07 Mar 24

Do’s and Don’ts for a Successful Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage

Sam McCrow Japan

Japan is currently the international destination of choice for Australians. With heavenly hiking trails, a unique and fascinating culture, amazing food, friendly and welcoming locals, and easy access, it makes perfect sense.

If it’s not part of your travel plans, it should be!

One of the highlights is walking the Kumano Kodo – Japan’s sacred pilgrimage trail. It is the only pilgrimage route besides the Camino de Santiago to be designated a World Heritage site. 

The pilgrimage developed as a way for people to move between the sacred areas on the mystical Kii Peninsula. The most popular and well-preserved route is the 68km Nakahechi (or Imperial Route), which runs from Takijiri-Oji (near Tanabe) to Hongu Taisha and then on to Nachi Falls. Traditional accommodations in isolated villages make multi-day walks possible. 

Walking the Kumano Kodo will take you on an incredibly rewarding journey through ancient forests, deep in the heart of the mountains and provide you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse yourself in authentic Japanese culture.

For first-timers, Japan can be daunting and overwhelming, so in this article we share our expert tips about the do’s and don’ts when it comes to planning and completing your Kumano Kodo pilgrimage.

Do: Plan your itinerary well ahead

With increasing numbers of people choosing Japan and the Kumano Kodo for their next hike, we can’t stress enough that early booking is the best way to secure the trips and dates you want. There are limited places to stay along the trail and accommodations become fully booked during peak spring and autumn seasons. 

Most people time their Japan hikes around these two key seasons, both of which offer a visual feast. March to May is the traditional spring cherry blossom season. These famous pink florals, known in Japan as sakura, symbolise renewal and the fleeting nature of life, and have been celebrated for centuries. From September to November, vibrant reds, oranges, and golds adorn the country, creating a stunning autumn display (known as koyo) to rival the cherry blossoms! 

It’s best to plan your walk well ahead. We recommend booking 6 to 12 months in advance.

Don’t: Underestimate the terrain

The Kii-Peninsula is an exceptionally mountainous, sparsely-populated region, making the Kumano Kodo trek rugged and demanding. The trail weaves through a variety of mountain passes, quaint villages, bamboo groves, mossy Japanese cypress forests and terraced rice fields. There are a number of steep ascents and descents, and distances can be deceptive. Although the route does not go to great heights like some mountain walks, it is easy to underestimate the difficulty and effort required due to the regular ups and downs. Paths vary from beautiful stone flagged sections to gnarly tree-root covered sections of bare earth and loose rocks. It can take 7 or 8 hours to walk as little as 14km a day (with breaks), especially if it has been raining and the path is slippery. 

The highest point is 868m on the Ogumatori-goe section (Koguchi to Kumano Nachi Taisha). We highly recommend walking poles and, as this is a very wet part of Japan, you can expect rain at any time of year. Pack waterproof boots (no trainers); a waterproof, breathable jacket and over trousers; a waterproof cover for your daypack; and internal lightweight drybags. See our guide to Getting Walking Fit for Hiking in Japan.

Don’t worry about getting lost on the Kumano Kodo. It is extremely well signposted and there are even signs on some crossroads indicating where not to go.

Do: Embrace Japanese etiquette

Japan’s fascinating culture is a highlight of this beautiful country but sometimes the culture can seem a little impenetrable to outsiders and it is easy to make some blunders on your first visit. Japanese people do not expect outsiders to be aware of all the complex cultural rules they abide by and fortunately allowances are made. However, some basics are expected to be followed, especially concerning footwear and bathing. Get them wrong and you will cause great offence.

Japanese culture places a strong emphasis on respecting others and maintaining harmony in public spaces. It’s customary, for example, to remove your shoes and change into the slippers provided when entering a Japanese guesthouse, and it’s not uncommon in traditional restaurants, temples and, occasionally, in museums and art galleries. 

An important part of Japanese culture and daily routine is onsen bathing. Correct manners are very important for the Japanese and onsen etiquette is well-established.

It’s generally considered impolite to eat while walking, to talk loudly or to answer your phone while on a train or bus. It’s also considered impolite to cross your legs on public transport. Out of respect to others, put your phone on silent and if you engage in conversation with a friend/partner, do it quietly. 

If you’re unsure about what to do, observe the behaviour of those around you and follow suit.

Don’t: Ask for meals to be changed

Along the Kumano Kodo, your accommodation will be in traditional Japanese ryokans that allow you to experience Japanese hospitality first-hand. You will be served dinner in the evening and breakfast the following morning. You will also be provided with a lunch pack (bento box) for when you are out on the trail.

Dinners and breakfasts are generally elaborate multi-course affairs and very filling. Japanese cuisine takes a lot of preparation, time and energy. There will be many unfamiliar dishes but all are excellent and it’s best to be prepared to try new things. Only Japanese food is served. There are no options for Western food – all guests are cooked the same meals. 

Do not make on-the-spot requests. In Japanese culture, it is considered shameful to say no to guests. Requesting meals that have not been agreed causes a lot of confusion and stress for the guesthouse owners. 

Guesthouses along the trail cannot cater for specific dietary requirements so the Kumano Kodo is not suitable for those with severe allergies or strict dietary requirements. 

Do: Learn how to use chopsticks

Chopsticks are used to eat most kinds of traditional Japanese dishes. There are some important rules to remember when dining with chopsticks. For example, don’t stick your chopsticks into your food, especially not rice as this is only done at funerals. Do not spear food with your chopsticks, do not point with them, and do not play with them. When eating from small bowls, it is correct to pick up the bowl with your hand and lead it close to your mouth when eating from it. Read more about Japanese table manners

Don’t: Disrespect sacred sites

In Japan, temples and shrines stand as guardians of a spiritual legacy, inviting those who enter to embrace a mindset of respect and mindfulness. Visitors are encouraged to wash their hands and mouths before stepping onto consecrated grounds, a gesture that signifies leaving the outside world behind and embracing the sacred space with a pure heart. To perform this act of purification, look for the fountain or basin filled with water and the wooden ladle. Read more about the difference between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and practical tips on what to do when visiting. 

Remember to dress conservatively, maintain a respectful silence, refrain from intrusive photography and bow in gratitude as you exit.

Do: Pace yourself

Amidst mossy shrines and secluded tea houses, the Kumano Kodo invites you to immerse yourself fully in the serenity of this revered pilgrimage route. We encourage you to savour each step along this centuries-old trail. Absorb the spiritual energy, take respite at the numerous oji shrines scattered along the route, and indulge in the warmth of a traditional onsen after a day’s walk. The path, once trodden by emperors and pilgrims alike, offers not just a physical journey but a soulful odyssey.

Walking the Kumano Kodo – how to get started

The Kumano Kodo is very well-suited to self-guided trekking. It offers an accessible and easy way to delve into Japanese culture, while exploring in the best and most authentic way possible – on foot. 

RAW Travel has decades of knowledge and the best contacts essential for a seamless and stress-free Kumano Kodo walk. Our team will help you tailor your journey to ensure a meaningful experience. Our exclusive Kumano Kodo Guidebook is the best English-language guide available and we have designed a unique interactive navigation app to enhance your time on the trail.

Contact RAW Travel today to start planning your Kumano Kodo hike!

Samantha McCrow

Written By

Samantha McCrow

Sam is an seasoned hiker and travel writer with 20+ years experience as a content and marketing specialist. She started out as a commissioning editor for Lonely Planet guidebooks and now regularly shares stories and insights about the world's most iconic and rewarding hiking trails.

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