31 Jul 20

How difficult is the Kumano Kodo trail?

Chris Kavanagh Japan

Japan’s Kumano Kodo is one of the world’s best hikes. ‘How difficult is the Kumano Kodo’ is one of the most common questions we get asked. Here’s everything you need to consider when preparing to walk the Kumano Kodo.

Where is the Kumano Kodo and how do I get there?

Japan’s ancient Kumano Kodo trails are nestled in the verdant mountains of the southern part of the beautiful Kii Peninsula, just south of Osaka. The sacred Nakahechi trail (or Imperial 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 68km trail offers splendid self-guided walking through a mountainous and sparsely populated part of the Japanese mainland. From Takijiri-oji on the western coast of the Kii Peninsula, the Nakahechi trail works its way east across the mountains towards the Kumano grand shrines at Hongu and then Nachisan.

The Kumano Kodo is accessible from major cities in Japan, including Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. Local bus and train networks will help you get to the start of your hike, and RAW Travel can help you plan an itinerary and transport from any major cities.

What is the difficulty of the Kumano Kodo?

The Kumano Kodo is a challenging to strenuous hike that is best suited to active walkers. The rugged, forested mountains, quiet rural valleys, rivers and waterfalls provide a spectacular backdrop for walkers, and there are the seasonal contrasts of cherry blossom in the spring and rich autumn foliage inject wonderful colour. 

The Kii Peninsula is an exceptionally mountainous region. Paths vary from beautiful stone flagged sections to gnarly tree root covered sections of bare earth and loose rocks. It can easily 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.

We have graded most of our Kumano Kodo trips 6–7 (Challenging to Strenuous). Our Kumano Kodo Highlights trip is 4–6 (Moderate to Challenging). We use several criteria to assess the difficulty of each walk we offer, including: the number of hours walking required each day, terrain and conditions underfoot, weather, gradient, altitude, and signage and facilities. 

How do I prepare to hike the Kumano Kodo?

The Kumano Kodo is a mountain trek with waterfalls and shrines and physically more demanding than say the Camino trail in Spain. Set mostly in the deep forest, there are a number of steep ascents and descents along the trail. Distances can be deceptive on the Kumano Kodo. 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.

We strongly recommend starting a training program at least 3 months prior to your departure. Common injuries from lack of preparation include blisters, shin splints, tendonitis, joint and muscle pain. Practice hiking in a hill or mountain environment. It’s also important to train with your equipment and rain gear beforehand so you know everything fits and is waterproof. If you have new hiking boots, remember to break them in properly before you embark on your trip to avoid pain and blisters. We highly recommend hiking poles, especially during rainy weather.

Also read: What to pack for Kumano Kodo

We can help you prepare and train for your Kumano Kodo walk. Our destination experts can help you with your training plan. The more training you do and the better prepared you are, the more you will enjoy this beautiful walk.

Is the Kumano Kodo trail well signed?

The Kumano Kodo trail is an extremely well-signed and well-defined trail. There are waymarkers every 500m as well as regular signs indicating directions and distances. There are also signs that read ‘Not Kumano Kodo’ on some crossroads indicating where not to go. You should still be comfortable referring to route notes and independently navigating your way along this rural trail.

Based on many years of running trips along the Kumano Kodo, we have published our very own Kumano Kodo guidebook. In addition, our exclusive walking app is designed to help our self-guided walkers to navigate easily on the trail. It shows your location in real-time without any internet connection needed and has a host of other great features.

What is the Kumano Kodo trek like underfoot?

The majority of the Nakahechi route is in forested mountains and includes a number of steep ascents and descents on each walking day. This is a rugged trail and underfoot you will find exposed tree roots, loose rocks and stone steps which can be very slippery, particularly if it has been raining. Our destination specialists can discuss any questions or concerns you have about walking this trail. 

Also read: When to trek the Kumano Kodo

What’s the accommodation like along the Kumano Kodo?

Walking the Kumano Kodo means embarking on a journey to authentic Japan. You won’t find fancy resorts along the route, but instead traditional Japanese guesthouses (ryokans) accommodate travellers along the trail. Many of these inns also include an onsen. These guest houses also offer traditional Japanese dining with dinners and breakfasts included. Many ryokans will also give you a lunch box (bento box) for when you’re out on the trail. 

There are limited places to stay along the trail and accommodations become fully booked during peak spring and autumn seasons, so it’s best to plan your walk well ahead – from 6 to 12 months in advance.

Also read: Do’s and Don’t of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage

Need help planning your Kumano Kodo experience? Contact RAW Travel for help

The Kumano Kodo and Camino de Santiago are the only UNESCO Heritage listed pilgrimage walks in the world. RAW Travel offers walks to both of these destinations, and our destination specialists have decades of experience to help you plan a once in a lifetime hike fit for your needs. 

Experiencing Japan for the first time can feel intimidating, so don’t hesitate to get in touch with our destination experts today, and they will be happy to help you plan your trip with you.

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