31 Oct 22

Hiking in Japan – Kumano Kodo or Nakasendo Way?

Chris Kavanagh Japan

If you are interested in hiking in Japan, RAW Travel offers two great walks – the sacred pilgrimage that is the Kumano Kodo and the historic Nakasendo Way, an easier route through the central mountains of Japan. 

We often get asked about the differences between the two walks and if they can be combined in one trip. Both trails are very well suited for self-guided trekking and provide a breathtaking authentic adventure. So what are the main differences?

Kumano Kodo

The Kumano Kodo is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes that were established when Buddhism arrived in the 6th century. These sacred trails were (and still are) used for the pilgrimage to the sacred site Kumano Sanzan – the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

The sacred Nakahechi pilgrimage route is the most popular and accessible of the Kumano Kodo routes and the most sacred walk in Japan, worshipped as a place of rebirth. The 68 km trail offers splendid self-guided walking through a mountainous and sparsely populated part of the Japanese mainland.

It is a demanding and challenging walk (we’ve graded it Challenging to Strenuous) that involves mostly forest walking. It includes many steep sections on uneven ground – there are lots of exposed tree roots and rocks, which can be slippery when wet. 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.

While the Kumano Kodo is best known for its challenging terrain, beautiful temples and scenery, it also attracts people who want to experience traditional Japan. Along the trail, you will stay in authentic local accommodation (known as ryokan), enjoy freshly prepared food and experience traditional Japanese onsens.

We offer a variety of options to walk the Kumano Kodo. Our most popular trip is the 7-day itinerary, which has 4 full days of walking.

Nakasendo Trail

The Nakasendo Way is, for most people, a more leisurely hike than the more rugged Kumano Kodo. This ancient highway was established during the Edo period over 400 years ago, and used by feudal lords and samurai to travel between the two major cities of the time – Kyoto and Tokyo. This route, located in the Kiso Valley, is considered more of a cultural walk through old Japan than a strenuous hike.

The historic Nakasendo is justifiably famous for the delightful well-preserved old post towns of Narai, Nagiso, Kiso-Fukushima, Magome and Tsumago, which have impressive restored wooden houses from a bygone era; however, there is much more to experience on this walk: from the local villages and rice paddies to forests lined with cedar trees and the old stone pavings. You also get the opportunity to stay in charming and atmospheric Japanese inns, some of which are 400 years old.

We have graded the Nakasendo Way as Moderate to Challenging. You’ll walk through forests, along local roads, and through small villages and old historical post towns. There are gentle inclines that can be taken at a comfortable pace. Some sections of the trail are steep, particularly the walk up to the Torii Pass on the way to Narai.

From mountains and waterfalls to tiny villages and bamboo forests, this route shows off the natural beauty of Japan. If you visit around mid-April, the valley is likely to be filled with cherry blossom trees of all different varieties and colours. There’s also plenty of wildlife too with birds, monkeys and even wild bears – although sightings are rare.

We offer a range of self-guided options along the Nakasendo, and can customise your itinerary to suit your timeframe and fitness. We also offer a guided option and group departures on set dates.

How do I combine both Kumano Kodo and Nakasendo Way?

It is very easy to combine both walks. The best way to do this would be to do the Kumano Kodo first, then hike the Nakasendo trail as this will reduce the amount of travel time between destinations and eliminate any backtracking.

At the end of your Kumano Kodo you would make your way to the Kii-Katsuura train station and buy a ticket to Nagoya. There are a number of departures each day; choose one of the 3 direct trains, which takes just under 4 hours to reach Nagoya.

You will need a minimum of one night in between each walk. Nagoya is the best place to stay because you will need to catch the local train from Nagoya to the starting point of the Nakasendo Way in either Mitake for the 8-day trip (around 90 minutes by train) or Nakatsugawa for the 5-day trip (around 50 minutes).

Nagoya is one of Japan’s largest cities and offers plenty of things to see and do. Nagoya Castle is well worth a visit. Built in the early 17th century and later destroyed in WWII, it has recently been restored. Or you could pay a visit to Osu, home to the Osu Kannon Temple, which is surrounded by plenty of restaurants and shops. If you have more time, the Toyota Museum, considered one of the best car museums in the world, is worth a look.

If you have more time between each walk, a side trip to Kyoto is highly recommended. The former capital of Japan is a wonderful contrast between old and new, modern and traditional, energy and serenity.

Looking for hikes after Japan?

We also often get asked about the similarities and differences between Japan’s Kumano Kodo trail and Spain’s Camino de Santiago. These are the only two pilgrimage routes on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage list. 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 2014. The Camino trail is an important Christian pilgrimage route, while the Kumano Kodo is a significant part of the Japanese Shinto (Buddhist) religion. They are culturally and spiritually important, beloved by many, and both beautiful.

RAW Travel offers guides and itineraries for a variety of Camino de Santiago hikes

Get in touch with our team today to plan a hiking experience of a lifetime tailored for you.


Written By

Chris Kavanagh

Chris is a seasoned hiker and RAW’s Japan expert. If you’re looking for the best advice about Japan’s walking trails, Chris is your go-to. With a background in personal training, Chris champions active travel. She loves hitting the gym, exploring local trails and immersing herself in a good book.

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