- Kumano Hongu Taisha
The Jagata Jizo stamp is easy to miss, as the sign for it is only in Japanese. It looks like this.
Take the path that says “Not Kumano Kodo”, which will lead you down to the jizo image and the stamp.
While you're staying in Hongu, you can also pick up a stamp at the nearby Oyunohara, the giant torii gate just five minutes away. And if you go to the Yunomine onsen, which I highly recommend, you can also get one at the Yunomine-oji.
We were lucky to find stamp booklets at the Takijiri-oji minshuku, since we hadn’t thought to get them in Tanabe.
Another option is to pick up the dual pilgrim passport at the tourism bureau in Tanabe. This serves as a stamp booklet for both the Kumano Kodo and the Camino de Santiago, in case you plan to walk the Camino one day and become a dual pilgrim.
Becoming a Dual Pilgrim
If you have already walked the Camino de Santiago and then walk the Kumano Kodo, then you qualify as a dual pilgrim! This was not really a factor in us deciding to walk the Kumano Kodo, but it ended up being pretty cool. Here’s how to claim your dual pilgrim status:
When you reach the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine, hand in your stamp booklet at the Hongo Heritage Center across the street. They will put an official stamp in the front of your booklet to show that you completed the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage.
They’ll probably also give you a dual pilgrim passport and encourage you to walk the Camino de Santiago to attain dual pilgrim status.
We told them that we had already walked the Camino three times but didn't have our credenciales (stamp booklets) or compostelas (certificates) with us to prove it. They were very trusting and accepted a few snapshots saved on Nick's phone as proof.
If you know in advance that you want the dual pilgrim certificate, I recommend taking a photo of your documents as proof before you leave.
Gifts for Dual Pilgrims
We filled out a form, and within a few minutes, the staff had prepared a certificate for us on traditional Japanese washi paper. They also gave us dual pilgrim pins to wear, and a folder to keep our certificates in.
Then they told us that if we went back to the shrine and showed our certificates we could participate in a dual pilgrim taiko drumming ceremony! The priest at the shrine knew right away what we wanted and brought us to a room with a taiko drum.
He played a rhythm on the drum, and we both took turns banging on the drum and attempting to imitate him. It was great fun.
Then he told us to go to a shop near the shrine entrance, where we could pick up another gift. Our dual pilgrim gifts just kept coming!
The priest had said the next was a "keyholder", so I expected a tacky plastic keychain, but what we got was actually really beautiful. Behind the counter at the shop was a friendly Japanese man.
He was a dual pilgrim himself and was very excited to meet us. From behind the counter, he pulled out two round blocks of wood with the symbols of both pilgrimages, the Camino shell and the Kumano three-legged crow, stamped onto them.
Since they were a bit too large to work as keyrings, we turned them into Christmas tree ornaments.
Kumano Kodo Accommodation
Accommodation on the Kumano Kodo is mostly in minshuku, which are traditional Japanese guesthouses where you sleep on futons laid out on tatami mats on the floor. In many cases, meals are also provided.
While this is a nice cultural experience to have in Japan, most of the minshuku on the Kumano Kodo seem overly expensive. Elsewhere during our one-month trip in Japan, we slept in plenty of tatami mat rooms very similar to those on the Kumano Kodo, for about half the price.
Another thing to note is that Kumano Kodo accommodation sells out quickly, so you need to book ahead, ideally several weeks in advance. There's an official community reservation system run by the Tanabe Tourism Bureau. It’s called the Kumano Travel Reservation System, and to be honest, it’s a bit of a mess.
Bookings are not automatic; you have to make a request through the system and wait for the staff to get back to you, which can take several days.
You also have to provide a second and third alternative to your first choice. So, if your first choice is not available, you’ll be stuck with a booking for one of your alternatives, which might be even more expensive. You also have to reserve a minimum of 10 days in advance.
Two of the three guesthouses we stayed in are available on Booking.com, so in hindsight, it would have been easier to book that way. Booking.com doesn’t list any accommodation in Chikatsuyu, though, so you’ll probably need to go through the official system to book something there.
If you want to make use of the luggage shuttle service rather than carrying your own bags, that's another reason to book through the official Kumano Travel reservation system.
The luggage service can only be booked online if you book accommodation through the system. And, just like accommodation reservations, these bookings must be made at least 10 days in advance.
In Tanabe, we stayed at Guesthouse Kumano, a small, central guesthouse in the Ajikoji bar and restaurant district. Prices here were quite reasonable at 4600 yen for a tatami mat double room, and they held our bags for free for the two days we were on the Kumano Kodo walk.
We stayed at Minshuku Nakano, which was nice enough but cost more than double the price of Guesthouse Kumano in Tanabe, at 4900 yen per person without meals. And the accommodation was exactly the same -- a bare room with a tatami mat floor and futons.
I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, but it was the cheapest place we could find. We only booked a couple of weeks in advance, though, so you might find more options if you plan ahead better than we did.
In Hongu we stayed at Guesthouse Yui, which was just lovely. The lady who welcomed us spoke English well and gave us lots of good info about the facilities available in town (restaurants, supermarket, hot springs, etc). There’s a comfy common area and a kitchen available for guest use, which has a microwave and toaster.
Yunomine Onsen Accommodation
If you have an extra day up your sleeve, I’d consider staying overnight at Yunomine Onsen to relax after your hike. We didn’t do this, but I would have liked to if we’d had more time. I’ve read great things about J-Hoppers Kumano Yunomine Guesthouse there. They have kitchen facilities that guests can use, and they even give out free rice and porridge.
Vegan Food on the Kumano Kodo
Vegan food was actually much more prevalent on the Kumano Kodo than I had expected. We even came across a box full of vegan treats set out for hikers by a local farmer.
Yay for Japan becoming more vegan-friendly! Even so, it’s definitely a good idea to plan ahead and bring some food along with you.
Some minshuku offer meals, typically breakfast and/or dinner with the option of a bento box for lunch. If you book through the community reservation system, you can see which accommodations are able to offer vegetarian/vegan meals.
You can choose from five different levels of vegetarianism. Yes, five! BUT, not many minshuku cater for vegetarians/vegans who don’t eat dashi -- the fish broth that is the basis of many Japanese meals. And those that did offer this were beyond our budget, so we self-catered part of the way.
Cooking Your Own Meals on the Kumano Kodo
In Kyoto, we went shopping at a fancy international supermarket called Global Kitchen and ended up with an eclectic mix of tortillas, canned beans, pesto and sun-dried tomatoes. It was a bit odd, but it got the job done.
Identifying vegan items in a Japanese grocery store can be challenging if you don’t read Japanese.
If you have a chance to visit a health food store, veggie/vegan store or Natural Lawson store before your walk, you could grab some vegan cup noodles and microwave meals. Or there's a vegan restaurant in Nara called Ramuna Café that also sells noodles and microwaveable curry packets.
But find out first if your accommodation offers kitchen facilities. Even if not, they should at least be able to give you hot water for vegan cup noodles, which are sold at Natural Lawson.
Affordable hot vegan meals are available at restaurants in Tanabe, Takijiri-oji and Hongu, so it’s only really an issue if you’re overnighting in Chikatsuyu.
Vegan-Friendly Restaurants on the Kumano Kodo
In Tanabe we ate at Galette, a small macrobiotic restaurant that can do basic vegan meals. The day we visited, the options were soup, pasta and risotto.
There's also an American bar in Tanabe called Hangover that does veggie burgers, but they were closed when we were there.
And we passed by a place called Moko (sign in Japanese sign only) which claims to do vegetarian meals. It’s on the same street as Guesthouse Kumano.
Also on this street is a fairly large supermarket called Price Cut that’s open until late. I didn’t look that closely, but I did notice they sell the full range of Meiji chocolates.
The Meiji company has confirmed that all their chocolates with 70% cacao or higher are vegan, even though milk is still listed as an allergen on the packaging. Japanese food labeling is a nightmare, but that’s a story for another post.
Justin from Lotus and the Artichoke was walking the Kumano Kodo at almost exactly the same time as us, but we didn’t realize it until he’d already left Japan. What a bummer!
Anyway, Justin stayed at the minshuku right at the trailhead and confirms that they can provide a vegan breakfast and dinner. Check out his Instagram story highlights to see more of his vegan discoveries in Japan.
AND, I found out later there's a completely vegan café here called Takijirichaya that serves up veggie burgers. Say what?!?! They’re open from 7 am to 3 pm every day except Tuesday and Wednesday.
Michi-no-Eki Near the Gyuba-doji Statue
Shortly before Chikatsuyu is a roadside rest area (michi-no-eki) that sells some snack items, including a local specialty called mehari sushi that they can make without bonito fish flakes on request.
It’s basically an onigiri rice ball rolled up in takana, a type of leafy green vegetable. To be honest, the takana was a little bitter for my taste, but it was awesome to see that they recognize the demand for vegan options and are willing to accommodate.
Another recommendation from Justin of Lotus and the Artichoke fame is a café called CABELO coffee. They don’t have much in the way of vegan meals but do have some vegan snacks, including Clif bars.
There’s also a small ACoop supermarket in town, but we didn’t find much there beyond tofu and jam.
Who would have thought that this tiny town would have three restaurants serving vegan options, and that one of them would be a fully vegan restaurant!?
Café Bonheur is the fully vegan place, but unfortunately they close on Wednesdays, which happened to be the day we were there. Dinner reservations are required and can be made through their website.
B&B Café Hongu has four marked vegan options on the menu, namely vegetable curry, vegetable soup, pasta with eggplant and arrabbiata sauce, and pasta with soy meat Bolognese.
The prices are reasonable at about 1200 for pasta dishes. This place was also closed the night we arrived, but we were able to eat lunch there the next day.
Shokudo seems to be the most reliable option for an evening meal. It’s a bit more upscale and has a very cozy atmosphere. Their vegan risotto was incredible, one of the creamiest I’ve ever tasted!
The set vegetarian/vegan menu costs 2100 yen and comes with a drink. I chose the lemon and ginger plum wine, which was excellent. Set meals were supposed to include miso soup and ice cream for dessert, but those items weren’t served to us, so I guess they weren’t vegan. Even so, we had a lovely meal and left very satisfied.