Stairway to heaven: hiking ancient pilgrimage trails in southern Japan

Mountainous Kumano is the holy ground of Japan and pilgrims have been trekking there for centuries. Shrines, mist, forests and waterfalls combine to create an entrancing hike.

Kumano is the traditional name for the southern part of Japan’s Kii peninsula. It contains pilgrimage routes dating back more than a millennium. The first pilgrims were adherents of Shinto who traveled to worship beside the natural wonders of the sacred Kii mountains. Later pilgrims followed an amalgam of Shinto and Buddhism.

The Kumano Kodo has a low profile outside Japan; the Camino de Santiago in north-west Spain is much better known, but that is changing: more visitors are coming to walk it, Unesco has designated it a world heritage site and it has been twinned with the Camino de Santiago.

There are a variety of routes to choose from and treks often take between three and six days. Go for three days on the Nakahechi route, the most popular of the six main historic trails. The most demanding is the 80km Omine-Okugakemichi route: suitable only for expert hikers with mountaineering experience. Another route is a total of 15km through a wide range of terrain, some of it quite challenging. It is a pick-and-mix experience; you can walk as little or as much as you like, because buses run between many points on the trail network. Guides are available but most trekkers are self-guided.

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