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  • Kumano Kodo 1 (The Ancient UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimage -- Kumano Kodo)

Discover Kansai

Kumano Kodo 1 (The Ancient UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimage -- Kumano Kodo)

One of only two pilgrimage routes in the world designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Kumano Kodo is a series of trails and religious sites spread across the interior of the Kii Peninsula. For over 1,000 years, Japanese people of all classes--from peasants and artisans to aristocrats and even emperors--have been making the pilgrimage to the three grand shrines of the region. They are collectively known as Kumano Sanzan.

How to Reach Kumano Kodo

Once considered remote, tucked within the natural beauty of a mountain range, the Kumano Sanzan are now far more accessible and attract visitors from across the globe. If you’re traveling to Kumano Kodo from the major hubs of the Kansai region, including Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto or Kansai International Airport, it may be most convenient to begin your hike on the western side of the Kii Mountains. For many, Kii Tanabe is the perfect base point. The small city in Wakayama Prefecture has Kumano Kodo bound buses that leave daily from its train station, as well as a tourism office comfortable with English-speaking visitors and well-versed in the area’s hiking routes.

There is great variety in the intensity and length of Kumano Kodo hikes. Experienced hikers often enjoy the region’s more rigorous southern routes. For those looking to have a relaxed experience, however, the Nakahechi Trail provides a simple half-day hike while still delivering stunning views and a visit to one of the three grand shrines.

On the Nakahechi Trail

The hike begins at Hosshinmon-oji, the outermost entrance or “gate” into the divine world of Kumano Kodo. A bus from Kii-Tanabe Station will bring you directly to this shrine. From there, signs clearly mark the Nakahechi route towards the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine.

Early on, the trail winds through the fields and homes of local farmers. Many locals have set up small stands on this path that sell treats and snacks like ramune (Japanese soda) and umeboshi (pickled plum). They operate on an honor system, so make sure to the leave the 100- or 200-yen payment in the designated coin box.

Along the Route

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Along the route you’ll also find many small shrines or oji where pilgrims would stop to pray. Mizunomi-oji, for example, has a natural water source for purification and several jizo. These Buddhist statues with red caps are known as guardians of travelers and the weak.Some of the oji on the trail may seem modest, but it’s important as you come across them to put yourself in the perspective of hikers walking the trail centuries ago. These shrines offered encouragement for weary travelers and were one of the few markers of their progress on the trail when the area was completely undeveloped.

The next major oji on the Nakahechi route is Fushiogami. The lookout at this shrine offers a stunning view of the Kii mountain range. It is said that travelers would fall to their knees at the sight, which offered the first glimpse of their destination, the grand shrine in the valley floor below. Next to Fushiogami-oji is a rest area that sells specialties like shiso juice—made from a Japanese leaf in the mint family—and coffee brewed from the water of local hot springs.

From this rest stop you’ll begin your hike down the mountain range to the grand shrine. Halfway down there is a fork in the path. The left-hand side will bring you to point No. 73, a clearing in the forest. The detour may extend your hiking time slightly but is well worth it for the lookout’s gorgeous views of the valley.

Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine

Once you reach Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine, take in the shrine’s beautiful woodwork and architecture. Each interior building is made from Japanese cyprus and was constructed using wooden joints rather than metal nails. A short walk from the base of the shrine is Otorii. Constructed in 2000 near the former site of the Hongu Taisha Shrine, the torii gate stands as the largest in the world at nearly 40m (131 ft) tall.

The JR Kisei Line’s Kuroshio Superexpress supports high-speed travel across the Wakayama coast from Shin-Osaka and Tennoji Stations. This train fare is covered by the JR West Kansai WIDE Area Pass , which offers unlimited travel on JR train and bus lines in the region during the validity period. Several stations along the Kisei Line are major bus hubs for the Nakahechi Trail. The Ryujin Bus at Kii-Tanabe Station will bring you directly to Hosshinmon-oji. The Kumano Kotsu bus offers transportation between Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine and Shingu Station.


I’m an American journalist and editor based in Tokyo. After nearly 20 years living in Japan, I’m still discovering new and exciting places in Japan outside of Tokyo and off the beaten path, such as the ancient “Kumano Kodo" pilgrimage trails and the charming seaside fishing village, Kada.