Kumano Kodo… walking the spiritual path?!

The Kumano Kodo is and ancient pilgrimage trails, with more than 1000 years, that link the three main shrines in Kii Peninsula: Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha, that since 2004 are classified as World Heritage by UNESCO as “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes of the Kii Mountain Range” that also includes the pilgrimage routes of Kumano Kodo that link these three holy places as also Koyasan.

Nowadays, Kumano Kodo is attracting more and more visitors from all over the world, most of them, more connected with the hiking experience than with the spiritual purification of a pilgrimage.

The Nakahechi trail is the most popular of the different routes of Kumano Kodo to reach Hongu Taisha, and starts in Takijiri Oji, located about 30 minutes by bus from Kii-Tanabe and ends at Nashi Taisha, also an important shrine, on the other side of the Kii Peninsula, the south most part of the Wakayama Prefecture.

Most of the people do the 30 km between Takijiri Oji andHongu Taisha in two days sleeping in Chikatsuya Oji, a small village with a few accommodations, and return to Tanabe by bus.

I choose a different strategy, considering my budget, the season (at the end of November the days are short) and the weather conditions as in the winter this area receives rain often… but also had to have in consideration the availability of the accommodations, that force me sometimes to change my travel plans, as in the weekends some areas are fully booked with only rooms left in the top range hotels.

So I use Tanabe as a base point of the first part of the Nakahechi Trail and then move to Yunomine Onsen to do the second part until Hongu Taisha, as also some secondary trails.

Kumano Kodo first stage: Tanabe

Starting early from Tanabe, where it’s easy to find budget accommodations, it’s possible to do the 23 km of the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Trail, from Takijiri Oji until the detour pass, overcomingChikatsuya Oji and return by bus to Tanabe in the same day. I finish the first hiking stage where the Nakahechi Trail makes a detour in the result of rock instability provoked by a typhoon in 2011, that force to close this part of the Kumano Kodo trail, more or less, forever…

But in fact, the most interesting part of the Nakahechi Trail that I did in this first day, was from Takijiri Oji until Chikatsuya Oji, as from there, most of the trail leaves the narrow mountain trails and goes along a paved road, with houses and cars, pushing away the mystic experience of walking in the deep forest.

The first kilometer of the trail is particularly steep until you reach Tsurugi Sutra Mound, but from there, despite the constants up and down the hill, you can experience some flat areas that are easy to walk providing an opportunity to enjoy more the surrounding natures.

But, the most
challenging parts of the trail are also the ones that give the chance to face
fears and overcome anxieties, offering an opportunity to go inwards and to
reconnect... and the nature that surrounds us along this trail, dominated by
massive cedar and pine trees creates the perfect environment to do inwards and reconnect
with our being.

Along the way, many signs help you in orientation and it’s almost impossible to get lost along the trail, but watch out when the trail crosses the road, as sometimes the sign that points you the way is not so easily visible. As a tip, look to the pavement and you’ll find a stone path that leads you to the trail again.

Every 500 meters they’ve numbered marks that are also marked in the map (you must get one in the information point, in Osaka, Koyasan, Tanabe or somewhere else) that help you with orientation… sometimes these marks look that are almost two kilometers away from each other, but not! It’s just your tricky mind!!!

Kumano Kodo second stage: Yunomine onsen

The second stop of this Kumano Kodo experience was in Yunomine Onsen, considered the most ancient hot spring in Japan, with about 1800 years. Yunomine is not properly part of the pilgrimage route, but its location close by the Hongu Taisha that it became part of the experience as also a treat after a day of hiking.

With Yunomine as a base point, I did two days of hiking. The first one was to make 10 km more of the Nakahechi Trail from Akagi-goe junction (Hosshinmon Oji) until Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the most important shrines of Kumano Kodo.

To reach Nakahechi Trail from Yunomine you must hike the Akagi-goe (6 km) and on the return, you can enjoy the short but steep trail of Dainichi-goe (3.5 km). Like this you can make a loop, starting and finish in the Yunomine Onsen, that doesn’t take you more than 4 hours. This is an easy hike, that you don’t need to start very early and don’t need to rush. It has steep parts but offers very beautiful and impressive views, as you are deep inside the forest, surrounded by tall cedar trees whose high dense canopy filter the low winter light, creating a sense of isolation.

On the second day I did the missing part of the Nakahechi Trail, from the detour pass (Jagata-Jizo) until the Akagi-goe junction, which is about 6 km, but end up being more demanding as you also need to do the Akagi-goe trail  (6 km more). Unfortunately, or not, to do this part of the trail you have to go back the same way, as there isn’t the possibility to make a loop or to find a bus along the way to return to Yunomine Onsen…. but in the other hand you can enjoy the trail from a different perspective, and for sure you’ll spot thing that you didn’t saw before!!!

It’s a more demanding hike with long steep parts, practically to reach the Mikoshi-toge pass, so it’s better to get out of the bed early. But starting early morning, just a bit before the sunrise also bring great rewards, as you can spot monkeys and even dears, that at that time walk in the mountains before the arriving of the hikers. In the winter, the mornings start with the mist that very slowly comes off the forest.

Like this, I completed the Nakahechi Trail, from Takijiri Oji until Hongu Taisha, that is about 38 km… and had the amazing experience of the soak in the sulfur water of Yunomine Onsen!!!

Along the trails, there are several shrines where the pilgrims worship and play purification rituals “to rid one’s body and Sprit of impurities from past and present lives and to be ritually reborn and rejuvenated by the virtuous powers of Kumano deities”, mainly connected with Shinto religion, but where the images of Buddha are also present, as this deity was easily incorporated in the Shintoism. According to the tradition, evil spirits sometimes overcomes travelers in this area, and along the Kumano trails there are many stone craving statues of Jizo, a Buddhist deity who is the savior and protector of children and travelers. Many visitors make a brief stop in front of these statues to pay tribute to these entities, bowing and praying according to the Shinto rituals.

The pilgrimage it’s a path, usually hard and with obstacles, which are a way to test the confidence in yourself or in a spiritual entity and overcome your own blockages.
Spiritual or not, Kumano Kodo is a great place to be in contact with nature, observing the stillness of the tress and the quietness that warp these mountains where the sun hardly through the compact tree canopy that retain for hour the mist of winter mornings.

Along the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Trail you can find stamps at significant points of the trail, connected with shrines or statues. The stamps are inside small houses that are easy to spot, and you help yourself stamping your passport. You can get the official pilgrim passport at Kumano Travel offices, or in alternative at the entrance of the trail, in Takijiri Oji, although this one is not valid if you want to have the “completion of pilgrimage” official stamp of the Dual Pilgrim that connect Kumano Kodo with Camino de Santiago.

Official or not, it’s funny to find the stamps and slowly fill up the “passport”; it’s also a good souvenir from your experience as a pilgrim in Kumano Kodo.

Along the way, you’ll find toilets and places to rest (some of them covered), but drinking water is not so easily available.

At the tourist information offices in Osaka, Tanabe and Koyasan, as also in some hostels and guesthouses in the area of Kumano Kodo, you’ll find a booklet with all the detailed information about the Kumano Kodo trails. There’s one booklet for each trail, with maps, trail altitude graphics and all the detail information that you need while hiking. You can download The Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Trail here.

At Hongu Taisha, after finishing the first part of the Nakahechi Trail you can enjoy the “moude mochi” a red bean glutinous rice cake, dusted with brown rice powder which represents the Kumano spirits of warmth and humbleness that can only be found close by one of the three holy shrine of Kumano. It’s served with matcha and eaten with the help of a small carved wood stick.

Check for more detail information at Kumano Travel website:

Where to sleep in Tanabe:

Despite the lack of interesting things to do in Tanabe, in this city I had one of the best stays in Japan. The Buddha Guest House, located a few minutes from the Kii-Tanabe station is a lovely traditional wooden Japanese house, located in a residential neighborhood. There are three rooms, all shared, where you sleep in a mattress over the traditional tatamis. I found it very comfortable and cozy. There’s also a small backyard and a very independent cat in the house! Laundry (100 ¥) and kitchen facilities are available. 2300 ¥ per night.

Here, I confess that felt at home… and most of the time I have the house all for myself!!… but This guesthouse as also Tanabe in general is not the place if you look for some social life.

See more at Tanabe… the starting point of the Kumano Kodo

Where to sleep in Yunomine onsen:

Yunomine is a small settlement along the road that runs parallel to a small river where the hot spring is located. There’s one small supermarket, one small grocery shop, one small restaurant… and onsens!!!

There are many accommodations in Yunomine; basically most of the buildings are accommodations, but the majority is ryokans style that provides also meals and has their own onsen. In terms of guesthouses or hostel with dorms, there isn’t much offer but the J-Hoppers Yunomine is an exception… and a good exception, as it offers very good conditions, with a big kitchen as a nice and a comfortable living room that is a good place to socialize a bit during the long winter evenings. In the evening there’s cooked rice for free, and rice porridge in the morning.

This guesthouse has three private onsen (basically the showers are there) with one of then open air. It’s great to wake up early morning and enjoy the relaxing inside the high temperature water while listening to the rain hit gently the roof.

Where to eat in Yunomine onsen:

Apparently, some of the ryokans have restaurants but I didn’t try as I found one place, very simple and informal that suite me perfectly.

It doesn’t have the name in western characters (but has a menu in English with pictures) but is a small bamboo construction just behind the Yunomine temple. There you can find several noodle soups, all of them delicious (several vegetarian options), with the prices from 550 ¥ until 800 ¥. Opens everyday from 7a.m. until 5p.m. The owner is far from look friendly but is indeed a very nice and gentle person.

In Hongu Taisha you have many more options to buy food as also a bigger choice of restaurants.

Shopping for hiking in Yunomine onsen:

Yunomine doesn’t have many options for shopping. The small supermarket closes on Mondays and doesn’t open early, so you need to prepare your stuff in the day before if you want to start early the hiking day.

For fruit, tofu (here you can find goma-tofu, that is made with sesame), cookies, chocolates and snacks there is also a small grocery shop.

The J-Hoppers Guesthouse sells a few things that you can use as a dinner as also to bring with you to eat during the day when you hike. They sell eggs, instant soup, rice, etc…

How to go from Yunomine back to Tanabe or Hongu Taisha:

How to more around Yunomine Onsen by bus:

(link)

Luggage store and luggage delivery:

Most of the foreigners do the Kumano Kodo on foot, doing all the trails with a backpack and sleeping along the way. Between the Japanese is more common come by car and visit some of the shrines that easy to reach by the road along the Kumano Kodo.

I found it difficult to do it with my 12 kg backpack, so I choose two places as a base point for daily hikes… I wish I had more time to do all the Nakahechi Trail until Nashi Taisha!!!

But there are other options: or you can leave your luggage at the guesthouse and hike for a couple of days or so, and then come back to pick the stuff… or you can hire the services that drop-off your luggage at specific places. Ask more details at Kumano Travel (Tanabe) or on their website.

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