48 hours on the Kumano Kodo Trail

Like this post? Help us by sharing it!

Having been with InsideJapan Tours since 2005, Harry Sargant is one of the oldest faces, so to speak. He swapped Bristol for Down Under and now works as Business Development Consultant in our Brisbane office.

The Kumano Kodo is intended as a pilgrimage done on foot at a slow pace, both physically and spiritually, to ensure one is fully cleansed and enlightened. But Japan is a land of contradictions and I was on a tight schedule so I thought “let’s see how much of the Kumano Kodo I can manage in 48 hours.”

Day one – travelling to Kii-Tanabe

My trip got off to a bad start – I overslept, thus my trip was now down to 47 hours. The gods were smiling in other ways though. The sun was shining as I made my way down the coast of Wakayama from Osaka en-route to Kii-Tanabe, the starting point for most Kumano Kodo pilgrims.

The train ride was the perfect transition from urban to rural. Apartment blocks and shopping malls made way for rice fields, villages, and glimpses of the coast to my right and the mountains to my left.

The train journey to Kii-Tanabe, Japan


Helpful tour guides at the Kii-Tanabe information centre, Japan

At Kii-Tanabe I was given a thorough orientation by the team at the Kumano Tourism board, which was vital in making sure I kept on the right track and didn’t lose any more of my limited time.

Tanabe seemed to be a typical sleepy provincial town, I wish that I could have been there when the narrow streets of bars and restaurants opened up and the lights came on. I think that a night out in Tanabe would be a lot of fun.

A motorcyclist in Tanabe, Japan

Bus to the Kumano Kodo Trail

But my journey needed to continue. I took a bus up into the mountains and several passengers got off to start walking well before me. Purists would say I was cheating, but from a selfish point of view I enjoyed the scenery and soaked up something of the region’s atmosphere from the comfort of my seat on the bus. It even offered free Wi-Fi – did someone say land of contradictions?

Onsen (hot spring baths) in Kawayu

Kawayu onsen town, Japan

By late afternoon I was relaxing in the hot spring baths at my ryokan in Kawayu Onsen, one of the three onsen villages clustered around the Kumano Hongu Shrine area. As part of the check-in process I was given a map (in English) showing a recommended walking/running course; a 5km loop around the local area.

I asked ryokan staff if they thought I would have time to do the loop before dinner. “Almost certainly not” was the reply.

Deep in the heart of the Kumano Kodo region already (having not done any walking) and with only 48 hours, I took up the challenge.

I hiked my way around the 5km course and made it back in time for dinner!

Day two

The next day was to be my “proper” day on the Kumano Kodo – I was actually going to hike some of it… By a quirk of my mobile phone settings, my alarm woke me up an hour early, the gods had given me back the hour they stole yesterday, so my trip was back on track!


Kumano Kodo sign at Hosshinmon-Oji, Japan

The ryokan shuttle bus (I know, cheating again) took me to Hosshinmon-Oji, one of the many pit-stops along the route, advertised as a 3-hour walk from the Hongu shrine area. I soon realised that the bus essentially plonks you down on top of a hill, and the bulk of the walking is then downward to the shrine.

I felt a bit like a marathon cheat, who jumps out of the crowd 2 miles from the finish and wins the race. With the route alternating between beautiful mountain vistas and steep pathways through the forest, even walking this short section was enough to give me a sense of the spiritual nature of the Kumano Kodo.

By completing the 3 hour hike in just under 2 hours, I had bought myself some time, and opened up possibilities for extra exploration in the afternoon.

Harry walking through trees on the Kumano Kodo Trail, Japan


Hatayama Shrine in Shingu, Japan

I boarded the bus bound for Shingu, with a plan to tick off all three of the main religious sites in one day. Again I was able to take in the passing scenery from the window of the bus, so didn’t feel like I was missing out.

Shingu was another of those small regional towns that reminded me that the Kii Peninsula is a place that many people call home, not just the setting for the Kumano Kodo. I watched a group of pilgrims pay their respects at Hatayama Shrine, then set off for Nachi, which involved a change of buses, so I reckon I clocked up an extra 10 steps in doing so.


Views of the mountains from the Kumano Kodo Trail

I got off the bus at Daimonzaka: when they say “zaka” means slope, they aren’t kidding! The guilt I had felt from taking all of those buses melted away as I hauled myself up the several hundred stone steps to reach Nachi Taisha. From here there are yet more stone steps into the mountains!

Sensing a chance to alleviate more guilt, I took on the challenge of climbing another few hundred steps to reach a lookout point at the top of the hill. I then descended back to Nachi Taisha, past some confused looking fellow hikers (did he change his mind?), and rewarded myself with a tangy plum ice cream while I took in the view of Nachi falls and the famous pagoda alongside.


Kii-Katsuura provincial town in Japan

I spent the night at a ryokan in Kii-Katsuura, with a view of both the mountains and the ocean. Finally finding myself in a provincial town after dark, I ventured out and sampled some of the famous local tuna. I even woke up early the next day to take a look at the tuna market and see how my meal had made its way in from the sea.

Is 48 hours on the Kumano Kodo Trail long enough?

Mountainous view from the Kumano Kodo Trail, Japan

I am writing this on the train taking me north of the Kii Peninsula, with rural scenery unfolding out of the window. My whistle-stop Kumano Kodo pilgrimage felt like a great success, but did I miss out on anything by not lingering longer, or walking more of the route?

I spoke with another overseas visitor who was nearing the end of a full 5-day itinerary. “Well”, she said, “there were a lot of trees and a lot of steps”. Having seen plenty of these in my 48 hours I felt strangely vindicated in my decision.

If you have more time to spare then by all means spend more time on the Kumano Kodo. But if your time is tight, or like me you enjoy a challenge, I think 48 hours on the trail can still be a rewarding and spiritually uplifting experience!

If you feel inspired by Harry’s leisurely take on the Kumano Kodo Trail, our gentle walking self-guided tour could be for you. If you think that actually, he could have tried a little bit harder, have a look at our 4-night intermediate or (3-night / 5-night) advanced hiking self-guided adventures.

A temple on the Kumano Kodo Trail, Japan

Like this post? Help us by sharing it!