Kumano Kodo – Part Two: The Towns, the Temples, and the Shrines

The Three-Storied Pagoda and Nachi-no-Otaki Waterfall in the town of Nachi-san, one of the highlights of the entire Kumano Kodo

The Three-Storied Pagoda and Nachi-no-Otaki Waterfall in the town of Nachi-san, one of the highlights of the entire Kumano Kodo

NOTE – Part One of my Kumano Kodo Experience can be seen by clicking here.

Tanabe, Japan:

Before ever setting foot on the mountain or steeping into the forest, most visitors choose to first make a pit stop through the town of Tanabe, just outside of which lies the beginning of the Nakahechi Trail, the most popular trail of the various Kumano Kodo routes (also the route I chose for myself).  After grabbing maps, brochures, and bus timetables at the excellent tourist information center, most hikers and pilgrims choose to overnight in the town in an attempt to get an early start the next morning.  As such, this also allows one to partake in the Ajikoji District (or entertainment district) of Tanabe, where over 200 tiny pubs and izakaya are packed together in the area no bigger than two city blocks.  So this makes for a the perfect place to both have a little fun and fuel up before hitting the trails.  Obviously, these last two posts aren’t in chronological order, but I was trying to group things into somewhat similar themes.  So this is what you get:

The streets of Tanabe, with every storefront marking another pub, restaurant, or izakaya

The streets of Tanabe, with every storefront marking another pub, restaurant, or izakaya

The interior of Shinbe, a recommended Sashimi restaurant

The interior of Shinbe, a recommended Sashimi restaurant

The result of sitting down at said Sashimi restaurant

The result of sitting down at said Sashimi restaurant

The exterior of an izakaya known as Kanteki.  Even though neither the chefs, nor the servers, nor the other customers could speak English – and I can only speak a few token words of Japanese – after only a few minutes, everyone had befriended me regardless, began to share their food with me, and despite my protests, insisted on buying me glass after glass of shochu.  Due to the amazing welcome I received here, this has become another entry of my shortlist of “Favorite Places on the Planet.”

The exterior of an izakaya known as Kanteki. Even though neither the chefs, nor the servers, nor the other customers could speak English – and I can only speak a few token words of Japanese – after only a few minutes, everyone had befriended me, regardless, as they began to share their food with me and, despite my protests, insisted on buying me glass after glass of shochu. Due to the amazing welcome I received here, this has become another entry on my shortlist of “Favorite Places on the Planet.”

A complimentary trio of appetizers (as seen from left to right: Stewed Pumpking, Edamame, and Sea Whelk, maybe?)

A complimentary trio of appetizers (as seen from left to right: Stewed Pumpking, Edamame, and Sea Whelk, maybe?)

A glass of jizake (sake specific to a given region, so basically the local hooch)

A glass of jizake (sake — or nihonshu — specific to a given region, so basically the locally made hooch)

Eel, Taro (Sweet Potato), and Shrimp Tempura with a frosty beer

Eel, Taro (Sweet Potato), and Shrimp Tempura with a frosty beer

Yeah, Yeah, I know that Eel is expensive and I’ve already shown you shots of Unagi several times, but given its supposed ability to help give the diner extra stamina to help withstand the summer heat, I figured it would be a great choice for a pre-hike meal

Yeah, Yeah, I know that Eel is expensive and I’ve already shown you shots of Unagi several times, but given its supposed ability to help give the diner extra stamina to help withstand the summer heat, I figured it would be a great choice for a pre-hike meal

Another Sashimi plate, compliments of the chef

Another Sashimi plate, compliments of the chef this time

One of my favorite aspects of Izakaya is the fact the the longer you stay and the more you drink, the more dishes the chefs send out your way.  In this case, a plate of fried fish bones marked the end of the night for me

One of my favorite aspects of Izakaya is the fact that the longer you stay and the more you drink, the more dishes the chefs send out your way. In this case, a plate of fried fish bones marked the end of the night for me, as my stomach could handle no more

Yunomine Onsen:

After fast-forwarding through several sweaty days of hiking, you’ll find yourself somewhere amidst the mountains and looking for a place to rest.  Many choose to hunker down in the central town of Hongu, but I opted for one of three nearby Onsens (towns famous for hot springs).  Whereas both Kawayu and Wataraze Onsen have their own distinct charms, I chose Yunomine Onsen for myself, due to its quaint, rustic feel and bevy of excellent accommodations from which to choose:

The single street that is the mountainous town ofYunomine Onsen

The single street that is the mountainous town of Yunomine Onsen

Additionally, Yunomine is also home to the only UNESCO recognized hot spring, called Tsubo-yo -- which is essentially just a small shack (seen here) that pipes in water directly from the hot springs in the area

Additionally, Yunomine Onsen is also home to the only UNESCO-recognized hot spring, called Tsubo-yo — which is essentially just a small shack (seen here in the center) that pipes in water directly from the hot springs in the area

Decorations on a nearby porch

Decorations on a nearby porch

Additionally, the town also boasts its own community hot spring dedicated to the cooking of foods.  While in town, I think I had "Onsen Tamago," or hot spring-cooked hard-boiled eggs, with every meal

Additionally, the town also boasts its own community hot spring dedicated to the cooking of foods. While in town, I think I had “Onsen Tamago,” or hot spring-cooked hard-boiled eggs, with every meal (although they do take on a somewhat sulphurous smell)

Yunomine 1 - Street

Nachi-san, Japan:

For many, one of the primary reasons for embarking upon a Kumano Kodo journey (and one for which many skip the hike and simply drive to) is the trek around the peninsula to pray at the three major shrines of the area: that of Kumano Nachi Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and the Kumano Hongu Taisha.  The first — and my favorite — is that of the Kumano Nachi Taisha, partially for its location on the side of a mountain in a town called Nachi-san, and partially for the scenic vistas of the nearby Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall — which, incidentally, is Japan’s tallest waterfall.  Have a look:

The final climb up to the town of Nachi-san includes an formidable trek up this giant staircase (known as Daimonzaka) amid some ominous-looking trees

The final climb up to the town of Nachi-san includes a formidable trek up this giant staircase (known as Daimonzaka) amid some ominous-looking trees

The view over Nachi-san, with a three-storied Pagoda and the waterfall just visible in the distance

The view over Nachi-san, with a three-storied Pagoda and the waterfall just visible in the distance

Pagoda and Waterfall 15 - Close

A slightly different perspective from my opening photo

The Nachi-no-Otaki Waterfall as seen from atop the Three-Story Pagoda

The Nachi-no-Otaki Waterfall as seen from atop the Three-Story Pagoda

A look up at Japan's tallest waterfall

A closer look up at Japan’s tallest waterfall

Ah yes, back to the Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine itself...seen here is the entrance through a giant Torii gate

Returnig to topic, here is the Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine itself.  Seen here is the entrance through a red/orange Torii gate

The grounds of the Kumano Nachi Taisha

The grounds of the Kumano Nachi Taisha

Kumano Nachi Taisha 9

The view back over the valley below

The view back over the valley below

A fountain just outside of the equally enticing Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple

A fountain just outside of the equally enticing Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple

Nachisan Seiganto-ji 1 - Statue

A love smiling Buddhas

A love smiling Buddhas

Shingu, Japan:

The second of the “Big Three” shrines is that of the Kumano Hayatama Taisha.  It is located in the slightly-less-scenic town of Shingu, but luckily, if you’re moving around the Kii Peninsula much, you’re likely to pass through Shingu at some point, meaning it is certainly worthwhile to spend an extra hour in town checking out the shrine.  Here’s a quick preview:

The entrance to the Kumano Hayatama Taisha

The entrance to the Kumano Hayatama Taisha

Kumano Hayatama Taisha 4

Kumano Hayatama Taisha 5

Kumano Hayatama Taisha 9

Hongu, Japan:

The final shrine, and the most important of the three, is that of the Kumano Hongu Taisha.  Located in the town of Hongu (as expected given the name), this temple acts as the final stop on the majority of Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage routes, marking the end of the journey.  As opposed to heading straight for Hongu from my hike, I chose to take in the other two shrines first, leaving the Kumano Hongu Taisha as the last of the 3 major shrines to be checked off on my list:

The streets of Hongu

The streets of Hongu

Just outside of town lies the GIANT Torii gate that is Oyunohara

Just outside of town lies the GIANT Torii gate that is Oyunohara

Another angle of Oyunohara

Another angle of Oyunohara

The banner-laden approach to the Kumano Hongu Taisha

The banner-laden approach to the Kumano Hongu Taisha – my pilgrimage is almost at an end…

The entrance through the main gate...the anticipation is building!!!

The entrance through the main gate…the anticipation is building!!!

And finally, this is me taking a picture of a postcard to show what the Main Hall of the shrine is supposed to look like...

…and finally, this is me taking a picture of a postcard to show what the Main Hall of the shrine is supposed to look like…

...unfortunately, this is what it looked like when I arrived.  Bummer, but I guess they do have to do maintenance from time to time.  Oh well, the entire pilgrimage was still a great experience, even if the final shrine was under construction

…unfortunately, this is what it looked like when I arrived. Bummer…but I guess they do have to do maintenance from time to time. Oh well, the entire pilgrimage was still a great experience, even if the final shrine was under construction when I visited

A smaller hall just beside the Main Hall of the Kumano Hongu Taisha

A smaller hall just beside the Main Hall of the Kumano Hongu Taisha

After several days of arduous hiking through the mountains, several subsequent days largely spent soaking in hot spring baths, a handful of day-trips around the peninsula to check out the other major shrines and temples, and a whole week of fantastic kaiseki meals, I can honestly say that my own Kumano Kodo pilgrimage is one of the highlights of my entire 2-year Round-the-World trip so far.  I can’t begin to express how much I enjoyed this walk.  Up next, I’m changing gears a bit and catching a flight down to the Southern islands of Okinawa, complete with a long list of culinary treats to try in between my days spent island-hopping.  Until then, Kampai from the Kumano Kodo!

Although it isn't to the caliber of beaches that I'll find in Okinawa, I couldn't help but leave off with this preview shot, taken at the Nachi Beach, just a few minutes drive from the town of Nachi-san, as pictured above (the one with the Pagoda and Waterfall)

Although it isn’t to the caliber of beaches that I’ll find in Okinawa, I couldn’t help but leave off with this preview shot taken at the Nachi Beach, just a few minutes drive from the town of Nachi-san, as pictured above (the one with the Pagoda and Waterfall)

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About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

34 Responses to “Kumano Kodo – Part Two: The Towns, the Temples, and the Shrines”

  1. Another place without people. Very small population in Japan

  2. The photo of the town of Yunomine Onsen reminded me instantly of the many many tiny hamlets here in the “hollers” of West Virginia. Now, all WV needs is a trail that tourists like to take and perhaps the economy in those towns would improve…..

    • Honestly, the terrain is almost the same, so I can definitely see the similarities. And yes, the folks here in Japan have done a bit better with their marketing than the West Virginian tourism bureau has, but that doesn’t mean hiking around WV isn’t fun too!

  3. I hope to be able to share your blog with my mother, who will be 89 this year. We spent several years on Kyushu when I was a child while Dad was in the military on a remote Air Force base. Once a person has been in Japan, I think its aesthetic becomes haunting, and I know Mom would appreciate your photos!

  4. We’ll be hiking the Ancient Kumano Kodo trail, following pretty much the route you took, in a few days. What’s your advise regarding carrying cash vs. ATMs?

    • I’d advise you to bring cash with you before departing, as once you’re out hiking, you’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere with very little in the way of development around. That being said, if you do find yourself in a pinch, I’m guessing you probably can find an ATM somewhere in Tanabe, Nachi-san, or Shingu, as these are the busiest places, but don’t count on one in Hongu, Yunomine, or any of the other Onsen towns. And if you don’t want to carry a bunch of cash around, you can always do like I did and book your accommodation, bus passes, etc. online ahead of time using the Kumano Kodo website (which, incidentally, is AWESOME, by the way), where you can pay via credit card ahead of time. Let me know if you have any other questions, and I wish you the best on your trip!

  5. Wow! you have a great blog. Amazing photos! I hope its ok to ask…I will be in Japan for the first time and in Kyoto – for two weeks next month. I am writing down names of dishes/foods to look for to try.I have some question- Q. Did you have to make reservations for any of your visits to historic places around Kyoto ?

    • Nope, I didn’t make any reservations ahead of time for any of the temples or shrines. I can’t speak for every location, but of what I’ve seen, every place allowed walk-in visits. Best of luck on your trip, and let me know if you have any other questions!

      • Thank you for your quick response. I do have some other questions -if you would like to answer. I wil be there for some study in Landscape Architecture and I am required to put together a story board presentation before I leave. Would allow me to use any of your photos. (Yes we must cite all of the images we use) You have a great shot of an empty street. I have to propose planning ideas for a site of my choice in Kyoto. And I’ve only visited via google earth. I have not found a site yet. I noticed the possiblity of dated concrete elements (say from the 70s) that are neither timeless nor fit with the traditional style. like the arched concrete covers over the sidewalks I see in the empty street photo and on google which is not empty. Let me know if this is possible.

        • Definitely! Feel free to use any (and/or all) of my photos that you need. Thanks for asking, too (as I’m sure many just folks just rip the off without saying anything). And feel free to fire away any other specific planning questions you may have — or, alternately, if you see something specific from one of my photos you want more detail on, let me know, as I may have more shots of it that I just didn’t post that I can email you (for example, I have plenty of pictures of that empty street in the daytime, when there are thousands of people walking under the concrete covers).

  6. I posted above without logging in and If you did/or when you read it if you can remove it. I wanted to pass on info and I spaced about logging into the site. Thank you for everything. If you have any questions let me know.

  7. We spent two days walking and 4 days in the area. Dont be afraid of using local buses to help you cover sections of the walk. Worth all the aches and sore muscles. Visit one of the onsens like Kayawa to relax and relieve the aches.

  8. Thank you for sharing your trip and for the great photos! May I know if you traveled the Kumano Kodo alone? I’ve been to Japan on few solo trips and really wish to walk the Kumano Kodo but worried of being alone. Do you find it safe?

    • I did travel the path alone, and I felt it was completely safe to do so. In fact, although I did see several groups and couples traveling, most of the other hikers I came across were doing it solo, too. Best of luck on your trip!

      • Awesome! Yeah, I can’t wait to accomplish it. I hope you don’t mind for few more questions, what season do you think is good for the hike? And were you able to reach the next stop before the day turns dark? I’m worried of my speed that I will be stranded in the dark.

        • If I had to pick a season, the Autumn might be the nicest due to the cooler days and the changing colors of the leaves, but honestly, almost any season would have its own advantages. And as far as making it to the next town, so long as you leave early and don’t spend a few extra hours stopped along the way, you should be able to make it to the next towns without too much difficulty. I’d say check out the official website for maps, too, as you may be able to find some shorter hikes and paths that could help assuage your concern. Good luck!

  9. Nice blog! Did you do the walk in July? I was wondering how you coped with the humid and warm climate around that time. Did you carry a lot of water? I am thinking of doing the walk this summer.

    • I did do the walk during the summer, and to your point, it was very hot and humid! To make up for it, I just carried extra water. This added a few pounds to my pack, but after a few minutes of hiking, I didn’t even notice the extra weight. Best of luck and enjoy your hike!

  10. Thanks for sharing Andrew! Using Yunomine Onsen as base, how did you get to the other trails / pilgrimage sites? Are there buses available? I have already booked my flights in April next year. Planning on the Nakahechi route and then day-hikes similar to what you’ve done.

  11. Loved reading your blog posts and looking at your photos of the Kumano Kodo. We are planning to do something similar in the fall. Where did you stay in Yunomine Onsen? Also, did you have to take a bus from Hongu to Yunomine? I really want to stay in an onsen town, but also am concerned about infrequent buses to get there after walking so long.
    Also, did you happen to take the boat to Shingu? Did you have a favorite stretch of the Kumano Kodo?
    Thanks very much.

    • Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed the photos and stories! As I’m thinking about it, I can’t remember the exact minshuku where I stayed in Yunomine Onsen, but there are at least dozen options available using the reservation system on the official Kumano Kodo website, each with various accommodation styles and price ranges:

      http://www.kumano-travel.com/index/en/action_Default_Index

      As far as getting from Yunomine Onsen to Hongu, there is a relatively easy hiking path between the two that takes ~45 minutes or so. If you’re super worn out, there is a bus system that connects all of the various towns, but it would probably take longer than the actual hike.

      I never took the boat to Shingu, but I did take advantage of the bus system of that point (it required 2 buses with a transfer in between). You’ll have to check the bus schedules, but I believe buses came every hour-ish, so they are pretty easy to use.

      As far as a favorite stretch, that is tough. It is difficult to beat the temple around Koya-san, but this area is quite a ways away from the Yunomine/Hongu area and has more difficult hiking trails. Any of it will be immensely enjoyable, though, so you really can’t go wrong. I wish you the best of luck on your trip!

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