Thursday, February 13, 2020

9D8N Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Itinerary

After exploring many of the main metropolitan of Japan, what else is there to do that spirals outside of the beaten path? I would say embarking on a pilgrimage route. There is just something so sacred about following the trails of religious and spiritual individuals while immersing one’s self in the beauty of Japan’s nature. But of course, times have change and no longer do those wishing to embark on a pilgrimage route have to traverse city to city when we now have trains and buses. Nor is a pilgrimage route exclusively for the religious anymore. 

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage was registered as UNESCO World Heritage as part of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range in 2004. UNESCO includes only two pilgrimage routes in its World Heritage list. One is the famous Camino de Santiago through Spain's northern provinces. The other is the Kumano Kodo, a journey through a thousand years of Buddhist history on Japan's beautiful Kii Peninsula, which connects these iconic sites. The journey itself is values as an important part of the pilgrimage process as participants would undertake rigorous religious rites of worship and purification. 

While it’s not impossible to traverse the route on your own, it’s always best to join a guided walking tour to follow ancient trails though deep forested valleys in remote countryside before resting at nights in temples and inns with onsen thermal hot spring baths. Walk Japan invites you to join along their Kumano Pilgrimage tour which takes place between March and June and then in September and November. Both durations are great seasons to embark on this pilgrimage as it’s spring and autumn respectively with cooling weathers and stunning views. The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage tour is a fully-guided walking tour between the vibrant modern city of Osaka, the mountain temple community of Mt. Koyasan and the Japanese Imperial shrine at Ise. 
Day 1 Osaka
The tour starts with a meeting and full tour briefing at 6:30pm in the lobby of the hotel in Osaka. This is followed by an evening foray into the dining and drinking district of downtown Osaka for our evening meal. You will then dine at a lively izakaya restaurant, a popular destination for many Japanese. The large and varied menu is sure to cater to everyone's tastes.

Accommodation: Hotel.
Meals: Dinner provided.
Total walking: N/A.
Total elevation gain: N/A

Day 2 Osaka – Koyasan
After breakfast you will first transfer by train for a journey of approximately 1.5 hours to Mt. Koyasan and your walk, a 7.5km pilgrimage trail around the perimeter of Koyasan that was originally established for women. The ascetic training ground of Koyasan was prohibited to women until 1872, and the precipitous path offered them great views of the important mountain sites without needing to set foot in forbidden areas. Continue to Koyasan's Okunoin, an inner sanctum that includes the mausoleum to the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect, Kobo-Daishi. 

Your accommodation on this night is a comfortable shukubo pilgrim lodgings, which provides us with delicious shojin-ryori vegetarian temple cuisine and an introduction to the spiritual life at Koyasan.

Accommodation: Shukubo Pilgrim Lodgings
Meals: Breakfast & dinner provided.
Total walking: 10.4km (6.5 miles).
Total elevation gain: 349m (1,145ft).

Day 3 Koyasan – Tanabe – Takahara
For those who wish to join in, early morning prayers are conducted, which are followed by breakfast. Take the time to enjoy Koyasan's environs before transferring by vehicle to Takijiri-Oji, stopping for lunch on the way. 

Begin your exploration of ancient pilgrimage trails of the Kumano Kodo at Takijiri-Oji, where a steep but not too long a climb to a ridge awaits. Take it easy and climb at a leisurely pace to the top, from where the trail is much gentler for the rest of the walk today. Reminders of the old route, including Buddhist statues, line the route along the way to the destination of Takahara, a rural hamlet noted for its ancient shrine surrounded by giant kusu-no-ki, camphor trees.

Accommodation: Japanese inn.
Meals: Breakfast & dinner provided.
Total walking: 3.7km (2.3 miles).
Total elevation gain: 357m (1,171ft).

Day 4 Takahara –Tsugizakura – Yunomine Onsen

Leaving Takahara on foot, head higher into the mountains along the pilgrimage trail. Continue to pass by reminders of the old highway, including an ichirizuka distance marker, before descending to the lunch spot, which serves local delicacies.

Continuing on, the journey will crest the Hashiori-Toge pass after a short climb. At the top of the pass is an unusual statue of an emperor sitting astride both a horse and cow. The descent takes you along a cobbled path and staircase to Chikatsuyu, a small village. The final stretch of the day continues on a climb to Tsugizakura-Oji, famed for its giant cedar trees and a thirst-quenching spring. From here we transfer by vehicle to Yunomine Onsen, where you will stay for two nights. The onsen thermal hot spring baths found here are an important part of pilgrimage tradition, being used in purification rituals in preparation for visiting the grand Hongu Taisha Shrine, which you will visit the following day. The onsen also offer a fabulous way to relax after today's exertions before enjoying your sumptuous evening meal, created from local ingredients.

Accommodation: Japanese inn
Meals: Breakfast, lunch & dinner provided.
Total walking: 12.4km (7.7 miles).
Total elevation gain: 1047m (3,345ft)

Day 5 Yunomine Onsen – Hongu – Yunomine Onsen
Following breakfast at the inn, take a local bus to the beginning of today’s walk, which follows a ridge through verdant forests and isolated village communities. Panoramic views are in abundance at many points on our walk and at Fushiogami, get a glimpse of the giant torii shrine gate at Hongu Taisha.

The path descends to the Taisha. In contrast to the torii, which is an imposing structure towering 33.9 metres high above ground, the Taisha is composed of simple elegant buildings that are seemingly at one with the surrounding forests. Depending on your reserves of energy, you will either return to your accommodation on foot via the Dainichi-goe pass and Yunomine Onsen, or make the journey by private vehicle.

Accommodation: Japanese inn.
Meals: Breakfast & dinner provided.
Total walking: 10.5km (6.9 miles).
Total elevation gain: 264m (866ft).

Day 6 Yunomine Onsen – Koguchi
A leisurely start for a late-morning walk up to Hyakken-gura, which provides some of the most spectacular views of the tour. From here the trail continues on a forest track and eventually descends into Koguchi, an isolated village surrounded by mountains and rivers.

Your accommodation tonight is the most unusual of the trip; a redundant junior high school that has been renovated into a comfortable, if basic, lodge. The hosts are, as ever, friendly and serve hearty local food.

Accommodation: Lodge.
Meals: Breakfast, lunch & dinner provided.
Total walking: 12km (7.5 miles).
Total elevation gain: 685m (2,247ft).

Day 7 Koguchi – Nachi Taisha – Kii Katsuura
An early start for today’s walk, which is the toughest of this pilgrimage journey and includes a 2.5 hour uphill climb that rises 800 metres. The walk continues through forests and along ridges, the path ascending and descending, until you reach the top, from where you will be able to see over mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The trail descends to Nachi Taisha shrine, Seiganto-ji temple and the spectacular Nachi-no-Otaki waterfalls, which have an uninterrupted drop of 133 metres.

You will then transfer by vehicle to Kii-Katsuura on the Pacific Ocean coast where you will stay the night in a modern hotel complex with onsen baths for you to luxuriate yet again.

Accommodation: Japanese resort hotel.
Meals: Breakfast, lunch & dinner provided.
Total walking: 14.6km (9 miles).
Total elevation gain: 1184m (3,556ft).

Day 8 Kii Katsuura – Shingu – Ise
Compared to yesterday’s exertions, today will be relaxing. Nevertheless, there is an early start for those who wish to visit the local fish market, if it is open, to observe the largest tuna auction in Japan. The auction is dependent on the weather, which can preclude fishing boats leaving harbour, and also holidays.

Return to your hotel for breakfast, before taking a local train to nearby Shingu, where the last of the three Kumano Shrines, Hayatama Taisha, is found. The final climb of the tour is a short but very steep ascent of Mt. Gongen to Gotobiki Iwa, a giant rock that is revered as a natural deity. 

Then continue on by train to Ise, home to the most important shrine in Japan. Following an exploration of the Geku, the impressive outer shrine, check into tonight's accommodation, a hotel, before venturing into town for your final evening meal together with your guide and fellow hikers.

Accommodation: Hotel.
Meals: Breakfast & dinner provided.
Total walking: 7km (4.4 miles).
Total elevation gain: 130m (427ft).

Day 9 Ise
Breakfast in the hotel is followed by a visit to the Naiku, Ise's inner shrine. The tour finishes around noon, but the city has plenty more to explore if you wish to spend further time here on your own.

Express trains connect Ise to Nagoya, from where onward shinkansen bullet trains speed to Kyoto and Tokyo. Your tour leader will help you organise your tickets and advise how best to travel as required. 

Accommodation: N/A
Meals: Breakfast provided.
Total walking: 2km (1.2 miles).
Total elevation gain: N/A.

Things to Note 
Bear in mind though that the itinerary for the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage tour is ground-only, beginning in Osaka and ending in Ise. Prior to the tour, Walk Japan will provide detailed instructions for travelling to the meeting point in Osaka from Osaka’s Kansai Airport (KIX) and Tokyo’s Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND) Airports. At the end of the tour, travellers are advised not to book themselves out on an early morning flight as it can take up three hours or more to travel from Ise to Kansai Airport and longer to reach airports in the Tokyo region. 

The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage tour is a fully-guided tour suitable for anyone who is a regular walker in reasonable health and able to participate in four to six hours of walking. The route includes some uneven ground and a number of steep ascents and descents. The small, intimate nature of the inns maintains that the walking tour group size to be at 12 people with no minimum size to start. Basically, it can be a one on one tour if no one else joins in which makes for a more special and exclusive experience. 

The Kumano Kodo's verdant mountains, quiet valleys, roaring rivers and plunging waterfalls provide us with a spectacular landscape to explore while thoroughly imbuing ourselves in the region's rich, ancient history and charming rural life. As with all Walk Japan’s tours, the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage is a fulfilling and enjoyable experience of another little-known part of Japan.

If you read to embark on a journey unlike any other, then check out to book your tour dates.

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