There are lots of itineraries for guided hikes along the various trails that make up the Kumano Kodo. If you are an experienced individual hiker just looking for a trail description and GPS data to plan and guide yourself, it is surprisingly difficult to find any of that, though.
That was my experience, anyways – and so, here is the remedy.
First, though, a quick intro…
The Kumano Kodo
The literal “old trail(s)” of Kumano are a network of trails on the Kii Peninsula, the largest peninsula in the south of Japan’s major island, Honshū. In terms of places one might recognize, the area lies south of Kyoto and Osaka.
The area is hilly and forested, with quite a bit of agriculture in the general area, settlements, but also a far-ranging landscape close to wilderness. In other words, it is quite the change from the developed-urban Japan that most people know.
At the same time, this wild area is a cultural-spiritual landscape of such long-standing importance that, in 2004, UNESCO awared its sacred sites and pilgrimage trails world heritage status as ‘Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes of the Kii Mountain Range’.
In other words, quite the interesting and unusual place to go and get to know a wilderness that is not a non-human wild, but a sacred spiritual landscape.
Dual Pilgrim Status
For the dedicated hiker with a bit of a cultural-spiritual interest, what may be particularly interesting about the Kumano Kodo is that it is also a part of a very different pilgrimage network: The Kumano Kodo and the Camino de Santiago, the only two pilgrimage routes to have been awarded world heritage status, offer “Dual Pilgrim” status to people who have hiked on both routes.
(For the Camino de Santiago, it takes the last 100 km on foot or 200 km on bike; for the Kumano Kodo, one or the other of the various sections.)
The Nakahechi Route
The most popular route and the one with perhaps the grandest history is the Nakahechi route from Tanabe (or actually, Takijiri) to the main shrine of Hongu Taisha and on to Nachi Taisha (and Hayatama Taisha).
Its history is grand as it had, from the 10th century onwards, been the route taken by pilgrims from the imperial family, coming from the (then-capital of) Kyoto.
Part 1 of the Nakahechi: Takijiri to Hongu Taisha
Tanabe/Takijiri, the Trail Head
The Nakahechi is commonly described as starting in Tanabe City.
After a fashion, it does: From Kyoto or Osaka, you will take the Kuroshio train (if you go by train, obviously) to Tanabe City.
There, just out of the railway station and to the left, is a tourist info which can already provide you with trail maps, information, and the pilgrim’s passport booklet for collecting stamps, showing that you did indeed walk that trail as a pilgrim.
You will turn this way, quite certainly, as this is also where the bus to the various major villages and shrines leaves. One of the stops of that bus: Takijiri, and thus the trailhead of the Nakahechi.
In Takijiri, visible right across the road and river from the bus stop already, is the Kumano Kodo Information Centre, where you can also get all the information you need – though of course you should prepare beforehand, and that’s why you’re here – and an overview.
On the other side of the road from the information center lies the marker stone of the Nakahechi trailhead and Takijiri-oji, the first shrine (and stamp for your booklet 😉 ).
A bit along starts the trail, immediately heading up the small mountain there… and like that, it goes on.
Finding the Trail and its Markers
The trail going right up from Takijiri-oji presented a little difficulty that was telling.
There is the rock up there that you can either crawl through or go around – and if you can’t or don’t want to crawl through the tight spot (as I couldn’t because of my backpack), then you need to go around on a path that explicitly tells you where you are *not* on the right path, on a map and with a marker – but that right path was somewhat hard to see.
I ended up basically bushwhacking up and to where I knew the path was, some way.
All in all, however, it is generally easy to spot where the trail is, as long as you have even just some experience in hiking on forest trails. There are trail markers for the Kumano Kodo at regular intervals and at intersections, where one can often find markings saying that another path would *not* be the Kumano Kodo, as well.
So, even just from that, it should be rather difficult to get off-course, even less so if you have the GPS track on a navigational device.
Route Points on the Nakahechi
The points of interest one passes on the Nakahechi, from Takijiri-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha are:
- Nezu-oji (km 0.5)
- Tsurugi sutra mound (km 1.1.)
- Lookout (km 1.6)
- (Intersection at km 2.4)
- Takahara (km 3.9)
- Daimon-oji (km 5.7)
- Jujo-oji (km 7.2.)
- Uwadawa-jaya (km 9.2)
- Osakamoto-oji (km 11)
- Michi-no-eki rest area (km 11.8)
- Gyuba-doji (km 12.6)
- Chikatsuyu-oji (km 13.3)
- Hisohara-oji (km 15.7)
- Tsugizakura-oji (km 16.8)
- Nakagawa-oji (km 17.8)
- Kobiro-oji (km 19.8)
- Waraji-toge Pass (km 20.9)
- (Log bridge km 21.7)
- (Detour, pass, km 22.7)
-> Since a typhoon in 2011, there has been a crack in the mountain near Iwagami-oji. The path avoids that and detours over a pass south of it.
- Jagata-jizo (km 25.5)
- Yukawa-oji (km 26)
- Mikoshi-toge Pass (km 26.8)
- Akagi-goe junction (km 29.7)
- Hosshinmon-oji (km 31)
- Mizunomi-oji (km 32.7)
- Fushiogami-oji (km 34.7)
- Sangen-jaya (35.7)
- Kumano Hongu Taisha (km 37.8)
The Oji Shrines
You may have noticed the “oji” in so many of the place names – and in fact, there are many more of those.
What they are is subsidiary shrines housing “child” deities, said to protect and guide pilgrims on their way to the major shrines of the Kumano Kodo, the Kumano Sanzan (“Three Mountains,” literally), the Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha, and Hayatama Taisha.
Of the oji shrines, there are said to be Kyu-ju-kyu Oji, i.e. Ninety-nine Oji, meaning simply a very large number of them.
And there are, in fact, many more of those shrines, as well as other markers and ruins, even just on the Nakahechi between Takijiri and Hongu Taisha, i.e. among the list of points of interest mentioned above (long as that is already).
Five oji shrines are considered of particular importance (addressed as the Gotai Oji), of which two, Takijiri-oji and Hosshinmon-oji, are located on the part of the Kumano Kodo / Nakahechi we are having a look at here.
There is a bit of paved road before Takahara; the major bit on paved roads is between (starting just before) Chikatsuyu and going to Kobiro-oji; and there are also paved roads between Hosshinmon-oji and Mizunomi-oji and from halfways between Mizunomi-oji and Fushiogami-oji (and then at Kumano Hongu Taisha).
Otherwise, the path is all on trails, but of highly variable ground, some easy forest, a lot with rocks and roots.
The Nakahechi trail is not the worst of mountain trails, but its ups and downs should not be underestimated. Over its ~40 km length, there are right around 2000 meters of ascent as well as descent, after all.
Hongu Taisha and the Pilgrim Status
Hongu Taisha is the major shrine on the Kumano Kodo, the holy of holies, if you will. As long as you have walked at least this part of the Kumano Kodo, the trail from Takijiri to Hongu Taisha (or some other sections), you can count yourself as a pilgrim.
In my case, as you may have noticed from the photos, I did this pilgrimage in a peculiar way, over the course of considerably less than 24 hours, over night… and I had planned on going on to Nachi Taisha, but as yet another typhoon had moved in over night and what had been a drizzle when I turned into my bivouac for the night had changed into a downpour, I went on to Osaka instead.
Good as the GPS track I had created for this major section of the Nakahechi turned out to be, I will also put the Hongu Taisha – Nachi Taisha track online shortly.
Before we get to all that, though, enjoy a few more impressions of the Hongu Taisha:
Here is the route on Movescount, from where it can be exported as gpx or kml.