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How to Hike Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimage Trail

By Miranda Smith

Feb 14, 2018

From the March/April 2018 issue

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A pilgrim along the Kumano Kodo 

Photo by Peter Bohler

A pilgrim along the Kumano Kodo 

You’ve heard of the Camino de Santiago. But what about the Kumano Kodo? Here’s how to hike Japan’s sacred route.

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Located south of Osaka on the Kii peninsula of Japan, the Kumano Kodo trail system is one of only two UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage sites. Nakahechi, the most sacred of the Kumano’s seven trails, was developed in the 10th century and connects three grand shrines known collectively as the Kumano Sanzan.

There are a couple of ways to take on Nakahechi: a 72-mile route that includes a boat ride down the Kumano-gawa River and passes all three shrines, or the 42-mile route that writer Peggy Orenstein traveled, which begins in the village of Takijiri Oji, passes east through the Kii Mountains, and ends at the grand shrine Nachi Taisha.

Depending on which route you choose, the trip typically takes three to six days to complete, and while the hiking can be strenuous, you don’t exactly rough it: Pilgrims stay in hotels, ryokan, and minshuku (guesthouses) at villages along the way, most of which provide meals (including a lunch box for the trail) and access to hot springs or an onsen, a traditional Japanese bath. Plus, you can opt to have your luggage moved each day. Here are a couple ideas for planning your trip.

A packed lunch for the trail

Choose your own adventure

Browse sample itineraries and book transportation and lodging through Kumano Travel, the official reservation system of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau. Accommodations (including all meals) run about $90 a night, and luggage-shipping services cost around $35 a day.

Get a little help


There are several tour companies that will organize and book everything for you. Opt for one of Oku Japan’s self-guided trips—four- to 11-day itineraries starting at $955. Or, for a local’s perspective on the region’s culture and history, travel with a guide on Oku’s nine-day Kumano Ancient Trail tour, which begins and ends in Kyoto and includes all transportation to and from the trail, entrance to museums and temples, accommodations, meals, and luggage transfer (from $3,165). A similar nine-day tour with Walk Japan starts at $3,360.

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