This Epic Hike in Japan Takes You Through Ancient Shrines, Onsen Towns, and Magical Forests

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

A hiker walking through an entrance in Japan with red pillars

Pilgrims can find peaceful solitude along the Kumano Kodo trail.

Photo by Peter Bohler

Located south of Osaka on the Kii Peninsula of Japan‘s Honshū island, the Kumano Kodo trail system is an ancient religious route that connects three sacred sites, Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koyasan. It’s also one of only two UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage sites, alongside the Camino de Santiago to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Among outdoors enthusiasts, it’s also known as a unique, multiday trek that winds in and out of dense, foggy forests, to the top of lush mountains, past Shinto shrines, and through tiny villages.

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. Most visitors will choose to focus on this 44-mile-long route since it’s well-serviced and gives hikers a chance to see a variety of cultural and natural highlights. It also ends at the awe-inspiring Shinto shrine, Kumano-Nachi Taisha, which sits on a mountain next to the tallest waterfall in Japan, the Nachi Waterfall.

If you too want to experience the Kumano Kodo, here are some essential tips to plan your hike along the Nakahechi.

Which route to choose

In a boat on water, a guide points to a location on a map as tourists with their backs to the camera look on

After Hongu, hikers can opt to walk the rest of the way to Nachi or take a boat out to the coast and pick the trail up again from there.

Photo by Jessie Beck

There are a couple of ways to take on Nakahechi. If you have time to hike it all, you can choose between 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. Those short on time can opt for one of several variations of the above that involve a mix of hiking and buses.

To find one that works for you, browse the 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.

How many days do you need?

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.

Suggested stops along the way

Two people stand at the bottom of the Nachi Taisha, the final grand shrine of the route, with tree-covered mountains behind it.

The Nachi Taisha is the final grand shrine of the route.

Jessie Beck

Along the Nakahechi Route, some can’t-miss stops include:

  • Takahara is a small town on the top of a beautiful set of mountains that’s a popular place for hikers to spend their first night on the trail, and has gorgeous views of the fog-covered valley below in the morning. Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge “Organic Hotel” (closed Sundays) and Sen Retreat Takahara are two excellent hotel options.
  • Chikatsuyu is typically the town where hikers spend their second night. Sen Retreat also offers glamping-style lodging (complete with washing machines for your clothes).
  • Fushiogami Teahouse is a low-key, family-run teahouse (Google Maps) that’s a popular stop for a quick break and a refreshment before arriving at Hongu. The tea is grown nearby, so bring a few yen to buy some loose-leaf tea for later.
  • Kumano Hongu Taisha is the first major grand shrine, or taisha, of the trail, located in an area known for its onsens. Don’t miss the cakes at a petite cafe called Choux or the ramen at Menya Mitsuashi.
  • Kumano Hayatama Taisha is the second taisha of the trail, in the port city of Shingū. If you opt to take the boat tour from the Hongu Taisha, this is where it will drop you off as well.
  • Kumano-Nachi Taisha is the final Taisha of the route, a stunning mountain-top building that overlooks an equally grand waterfall.

Related: In This Coastal Japanese Airbnb, Guests Are Given a Bed—and a Mystery to Solve

How to book accommodations

Kumano Travel, the official reservation system of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, is the easiest way to book hotels along the way.

However, if you want to stay somewhere not listed on their website, it’s easiest for foreigners to use an Online Travel Agency (OTA) such as Many hotels along the trail have Japanese-only websites, which can be difficult for non-Japanese speakers to navigate and use.

Food and water

A packed lunch for the trail

Most accommodations along the Kumano Kodo will make a packed lunch for hikers to take to go.

Photo by Peter Bohler

Be sure to stock up on water, especially during warmer months, and bring snacks and lunches for the day. Since you pass by small towns and villages (as well as the odd vending machine) frequently, there are plenty of opportunities to re-stock as you go.

Packing tips

In addition to your normal hiking gear, you’ll want to bring hiking poles—the trail is steep and often rocky—and be prepared for rain at just about any time of the year.

Dealing with luggage

How to Hike Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimage Trail

A pilgrim along the Kumano Kodo

Photo by Peter Bohler

If you prefer not to hike with all of your luggage each day, you have a few options.

First, you can opt to have your luggage moved each day (advanced booking required). Prices vary but start around 4,500 Yen (~$30 USD) per day for up to two pieces of luggage.

Another option is to pack only what you need for the hike and forward the rest of your luggage to the first hotel you will be staying at after you get off the Kumano Kodo. Many hotels in Japan will offer a luggage-forwarding service at the front desk, so you don’t need to book or organize anything in advance.

If you’re considering storing luggage at a train station in Japan, note that at most coin lockers in Japan, you can only store bags for up to 3 days, which may not be enough time for many hikers on the trail.

Is it easy to do on your own?

Dense forests are mixed with grand mountaintop views along the trail.

Dense forests are mixed with grand mountaintop views along the trail.

Jessie Beck

The Kumano Kodo trail is incredibly well-marked (to the point where there are just as many signs stating “not Kumano Kodo” as signs marking the trail) and easy for anyone with hiking experience to do without a guide.

Make sure to download an offline map—either through Google Maps, Alltrails, or both—to access while passing in and out of cell service.

Get a little help

Several tour companies will organize and book everything for you. Opt for one of Oku Japan’s self-guided trips—four- to 11-day itineraries starting at $1,210 . 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 $3,395) . A similar nine-day tour with Walk Japan starts at $3,035 (prices in Yen, starting at ¥464,000).

Getting there

The trailhead is easy to reach from Osaka. Trains run regularly from the Shin-Osaka station to Kii-Tanabe and take about two hours. From there, pick up a bus from a well-marked bus stop to Takijiri Oji, which takes another 40 minutes. Check Kumano Travel for the most up-to-date information on timetables and even more details and options for getting here.

This article was originally published in 2018 and most recently updated on April 10, 2024, with current information.

Born in Fargo and educated at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Miranda is now living and working in San Francisco, where she’s learning to rock climb and complain about 50-degree weather.
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