Crisscrossing the Kii Mountains, the ancient pilgrimage trails of Kumano Kodo have been in use for over 1,000 years. A walk here is a chance to connect with nature and get a deeper insight into Japan’s spiritual heritage.
Snaking through tall cedar and cypress forests in the southern Kansai region, the Kumano Kodo is one of only two pilgrimage routes with UNESCO World Heritage status. The Kumano region has long been a place of worship, and the routes were forged as a way to link the sacred areas together. Visitors today can follow in the footsteps of past Shinto and Buddhist pilgrims - emperors and samurai warriors included - who came to seek spiritual enlightenment in nature.
At the core of the Kumano Kodo are the ‘Three Grand Shrines’ of Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Collectively known as Kumano Sanzan, the shrines pay their respects to a sacred rock, an 800-year-old Camphor Tree and the Nachi Falls - the tallest single-drop waterfall in Japan. The main temple, Hongu Taisha, boasts the world’s largest torii gate at 42 meters wide and nearly 34 meters tall.
Whilst the main focus is on reaching these shrines, the walk itself is seen as an important part of the pilgrimage and a chance for people to undertake religious rites of worship and purification rituals.
There are several paths you can follow, from the relatively easy Nakahechi Route to the longer and more challenging Kohechi Route which zigzags up and down the mountainsides. Whichever you choose, you’ll find yourself experiencing a real sense of tranquillity as you tread through the luxuriant, misty forests past waterfalls, hot springs and Oji - smaller subsidiary shrines that serve as places of rest and worship. You’ll also find many onsens dotted along the trails, perfect for soothing tired muscles!