The Imperial Pilgrimage Routes of Japan
|Location||Kii Peninsula, Japan|
|Accommodations||Hotels, Ryokan, Small Inns|
|Group size||6 - 10|
May 07, 2023 - May 20, 2023 Waitlist, please call
Oct 22, 2023 - Nov 04, 2023 Waitlist, please call
|Single Supp Cost||
Extending out into the Pacific Ocean just south of Osaka and Kyoto, the southern mountainous region of the Kii Peninsula was once referred to as Kumano and regarded as a mystical “holy ground where gods dwell.” A region of spiritual and cultural significance, it was here at Gotobiki Rock that the three “spirits of nature”, or kami, were thought to have alighted from heaven to reside on earth. And, it was here that Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan and descendent of Amaterasu the sun goddess, is thought to have been guided through the mountains by the mythical three-legged crow of the Kumano on his quest to unite the country.
Over the centuries, the three Grand Shires of Hongu-Taisha, Hayatama-Taisha, and Nachi-Taisha were constructed to honor each of the kami and the Kumano faith evolved as an embracing of both a Shinto reverence for the sacred in nature and the arrival of Buddhist teaching. Imperial pilgrimages to the three grand shires, known collectively as the Kumano Sanzan, began in the 11th century. Starting in the ancient city of Kyoto, these journeys would often take 30 – 40 days and require an entourage of up to 800 people.
While the popularity and accessibly of these pilgrimage routes have ebbed and flowed throughout the ages, today the Kumano Kodo (Kodo meaning “old ways”) is recognized as one of only two UNESCO World Heritage-listed pilgrimage routes.
During this 14-day journey, beginning in Osaka and ending in Kyoto, we’ll experience the historical, cultural, and spiritual significance of the Kii Peninsula as we follow the old imperial ways to the sacred sites of the Kumano region.
From Osaka, we’ll travel south to Mount Koya, the home of the Shingon (Pure Word) Sect of Esoteric Buddhism. After spending the night in one of the 117 temples in the area, we head south deeper into the Kii Mountains where we’ll hike the Nakahechi, one of the Kumano Kodo routes to the Three Grand Shrines. After visiting the village of Yoshino home to the Kimpusenji Temple, we’ll head out of the mountains to the ancient capital city of Nara, stopping en route to hike along historic Yamanobe-no-Michi. Our journey will end with a day spent in the cosmopolitan and truly fascinating city of Kyoto.
Along the way, we’ll immerse of selves in the Japanese way of travel, staying in old-world traditional Japanese inns called ryokan, bathing in hot spring onsens, and perfecting our chopstick skills as we enjoy classic Japanese cuisine. Join us for an unforgettable journey through this remote and mystical corner of Japan!
Day 1: Arrive OsakaRendezvous at our hotel in Central Osaka. The trip will officially begin at 6:00 pm at our hotel with an orientation meeting followed by our welcome dinner.
Day 2: Osaka to Mount Koya
Following breakfast, we’ll travel south by train and funicular to Mount Koya, the home of the Shingon (Pure Word) Sect of Esoteric Buddhism. Founded in 816AD by Kobo Daishi, there are 117 temples on Mount Koya today. Kobo Daishi is believed to sit in eternal meditation here at the Okunoin Inner Sanctuary. After lunch, we’ll have a short hike along the Nyonindo, a route through the woods surrounding the temple area. We’ll spend the night in one of the 54 shukubo temples which accept lodgers.
Day 3: Mount Koya and Ryujin Onsen
We will rise early this morning to participate in a sutra recital ceremony conducted daily, primarily in memory of ancestors and previous generations of priests. After breakfast (all food in the temples here are vegetarian – shojin ryori), we’ll have a guided walk of the most important sites on Mount Koya, including the cemetery with its huge cedar trees and 200,000 or so stone memorials. In the afternoon we’ll travel south by road deeper into the Kii Mountains via the Ryujin Skyline. Our destination is Ryujin Onsen and our family-run ryokan for the night. We’ll have the opportunity to experience their delightful, natural hot spring baths.
Day 4: Ryujin Onsen to Yunomine Onsen
After breakfast, we travel to the start of the Nakahechi pilgrimage route, one of the ancient imperial routes to the Kumano Sanzen. After visiting the information center and small shop at Takejiri, we’ll continue the short distance by road to the start of our hike at Takahara Kumano Jinja Shrine. The trail today is through dense forest, following ridges and valleys, past small wayside shrines to the village of Chikatsuyu, from where we go by road to our family-run lodgings in Yunomine Onsen. Famous for its hot springs, the use of Yunomine Onsen, as a spot for purification rituals before continuing to the Hongu Taisha, is thought to date back 1,000 years. The hot springs here actually merge into the stream which runs through the village nestled in a narrow valley.
Day 5: Hosshinmon-Oji to Yunomine via Hongu
In the morning, we’ll rejoin the Nakahechi trail at Hosshinmon-Oji, one of the five major Oji, or smaller shires, along the route. It once marked the outermost boundary of Hongu Taisha scared precinct and was called “the gate of awaking of aspiration to enlightenment.”
Today our destination is Hongu Taisha, or Grand Shrine, the first of the three Kumano Sanzen. Our route takes us through isolated mountain settlements and dense cedar forests, occasionally along old flagstone ways, with short stretches of quiet road here and there. After visiting the shire and Heritage Center, we’ll hike over a low mountain, with a rather steep climb to the Dainichigoe Pass, and back to our lodging in Yunomine.
Day 6: Ukegawa to Koguchi
The hike today continues along the pilgrimage route from Ukegawa, near Hongu, to Koguchi. Our lodging here is a renovated schoolhouse. With an aging population and rural depopulation, schools in rural areas have been closing in recent times. Some, like this one at Koguchi, have been successfully repurposed. The tatami mat bedrooms are converted classrooms! Simple, but typically clean and tidy accommodation.
Day 7: Koguchi to Nachi Katsuura
Today we’ll visit Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha, two of the three Grand Shrines that make up the Kumano Sanzan. We first transfer to Hayatama Taisha. It is believed that this shrine was built in 128 to enshrine the Kumano deities who first descended to earth on nearby Gotobiki-Iwa rock. Near the entrance to the shrine is an ancient sacred Nagi tree, a conifer believed to be almost 1,000 years old and the oldest tree of its kind in Japan.
After exploring Hayatama Taisha, we’ll continue to Nachi-san, an area encompassing the last of the three Grand Shrines: Nachi Taisha, the Buddhist temple of Seignato-ji, and Nachi Waterfall. A traditional approach to the shrine is by the Daimonzaka, or “Great Gate Slope”. This atmospheric, broad cobblestone path climbs 267 stairs through an ancient cedar and camphor forest to reach the shrine. Our day will end in the oceanside town of Katsuura.
Day 8: Nachi Katsuura to Yoshino
We start making our way toward Kyoto, driving north today through the mountains of Kamikitayama Village, a sparsely populated area, and the largest village administrative district in Japan. Our destination is Mount Yoshino, or Yoshinoyama, and the village of Yoshino. In spring, the mountainside is ablaze with thousands of cherry trees in blossom. We’ll stop for a kuzu noodle lunch and in the afternoon take an exploratory hike of the village. Descending mostly along the road, we’ll begin at the site of Saigyo’s hut. A 12th century Buddhist priest-poet, Saigyo, is said to have lived in this humble dwelling for three years. We’ll then stop at the Kimpusenji Temple, a World Heritage Site and the main temple of the Shugendo Sect of mountain priests, before making our way to the village and our accommodations for the night.
Day 9: Yoshino to Asuka
After breakfast, we’ll travel the short distance to Asuka, where we’ll spend the day exploring this historically important village. A modest rural village surrounded by rolling hills and terraced rice paddies, Asuka retains an aura of historical and cultural significance. As well as being the home of Japan's first emperor, it was here that Buddhism began to take root as a faith practiced by the ruling class. Some of Japan's oldest shrines and temples are in the area, as well as ancient stone megalithic structures.
Day 10: Asuka to Narai
Today we’ll hike a section of the Yamanobe-no-Michi Trail. The trail runs north and south along the eastern edge of the Nara Basin and was once part of the Shinkiado, Japan's oldest road, according to written records dating back 1,000 years. After a short transfer, we’ll begin the hike at Miwa Shrine. As it winds through the countryside the trail is dotted with temples, shrines, cafes, fruit stands, and small hamlets. Our walk ends at Isonokami Jingu Shrine from where we’ll transfer to our hotel in Nara.
Day 11: Nara
Today we’ll be joined by a local guide, an expert in the history and culture of Nara. Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital established in 710, and as such is home to many important temples and shrines as well as fine gardens, museums, and traditional neighborhoods. This will be a full day of exploring Nara, including visits to the Kasuga Taisha Shinto shrine, Nara Park, the great Todaiji Temple, and the old town. We’ll also enjoy a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Day 12 & 13: Kyoto
From Nara, we’ll transfer to Kyoto by road and spend the next two days experiencing this amazing city. With 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, it's no wonder Kyoto is considered the cultural center of Japan. The capital city of Japan from 794 - 1968, behind its now modern, contemporary exterior vestiges of old-world Japan are everywhere. Our explorations of Kyoto will include the Ginkakuji Silver Pavilion and its garden, the Philosophers Walk, and perhaps the Nishiki Koji indoor market with its bustling shopping center. The day will be capped off by our farewell celebration.
Day 14: Depart - Onward travel
The tour officially ends after breakfast. Members may transfer for flights home, stay on in Kyoto, or continue their journey in Japan. Rail transfer to Kansai International Airport from Kyoto is easy and direct, taking about 70 minutes.
If you wish to have your own room, a single supplement charge will apply. If you are traveling alone and would like to share a room, we will do our best to match you with a roommate of the same gender. If there is no one with whom you can share, there will be a “forced” single charge of $400 will apply.
Airfare, optional/individual transfers or excursions, items not on set dinner menu, beverages, insurance, tips to guides/leaders, items of personal nature (phone calls, laundry, excess baggage charge, passport fees, etc.).
The trip is vehicle-supported. This means most days you will need only carry a daypack with those items you will need during the day’s hike. Each day, our luggage will be transported ahead to our night's accommodation, with the exception of Day 2 when we will be staying at a Shukubo temple. We suggest a 30-liter pack or one large enough for those additional items you will need for our night at the temple. We ask that each participant bring one medium size piece of luggage, preferably with wheels. Japanese inns tend to have narrow corridors and steps rather than elevators, so bear this in mind.
We will be staying at a range of accommodations during this trip, including hotels, temples, and ryokans. Some of our accommodations may be western-style while others will be more traditional Japanese inns called ryokans. When possible, we will “go Japanese” staying in Japanese-style rooms. These rooms are usually spacious and double occupancy with woven tatami mat floors, low tables, and futon beds with warm comforters.
Most accommodations will be “ensuite” with shower/bath and toilet facilities in the room; others will have shared facilities on the floor. Some ryokan may have baths or showers in the room, but most will have an onsen or o-furo (Japanese-style bath). Most accommodations will provide yukata, simple cotton robes, used for wear to the onsen, and meals. Meals at the ryokans may be served at low tables with seating on pillows on the floor. Slippers are generally provided at the entrance of the accommodation for use everywhere, except for in tatami rooms. You might like to bring your own (probably more comfortable!) slippers.
Rooms are double/twin occupancy unless a single is requested. Single rooms cannot always be guaranteed in temples and ryokan, but we will endeavor to secure these where possible.
Japanese Baths: Japanese baths (o-furo) and natural hot springs (onsen) offer a unique and wonderful cultural experience if sometimes a challenge for the unprepared!
A centuries’ old tradition, there is a three-step process to taking a Japanese bath. Communal o-furo and onsen will have a changing room, a shower room, and the bath or hot spring. All clothing and belongings are left in individual baskets or lockers in the changing room. Showering with soap and thoroughly rinsing is done before entering the bath “au naturel” to relax. Baths are always separated into men’s and women’s areas.
There are 3 days on this trip where accommodations have shared bathing and toilet facilities; Days 4, 5, and 6. This is not uncommon in traditional inns in Japan.
On Days 4 and 5, our accommodation in Yunomine Onsen has a private outdoor hot spring tub for use by lodgers. There is also an indoor, shared (segregated) hot spring bath. The shared toilets facilities are spotless, of course, have cubicles, and are adjacent to the rooms across a corridor.
The accommodation on Day 6 is an old school that has been converted. The facilities here are simple but adequate and perfectly clean. There are shared (segregated) baths with separate male/female toilets. Small wash towels are generally provided for bathing use at each accommodation.
On a couple of other days when we stay at ryokan, where you will have both private facilities as well as the option of enjoying the communal hot spring baths.
Meals: The Japanese diet is quite different from ours. Most meals, including traditional Japanese breakfasts, consist of rice, miso soup, tofu, fish, and an amazing array of small dishes of pickled vegetables, and vegetables in broth. Sashimi, raw fish, or sushi may be served as well as other meat dishes. Western-style breakfasts may be available at some of our accommodations. Delicious Japanese food is definitely a highlight of this tour. Brush up on your chopstick skills! Some meals will be in tatami mat rooms with low tables, again traditional in Japan.
Osaka’s Kansai International Airport is most convenient to the start and end of the trip. It is also possible to fly in and out of Tokyo, you need only allow for additional travel time.
The group will meet at about 6:00 pm on Day 1 at our hotel in central Osaka.
The trip will end after breakfast at our hotel in Kyoto on the last day of the trip, Day 14. Rail transfer to Kansai International Airport from Kyoto is easy and direct, taking about 70 minutes. Access is more or less directly from the train platform into the airport.
Our Hiking the Kumano Kodo trip is a new trip for us this year, and we are happy to be working in collaboration with Bob Hefill, a professional freelance translator and founder of Hike Japan. Bob has been organizing and running trips in Japan since 2003 and is eager to infuse our trip with his knowledge of and enthusiasm for Japan and its culture. For those interested in joining us on this inaugural trip, don't forget to bring along your flexibility, good humor, and love of adventure and discovery!
This trip is as much a cultural experience as it is a hiking and walking trip. It would be a fabulous experience for any fit, active traveler, but especially so for experienced hikers who have hiked in other parts of the world but have yet to travel to Japan. While the hiking routes may not feel as remote or landscapes as expansive as those in the Rockies or European Alps, the cultural aspect adds an intriguing and captivating dimension. Very basic things, like eating and sleeping, can be quite different in Japan. Breakfast might look very much like dinner, and getting up and down off a futon can be an interesting new exercise. The Japanese are generally extremely polite and respectful. Certain social etiquettes require more mindful attention and others, such as bathing at hot springs, less inhibition. An openness and willingness to try new things is an essential and rewarding part of this journey.
Many things! The tour is designed to give you great hiking experiences as well as insights into Japanese history and culture. The itinerary focuses on imperial pilgrimages, with visits to many of the most important sacred sites in the Kii Peninsula. The other destinations we’ll visit - Yoshino, Asuka, Nara, and Kyoto, are all significant in gaining a good understanding of pilgrimage routes in this part of Japan and how Japanese culture developed in the Yamato area around Asuka, Nara, and Kyoto. We’ll gain insights into Japanese culture other visitors rarely have. Highly experienced guides, carefully chosen lodgings, some with onsen - wonderful natural hot spring baths, delicious Japanese food, all contribute to making this tour truly special.
Please contact us for a more detailed itinerary, for more information, or to register.
A deposit of $500 along with your completed registration forms will reserve a space on your requested trip. We accept MasterCard, Visa, and American Express card as well as personal checks. To make a deposit, you may either follow one of the “Reserve a Trip” links below, give us a call at 1-888-845-5781, or include your payment information in the area provided when completing your registration forms.
The balance is due 75 days prior to departure for most of our trips. When applying less than 75 days prior to departure, full payment is due. For final payments, we accept MasterCard, Visa, and American Express, as well as personal checks.
As confirmation of receipt of your deposit, we will send you a comprehensive packet of information pertaining to your trip, an invoice for final payment and additional information including release agreement form, medical information form, travel information, and packing list. Upon receipt of final payment and no later than 30 days prior to your trip start, you will receive trip rendezvous information and a list of accommodations. Returning trip participants will receive a 5% discount on most trips.
Receipt of all forms will finalize your registration.