The entrance to Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine.

The ancient pilgrim trail

The scenic hiking trails of Japan’s spectacular Kii Peninsula offer a place to escape and to recharge the soul.

The tranquil, mountainous Kii Peninsula is a world away from Japan’s buzzing cities, but offers a calming perspective on life for those wanting to head off on an ancient pilgrim trail.

30 December, 2021

Japan’s flashing neon and office blocks begin to fall away an hour beyond Osaka’s Kansai airport. Pocket-sized fields and bamboo thickets provide a first hint of green amid grey concrete. Plum orchards, rumpled countryside and bright-blue coastline emerge and beyond stretches the Kii Peninsula and its spine of Kumano Mountains. Osaka feels like another planet. You swap raucous pachinko bars for tea plantations, skyscrapers for soaring cedars, crowded pedestrian crossings for scenic hiking trails.

The Kii Peninsula is revered by the Japanese as the birthplace of Shinto gods, who are said to manifest themselves in trees, waterfalls, rocks and animals. The Shinto religion was first codified in the eighth century and pilgrimages to the Kii Peninsula have taken place ever since. Its rugged landscape is dotted with Shinto shrines along an ancient pilgrim path called the Kumano Kodo. 

In the inclusive spirit of Japan, you’ll find Buddhist temples too. The most important monastic complex is at Koya-san, where eight peaks are said to resemble the petals of a lotus flower. Temples, mausoleums, stupas and meditation halls have been added since its founding in the ninth century. Some 50 of its temples invite visitors to stay in austere surrounds, eat vegetarian meals and participate in early-morning meditation.

In former times, pilgrims would spend two months walking this pilgrim path from Japan’s former capital Kyoto. The core Kumano Kodo still takes a couple of weeks, with the most popular Nakahechi route of some 68 kilometres taking four or five days. 

In former times, pilgrims would spend two months walking this pilgrim path from Japan’s former capital Kyoto

shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, is a meditative immersion in nature that alleviates stress, counters depression and even lowers blood pressure.

Most visitors, though, tackle scenic sections on easy day walks linked by bus. You can even take a boat or kayak along the Kumano River to Kumano Hayatama shrine. There’s no requirement for Buddhist austerity as a variety of inns will accommodate you along the way.

The spiritual gateway to the pilgrim trail is traditionally Takijiri Shrine, though the pilgrim route has no official starting point. You earn your stripes almost immediately on a heart-banging ascent on worn steps through humid forest that eventually gives way to giant stands of bamboo. When you arrive at hilltop Takahara village, you’re rewarded with tumbling rice terraces and purple ridges that recede to infinity. Stay in a lodge and restore yourself with beef hotpot, Kirin beer and a soaking in a hot-spring bath.

One of the Kumano Kodo’s most scenic sections runs an easy seven kilometres between Hosshinmon and Kumano Hongu shrines. The route is lined by stone statues draped in red aprons. You start through tidy farmland before the pathway turns into a cedar forest of filtered light and twittering birds. Lie down on meditation logs and stare up at the sky. This is your opportunity to indulge in shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, a meditative immersion in nature that has been shown to alleviate stress, counter depression and even lower blood pressure. 

Hike onwards and you arrive at Kumano Hongu. This is one of the Kii Peninsula’s three most important shrines, though Shinto-simple and unadorned. Get a red stamp in your pilgrim booklet to record your visit, then visit the nearby Heritage Centre for a good overview of the Kii Peninsula’s spiritual and cultural significance.

Takahara village.
Meditation logs on the pilgrim trail to Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine.
Fushiogami village.
A booklet of pilgrim stamps.

Another important shrine is Kumano Hayatama at the mouth of the Kumano-gawa River, perched on an ocean-gazing hillside beneath 800-year-old trees. When you want a break from walking, though, the Kii Peninsula has a variety of other sights as well. Coastal holiday towns offer more sophisticated accommodations than the pilgrim lodges of the mountains, and alternative activities such as sea kayaking, whale watching and scenic cruises. Kushimoto has the world’s northernmost coral reefs and is a good spot for scuba diving.

Katsuura is a tuna-fishing port turned onsen (hot-spring) resort, where one of the peninsula’s best hotels sits offshore on Nakanoshima Island, semi-embedded in the cliffs. It feels like a retro James Bond lair, with hot baths overlooking the bay and fabulous multi-course seafood meals, served in your tatami-floored guest room by kimono-clad ladies.

Hot springs bubble to the surface all across the Kii Peninsula, a welcome antidote to walk-weary legs. One of Japan’s oldest onsen villages is Yunomine, whose age-worn wooden buildings are jammed into a tight valley; one of the rickety-looking bathing shacks, so tiny it only fits two, is World Heritage listed. Pilgrims perform purification rituals in the mineral waters prior to worshipping at Kumano Hongu Shine. The warm spring water certainly invites a dip, while much hotter sulphurous pools provide the opportunity to boil eggs and potatoes for a picnic lunch. 

One of Japan’s oldest onsen villages is Yunomine, whose age-worn wooden buildings are jammed into a tight valley; one of the rickety-looking bathing shacks, so tiny it only fits two

Hotel Nakanoshima on Nakanoshima Island in Katsuura.
Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine.
The World Heritage bathing cabin at Yunomine hot-spring village.

A final must-walk section of the Kumano Kodo is the Daimon-zaka Slope, which leads up Nachi Mountain

Meanwhile at Kawayu Onsen, hot springs surface under the wide, shallow Oto River – look for the bubbles, unless you want a very chilly experience. The river is an amusing sight in winter, when visitors wallow in steamy comfort, though only having first hobbled over freezing pebbles and through snow-fed water to reach the right spots.

After these diversions, a final must-walk section of the Kumano Kodo is its culmination up footstep-eroded, centuries-old steps under vast cedar trees whose gnarled roots shelter tiny shrines. Some pilgrims tackle it in traditional red-silk robes and long white veils. This is Daimon-zaka Slope, which leads up Nachi Mountain to a Shinto shrine hung with wooden prayer boards, and an adjacent Buddhist temple fogged with incense. 

More important, overlooked by a bright orange pagoda, is the nearby waterfall, one of Japan’s tallest, and revered by Shintoists since ancient times. Pilgrims drink its water, leave coins at the foot of Buddha statues among the trees, and count their blessings.

The warm river at Kawayu Onsen.
Ladies dressed in pilgrim garb climbing Daimon-zaka Slope.
The sacred Nachi Waterfall.
Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine.