Preparing to Hike Japan’s Criminally Underrated Kumano Kodo

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What is the Kumano Kodo?

When I was first contacted by a representative of Mie Prefectural Government about hiking the Kumano Kodo, I must confess to not having heard of the hike.

While I’ve been aware of iconic hikes such as Europe’s Camino de Santiago and the Pacific-Crest Trail in the US, it felt odd that I hadn’t heard of this stunning pilgrimage whose ancient ways criss-cross the Kii Hanto peninsula connecting the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha.

With more than 1,000 years of history, the Kumano Kodo is actually one of only two pilgrimage routes in the world that have been given a UNESCO World Heritage designation.

The other, of course, is the Camino de Santiago.

Overview

There are three main routes to the Kumano Kodo: the popular Kiji route, the short but difficult Kohechi route, and the picturesque Iseji route.

It’s this last route that Adventures Around Asia and I will, over the course of 14 days, tackle in its entirety.

Starting in Ise and finishing in Kumano, our trek will see us paying homage at ancient shrines, hiking idyllic mountain trails, overnighting in traditional ryokan accommodation, and soaking in one of Japan’s most off the beaten path and criminally underrated destinations.

History of the Kumano Kodo

For more than 1,000 years, people from all walks of life would tread these trails en route to the sacred Kumano region of the country.

Home to the Ise-Jingu Shrine, the aforementioned Kumano Sanzan shrines, Koyasan, and other important religious and cultural sites, the Kumano region has a long association with both Buddhism and traditional Japanese mythology.

While the Kumano Kodo (literally Bear Plains Old Road) has a number of starting points and routes, the journey to Kumano was every bit as important as the destination. Making the pilgrimage was just as much about the beautiful, sometimes dangerous journey and the shrines along its length as it was about the destination.

pagoda nachi falls kumano kodo
Image courtesy of Big Ben in Japan

Preparing for the Kumano Kodo

It’s not every that I, a self-confessed fat boy on the road, get asked to tackle multi-week hikes through rugged mountain terrain.

While I regularly tackle tough portions of China’s Great Wall and have tried my hand at both gorilla trekking in Uganda and orangutan trekking in Sumatra, I’m not commonly associated with being the hiking type.

I must confess to being a bit daunted by the prospect of 14 days of hiking 10 – 20kms a day, sleeping on tatami mats, and eating local food. I’ve become accustomed to my little home-office in Beijing, my delivery Chinese food, and my DiDi (Chinese uber) rides about the city.

And while Japanese culture has forever fascinated me, I don’t know nearly as much about the language or the culture as I’d like.

It’s fair to say that we’re both going into this realizing what an ambitious adventure it is.

I’ve said for some time now that Aussie on the Road is all about “ambitious travel for the adventurous soul” and I think the Kumano Kodo most definitely qualifies. It’s going to be the biggest travel challenge I’ve ever set myself, but I’m excited to test myself against it.

Getting Fit for Travel

Despite my somewhat portly appearance, I’m actually quite happy with my current level of fitness.

While I won’t be running any marathons in the near future, my recent treks on the Wild Wall and to the peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan have reminded me that I have an excellent level of cardiovascular fitness when it comes to sustained exercise.

In a recent trip to Gubeikou, I regularly found myself racing ahead up the crumbling wall only to have to come back and fetch my beleaguered travel companion.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I was in peak hiking condition, so I’ve made a point of trying to get fit for my upcoming trip.

kumano kodo hiking
Image courtesy of Amazing Japan

The Couch to 5k

It seems an eternity ago that I was running regular 5ks ‘just for fun’ and tackled the City 2 Surf two years in a row, so Richelle and I reintroduced the Couch to 5k into our lives a few months back.

For those who don’t know it, the Couch to 5k is a great fitness program to get you from ‘couch potato’ to somebody capable of running a 5k race.

I used the program back in 2009 to get from somebody who couldn’t walk up a mild hill without profusely sweating to somebody who ran a 24 minute 5k less than a year later.

While our constant travels have made it difficult for us to actually complete the program on schedule, we’ve definitely seen some great progress in both our times and our distances so far.

Hiking the Wild Great Wall

For a more practical bit of hiking practice, Richelle and I have made a half dozen treks out to various wild sections of the Great Wall of China this year.

From the relatively well-restored sections such as Mutianyu and Huanghuacheng to crumbling edifices like Shuicheng and Jiankou, we’ve taken them all on with aplomb and snapped some great photos along the way.

Our most recent hike saw us revisit the steep inclines, ruined stairs, and scrub-choked heights of Jiankou, this time with laden packs and fully charged cameras.

gubeikou wild wall
Photo courtesy of Adventures Around Asia.

Are We Ready?

Is there really any way to know until we’ve taken on the Kumano Kodo?

While both of us can confidently walk twenty or more kilometers in a day and live to tell the tale, it’s a different story to be doing that for two weeks while sleeping in unfamiliar beds, eating unfamiliar foods, and communicating in an unfamiliar tongue.

But are we excited about the challenge?

You’re damn right we are.

Packing for the Kumano Kodo

A trek the length of the Kumano Kodo presents a number of challenges when it comes to packing, especially when you combine the 14-day trek with a two week exploration of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka and the fact we’re leaving China and heading back to Australia.

To say we’re juggling a lot of conflicting packing demands would be an understatement.

hiking the kumano kodo
Image courtesy of David Z

What to Wear Hiking the Kumano Kodo

While I love getting out for a day hike, I don’t own much in the way of hiking appropriate gear.

My wardrobe has two settings: shorts + t-shirt and jeans + jacket.

While shorts and a t-shirt might suffice in the warmth of spring or summer, we’ll be heading to the Kumano Kodo as winter approaches and temperatures spiral ever closer to 0C.

With that in mind, my old friend Taobao has been working overtime as I’ve ordered hiking pants, hiking boots, new sneakers, thick socks, backpacks, and all manner of other paraphernalia.

The Risk of Overpacking

The warring demands of ‘having enough to wear’ and ‘having to carry everything on my back’ have made me keenly aware of everything I’m packing, but it won’t be until I’ve had to carry my pack for a day that I’ll know how well I handled packing.

Electronics and Connectivity on the Kumano Kodo

As much as I would love a #digitaldetox, part of our partnership with Mie Prefecture is producing Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and blog content regarding our adventures across the peninsula.

With that in mind, we’ll be traveling with smartphones, DSLR cameras, and laptops to ensure you don’t miss a second of the action while we’re out on the road.

Thankfully, we’re overnighting in a variety of ryokan and guesthouses where we can charge up and do some frantic Lightroom editing!

Moving Home

The biggest challenge in packing for the Kumano Kodo for us has been the fact we’re bidding farewell to China and heading out on the road full time immediately before the trip.

So, we find ourselves having to pack up our belongings to ship home and cramming both summer and winter clothes into our packs for the transition from Japanese winter to Australian summer.

I’ll have a PC desktop tower in my carry-on, we’ll have external hard drives and backup cameras in our backpacks, and a whole extra checked bag each of Christmas presents, summer clothes, and keepsakes.

Thank God we’ve organised to keep the excess baggage in storage until we’re ready to fly home!

Our Kumano Kodo Itinerary

As I’ve stated before, there are multiple routes one can take along the Kumano Kodo. While the three-day Nakahechi route is the most popular with tourists, we’ll be traveling the more ambitious and less crowded Iseji route.

While Japan’s rapid modernistation and urbanization has meant that parts of the traditional route no longer exist, we’ll still be traversing almost 160km of its 170km route on foot.

Along the way, we’ll occasionally make use of a car to get us between trails, stop off at local landmarks and attractions in the Mie Prefecture, and pay our respects at several of the 3,000+ shrines that exist along the pilgrimage.

Rather than give you a blow by blow of our whole itinerary, I thought I’d highlight the things I’m most excited about.

kumano kodo graves
Image courtesy of rurinoshima

Ise Grand Shrine

The starting point for our hike is the iconic Ise-Ji Shrine located in the city of Ise.

A sprawling complex that covers an area roughly the size of Paris, the Ise Grand Shrine is home to 125 Shinto shrines surrounding the spiritually significant Kotaijingu (Naiku). More than 2,000 years old, this site is where one of Shintoism’s ancestral deities was said to have been interred more than 2,000 years ago.

More than ‘just another shrine’, Ise Grand Shrine is one of Japan’s most spectacular spiritual sites.

kumano hayatama shrine
Kumano Hayatama Taisha. Image courtesy of 顔なし

Kumano Hayatama Taisha

The original purpose of the Kumano Kodo was to visit the Kumano Sanzan – the three great shrines.

While our route does not take us to all three of the shrines, we do finish our trip with some time to pay homage at Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

Located at the mouth of the Kumano-gawa River, it is a place of extreme serenity and tremendous religious significance.

A fitting reward for walking more than 150 kilometres, I think!

Staying in Ryokan

At the end of each of our long days on the road, we’ll be staying in a variety of locally run ryokan (guesthouses).

Much like the Camino in Spain, staying with locals is a big part of the pilgrimage experience.

Relaxing in the waters of warm onsen to soak off the dust of the trail, stretching out on a futon on tatami matting, and eating freshly prepared local cuisine are every bit as much a part of the experience as the hike itself.

ryokan meal kumano kodo
Image courtesy of evilhayama

Eating Japanese Food

While we’re on the subject of food, I am beyond excited to sample traditional Japanese cuisine away from the hustle and bustle of modern Japan.

Hiking with bento boxes, breakfasting on fresh fish and vegetables, sipping miso soup or fresh-brewed tea… it’s all a big part of the appeal for me.

I swear, if we’re not able to lose weight eating all of this fresh food and hiking all of these miles, we’re doing something wrong!

The Hike

To me though, the highlight of this experience is going to be the achievement of completing such an ambitious hike.

I’ve had plenty of 15-20km days wandering around Beijing, Nanjing, or my own quiet corner of Australia, but to string twelve days of hiking together is going to be one of my greatest travel achievements.

It’s one thing to say “The journey is every bit as important as the destination” and quite another thing to actually mean it, but I can’t wait to complain about my aching legs, the stink of my shoes, and the tiredness I feel even as I marvel at unspoiled natural beauty, be humbled at sites of ancient religious significance, and savour the experience of truly immersing myself in a country and its culture.

kumano kodo 2
Image courtesy of Takayuki Masuda

A huge thank you to Mie Prefecture for making this excursion possible. While we’ll be guests of Mie Prefecture for the duration of our Kumano Kodo hike, all thoughts and opinions will be my own.

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One comment

  1. I love how you have guesthouses to stay in each night – makes it so much more than just a hike. Looking forward to your photos

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