Hiking in Japan: How to shorten the Kumano Kodo Trail

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On her recent trip to Japan, keen walker Caitlin knew it was time to face down the crème de la crème of Japan’s hiking trails: The Kumano Kodo.

Kumano Kodo view

The focus of my latest trip to Japan was a visit to the Kumano Kodo. As a member of the unofficial InsideJapan Tours Hiking Club, I felt that this was long overdue. When I set my mind to something I tend to go all-in, and so I decided to tackle our 5-night advanced hiking module.

I’d like to point out that an especially busy summer family schedule meant that my exercise regimen had been reduced to throwing a ball for an overenthusiastic dog.

When the climb from Takijiri-oji to Takahara nearly winded me, I started to worry.

What to do when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew on the Kumano Kodo

Kumano Kodo trail

I had all of my reservations in place, and a job to do for the days ahead, but would I be able to make it? I somehow managed to complete that hike and the following day’s trek to Nonaka in excellent time. However, there were much greater elevation gains ahead, and I was travelling alone during one of the hottest and most humid months of the year. It was time to make a plan.

Kumano Hongū Taisha on the Kumano Kodo trail
Kumano Hongū Taisha

The first thing I did was cut the 13 mile (21km) walk from Nonaka to Yunomine Onsen almost in half by taking a bus from Tsugizakura-oji (just past Nonaka) to Hosshinmon-oji. This requires waking up early as buses for this section are few and far between. I suspect most travellers will find themselves waking up naturally at 5am like I was, so this shouldn’t be a problem. The shortened hike still gave me plenty of opportunities to take in beautiful wild landscapes, and I didn’t miss the cultural treasure of the day: Hongu Grand Shrine.

For those who wish to cut this hike even shorter, there are buses from Hongu to Yunomine Onsen.

The other hike I cut was the final leg, from Koguchi to Nachi. Unfortunately this hike can only be done completely or avoided entirely; there are no bus and partial hike options.

If, like me, you find that after four days of hiking you simply aren’t ready for what’s known as the “body-breaking slope” – a gain of over 2,600ft in the first 3.1 miles of the hike – you can still hit the major pilgrimage sites. Take a morning bus from Koguchi to Shingu and transfer for the bus to Nachi Shrine and Nachi Waterfall.

Kumano Nachi Taisha

Useful tips for making the hike

  • Wear proper hiking boots.

While there are paved sections of the trail, for most of it you’ll be scrambling over tree branches, boulders, and scree. I was glad daily that I’d prepared proper footwear.

  • Bring a water bottle.

While vending machines are pretty much ubiquitous in the rest of Japan, you can go half a day’s hike or so on the Kumano Kodo without seeing so much as a rest station. Staying hydrated is imperative for making the trek safely.

  • Have plenty of cash on hand.

Not only will you need this for any bus journeys either planned or impromptu, but the Kii-Tanabe Visitors Center and the major shrines all have adorable souvenirs.

  • Rent a mobile Wi-Fi device and keep it – and your phone – charged.

Especially if you’re traveling alone! It was really comforting to know that I’d be able to call for help in an emergency, even more so since in this low season there were days I didn’t see another person at all on the trail.

Keeping these things in mind should help anyone have a successful hike, but the best idea to select the hiking module that’s right for you. If you’re not certain, our travel consultants are happy to provide guidance (and help you learn from our mistakes).

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