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Experience thousands of years of history and experience some of the best places to go hiking in Japan on the off beaten Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes & Nakasendo Way from Kyoto to Tokyo. Follow the footsteps of ancient travellers along Japan’s oldest and most iconic trails journeying through the countryside. Here, we give you a quick guide of both trails. If you are planning more adventures in Japan, you might like to read our guides on Top Places To Visit in Japan and Best Things To Do in Japan.
Located nearly 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Osaka on Japan’s Kii Peninsula, the Kumano Kodo is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes that have been in use for more than 1,000 years. The Kumano Kodo is one of the world’s only two UNESCO-listed ancient pilgrimage trails and leads to three of Japan’s holiest sites. For thousands of years, pilgrims have hiked these spiritual trails that pass by exquisite features, including the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, towering Nachi Waterfall and enchanted forests. Now, you can follow in their footsteps and connect to this tradition on a day hike or multi-day trek.
The Kumano Kodo is a challenging walk 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 it’s wet. However, the paths on the Kumano Kodo are well-maintained and is clearly marked with signs in Japanese and English. Every half kilometer, there are trail markers signaling where you are on the trail. The trails take you through forests of towering cedar trees and small shrines that are meant to protect pilgrims. You’ll find small shelters quite often, making perfect spots to take a break and have lunch. Hiking the Kumano Kodo offers an all-encompassing traditional Japanese experience where along the trail, you’ll stay in authentic family-operated guesthouses, indulge in freshly prepared food boasting of local ingredients and soak in traditional onsens (hot springs). For the ultimate luxury, Amanemu, a 5 star ryokan-inspired resort, located beside Ago Bay, makes an ideal haven and gateway to exploring the Kumano Kodo. Read more on a our Ultimate Luxury Kumano Kodo Walk with Amanemu.
The Kumano Kodo is a network of trails. The entire trail generally takes 5 days however there are many different options from 1 day to multi-day that captures the best parts of the Kumano Kodo Trail. The most popular route is the Nakahechi Route, known as Imperial Route, spanning across the peninsula’s width, and tallies in at just over 65 kilometres (40 miles). Along the way, pass by the Yumomine Onsen towards the Kumano Grand Shrines of Hongu and Nachisan. Explore more of our Kumano Kodo Walking Adventures as well as its different routes.
The Nakasendo Trail is an old walking route that connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) with Kyoto during the Edo period. The trail is 540 km (340 miles) long, and back in the day, 69 post towns were dotted along the way for travellers to rest and recover. Today, you can walk sections of the original route that offers Japan’s rural scenery and visit well-preserved old post towns which make for a cultural and charming trip from Nagoya or Tokyo. Hiking this trail is the perfect activity for those who are looking for a unique Japanese experience outside of the mainstream Kyoto and Tokyo scene. The walk is justifiably famous for the delightful old post towns of Magome, Tsumago and Narai, which have impressive restored wooden buildings from a bygone era.
The Nakasendo Trail is graded as moderate to challenging. There are gentle inclines that can be taken at a comfortable pace. Some sections are steep, particularly the walk up to the Torii Pass on the way to Narai. You’ll walk through forests, local roads, and through small villages and old historical post towns. From mountains and waterfalls to tiny villages and bamboo forests, this route showcases the natural beauty of Japan. There is much more to experience on this walk, from the local villages and rice paddies to the forest and the old stone paving. Immerse in a truly Japanese experience as you stay in charming and atmospheric inns, some of which are 400 years old.
While you can certainly hike the entire length of the trail, you can also choose to walk sections of the trail from 1 day to multi-day that encompasses the best parts of the Nakasendo Trail. The most popular route is approximately 8 kilometres that connects two of the best-preserved post towns, Magome and Tsumago. There are gentle elevation changes on the route and you can enjoy a leisurely 3 to 4 hours hiking. You can hike from either Magome or Tsumago. The easier route is starting from Magome due to the elevation of the route. Kiso Valley, or Kisoji, is home to best preserved section of the Nakasendo Trail. Embraced by the Central Alps and Mount Ontake, Kiso Valley stretches about 70 kilometers and has 11 post towns including Magome, Tsumago, and Nakai. Explore this adventure: Best of Nakasendo Trail Village To Village Walk (inluding Usui-Toge Pass). Or, explore more of our Nakasendo Trail Walking Adventures and its different routes.
You can hike both the Kumano Kodo and Nakasendo trails year-round.
For Kumano Kodo, Wakayama prefecture on Japan’s Kii Peninsula sits pretty far south, meaning the weather in this region tends to be quite mild. Spring and autumn are both great times to hike, with warm weather and pleasant views as well as spectacular cherry blossoms and stunning fall foliage. Summer is great but it can be pretty hot and humid (but not as hot as the cities). Winter has fewer crowds however temperatures can get cold and snow is possible, the Kii Mountains tend to be more temperate than other mountain ranges in Japan. No matter what time of year you plan to hike, be prepared for rain, as the weather in the mountains can change quickly and can be quite different from the weather in surrounding cities.
The best time to hike the Nakasendo is during the spring months of April and May, a chance to see the cherry blossoms. Alternatively, fall around November is ideal giving prefect walking conditions. Temperatures are in the high teens with little chance of rain and also the chance to walk in the beauty of the autumn foliage. Outside of these times, the summer months are hot and humid with a high likelihood of typhoons. Winter requires extra gear to ward off the cold and daylight hours are shorter, however it can also be magical with the chance to experience snow in the old post towns of the Nakasendo Way.
Our advice is to read up on the Best Time To Visit Japan and decide what season suites your preferences as each of Japan’s four distinct season has its own unique highlights.
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