Walking the Kumano Kodo: Planning and Preparation.

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The Three-Storied Pagoda on Nachisan at the end of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage walk.

I recently walked the Kumano Kodo. Although challenging in parts, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The following is an account of my  four-day trek.

I hope this description of the sights, sounds and tastes of the Kumano Kodo will be useful to other hikers who are thinking about undertaking this famous, and increasingly popular, pilgrimage walk and to readers who are interested in learning more about it and Japan as well.

The Kumano Kodo is one of only two pilgrimage walks listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO; the other being the Carmino in Spain. It is located on the Kii Peninsula, south of Osaka, and consists of several different routes. I chose the old imperial route called Nakahechi that begins at Takijiri-oji and ends at Nachi Taisha (an oji is a subsidiary shrine of a taisha, a grand shrine) on Nachisan.

I decided to walk the Kumano Kodo for several reasons. Firstly I wanted to visit Japan. I had never been to Japan before and I thought walking the Kumano Kodo would provide a good focus for the trip.

Secondly, I was interested in the Kumano Kodo’s geographic beauty and historical significance. The Kumano Kodo winds its way through some of the most isolated forests, mountains and valleys in all of Japan. During the medieval period, Japanese emperors, monks and pilgrims undertook this pilgrimage in order to worship at the shrines dotted along the route and to purify their minds and bodies. The Kumano Kodo still remains one of the most important pilgrimage routes for Japanese Shinto and Buddhist followers today.

The third and final reason was, like Japanese Shinto and Buddhist pilgrims, I wanted to purify and strengthen my own mind and body. I had found that the day to day routine of working and sleeping had somewhat dulled my thoughts and weakened muscles. Nothing better, I thought than a four-day trek to focus my mind and to rediscover my body’s purpose. And because the mind and the body are connected to the spirit, I also hoped to gain some deeper spiritual insight.

There are a couple of options for planning a trek along the Kumano Kodo. One option is to pay a travel company to organise meals and accommodation for you. They can give helpful advice and organise a baggage service for a fee. The other option is to save some money and organise it yourself. This is what I chose to do. I booked accommodation for myself and my two friends who were joining me at guesthouses, called minshuku, through Kumano Travel www.kumano-travel.com. Kumano Travel is a community-based online reservation service. I found them very efficient and helpful.

The optimum size for a group hiking the Kumano Kodo is two or three as most rooms at minshuku accommodate this number. It is also a good idea to walk with at least one other person. As previously stated, many sections of the Kumano Kodo trail pass through isolated areas and it is better to walk with someone else in case of an emergency. However, you can also choose to walk the Kumano Kodo alone. The Kumano Kodo is a popular walk and it is common to meet other hikers along the way who will give you help if you need it, particularly during the high seasons in Autumn and Spring.

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Overview map of the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo (from http://www.kumano-travel.com). Link to enlarged map.

Apart from saving money, another advantage of organising your own accommodation is that you can choose where you are going to stay. But be warned. In some areas, accommodation is limited, particularly at Koguchi (on Day 3 of the walk), which means you will need to book accommodation several months in advance. Furthermore, some minshuku are booked out within a day or two of becoming available online, once again particularly at Koguchi, so you need to be organised.

Another good idea when organising accommodation at minshuku is to pay the extra yen for dinner, breakfast, and if available, the take-with-you bento box for lunch. This avoids the hassle of having to carry extra food in your backpack or trying to find food at the end of a day of hard hiking. Vending machines are located along the route, but not all villages have restaurants or shops to buy food. Often, the only food available is provided by the minshuku.

Regardless of whether you decide to pay a travel company to organise your accommodation or you choose to organise your accommodation yourself, the wonderful thing about walking the Kumano Kodo is that you will have a place to stay at the end of each day of hiking. This makes the trek much easier as all that you need to carry is a day pack with a change of clothes, a water bottle or two and enough empty space to hold the bento box provided by the minshuku hosts each morning on departure.

The Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo is over 60kms long and much of the trail consists of ascending and descending stone steps. Even in warm dry weather, these steps can be covered in moss and therefore treacherous. A distracted mind or a misplaced step can easily lead to injury.

Make sure to wear a sturdy pair of hiking boots and bring a raincoat and a waterproof backpack cover. Ideally, test your hiking boots prior to beginning the trek by walking on wet stones, concrete or boulders. Many brands of hiking boots are designed for walking through dirt and remaining waterproof in mud, but not for gripping on to slippery surfaces. It often rains on the Kii Peninsula making those stone steps along the Kumano Kodo even slipperier, so a pair of hiking boots with good wet-weather tread will help to avoid a twisted ankle, scrapped knee or worse. Not all the pilgrims I met on Day 1 and 2 managed to walk the entire length of the Kumano Kodo. Hiking experience, although not obligatory, is a definite advantage as is a good level of fitness.

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Takijiri-oji, the start of the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo.

The other decision that needs to be made is where to begin walking the Kumano Kodo. The Nakahechi route traditionally begins at Takijiri-oji, but some hikers choose to start 3.9 kilometres farther along the route at Takahara village. This avoids the initial 300 metre climb from Takijiri-oji as well as another 150 metre climb just prior to reaching Takahara. But in missing this initial section of the Kumano Kodo, a hiker also misses some significant historical sites and great views. The choice is yours. For me, I was glad that I chose to begin walking the Kumano Kodo at Takijiri-oji.

Next: Morning of Day 1 (Thursday 26 September), Takijiri-oji to Tsugizakura-oji.

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