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Hiking Japan's sacred Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route

Follow the ancient pilgrimage path that cuts through the silent, mossy mountains of Kii to discover a landscape where nature, body and spirit commune in harmony. 

By Aaron Millar
Published 11 Jul 2021, 08:00 BST
Red cherry blossoms bloom in the remote mountain village of Yunomine in spring, home to what’s ...

Red cherry blossoms bloom in the remote mountain village of Yunomine in spring, home to what’s thought to be the oldest onsen in Japan.

Photograph by Getty Images

The Shugendo monk stands on the last summit ridge of the Kumano Kodo and blows his Hora conch shell to the wilds. He’s dressed in immaculate white Suzukaki robes, straw sandals and a woven cypress Minachi-gasa hat. The sound is earthy, like an animal call, but hollow, too, like wind passing through the forest. He’s a Yamabushi, a holy man of the mountains. The sound lasts only an instant, but I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. 

I’m here to walk the Kumano Kodo, a 54-mile path that cuts through the Kii Mountains of Japan, south of Kyoto. This network of pilgrimage trails has been walked for thousands of years, by emperors and peasants alike, to make offerings at the three Grand Shrines of Hongu, Hatayama and Nachi along the way. 

But this isn’t your average boots-in-the-dirt hike. This is the land of Shugendo, an ancient off-set of Buddhism which holds that enlightenment is to be found through physical excursion in the natural world. 

Read more: How to find the right hike for you in Japan

“You do the training,” Ryoei Takagi, a Shugendo master, would later tell me, “until nature and your body and your heart are all mixed together into the same thing.” And when that happens, practitioners believe, you’ll also be granted magical powers.

It might just work, too: experienced Yamabushis, like Ryoei, have been recorded meditating under the freezing waters of the Nachi Otaki, Japan’s largest and most sacred waterfall, for up to 45 minutes at a time. Most of us wouldn’t last a minute. If there’s such a thing as hiking Nirvana, the Kumano Kodo is it. 

I begin in Takijiri-oji, the gateway shrine to the sacred lands of Kumano, and hike for three hard days to the first Grand Shrine, Hongu Taisha. It’s like entering a living museum. I pass monoliths etched with mantras, statues of dragons covered in moss and small wooden shrines where sutras (sacred scriptures) written by emperors are buried underneath. 

 A Shugendo Yamabushi monk dressed in traditional suzukaki robes walks the Kumano Kodo path.

Photograph by Aaron Millar

The going is steep and hard, long cobbled paths winding through dense bamboo forests. But it’s tranquil, too. The region is known for its hot springs, and each night after I stumble into one of the small local guest houses, or ryokans, which are spread out among the villages that dot the trail, I collapse into one, soaking tired legs and breathing hot steam. 

After the Hongu Grand Shrine, a mountain complex of stark red temples with curved cypress bark roofs, golden lanterns, prayer flags and monks bowing in devotion, it’s two more days in the forest to Yunomine, the 1,800-year-old hot spring thought to be the oldest in the country. 

And it’s a hot spring with a novel dual purpose. As I stop for a rest, beside a bubbling well in the town centre, an old man sits beside me and drops a net filled with sweet potatoes and eggs into steaming water below. Some 10 minutes later, dinner is cooked and the best egg of my life is sitting happily in my stomach. It turns out they boil their food in Yunomine as well as their bodies.

Photo story: Hiking the Kiso Valley on Japan's ancient Nakasendo Way

The next day, now just a few miles from the end, I catch sight of the Pacific Ocean and hear that earthy animal call of the Yamabushi blowing his conch shell to the wilds. Below us is the Natachi Otaki, a spectacular 436ft waterfall, surrounded by golden temples and sweet cedar smoke on the breeze. I hike down, thinking about the legends of Shugendo, the magic of these mountains, and the pilgrims who still pass through to this day. 

“Enlightenment is within us already,” Ryoei tells me, at my journey’s end. “You just have to make space to feel it.” 

After 54 miles through steep, undulating mountains, I feel exhausted, but peaceful, too. Perhaps that’s the point — much of human history that’s been lived intimately immersed in the outdoors. If enlightenment is to be attained at all, perhaps it makes sense to look outside of us, rather than within. 

Oku Japan offers guided and self-guided walking itineraries along the ancient Kumano Kodo from £1,020 per person.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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