Benjamin Law Tackles the Fabled Kumano Kodo Walk in Japan

Kumano Kodo, Japan

Charming traditional inns, home-cooked meals… and 65 kilometres of walking. Benjamin Law finds out if reward outweighs effort on Japan’s most renowned multi-day hike.

On day three of the Kumano Kodo, I brace myself before asking my boyfriend the most taboo mid-hike question: “Have we made a mistake?” We’re about halfway through our 65-kilometre journey and it feels like things are conspiring against us. Rain is relentless. Dirt has turned to mud. Our calves burn. “Also,” I add, “I can’t be completely sure my toenails are still attached.”

We soldier on for several more hours until, suddenly, the rain stops and daylight cuts through the forest. We step out of moss-rich woodland and hit pavement. After 11 hours of hiking, we’ve arrived at our destination: Yunomine Onsen, a town renowned for its hot springs. The relief is almost visceral.

Ancient stone stairs on the Daimon-zaka slope, Japan

That evening, relief turns to gratitude as I slide into mineral-rich water in a cypress hot tub, feeling the virtuous burn of my efforts. None of this was a mistake. Japan just gets it: multi-day hiking that’s a luxury experience on an everyday adventurer’s budget.

Although I’ve been travelling to Japan for more than a decade, all my experiences to this point have been city-based. Shinkansen bolting out of metropolises at 300 kilometres an hour, sushi trains and sake bars on bustling neon streets, theme parks and high-tech rides that induce brain-spin. For me, it’s always been frenetic and fast.

Then I reached middle-age and the hiking phase of my life. Friends started telling me about a trail deep in the forest between Osaka’s electric buzz and Kyoto’s war-shielded splendour. It took me this long to even realise Japan had hiking trails but it makes sense. The Japanese invented the idea of shinrin-yoku – “forest bathing” – something doctors actually prescribe to patients for the purported wellbeing benefits.

The entrance to the grand shrine of Kumano Hongu Taisha

Nowadays a full-fledged UNESCO World Heritage site, the Kumano Kodo is so ancient and steeped in Shinto and Buddhist traditions that monks, pilgrims and emperors have trekked its trails for millennia. It’s also become a showcase for what happens when you mix the wilderness with Japan’s renowned hospitality and capacity for innovation. This is the hike for people who love being in nature but detest all the other stuff that comes with it.

Loathe carrying and pitching shelter? Don’t worry, you stay in a mountainside lodge every night. Resent lugging a backpack around? No sweat: transfer services pick up and ferry your luggage between stops. Hate dehydrated camping food? Your accommodation can make you hot dinners and serve breakfast the next day. Some will even offer a packed lunch for your next stretch of the walk.

On my last multi-day hike in Australia, I carried about 20 kilograms of bedding, clothes, toiletries and dried food on my back. For the Kumano Kodo, all I take is two litres of water, insect repellent, sunscreen, walking poles, charger, passport, wallet, bandana, snacks, swimmers and a set of spare clothes. My pack is so light, I may as well be going on a primary school excursion.

There are various trails you can take but we choose the popular Nakahechi route, from Takijiri-oji to the Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine, near the coastal hot spring resort of Katsuura. At the visitor centre on day one, we pick up novelty passports that you can stamp along the way. It’s a cute gimmick and makes the entire adventure feel like a game.

We reach Hatago-Masara after a short one-hour walk past shrines with fresh fruit offerings and hydrangeas in full pastel bloom. The charming ryokan is owned by a French-Japanese couple with a young child. As I watch them take our packs and prepare us food, baby in a carrier, I reflect on what an extraordinary life their kid will have, ensconced in the mountains and ostensibly isolated but meeting travellers from around the world every day. The meals served are a fusion of their Asian-European union: for dinner, housemade plum wine alongside a hearty French beef stew and a little lasagne with a sesame-dressed salad. In the morning, it’s traditional Japanese fare of miso soup with okra, mackerel, salad and rice.

The Hosshinmon-oji shrine

Along the walk, we make new friends: a 20-something German female police detective trekking solo; men who are best mates from Australia, one of whom just got engaged; a Kiwi family who regularly trek together as a nuclear unit; and a cheery band of fit Americans who live in different countries but pick a multi-day hike every year for a reunion. Not only is the Kumano Kodo friendly, it’s also safe. Any worries about getting lost evaporate when you see the first of many signs announcing “not Kumano Kodo” at even the slightest hint of ambiguity on the path. We walk past rice paddies and majestic views of mountain ranges as cute little forest crabs and toads scuttle and hop past our feet.

Our various hosts include a 60-something couple who are chronic over-feeders (seafood hotpot, sashimi, pickles, seaweed salad, egg, rice, noodles, grilled mushroom and crème caramel for dessert); the multigenerational staff at a family-owned hostel who serve us in yukata robes; a young duo who bought their waterfall-side shack when it was derelict, before restoring it from scratch.

Turns out we need all of this charm and comfort to prepare us for our fifth and final day of the Nakahechi, an absolute quad-wrecker and hamstring-melter. It might not be the longest of the sections but it’s definitely the steepest. As we trek past Waroda-ishi Rock, with three symbols carved into it – Sanskrit characters representing wisdom, compassion and healing – I start to question my wisdom for attempting it, whether I’ll have any self-compassion if I give up and if my kneecaps will ever heal. A notice tells us that the famous Japanese poet Fujiwara Teika felt the same centuries ago when he wrote in the year 1201: “This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is.”

A tombstone at the start of the Kumano Kodo

Yet just when it feels as though my legs might buckle, we a rrive a t our final destination: the spectacular Nachi Falls, Japan’s tallest vertical-drop waterfall, and the Seigantoji Temple in front of it. Also waiting for us when we reach town? A public onsen – this one offering a custom-designed warm footbath for weary Kumano Kodo travellers. Told you they think of everything.

seigantoji temple

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Image credit: Ben Richards

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