What is the Kumano Kodo

A pilgrimage in the Kii Peninsula

What is the Kumano Kodo?

The pilgrimage routes to the Kumano Sanzan, the three Grand Shrines (Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine, and Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine) are collectively known as the Kumano Kodo. The Kumano Kodo is the official routes of pilgrimages made by retired emperors and aristocrats during the 9th-12th centuries.

During April and May 2019, I plan to walk three of these routes, the Nakahechi route, the Kohechi route and the Iseji route, and in addition the 24km Koyasan Choishimichi route from Koyasan to Hashimoto.


The Kumano Kodo consists of six pilgrimage routes: the Iseji route, which leads from Ise-Jingu shrine to the Kumano Sanzan; the Kiiji route, which connects Kyoto and Osaka to Kumano; the Nakahechi route, which extends east from Tanabe City; the Kohechi route, which connects Koyasan to Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine; the Omine Okugakemichi route, which connects Yoshino and Kumano to the Kumano Sanzan; and the Ohechi route, which runs along the coastline from Tanabe City.

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Nakahechi Route

This pilgrimage route starts east from Tanabe in the western part of Wakayama Prefecture to the Kii mountain range, heading toward the Kumano Sanzan. It was the official route of the Kumano Kodo, a pilgrimage made by the retired emperor and aristocrats during the 9th-12th centuries.

The route is split into 3 parts. The first part, the main route from Takijiri-Oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha – one of the three Grand Shrines, covers 39 km, with a total elevation gain of ca. 2600 m (i.e. for ca. 19 km one walks upwards and the cumulative gain in elevation during those 19 km is 2,4 km).

The second part is the Kogumotori-goe, between Ukegawa and Koguchi, a total of 12,6 km (plus a 45 min walk from the Shrine) with a total elevation gain of 670m. The third part is the Ogumotori-goe between Koguchi and the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, a total of 14km with an elevation gain of 1260 m. In olden days pilgrims walked from Tanabe to Takijiri-oji and from the Kumano Nachi Taishi Grand Shrine to the Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine.

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Kohechi Route

The Kohechi route is the shortest pilgrimage trail, connecting two sacred sites, Koyasan, the center of Shingon Buddhism, and Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine. The trail is about 70 km long, and traverses three passes that each are over 1,000 meters in elevation, the Obako-toge pass, the Miura-toge pass, and the Hatenashi-toge pass. This route is very rugged and steep, but the path is made clear by many ancient signposts, known as cho-ishi, along the way. There are also thirty-three stone Kannon statues lining the Hatenashi-toge pass to heal climbers’ fatigue.

The first leg to Totsukawa village is 16km with an elevation gain of 1170 m. The second leg to Miura-Guchi, over the Miura-toge pass, is a 18 km hike with an elevation gain of 1050 m – where the first 5 km are flat, before the climb to over 1000 m. The third leg to Omata over Obako-toge pass, a total of 14,5 km, with an elevation gain of 1090 m, and the highest point over 1200 m. The final leg goes to Koyasan traversing Mt. Mizugamine, 17 km with an elevation gain of 840 m.

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Koyasan Choishimichi

When I visited Koyasan in 2018, following completion of my pilgrimage in Shikoku, I had planned to walk the 24 km Choishimichi route up to Koyasan. However, due to torrential rain, this was not possible, and walking down the next days was also not advised following the rainfall. So this year, my plan is to take this route the 24 km down from Koyasan. The trail is marked by stone signposts (choishi) which stand every few hundred meters along the path so that pilgrims can find their way. The markers are numbered (in kanji) with number one at Koyasan and are formed to represent the five Buddhist elements: earth, water, fire, air and void.

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The Iseji pilgrimage route is approximately 170 km long, 7 day hike, leading from Ise-Jingu Shrine to the Kumano Sanzan. During the Edo period, pilgrims often used this route when visiting the 33 temples in the Kansai area, known as the Kansai 33 Kannon Pilgrimage, after worshipping at Ise-Jingu Shrine. The pilgim route splits at Hanano-iwaya. The southern route of Hamakaido (south) route, travels along the coast to Shingu and the Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, whilst the northern routre the Hongudo route, which leads into the mountains and merges with the Kogumotori-goe section of the Nakahechi trail (described above).

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