Solo Hiking the Kumano Kodo in Japan

This is a guest post by Ursula Thiessen.

I’m a solo traveller and have been forever, really. My passion is long-distance hiking, and I have quite a few kilometres under my belt or boots, I should say. Nine months in Europe last year, completing eight long-distance hikes clocked up 3220 km in total.

In August 2017, I walked the Kumano Kodo in Japan. Originally I wanted to walk parts of the 88 Temple Walk on Shikoku Island. But I found it too complicated to organise and started with the Kumano Kodo, a much shorter walk.

Solo Hiking the Kumano Kodo in Japan
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Planning and Preparing the Kumano Kodo Trail

I was a little anxious as my preparations, booking from Australia had been a bit of a nightmare. It just didn’t flow. Nothing would work on the relevant websites; the walk description was confusing. Confusing because there are many route options to choose from, which I hadn’t realised. However, the offer’s organised tours were way too expensive, and all with a substantial extra single supplement. So not fair.

But after visiting the Tourist Information Centre and the Kumano Travel office in the small town of Tanabe, both excellent places mostly alleviated my fear. You are provided with all the maps and bus timetables you need. Plus, you get your pilgrim credential booklet for the stamps to collect along the way.

Let me admit to you right from the start, my timing for this venture was all wrong. August is stinking hot in Japan, with temperatures in the mid 30ties with high humidity and high. But eh, live and sweat. And drink lots of water and Japanese tea. Drink vending machines are everywhere.

Kumano Kodo Japan
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Arriving at Tanabe Station

At the Tanabe train station, seeing other people from my tribe, my excitement rose. My tribe? Well, if you belong to them, you recognise them all over the world. They have a backpack, somewhat of a smaller variety, wear zip-off pants in some shade of khaki, often carry hiking poles and wear some floppy kind of unfashionable hat. Get the picture?

The Camino de Compostela, the famous pilgrimage through Spain, got together with the Kumano Kodo people and formed the Unesco World Heritage pilgrimage network to promote world pilgrimage culture. So, if you’ve completed both walks, which I have now done, you get a special certificate at the end.

Day 1 Starting the Kumano Kodo Trail

I took the bus at 6.35 am to Takijiri (40 minutes), the official starting point of the Nakahechi Route of the Kumano Kodo. Clouds were hanging low as the bus approached a more mountainous terrain, and it was raining hard at times. At least it cooled the air to acceptable high 20ties. Right from the start, the walk went up and up and up some more along a rocky, rooty path through the dense forest. A sign advised you to take your time.

The scenery was mystical, and I could feel that I was walking along an ancient path, passing little shrines that had been there for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, due to the low hanging clouds and drizzly weather, you couldn’t see far from the various lookouts.

After a few hours, the path started to descend, and you had to be very mindful not to slip on the wet and often moss-covered stones. On top of that, I was suddenly surrounded by a cloud of little black flies.

They were a real pest, trying to get into my ears and eyes. Very challenging to stay mindful on the path with those buzzers distracting you. After about 15 km, I arrived in Chikatsuyu, a little town where I had booked my first night’s accommodation in what’s called a Ryokan, a Japanese guesthouse. In many shelters in Japan, you sleep on tatami mats on the floor.

Dinner happens sitting on the floor, as is my writing. I’m getting to the stage where that becomes a bit of a challenge. Dinner was divine, though with about eight little dishes of different things, lots of fish amongst it. Yummy small sardines had been barbequed on skewers in a sandpit in the corner of the dining room. Fascinating.

Kumano Kodo Trail Japan
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Day 2 Walking from Chikatsuyu to Hongu

From Chikatsuyu to Hongu was a long walk today, about 24 km, crossing three passes with lots of up and down. It drizzled, but the temperature was much more manageable. For hours on end, I saw no one. The path is very well marked with regular wooden “Kumano Kodo” signs and numbers every 500 metres, so you always know where you are about the map and how far you have to go.

I had a lovely day walking through the forests, along streams, passing little “ojis” (subsidiary shrines to protect pilgrims) and shrines along the way with little wooden houses, like letterboxes, where you find the stamps for your trail pass.

Arriving in Hong, I received my Dual Pilgrim Certificate at the Heritage Centre with my taiko drumming ceremony at the Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine. You are offered that if you have walked the Camino Compostela and 38kms of the Kumano Kodo. Very proud moment. I stayed at the Blue Sky Guesthouse, a fabulous place with free washing machines.

Dual Pilgrim Certificate at the Heritage Centre Kumano Kodo
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Day 3 Walk to Yunomine Onsen

A short walk today (3.5 km) to Yunomine Onsen (onsens are hot springs), but at least 1000 steps up and down the other side. Helpful for the old knees! Yunomine Onsen is a small settlement dating back 1800 years. A hot river runs through its middle, which gives the air a sort of sulphurous smell.

There are hot springs everywhere, some too hot to even put your toe in. You can buy eggs in plastic netting and hang them in the water — eleven minutes for hardboiled, 9 for soft. Sweet potatoes take an hour to cook. The hot baths would be so lovely in colder months after a long day hiking. But when the temperature is 30+, it was a little less enticing.

Day 4 Getting to Ukegawa

Leaving Yunomine Onsen, I took the 6.55 am bus to Ukegawa, just a 10-minute ride or so, starting, as I had heard, early I would be a hard day. However, apart from the last 2 km fairly steady downhill to the small town of Koguchi, I found the slow ascent and then lots of flat walking along a ridge rather easy.

Beautiful walks through cedar and cypress forests. I saw no other hiker the entire time. However, three snakes crossed my path, at least one of them quite venomous, a mamushi (pit viper).

Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine
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Day 5 getting to Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine

Now the last day was supposed to be hard, with an elevation of over 800 metres. With the heat, the snakes and being by myself with few other hikers around, I decided to let wisdom reign over ego and take the boat down the Kumano river to Shingu instead, which is also how pilgrims travelled in the old days.

From there, a bus to Kumano Nachi Taisha, a huge Shrine with its famous waterfall and three-tiered stunning pagodas. Very picturesque. The official end of the walk.

Here concludes my Kumano Kodo experience. I found Japan extremely easy to travel by myself, although I was severely slippered and toilet challenged. But that will be another story! The people are friendly and helpful; everything runs on time, the information you get you can trust and correct. Not my last trip to Japan. But not in the original pilgrim’s outfit.

About this Guest Author: Ursula lives in Cairns, Australia, and when she is not travelling, she works as a Social Worker in the hospital setting. She loves her job, but really, she thinks she is born to walk, particularly long-distance hiking. Follow Ursula’s adventures on her blog: https://shesgoneagain.wordpress.com.

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Walking Alone the Kumano Kodo In Japa
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Walking Alone the Kumano Kodo Trail In Japan. Here is how to plan your adventure hiking alone this beautiful trail of Japan.
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