To delve into the deep forests and mountain passes of Japan's ancient pilgrimage trails is to step back in time to an era of samurai, untouched landscapes, and traditional Japanese hospitality. By Isabelle Lui.
The ancient Kumano Kodō is a series of medieval pilgrimage routes across Kii Hantō, the largest peninsula in Japan, linking the sacred Kumano Sanzan, the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano. You can easily capture the timeless essence of this UNESCO listed trail in a week's time. After arriving in Osaka, drive to Mt Koya, a lush, forest covered peak at the centre of Shingon Buddhism. Here stay in a traditional temple lodge, just as the pilgrims of the old did (though with a few additional creature comforts), and join in the morning’s prayer rituals with local monks as they recite Rishu Kyo sutras.
The ritual is a spiritual way to begin the hike through cedar woods, past the 500-year-old Nonagase Cemetery and fresh mountain springs, and through the picturesque hamlet of Chikatsuyu as nobles, holy men and commoners did for centuries. Along the 5km component of the trail hikers will encounter ancient forests, tranquil glades, and flowing waterfalls – there’s even a chance to visit the acclaimed Nakahechi Art Museum – before the short drive to Kawayu Onsen.
The next morning walkers depart from Hosshinmon Gate, the ‘gate of awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment’, which leads to one of the Kumano Trail’s most sacred precincts, famed for the turning of its autumn leaves. This gentle downhill hike follows the beautiful Unesco-listed Kumano River, once an aquatic highway for the faithful. After passing through the largest torii gate in Japan, guests conclude their walk at the Kumano Hongū Taisha, a grand Shinto shrine dating from 1891.
The itinerary isn’t all just adventure on two feet; hikers can cool their heels with a standing white water rafting experience aboard a traditional log flume down the Kitayama River, offering the trail-weary one of the most unusual river activities on the planet as well as access to postcard-perfect scenery. After lunch depart again from the foot of the 133-metre high Nachi Falls, one of the country’s highest. After hiking to the top, travellers will visit the bright red Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine and the beautiful and tranquil Seigantoji Temple, passing an 850-year-old camphor tree said to have been planted by clan warrior Taira no Shiemori, before driving to the coastal town of Nachikatsuura.
The final day begins at the Ise Grand Shrine, dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Regarded as a National Treasure, it is believed that during the Edo period one in every ten Japanese conducted an Okage Mairi pilgrimage to the shrine. An indulgent way to conclude the adventure, guests then check in at the luxurious Amanemu Resort in time for a farewell dinner.
A passionate traveller, writer and budding photographer based in Hong Kong. Ever since doing exchanges to New York and San Francisco, Isabelle has had the travel bug and when she's not jetting off on assignment you can find her exploring the latest restaurants and bars in her home town.