I love the Kumano Kodo in Japan. There, I said it. From all the trails I ever did, it -for me personally- has the best mix of amazing views, being accessible yet not too commercial or popular, amazing food, amazing people, great views and enough of a sports challenge to make it worthwhile. After spending several days on the trail in 2016, I now returned to the trail to finish the pilgrimage and hike the Kohechi part of the trail. So here’s my story on hiking the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi and Kumano Kodo Kohechi.
A change of plans – Japan instead of Greenland
I literally had spent months and months preparing for the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland, a 200-kilometer trek through the arctic wilderness. Preparing the trail, checking my gear, reading books and blog posts. But because of a virus in the weeks leading up to the trek, I was not confident enough to tackle this challenge. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, three days hiking from the nearest Inuit village, it is rather uncomfortable to get ill.
So I was looking for a trail that was relatively easy, allowed me to get some good rest, preferably in bed & breakfasts, hotels or inns along the trail (so I would not have to camp out and/or carry a tent) and would have a fallback option in case I would still have some difficulties stemming from my earlier virus infection.
I settled on the Kumano Kodo (also read how I came to this). In 2016 I had already done the Nakahechi part of the trail and I had learned that the trail is relatively simple to follow, that the inns (minshuku and ryokans along the trail) are fantastic and with its relatively robust bus system, I could quite easily quit or skip parts of the trail in case I would be in trouble. On top of that, the Japanese food is just amazing and it would allow me to collect the necessary stamps to finish my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage this time. For a while, I had the plan to finish the Way of Saint James (Camino Santiago) with my dad – finishing both, the Way of Saint James as well as the Kumano Kodo would allow you to request a dual pilgrim certificate.
The days leading up to the hike
I did not feel like spending time in Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo or one of the other tourist hotspots. I wanted my holiday to be maximum relaxing, so I had decided to travel directly from Osaka airport to Shirahama and rest there before starting the trail.
Shirahama is a beach resort for mainly Japanese tourists. As it was close to rainy season, the town was pretty empty, which gave it a somewhat eerie deserted coastal town feel. I spent the day relaxing, soaking in the amazing onsen on the 11th floor of the hotel (I even had my own mini onsen on the balcony of my hotel room) and spending some time going through my Kumano Kodo plans. Based on a Foursquare recommendation I headed into a residential part of town where I would normally not expect a great restaurant. However, it turned out that here lived a guy who had been preparing fresh sushi for over 50 years. Obviously, the food was amazing.
The next day was very much the same. Jet lagged and just plain lazy I spent most of my morning in my hotel in Shirahama. In the afternoon I traveled on to Tanabe for last-minute arrangements – visiting the Kumano Kodo offices, buying breakfast for the day of tomorrow, checking if there were any recent bear sightings (a sure way to get the locals to laugh at you – I will get back to that later) and checking the weather and the state of the Kumano Kodo Trail (good that I did – another pass was closed – also something I will get back to later).
That evening, I was looking forward to another dinner at Kanteki in Tanabe. However, Kanteki, my first true omakase food experience in Japan, was closed so I had to settle for Shinbe. Less cozy vibe, but still amazing food.
Day 1 and day 2 on the trail: The Nakahechi route
In 2016, I already had spent time on the trail. And the saying that it is about the journey not the destination is very much through. Although I had been on the trail before, I experienced it very differently from the last time. I spent time in different places, collected the stamps needed for my certificate, slept in different ryokans, met different people … all made this year’s experience completely different and unique. Read my full story of the Nakahechi route in a dedicated post.
Day 3, 4, 5 and 6 on the trail: The Kohechi route
After finishing the Nakahechi part of the trail, I had decided to turn Northbound to head for Koyasan. I had regretted last time to not spend time there, so I was very much looking forward to make it the ultimate destination of my trail. And the Kohechi stretch of Kumano Kodo did not disappoint. It is way quieter than the popular Nakahechi route, which shows in pretty much everything, but above all in the tranquility of the trail. Read my detailed story on the Kohechi route.
Spending time in Koyasan
And then, finally, after 110+ km, I arrived in Koya. And the very end of the trail was a lesson in itself – at every shrine along the trail you can collect stamps. Shrines are often centuries old and beautifully decorated. So I had expected something special for the last stamp in Koya. Maybe even a ceremony. A special temple. A sacred ritual.
Nothing of this all.
The tourism office had a distant corner with the final stamp.
And while being disappointed at first, maybe it was the most obvious of lessons learned on the trail this time – it is not about the destination, but the journey.
To top it off I stayed at the beautiful Ekoin temple in Koyasan. Amazing building, rooms, food (wow), an evening tour on the cemetery, meditation and fire ritual in the morning. If you ever have the chance, be sure to spend the night in one of the temples here.
Other tourists I stumbled into described it as ‘serene’. It definitely was, but after a week mostly alone on the Kumano Kodo Trail, I had recalibrated my serenity apparently.
Serene had been spending an hour overlooking the hills near Miura-guchi. Spending time at a stream near Omata.
The day after – Osaka
I had learned from my Laugavegur and Fimmvordurals trails experience that it pays off to at least have one day at the end of my hike to dry and/or wash clothes, to rest before the flight back and have a massage to somewhat put my muscles back where they belong.
So this time I decided on some recovery at the Osaka Intercontinental spa – to tackle the cramps in shoulders and my calves after a week in the Japanese hills.
It has been an amazing week and I can not recommend the trail enough.