It’s been one week since I finished Japan’s Kumano Kodo Iseji Route: the thousand-year-old pilgrimage route through Mie Prefecture. This two-week hike was simultaneously the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and yet also one of the most rewarding.
170 kilometers. 2 mountain peaks. 18 mountain passes. 7 fantastic shrines. 5 steamy onsens. Countless tiny towns. Fantastic meals. Sleeping on tatami mat floors. Waving Konichiwa to everyone we passed.
How do I even begin to describe this experience?
Well… I guess we can start at the beginning.
Am I Really Cut Out For This?
Let’s be honest. Heading into my 2-week Kumano Kodo Iseji hike, I was scared. Yes, I was excited about my upcoming adventure, but I was also afraid that I wasn’t cut out to be a long-term hiker.
I read tales of girls like me hiking the Camino De Santiago, which inspired me enough to believe I could do something similar. I packed and re-packed, trying to make everything fit into my tiny 35-liter backpack. But despite my fancy hiking boots and appropriately sized backpack, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I had no idea what I was doing.
However, the more I read about the Kumano Kodo, its history, the natural beauty, sleeping in ryokans and feasting on local Japanese meals: I couldn’t help but be excited. The more blog posts I read about the 3-day Nakahechi Route, the more prepared I felt.
I was as ready as I’d ever be.
Where Are My Hiking Boots??!!
The night before my hike, I sifted through my giant red suitcase, attempting to re-organize my tiny pack in preparation for the hike. I knew moving all of my stuff from China to Australia via Japan would be a giant pain, but I had everything I needed somewhere in this suitcase… right? Right?!?!
I sat on the floor of my hotel room in a panic. Nearly everything from my giant suitcase was piled around me, and yet I couldn’t find the one thing I needed: my hiking boots.
Oh my god! Oh no!
My breathing escalated as I began throwing everything around the room like a frantic toddler.
Where are they? Where are they?!
Right next to the front door of my apartment in China. Exactly where I left them, of course.
Overpacked and Underprepared
I sat on the train from Nagoya to Ise in my Nike running shoes, with my bulging 35-liter pack. Still mentally beating myself up about forgetting my hiking boots, there was nothing to do but make use of what I had with me.
I’d scanned through the official Kumano Iseji website, but I knew nothing of the actual experience. Aside from a few photos and information about the mountain passes, and a brief explanation that we’d be walking through cities and towns for the first few days, I went in pretty much clueless.
I knew I’d be navigating the route by using the official Kumano Iseji Navigator map, and I had a schedule of the kilometers I’d be hiking, activities I’d be doing, and places I’d be staying daily. But in reality, I had no idea what to expect.
Would I love walking for two weeks straight? Would I be able to hike six mountain passes in a day? Would I survive without my hiking boots??!
Starting Off With a Sunrise
On the first day, we left our ryokan guesthouse at 6 am to see the most beautiful sunrise over a seaside temple. Despite the cold, wet morning, I loved learning about the Shinto faith from our guides and soon-to-be friends, Inoue and Himi.
Ring the bell, bow twice, two claps, bow again.
We learned how to wash our hands before entering the shrine. We heard the origin story of the Shinto faith, and how the Shinto gods created Japan. We saw Ise Jingu’s Naiku shrine, the holiest place in all of Japan, and I loved it!
THIS was the experience I was looking for. Off the beaten path, cultural Japan.
The First 5k: I’m Not Cut Out For This!
After a morning of visiting shrines, we finally set out on the first 5k of the hike.
However, as we began to walk through the city of Ise, the skies opened up and poured rain down on us. It was about 1 kilometer into this 5k hike that I realized my hand-me-down “waterproof jacket” I used time and time again in Southeast Asia, wasn’t actually waterproof.
So here I was in mid-November, freezing, soaking wet, walking through the drizzly, grey city streets. As the rain kept getting worse and worse, we finally stopped by a Family Mart to buy a cheap waterproof pullover jacket.
The four of us: Chris, our two guides, and I made our way through the drenched streets of Ise. My back ached from holding our hotel umbrella all day. My leggings and tennis shoes were absolutely soaked. I was 100% miserable.
What the heck am I doing here?!
I trailed behind the speedy Inoue and Himi, as they forged ahead in full waterproof gear as if they’d done this a thousand times. I couldn’t even use my short legs as an excuse since I was taller than both of them.
What am I doing? Why am I doing this? This is the worst decision I’ve ever made.
I had no idea where we were even going, as we spent two hours getting lost in the rain, attempting to follow an online map, while also not getting our phones soaked in the never-ending downpour.
Kill me now.
My Savior: Convenience Store Waterproof Pants
After a miserable, wet, slog through random city streets, we finally stumbled on a famous noodle joint… right by our first hotel?! Apparently, we had been walking 5 kilometers from the Naiku Shrine all the way to our second shrine: Geiku.
That’s funny, because I just thought we were walking through a wet, neverending purgatory.
But after a giant bowl of udon noodles and a purchase of wonderfully sexy waterproof pants from Family Mart, it was time to walk the remaining 8 kilometers to Tamaru.
And you know what? Despite the rain and walking along a highway in encroaching darkness: I had fun. I was actually having fun.
Who knew all it took was waterproof pants and a big bowl of steamy noodles.
Turning a Challenge Into a Fun Adventure
That next morning as we walked along highways, through villages and towns, I started to realize that maybe I was cut out for this after all. Chris and I raced to scan QR codes and collect our Teku Teku stamps, while also taking selfies with every single signpost detailing the meters we had left to hike. With 32 teku tekus and 42 signposts, we took a lot of selfies…
At first, it seemed impossible. We’ve only walked 12 kilometers out of 170?! We still have 30 teku tekus left to go?!
But with every stamp and every signpost, we came closer and closer to our goal. It was like playing an epic game where the only adversaries were the forest, the rain, and my own two legs.
I Can Actually Do This?!
On our second full day, we hit the very first mountain pass of our trip: Mekitoge. Until that point, I felt like Chris and I could’ve better prepared for this hike by just walking around Beijing for hours on end. Screw those Great Wall climbs!
My feet ached from the road, and my pack was rubbing against my lower back. I felt a little out of shape, but the more I walked the faster I became.
But when we entered the forest, I somehow felt more comfortable. As we hiked up mountain trails, I didn’t feel out of breath. When we hiked to the top of the mountain pass to get a good view, I felt like all of my Great Wall hikes had actually prepared me.
I felt good. For the first time on this hike, I knew I could actually do this.
Descending Into a Magical Wonderland
Once we came down off of our very first pass, we entered into a beautiful wonderland of tiny tea plantations. The sky opened up, the sun came out, and butterflies flitted from tea leaf to tea leaf. It was absolutely beautiful.
Tiny traditional Japanese homes dotted the landscape, and we gasped in awe at how beautiful our surroundings had become. Gone were the hours of highway hiking along bland farms. We had stepped back in time and transported ourselves to the days of the pilgrims.
In one second, I fell in love with this village, the Kumano Kodo Iseji, and rural Japan.
The Kindness of Strangers
After our first mountain pass, our wilderness guide who didn’t speak a word of English invited us to his home for sandwiches, fresh persimmons, and green tea. His wife served us more food than we could eat, and we were given a Meikiko charm and doll- an animated character girl that symbolized the area. She wasn’t the last character we would meet: nearly every stop on our trip had a fun animated character we could collect.
For the rest of the day, and the following two weeks, I couldn’t help but be shocked by the kindness of strangers. Every single person we passed greeted us with ohio gozaimas or konichiwa and a bow. Plenty asked if we were hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji, and gave us a thumbs up.
Every single home had a straw charm hanging above their door, meant to welcome pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo. Locals were happy to provide directions without speaking a word of English. They were happy to see foreign faces and told us of other foreigners they had seen earlier in the year.
The locals of Mie Prefecture want the Kumano Kodo Iseji to return to its former glory, and they’re waiting for visitors from all over the world to take advantage of this stunning World Heritage Route that goes right through their backyards.
Appreciating the Challenge
After days of hiking along highways, through villages and past tiny towns, I grew stronger. I walked faster, I gained confidence, and I came closer to my goal. Every toge (mountain pass) became a mini challenge. Every teku teku was a cause for celebration, and every milestone meant a quick selfie.
In the evenings we stayed in beautiful ryokan guesthouses, with only a few rooms. While many of the owners didn’t speak a word of English, they always wanted to communicate with us- learn where we’re going and give us advice on the road ahead.
One ryokan owner told us about Katerina-San, another Western girl who had hiked the Kumano Kodo Iseji route and blogged about it! We were so excited that we read all of her daily recaps every night to see what was in store for us the next day.
We feasted on incredible homemade ryokan dinners and breakfasts. I ate like a queen, sipping miso soup and munching on fresh sashimi or grilled fish. Never before have I been so excited about every single meal.
I learned how to use the online map navigator, and routed Chris and I for tens of kilometers through towns and along forest trails. Each day was a new adventure, and I absolutely loved it.
Day 5: The Worst Day Ever.
Day 5 began with torrential rain, and I wanted nothing more than to tuck myself back into my cozy ryokan bed and spend the day with the wonderful, chatty owner who did our laundry for free and cooked us LOBSTER for dinner the night before.
But we were on a tight schedule, so I forced myself out of my nice warm room for a long hike in the pouring down rain. I threw on my waterproof pants and pullover, which now had a nice little rip in the armpit. But my dull morning was instantly brightened when my ryokan owner sparked flint over my shoulder for good luck, just like I’d seen in Memoirs of a Geisha.
Unfortunately, that was the highlight of my day.
We slogged all morning through a torrential downpour that soaked through my running shoes in a matter of minutes. About an hour into the hike we had to stop and put band-aids onto my toes because my toenails had decided to slice into my neighboring toes, from days crammed into my running shoes.
When we finally found cover in a public restroom, I wrang out my cheap Chinese hiking socks, creating a small puddle on the bathroom floor.
We had two big mountain passes to hike, and we were moving slowly because of the rain. At one point, we lost phone signal and followed a string of pink ribbons we thought were marking the trail. Instead, we ended up walking around in a private lumber mill forest for over an hour.
Why are there no signs? Why do these pink ribbons keep telling us to follow dead ends?! Why does this bridge lead to literally nowhere?!! Did the typhoon completely destroy the trail??
Apparently, there WAS a sign and we had just missed the arrow pointing down the highway to the real trail entrance. Whoops.
The Kumano Kodo Iseji Will Challenge You
I cried in the lumber mill, and l struggled to hold back tears again as Chris and I attempted to make our way down the second pass in the dark. I was so, absolutely exhausted. My legs were shaking. I was frustrated by the lack of signage and the fact that I couldn’t just take a rest day. I was furious with myself for forgetting my hiking boots.
The rocks were covered in wet, slippery moss. I was absolutely soaked, covered in cheap, bulky, waterproof clothing. I hadn’t felt my feet in hours, and the end of the pass was nowhere in sight.
We hiked down, and down, and down for what felt like an eternity. That’s when I slipped, landing flat on my back. I couldn’t help but burst out into tears.
Why am I doing this to myself?! Maybe I’m not a real hiker. What was I thinking?!
When we finally hit the bottom, I checked my phone and saw I’d hiked 21 kilometers that day. 21 kilometers, including two mountain passes, all in the pouring down rain. Despite my bloody, wet feet, I couldn’t help but feel proud of myself.
Experiencing Japan’s Aging Problem Firsthand
For the next few days, I wandered through tiny towns and villages with almost no one in sight. The residents I did see were all at least 70-years-old, and I almost never saw anyone under the age of forty. I even lounged in an onsen hot spring that was a converted school because there are no children in the area left to attend.
I spent the afternoon in Uomachi fishing village and took a tour with three of their residents. They explained how in their lifetime, Uomachi had turned from a bustling center of industry into a sleepy fishing town. The average age of the fisherman is 63 and the oldest fisherman is 85. Without help from young Indonesians, the entire industry would collapse.
We walked past beautiful beaches with resorts that looked like they shut down twenty years ago. We saw shuttered cafes and empty towns. After days of getting to know the people of Mie Prefecture, I couldn’t help but see how the Kumano Kodo Iseji could help.
I know the Camino has done wonders for tiny towns in Spain. Cafes have opened to feed pilgrims, and guesthouses are full. The Kumano Kodo is just as stunning and challenging as the Camino (if not more so), and it deserves to be seen.
It was about halfway through my journey that I realized the Kumano Kodo Iseji is more than just a personal challenge for me. This journey is something that I want to share with others. Getting other people to hike the Kumano Kodo Iseji became a personal mission for both Chris and I, and we’re going to do everything in our power to get more pilgrims on its ancient roads.
Toge, Toge, Toge!
Before we knew it, our tiny villages, tea farms, and towns disappeared and we were surrounded by thick forest and the challenge of toge after toge.
We hiked on stone roads from the Edo period (1603-1868). We spotted tiny Buddhist shrines and ancient graves from deceased pilgrims.
Some toges were unbelievably long, while others were so easy and short I didn’t understand how they could possibly even count as a mountain pass. But with each toge, I learned more and more about the pilgrims and their journey to Hayatama Taisha.
It was this portion of the journey that I felt like a real pilgrim. I walked on the stone roads built on the backs of locals trying to make the journey easier for fellow pilgrims. I walked the same path as thousands before me.
While towns and roads change, the forest stays the same.
A Sprained Ankle on the Elephant’s Back
Towards the end of my Kumano Kodo journey, I somehow managed to sprain my ankle hiking Binshiyama, an extra mountain we climbed just off the Kumano Kodo Iseji route. While the view from the top was actually incredible, the hike up and down was extremely difficult, consisting solely of uneven stairs.
When I woke up the next morning to start my hike to the infamous Mount Yakiyama, the only 5-star difficulty hike of the trip, I knew I was screwed.
I wrapped my ankle using Chris’ medical kit and loaded up on Advil, but the pain was still there. Despite knowing better, I soldiered on, and scaled to the top of Yakiyama in just 2.5 hours, right on time!
Spirits were high when I reached the summit. I’d just scaled the most difficult part of the Kumano Kodo Iseji! But on the way down, the pain started.
While I’d tied rope around my shoes to keep me from slipping, the early morning rain had coated the ancient stones, making them feel as if they were slicked in butter. After about two hours of hiking down the mountain, and relying far too much on my wooden walking stick, I couldn’t handle the pain anymore.
How am I supposed to finish the hike if I can barely walk?!
Unable to Go On
The next day, things hadn’t improved. Despite icing my ankle and propping it up all evening, I was in even more pain and we had SIX toges to hike.
The first toge was our longest toge of the trip (not counting Mount Yakiyama of course). I used two walking sticks to soldier on, keeping as much weight off my sore ankle as I could. Of course, this caused my other ankle to give me sharp pains from overuse. Great.
Chris and I listened to podcasts as we trekked on, trying to distract me from the pain. But when we finished that first, epically long toge, I was in so much pain I could barely walk.
The next toge we were about to hike was actually a double-toge combo and was almost as long as the first one. I knew it would be impossible for me to hike it. I was just slowing Chris down, and our incredible guide Murase worried that if I was unable to continue, I’d be stuck on the mountain.
Sitting in a small seaside town with my leg propped up on my pack, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears. Did missing this double-toge make me a quitter? How could I say I completed the Kumano Kodo Iseji when I missed a full day of it? I couldn’t just give my phone to Chris and let him get my teku teku stamp for me. It was all cheating.
I felt like I’d failed.
Yet, I couldn’t help but laugh at how things had changed. One week earlier I was crying because I didn’t want to hike the Kumano Kodo. Now I was crying because I couldn’t.
Stray Cats and Drugs on the Beach
We decided I’d skip the double-toge, and see where things went from there. Instead, I relaxed on the beach and watched Murase feed a stray cat. I was exhausted, but I knew I needed to continue. Screw my ankle and the pain. I was finishing no matter what.
So after a two-hour break, I popped Chris’ last leftover oxycodone pill from his arm surgery and continued on. Yes, I know this is horrible advice, and I won’t do it again. I promise.
That day I hiked three more toge. While they weren’t as long and hard as the toge earlier in the day, I still felt proud of myself. I didn’t feel like a quitter.
Finally Reaching Kumano Hayatama Taisha
Fourteen days, two mountain peaks, seventeen mountain passes, and 170 kilometers later, I finally made it to the end of our pilgrimage route: Kumano Hayatama Taisha.
Counting down those last few kilometers: ten, then four, then two… and finally reaching the bridge that connects Mie Prefecture to Wakayama… I can’t even begin to describe the feeling.
It didn’t feel real. Had I really hiked 170 kilometers? Is this real life?!
When Chris and I walked through the gates to Hayatama Taisha, I didn’t feel like I’d actually accomplished anything. The hike that day didn’t feel too hard, and my journey didn’t feel over. But then when I saw the entire team standing there to greet us, I burst into tears.
Everyone who had helped us from start to finish was there. There was Matsu, who showed us around her hometown of Kumanoshi with her famous dog Shiba Dog Rin. Himi, the hiking goddess who took trains back and forth every other day to balance hiking with us to her commitment with the Nagoya Ninjas (seriously).
There was Inoue, whose bright smile and bubbly personality constantly kept me in good spirits. Genki who shared some of the best and worst times with us: from fancy dinners and luxury onsen hotels to torrential downpours and bloody toes. Murase, who put up with my horrible ankle pains, literally ran up mountains to meet us, and constantly watched over me to make sure I didn’t die on the toge.
Finally, Yamaguchi San, who not only made this whole trip possible, but also served as our ever-present “stalker” who would randomly pop up on the road in his van, or even on mountain trails to hike part of the route with us.
Surrounded by all of these smiling faces, I couldn’t help but become overwhelmed with emotion. This two-week hike was one of the most difficult, rewarding, crazy things I’ve ever done in my entire life, and I couldn’t have done it without all of the people standing there waiting for me.
Through all of the laughs, tears, downpours, bloody toes, and sore ankles, I had an incredible time and I didn’t want the adventure to be over. It was in that moment that I knew for sure I’d be back to hike the Kumano Kodo Iseji again.
Do you want to hike the Kumano Kodo Iseji route yourself? Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be publishing a ton of content on how to hike this route on your own. If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll get back to you!
Quick Note: I completed this hike in conjunction with the Mie Prefecture Tourism Ministry. Throughout our two weeks, we worked very closely with Mie Prefecture to publicize the Kumano Kodo Iseji route, and help bring more international travelers to Mie. Both Chris and I received help planning the route, booking accommodation and activities, etc. but it’s our goal to make sure that you can do this route yourself without outside help or the ability to speak fluent Japanese.