One of Japan’s most remote and rewarding journeys, the Kumano Kodō hiking route weaves through the mountainous Kii Peninsula, south of Osaka. Once a sacred pilgrimage trail reserved for emperors and samurai, the ‘Kumano Old Road’ is today open to all seekers and wanderers, with plenty of intensely photogenic shrines and natural beauty along the way.
Even before organized religion existed in Japan, locals worshipped nature in the Kii Peninsula’s mystical landscape. Towering trees, the nation’s tallest waterfall, and the mountains in between were themselves considered kami (gods), and a walk among them a sacred act. The pilgrimage routes developed as a way for people to move between the sacred areas on the Kii Peninsula.
At the center of this religious area are the three Kumano shrines: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha, collectively known as Kumano Sanzan. Although the Kumano Sanzan shrines are located in Wakayama Prefecture (adjacent to Mie Prefecture), many pilgrims travel here from Kyoto, Osaka, and Aichi prefectures, so the Kumano Kodo extends to the north, south, east, and west across the four prefectures of Osaka, Wakayama, Nara, and Mie.
The region is known for heavy rains, so stone paving has been laid to ensure that roads do not collapse. The beauty of these cobbled paths and untouched forests has created the unique landscape of the Kumano Kodo. The Kumano Kodō is not one route but a network of trails through the deeply forested mountains, with no official start or end point and no prescribed hiking order.
The Kumano Kodo has multiple courses, but the one passing through Mie Prefecture is known as the Iseji route. This route starts at Ise Shrine and leads to the Kumano Sanzan shrines. Its overall length is about 170 kilometers! Walking the entire length is extremely difficult, but since the course is divided into 18 blocks, you might enjoy walking a single block. The remarkably beautiful cobbled paths of the Magose-toge Pass, the more accessible low-altitude Matsumoto-toge Pass, and the popular Tsuzurato-toge Pass (easily accessible from Ise Shrine) are all recommended. Each of these walking trail takes about 3 hours or so to complete.
In addition to the Kumano Kodo paths, the area has some of Mie Prefecture’s most superb viewing spots. A rock upon the beach resembling a fanged lion is known as Shishiiwa, while Shichirimihama beach is filled with pebbles washed downstream by the Kumanogawa River. The Onigajo rock art was created by a rock tuff formation, and Hana-no-Iwaya Jinja Shrine, said to be Japan’s oldest shrine, is located inside the Hana-no-Iwaya (or “cave of flowers”).
This whole area of “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” has been designated a World Heritage Site – one of only two pilgrimage routes in the world recognized by UNESCO, the other being Camino de Santiago.. Through this beautiful landscape, it is possible to get a closer sense of Japan’s ancient faith.