Solo Hiking the Kumano Kodo – 4 day itinerary – Japan’s spiritual heartland

Below you will find:

  • a four day Kumano Kodo itinerary
  • advice on hiking / solo hiking the Kumano Kodo
  • how to book accommodation
  • information on the history and culture of the Kumano Kodo
  • my experiences

WHY WALK THE KUMANO KODO?

This Shinto-buddhist trail has been walked for thousands of years. People including emperors and samurais to the general public in times gone by have walked this trail. In ancient times, these mountains and forests were believed to be the abode of the gods!

Today, multi-day hikes are very accessible for anyone who wishes to get a taste of these sacred mountains.

This region is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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WHICH ROUTE SHOULD I TAKE?

I HIGHLY recommend using the Kumano Travel website. (Not sponsored, I hadn’t even started a blog when I booked this.) The Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau is a tiny office who want to make this region a sustainable tourism destination, which is pretty awesome. 

I chose their recommended 4-day hike option and booked accommodation through them so I knew the locations easily coincided with their recommended itinerary. It just takes the pressure off getting lost if you’re travelling solo as they will give you all the bus schedules etc as well as an easy-to-use map.

I chose the NAKEHECHI route because I wanted to get a real taste of hiking in the forest, as well as passing the famous Yunomnine hot springs and, most of all, I wanted to finish at the famous Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan.

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THE COMPLETE FOUR DAY ITINERARY

WHERE TO BEGIN? 

I recommend staying overnight in Tanabe. This is a recommended access point to begin the hike as you can easily catch a bus to the starting point in the morning. You can get a train from Kyoto or Osaka to Tanabe.

You might not want to take everything you’ve brought with you on the hike. I stayed at Miyoshiya Ryokan, a budget minshuku (family run Airbnb) as they allow you to leave all your luggage there after you finish the hike.

DAY ONE – TAKIJIRI-ORI TO CHIKATSUYU

IMG_20181230_002123_606.jpgOkay, so after spending the night in Tanabe. I set off alone with my map and my backpack to and got the bus to Takijiri-Ori from Tanabe station.

Takijiri-Ori is one of many shrines along the Kumano Kodo! If you wish, you can buy a book which you can stamp with unique stamps you’ll find in each shrine along the way.

The path was very overgrown at first, with roots growing over the stone steps that led into the forest. This certainly set the atmospheric tone of the hike!

IMG_20181230_002132_610.jpgIt was very steep at first, and I must say I found the first few kilometres to be the hardest part of the entire hike. When it flattened a little, I could appreciate the amazing tall trees that were either side of the path. 

I unexpectedly came across beautiful blue pools deep in the forest and amazing mountain views when I got to clearings. It was beautiful. I was less thrilled when I came across snakes though, they weren’t so fun. 

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Overnight in Chikatsuyu:

When I reached Chikatsuyu, I was worn out but very happy. I was feeling too shy to use the onsen (although onsen aka natural hot spring baths are gender inclusive, it still doesn’t require getting naked in front of strangers) but I loved my simplistic accommodation at my Japanese homestay. I was amazed it had wifi haha! The family I was staying with cooked the most amazing feast (even for me, a vegetarian) and I slept very well.

DAY TWO – CHIKATSUYU TO YUNOMINE ONSEN

Screenshot_20190126-150527_Video-Player.jpgAfter eating breakfast, I departed. At 8am the mountains were so misty! Walking into the tall trees alone felt very strange that day.

Sadly I had bad luck with the weather on my second day! 20km in POURING RAIN. The rain was cold and constant. Although it’s hard to feel spiritual when you’re soaked through to your pants, the rainy struggle through the misty forest made it easy to see why they once believed spirits of the dead congregated in the sacred peaks. 

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The Kumano’s natural landscape inspired the profound nature worship in which rocks, mountains, rivers, waterfalls and forests are deified and revered as objects of worship. 

I came across Hosshinmon-oji or ‘the gate of awakening of aspiration to enlightment’. Passing through this gate marked the initial death and rebirth in the Pure Land.

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It was a tough slog. The rain had turned the pathways into waterfalls. Everything in my backpack was soaked through! Thankfully I met a group of hikers from Belgium and walked with them the rest of the way to Yunomine Onsen.

The last hiking stop this day is really Kumano Hongu Taisha, but it was raining so much it was hard to enjoy it (thankfully I could go back the next day)!

Overnight in Yunomine Onsen:

Yunomine Onsen has been a site of water purification rites for 1800 years! You can use the public hot springs outside to take a dip. If you don’t believe in the alleged healing powers of these waters… you could always just boil your eggs in them instead.

The best way to warm up was the onsen after all that rain! Even the hostel had three separate onsen (so you could bathe alone if you were feeling shy like I was). Relaxing in the hot natural spring water was the best way to warm up and sooth my aching joints.

I loved J-Hoppers Kumano Yunomine Guesthouse! It was great talking to other backpackers as we dried our clothes and cooked hot food.

DAY THREE – Kumano Hongu Taisha and boat ride

I began by catching a bus to Oyunohara, which is the largest torii gate in Japan! Before walking to the nearby Kumano Hongu Taisha – this is thought of as the spiritual heart of Japan, as all pilgrimage routes lead here. I explored and then are at a vegan Buddhist café – the rice was grown in the rice paddies right outside!

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I then took a boat ride down the Kumano-Gawa River, which has been used for ferry services for over 1000 years, although has now been replaced by roads. It was a fundamental part of the Kumano pilgrimage.

The boat took me to the Shingu-Taisha shrine and I caught the bus to nearby Katsuura where I stayed overnight. (This is a small fishing town where you can eat it’s famous seafood if you’re not veggie like me!)

DAY FOUR – KUMANO NACHI TAISHA 

I was sad that my time hiking the ancient trail was already coming to an end. I caught the bus to Kumano Nachi Taisha. The religious origin of this particular shrine is due to the ancient nature wall of Nachi Falls. It is a beautiful area to explore, with the famous red paint of Japanese shrines standing tall amongst the lush greenery in which deer hid nearby.

Standing at 133m, Nachi Falls is the tallest waterfall in Japan! Hearing them tumble down the rocks felt like a beautiful yet sad song, telling me my time in Kumano had come to an end.

 

 

For centuries, the Kumano has been seen as a place of healing and regeneration, both physically and spiritually. Today, people come to reflect and reaffirm one’s future direction and meaning for life. For me, two weeks into my solo journey that is still continuing many months on, I guess it affirmed that I’d chosen the right path – the unknown path, the uncertain life of a traveller.

Kuki Letaka: ‘Let the artificial boundaries and borders of the modern world disappear. So we can contemplate life as one unified humanity on planet earth.’

And for me? I took the train to Osaka (via Tanabe to pick up my luggage) so I would be ready to head further South the following morning.

Onwards…

Q & A

Is it well signposted?

It is incredibly well sign-posted in both Japanese and English all along the trail. When it is not clear, they even have signs saying ‘NOT kumano kodo’.

Further more, most of the shrines have information boards so you can find out more about the history of the pilgrimage.

Is it safe for solo female travelers?

Yes, Japan is incredibly safe for solo female travellers.

Does it cater for vegetarians or vegans?

Yes, I’m veggie! I took lots of snacks with me, and a vegetarian pasta sauce/spaghetti for when I’d be staying at a hostel with no nearby shop. When I stayed in the family run b&bs I selected I was vegetarian in advance as it was vegetable and rice based (I believe it was totally vegan too, but ask in advance!)
I even found an all vegan cafe by one of the shrines too.

Do I need to be fit?

I didn’t train for the hike and it was within my second week of travelling, before which I walked into walk occasionally but otherwise did no exercise and worked in an office. You don’t need to be fit, just good on your feet!

Is anyone allowed to take this spiritual hike?

On this hike I learned that, 1000 years ago, female poet Izumi Shikibu wrote a protest poem about menstruating women not being able to worship at shrines. Since deities suffer from ‘impurities’ too, the Kumano does not exclude ANYONE from worshipping here!

In fact, key elements of the Kumano faith are openness and acceptance! This meant everyone – all sects, faiths and genders were welcome.

And they still are today. <3

How do I book accommodation?

I booked through Kumano Travel (not sponsored!). They have already found accommodation that fits in with their recommended hiking itineraries and I found their service to be impeccable.

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Twenty-something hag, travelling solo and no clue where I’ll end up. My motto? Scared of everything - doing it anyway.

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