If you’ve completed the Camino (or a section of it) across northern Spain there’s a good chance you will want to walk the Kumano Kodo on Japan’s Kii Peninsula, or vice versa. We often get asked about the similarities and differences of these two iconic walks, so we thought we’d share a few facts and insights.
UNESCO World Heritage listed
There are only two pilgrimage routes on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage list: the Kumano Kodo (listed in 2004) and the Camino de Santiago route in Spain (listed in 1993). Known as the pilgrimages of the rising sun in the East (Asia) and the setting sun in the West (Europe), both trails have been twinned since 1998.
Ancient, sacred pilgrimage trails
The Camino trail is an important Christian pilgrimage route, while the Kumano Kodo is a significant part of the Japanese Shinto (Buddhist) religion. Like the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims have been following the journey to Kumano for over 1000 years. They are culturally and spiritually important, beloved by many, and both beautiful. Each walk is commonly described as ‘life defining’. You’ll also be thrown up against a wide variety of people from all over the world.
Dual pilgrim program
If you walk both the Camino de Santiago and the Kumano Kodo pilgrimages your intrepid walking efforts will be honoured by the ‘Dual Pilgrim” program, which celebrates, honours and shares the stories of those who have completed both routes. You can get a dual Kumano Kodo–Camino de Santiago pilgrim passport to get stamped along both trails and on completion you receive a certificate of gratitude and congratulations. This is a great memento to remember pilgrims’ incredible journeys.
The full Camino route is a whopping 790km. The Nakahechi Route on the Kumano Kodo is much shorter (68km), but still offers splendid walking through a mountainous and sparsely populated part of the Japanese mainland. It can take 50 days to walk the full Camino, while the Kumano can be completed in a 7-day itinerary.
Physical difficulty and terrain
The Kumano Kodo is a mountain trek with waterfalls and shrines and physically more demanding than the Camino. Set mostly in the deep forest, there are a number of steep ascents and descents on each walking day and underfoot you will find exposed tree roots, loose rocks and stone steps, which can be very slippery. It can easily take 7 or 8 hours to walk as little as 14km a day (with breaks). We highly recommend walking poles.
It’s difficult to characterise the Camino as it’s enormously varied, but most of the route is through rural Spain, so farmland and fields. It’s not particularly strenuous, but you’ll need endurance. The wide path lets you walk side-by-side with your companions, making for easy conversation. On the Camino, walking poles are useful but not as essential – just get a stick and love your stick. It will become your friend.
Directions and signs
You don’t need maps or navigations skills. On both trails it’s nearly impossible to get lost. The Camino is a well-worn path and very well marked with boundary stones, scallop shells and yellow arrows. Much of the Kumano is also extremely well marked with wooden “Kumano Kodo” signs. There are even “Not Kumano Kodo” signs on some crossroads and waymarkers every 500m.
Best time to visit
To enjoy long mellow daylight hours, the best time to walk the Camino is May and September. For the Kumano Kodo, you can’t beat the colours of the spring cherry blossoms in March and April or the glorious autumn colours in October and November.
The Camino is popular (250,000+ pilgrims reach Santiago each year), so it’s very easy to socialise with fellow walkers from all over the world. The Kumano has noticeably fewer pilgrims than the Camino because it is a more rural and remote trail, but the tranquility and peacefulness of the trail is the main reason people love it so much.
Along both trails we use atmospheric places to stay that give travellers a great authentic taste of the part of the world they are visiting. The options on the two trails are quite different in style.
The Camino offers the chance to stay in grand, historic hotels, luxurious paradores, charming casa rurales in the countryside, and pilgrim hostels (albergues and refugios).
Along the various Kumano routes, accommodation is dominated by more basic (but lovely) Japanese ryokans (traditional inns) and minshukus (family run guesthouses). Guests sleep on futons that are spread on tatami mats and share toilet/bathroom facilities. Pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo can look forward to the fabulously enticing onsen (hot springs), which are scattered throughout the mountainous areas and along the pilgrimage routes.
Food and drink
For most travellers, food is a real highlight of both trails. The type of food, how readily it is available and how much choice you have is different.
On the Camino there is easy access to cafes, vending machines and ice cream. You can stop at a restaurant in a village and have a big Spanish lunch with three courses and wine. Meat is ubiquitous in the average Spanish menu, so it may take some creativity to maintain a vegetarian diet while you are walking the Camino.
In contrast on the Kumano, lunches are packed from the guesthouse and are a fairly simple fare, and the guesthouses cannot cater for specific dietary requirements. Breakfasts and dinners are elaborate multi-course feasts of delicious authentic Japanese cuisine, served at the guesthouses. The food is always a highlight of the trip.
Water is readily available along the Camino. On the Kumano Kodo you need to carry at least 2 litres of water because there are limited places along the trail to refill.