GUIDE Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage: Kii Peninsula by JNTO on 11 September 2018
Covering nearly 10,000sq.km., Kii Hanto, or Kii Peninsula is Honshu's largest peninsula, and covers parts of four prefectures: Mie, Nara, Osaka, and Wakayama. Its rich temperate forest is ideal for hiking and shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing", and thanks to its mountainous terrain, the Kii Peninsula was never extensively cultivated, leaving its ancient forests largely untouched.
Over the centuries, it became a centre for Shinto worship, which found a natural home amidst its unspoiled beauty. The result, today Kii Peninsula is brimming with ancient Shinto sites, many of which are linked by historic pilgrimage routes, such as the famous Kumano Kodo.
The Kumano Kodo is actually a network of trails hundreds of kilometres long that crisscross the mountainous interior of Kii Peninsula. The main aim is to visit the Kumano Sanzan, a group of three of Japan's most famous shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha.
Linking Kumano Sanzan with the historic capitals of Nara and Kyoto, the Kumano Kodo trails have historically been used by pilgrims and even emperors; these days, the route is traversed by pilgrims, hikers and nature lovers. The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes were registered as UNESCO World Heritage in 2004.
While Japan has more than 3,000 Kumano shrines, what makes Kumano Sanzan unique is they are the sohonsha, or "head shrines" from which all other Kumano shrines trace their origins, making them some of Japan's oldest and most important religious sites.
How to explore Kumano Kodo
There are many options for walking the Kumano Kodo – it actually comprises four main historic routes walkers can follow, depending on interest and fitness level. They generally take anywhere from four to seven days to complete.
Some routes pass scenic spots, like Nachi Falls (Japan's tallest single-drop waterfall) which is adjacent to the Seiganto-ji temple and its red-lacquered three-story pagoda.
Arguably the most famous and easily accessible route, Nakahechi – once favoured by the imperial family on their annual pilgrimages from the former capital, Kyoto – begins on the west coast in Tanabe. The route is dotted with historic towns and villages, like Chikatsuyu and Takahara, where walkers can stay in local inns and visit ancient hot springs like Yunomine Onsen. Nakahechi can be broken into day-trips, or a multi-day walk (7 days, 68km).
Also starting from Tanabe, the Ohechi route hugs the coast, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and can be completed in 4 days. It has been popular with artists and writers since the Edo era, connecting Kumano Sanzan with Fudarakusan-ji – one of Kii's oldest shrines. Today, it’s largely paved, with numerous towns along the way providing food and lodging.
The mountainous Kohechi route cuts through the heart of the Kii Peninsula, linking the famous Buddhist site of Koyasan in the north with Kumano Sanzan. Strenuous but rewarding, Kohechi crosses three mountain passes over 1,000m. The 70km route is remote, but accommodation is available in hot spring towns like Totsukawa Onsen and Kawayu Onsen.
Starting on the east coast, the 170km Iseji route starts from the famous Ise-jingu, offering a good mix of terrain, crossing mountain passes and forests, alongside scenic terraced rice paddies, then hugging the coast, before turning inland to Kumano Sanzan.
The Kumano Kodo can be visited year round, although the koyo (autumn foliage) season from October to November is a picturesque time to visit. There are accommodation options along all the main routes, from traditional minshuku (family-run homestay) to ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), many with hot spring baths. You can also arrange to stay at a temple in Koyasan, where you can sample shojin ryori.
Kii Peninsula’s most famous food is undoubtedly shojin ryori, or vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. It focuses on the “Rule of Five”, integrating five colours (black, green, red, white, yellow), and five flavours (bitter, salty, sour, sweet, umami) into every meal, with ingredients like konnyaku, miso, and sansai (mountain vegetables). Even the humble soybean has dozens of incarnations, including abura-age (fried soybean curd), koya-dofu (dried tofu), and natto (fermented soybeans).
Surrounded by the sea, the Kii Peninsula is also famous for its seafood, with fresh sashimi and sushi served almost everywhere along the Kumano Kodo, including locally caught clams, eel, and tuna, delivered fresh from Wakayama’s Katsuura fish market which boasts the largest volume of tuna anywhere in Japan.
Other local favourites include seasonal sansai (mountain vegetables) often served fresh as tempura, salad, or stew, as well as local game like inoshishi (wild boar).
How to get to the Kumano Kodo
There are multiple ways to access Kumano Kodo. From Osaka, there are regular train and bus services servicing the Kii Peninsula, including to Wakayama City, Tanabe, as well as directly to Kumano Hongu Taisha.