Hiking the Kumano Kodo was one of the most difficult, incredible things I’ve ever done in my entire life.
As someone who doesn’t normally do long-term pilgrimage hikes, I was pretty scared. I had no idea if I could handle two weeks of hiking, climbing actual mountains, and walking 170 kilometers with a pack.
Along this pilgrimage, I walked through tiny towns and fishing villages I’d normally pass by on the train. I climbed mountains and hiked mountain passes lined with stone paths from the Edo period. I slept on tatami mat floors in homey ryokan guesthouses stuffing my face with local delicacies, and I met so many incredible, warm-hearted people.
Kumano Kodo Iseji- Really Off the Beaten Path
Over the past few weeks, so many of you have been asking how to plan a Kumano Kodo hike of your own. The Kumano Kodo Iseji Route is really off the beaten path, and there’s not much information online. But if you want to challenge yourself and see a side of Japan barely any locals even see, this is the pilgrimage for you.
In this Ultimate Guide, I’m going to tell you all of the details, logistics, facts, and information you could ever want to know about hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route. My goal is that you can plan this trip on your own, without any outside help.
I’ll be honest, hiking the Kumano Kodo is not like the Camino de Santiago. There aren’t many signs, and you will rarely see other pilgrims. But if you’re looking for one of the best, off-the-beaten-path adventures in Asia, this is the hike for you.
What is the Iseji Route?
Unlike most other pilgrimages, the Kumano Kodo consists of many different routes, all leading to one place: the Kumano Sanzan in Wakayama Prefecture. While the emperor originally traveled from Kyoto, the average pilgrim came along the Iseji route from Ise Jingu, the holiest place in all of Japan.
Currently, the most popular Kumano Kodo route is the Nakahechi Route starting in Tanabe. This 3-day route is very well preserved, full of signs, and pretty easy to plan. Chances are if you know someone who hiked the Kumano Kodo, this is the route they followed.
But for most pilgrims, 3-days is not enough. If you’re looking to get off the beaten path and really explore rural Japan, the Iseji route is the next best-preserved path and contains many World Heritage listed passes. While this route isn’t quite as easy to accomplish as the 3-day Nakachechi Route, it’s much more of an adventure!
Starting the Pilgrimage: Getting to Ise
If you want to hike the Kumano Kodo Iseji route, you’ll need to get yourself to the city of Ise in Mie Prefecture. I easily took a 2-hour JR train here from Nagoya, but you can also get there on a direct train from Osaka, or from Tokyo if you switch trains at Nagoya.
Ise is famous for its two incredible shrines: Naiku and Geku. These shrines are extremely important to the Shinto religion, making Ise the holiest place in all of Japan. While the outer and inner shrines are actually 6km apart, they are referred to collectively by the locals as Ise Jingu.
Traditionally pilgrims along the Iseji route started at Ise Jingu, visiting both the Naiku and Geku shrines. So for the start of your Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, you’ll want to visit both of these shrines too, starting at Naiku and continuing onto Geku.
What Will I See On the Route?
One great thing about the Iseji route is that you’ll get to experience so many different types of terrain. From farms and villages to the mountains and seaside… you’ll never get bored!
City and Highway Walking
For the first day, you’ll be walking through the city of Ise and along a highway to Tamaru, and throughout the pilgrimage, you’ll duck on and off of the Kumano Highway with giant trucks whizzing by you. The highway walking was probably my least favorite portion of the Kumano Kodo, but thankfully you don’t spend much time walking along it after the first day and a half.
Exploring Tiny Towns
About half of the route takes you through tiny Japanese towns in Mie Prefecture. While the pavement killed my poor feet, I absolutely loved this portion of the Kumano Kodo. Every single local we saw greeted us with ohio gozaimasu (good morning) or konichiwa (good afternoon) and encouraged us to keep going.
By exploring these tiny towns, I really felt like I was getting to see a part of Japan almost no tourists ever see. I spent hours walking through places you can whizz by on a train in a matter of minutes. I learned about Japan’s aging population and how it affects the countryside, I saw teeny tiny tea plantations, witnessed mobile grocery store vans and bought tea from vending machines in the middle of nowhere.
Trust me, this is why you hike the Kumano Kodo.
Hiking Mountain Passes
While hiking the Kumano Kodo, you’ll have many mountain passes, or toge, that you’ll hike. While some of the toge are super easy, other passes are very strenuous and can take an hour or two to complete. While hiking toge after toge can be difficult (seriously, we did 6 in one day!), you will feel so accomplished when you finish each one.
Many of the toge have incredible views, and the signage is also very good on these trails. Some paths are covered in Angkor Wat-esque roots, while others are lined with stone roads and steps from the Edo Period.
On these trails, you’ll really feel like a pilgrim. You’ll find ancient shrines and graves from deceased pilgrims and be surrounded by cedar and cypress trees that let in showers of intermittent light.
Overall, there are 18 toge, with 17 mountain passes and one full-on mountain.
You will climb one mountain on this pilgrimage: Yakiyama. I heard scary things about this mountain, but to be honest, it wasn’t actually that difficult compared to an average mountain pass. For me, the hardest thing about hiking Yakiyama was actually the two-hour hike down the mountain with a sprained ankle on slippery moss-covered rocks.
About 2.5 hours up and 2 hours down, Yakiyama is by far the longest toge but the experience is well worth the hike. Hey, if the pilgrims could do it, so can you!
Tracing the Shore
The last half of the Kumano Kodo trails the shore of the Kii Peninsula. You’ll find yourself right on the beach after finishing a toge, or wandering through a sleepy fishing village in the afternoon. One of your last days will even be spent walking along the longest stone beach in Japan.
Trust me, catching glimpses of the shoreline from atop a mountain pass is almost as incredible as feasting on all of the cheap, fresh seafood you’ll eat daily.
The Finish: Kumano Hayatama Taisha
The Kumano Kodo Iseji Route eventually takes you to Hayatama Taisha, one of the three Kumano Sanzan. Every single Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route leads you to one of the three Kumano Sanzan: Kumano Hayatama Taisha, Kumano Hongu Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
The most famous of these three is Nachi Taisha, mainly because this shrine has a giant waterfall behind it. However, most pilgrims made it to all three shrines before heading home. While this pilgrimage finishes at Hayatama Taisha, you can easily hike or drive to the other two once you finish celebrating.
Honoring the Shinto Faith
In addition to Ise Jingu and Hayatama Taisha, you’ll get to see so many Shinto and Buddhist temples along the way. From the oldest shrine in Japan, Hana-No-Iwaya to tiny Buddhist shrines draped in baby bibs.
Shinto shrines are absolutely stunning, with majestic torii gates and wooden shrines that are replaced every 20 years. Most shrines include a sacred rock, waterfall, or tree, and are surrounded by nature. Throughout the pilgrimage, I gained a real appreciation for Shintoism’s simplicity, inclusiveness, and respect for nature.
We made a small offering at every shrine we passed, bowing, clapping, and bowing again. We learned how to walk on the side of the path, leaving room for the spirits in the center, and how to bow at every torii gate, always facing the shrine.
While most people nowadays don’t embark on pilgrimages for religious reasons, the spiritual aspect of the Kumano Kodo should not be ignored. The Shinto faith accepts people from all walks of life, no matter what religion, ethnicity, or nationality. As long as you respect nature and the traditions of Japan, you’re welcome to pay your respects at any Shinto shrine.
How Long Will This Take Me?
The entire pilgrimage is 170 kilometers and will take somewhere around 11-14 days. If you’re really intense you can do the entire thing in one week, but I would recommend spending a bit more time if you can.
Since I was working with the Mie Prefecture tourism board, I did many activities along the route (more on these in a future post!), so I fully used all 14 days. However, if you don’t do any additional activities, the route will take you around 11 days total.
Personally, I would budget 14 days to give yourself rest days along the route. There are so many incredible activities you can do in Mie Prefecture: scuba diving, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, little day hikes, etc. it would be a shame to completely skip them.
Along the route, I had two days that completely poured down rain, and I sprained an ankle, so it would’ve been great to have a few rest days to A) avoid drowning in the rain and B) rest my poor ankle.
How Do I Follow The Route?
Unlike the Camino de Santiago and the Kumano Kodo Nakahetchi route, you can’t really rely on signs while hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji. While the signs are great on all of the passes, there are almost no signs in the cities and towns. Take this and combine it with the fact that all of the signs are in Japanese, and some of them actually take you off the route to see extra shrines, and you’ll have yourself one confusing hike.
So, how do you get from A to B? You follow an online map!
Mie Prefecture has created an Iseji Navigator map which you can follow on your phone or iPad. This map not only shows the route, it also tells you where you can find accommodation, restrooms, restaurants, shrines, and teku teku stamps (more on that later).
The only downside to the map is that it’s hosted on a website, not an app, meaning it eats up your battery life and data. The map can also lag a bit while you’re walking, and if you lose service, you won’t know where you are. Thankfully this only happened to Chris and I once, and we were eventually able to find directions and signs to help us get to where we needed to go.
I have heard of people using paper maps to route themselves, but this is very difficult, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. You might want a paper map as a backup, but for the most part, your phone should be fine!
You’ll Need Good Service and Battery Life
Because you’ll be routing yourself with a phone, you’ll need to pick up a SIM card before your hike. Unfortunately, most airport SIMs only give you 100 MB of high-speed internet per day before switching to a slower connection. The map eats this 100 MB right up, meaning you’ll need to be super careful not to lose the map while you’re hiking, otherwise you might not be able to load it again.
The map also kills your battery while you’re walking, so you’ll need to have a fully charged portable battery while you’re walking too. You definitely don’t want your phone dying on you!
Your best option is to get a portable wifi router in addition to a SIM, which is what Chris and I did. This allowed me to route in airplane mode, which saved my battery and data. If for some reason I went over the limit on my portable wifi, I could then use my SIM data.
So… There Really Aren’t Signs?
I know this sounds a bit complicated, but using the online map is completely necessary right now. While you will find signs along the route, there are some days you’ll go hours and hours without seeing one, especially in the towns.
Some of the signs are a bit old and are pointed in a different direction from the online map. They’re also all in Japanese, so sometimes you’ll think you’ve found the route when really it’s a sign to an extra shrine or lookout point.
However, on the mountain passes all of the signs are very helpful, which is great, especially since sometimes you can lose service in these areas. Whenever I hiked a mountain pass, I was able to put my phone away and just follow the signs.
Finally, you may also see pink ribbons marking the route. These pink ribbons are not for the Kumano Kodo, so DO NOT TRUST THEM. Sometimes they mark the route, while other times they don’t. Do not assume that you’re on the trail if there are a bunch of pink ribbons, otherwise, you may end up lost in a logging forest in the pouring down rain……..
How Do I Plan the Route?
Thankfully, my boyfriend Chris did that work for you. After walking the route for 14-days we used that information to plan an ideal 14-day route with 3 built in rest days for activities, injuries, or avoiding the rain.
This 14-day Kumano Kodo Itinerary he created is SUPER detailed so that you can easily use it to plan your trip. It also contains recommended places to stay and activities that you can do along the way.
If you’re a really intense hiker who wants to try and do the route in 7 days, I suggest using Following the Arrows as a resource. While I think 7-days is a bit short to truly appreciate the Kumano Kodo, you can use her route to help you plan a quicker hike.
Where Can I Sleep?
Just like the Camino, the Kumano Kodo Iseji has plenty of towns where you can spend the night along the way. However, instead of sleeping in bed-bug ridden hostels and guest houses, you will most likely be staying in ryokans.
What’s a Ryokan?
Spending every night in a ryokan was one of my favorite parts of the Kumano Kodo. You’ll have the opportunity to sleep on a futon mattress on top of a tatami mat floor while staying in a traditional Japanese home. Many ryokans along the route only have a few rooms, with a shared bathroom and shower or onsen.
Ryokan owners will also typically cook you dinner and breakfast, and may also give you a small rice ball packed lunch to take with you if you won’t be stopping through any towns the next day. I ate like a queen on the Kumano Kodo, and I looked forward to literally every single meal.
You’ll be Very Clean
I expected to be pretty dirty and gross along the Kumano Kodo, but aside from the days where it poured down rain, I was squeaky clean! Firstly, ryokans (and most hotels) don’t allow shoes inside, so you’ll take off your grimy boots at the door.
Next, most ryokans will give you some time to shower before dinner, which you should definitely take advantage of. The best part about most Japanese showers is that they include a little stool so you can rest your sore legs while taking a shower.
Ryokans also typically provide a traditional Japanese robe to wear inside. Even the fancy hotels encourage you to wear your robe to dinner!
Some ryokans and hotels along the route even have small onsen spas inside. Here you’ll shower first, and soak in a large hot tub. Seriously, the onsens along this route are amazing for fixing your legs after a long day of hiking.
Finally, many of the ryokans offered to do my laundry for me for free. I brought a small packet of clothing detergent sheets with me, which was helpful for the few Airbnb accommodations I stayed at along the route as well. Before I started the trip I was a bit worried that my clothes wouldn’t dry overnight, but many of the ryokans I stayed at were nice and cozy when I turned on the heater.
How Can I Book a Ryokan?
Ryokan owners expect you to book at least one day in advance. This is because they need to prepare dinner and breakfast for you, along with a room. Most ryokans are a bit behind the times when it comes to sites like Booking.com and Agoda, preferring instead to have their own individual website and an email address or phone number.
Oh… and no one speaks English.
Obviously, this can be a bit difficult for a foreign pilgrim, but there are a few ways around this. Firstly, you can find some great accommodation on Airbnb. If that doesn’t work, try Japanese Guest Houses, a great resource for finding cute ryokans.
On that site, you can check Kansai region ryokans to find places to stay in Mie Prefecture. There aren’t many options (and the options they do have are expensive!), but it may help in certain towns. You can also check Booking.com for hotel options, and if all else fails, you can use Google Translate to ask your ryokan owner to help you call around. There are plenty of ryokans that are only advertised in Japanese, and your ryokan owner should be able to help you.
Chris also lists the accommodation we stayed in on his 2-Week Itinerary post, so be sure to have a look if you need some help booking a place to sleep.
How Much Should I Budget?
Thankfully, you won’t need to buy much gear for the Kumano Kodo, since you’ll have a place to stay every night of the trip. That means no tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, dehydrated food, or any of the other essentials you’ll typically need on a long-term hike.
However, Japanese hotels aren’t cheap, and neither are ryokans. Expect to budget $50-$70 USD per person per night. This might sound ridiculous, but you’ll probably spend about that much in Tokyo and Kyoto for a decent (or not so decent) hotel room.
This price usually includes dinner and breakfast, which is why the cost is per-person, not per room. Yes, the rooms are pretty pricey, but you’re also spending almost no money on food, so you’ll end up saving money in the long run.
You can also find fancy ryokans for $150-$300 per person per night, but unless you really want to splurge, I’d recommend staying in cheaper accommodation.
Food and Drink Budget
Most of my lunches along the route were at roadhouses, which are community centers with a small store and restaurant. I spent around $6-$10 per meal for a yummy bowl of udon noodles, a curry, fried Mambo fish, or tempura.
There were some days that didn’t have roadhouses or restaurants, so I stopped at a convenience store and bought a bento box or a few tuna rice balls (the blue ones!). I also became obsessed with the IN Energy jelly packs, which were delicious. Overall, these snacks were pretty cheap so I didn’t feel guilty stocking up.
Finally, most of the water in Japan is drinkable, so bring a reusable water bottle to save on buying water. It can be tempting to stop by the many drink vending machines you’ll find EVERYWHERE (seriously… it’s shocking), but those coins add up over time. That said, if you’re looking for something aside from water, you can get pretty good green and black tea, along with sports drinks and coffee for around $1.50 USD.
Aside from accommodation and food, you’ll have almost no other expenses on your trip. You shouldn’t have to pay for any transportation aside from your train to and from the pilgrimage. However, if you want any alcohol, you’ll need to pay extra. There were a few nights Chris and I indulged in wine, beer, or sake, and these costs definitely added up.
If you want to do any extra activities like scuba diving, stand up paddle boarding, or kayaking, you’ll need to budget for these as well.
What to Pack on the Kumano Kodo
While I did come up with a packing list before my hike, there are a few things I’d definitely do differently. Firstly, I completely overpacked, and I also didn’t bring a few things I desperately needed. Secondly, I forgot my hiking boots in China, which was a HUGE mistake and the primary reason I ended up spraining my ankle.
I’ll be publishing a more in-depth packing list soon, but here’s a brief outline of the things you will need.
- 3 pairs of hiking socks
- Good waterproof hiking boots (you’ll want the ankle support)
- 1 pair of leggings/ shorts (depending on the season)
- Waterproof hiking pants
- Waterproof jacket
- leggings or shorts to sleep in
- 3 tank tops or t-shirts
- 1 thermal half-zip
- 5 pairs of underwear
- 2 sports bras (for the ladies)
Extra Winter Clothing, Depending on the Season:
Medicine and Health:
- Band-aids of all shapes and sizes
- Sunscreen (even in the winter)
- Pain meds (Advil, Paracetamol etc.)
- Cold medicine and Immodium just in case
- A small first aid kit
- Moisturizer and a small container of lotion
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Optional: Razor
- **No need to bring shampoo, conditioner, or body wash (all the ryokans have them)
- SIM card and/ or Portable Wifi Device – this is NOT optional!!!!
- Smartphone – also not optional
- Portable charger
- Camera (if you’re picky and don’t want to use your phone)
- Lightweight laptop or iPad (if you need to work)
- Chargers for everything
What Are Teku Tekus?
If you’ve read my post about hiking the Kumano Kodo, you’ll know I’m mildly obsessed with collecting Teku Teku stamps along the route. Teku Tekus are virtual stamps that you can collect by scanning a QR code. I used my Chinese WeChat app to scan them, but you can use any sort of QR scanner app.
Along the Kumano Kodo, there are 32 distinct Teku Teku stamps that you can collect. Every single time I found a Teku Teku stamp, I was unbelievably excited! Chris and I would race to collect them, and each one had a cute little picture with a Japanese caption (which of course I couldn’t read).
Just be aware that if you decide to collect the Teku Teku stamps, you’ll have to hike a few extra passes to get them all. There was one point where the route branches and you’re supposed to choose between one of two passes: Nisaka Toge and Tsuzurato Toge, both which lead to the same place.
Unfortunately, if you want both Teku Tekus, you’re going to have to hike one, then hike the other backwards, and then hop on the train back to where you finished the first pass. Chris and I ended up hiking them both to get our Teku Tekus, but most people typically pick one.
There are also a few instances where you’ll have to go slightly off the route to get your Teku Teku, or you’ll need to hike half of one pass, get the Teku Teku, and then hike a trail to a second pass, get that Teku Teku and descend.
Hopefully, they’ll make the Teku Tekus a bit easier to grab in the future, but if you want to collect them, I highly suggest it! I managed to get all 32 (minus one Chris had to get for me because of my sprained ankle) and I had a great time doing it.
What Time of Year Should I Go?
By far the best time of year to hike the Kumano Kodo is fall. Why? Well, the winter has snow and it’s FREEZING cold, the spring has snakes, and the summer is super hot with snakes and mosquitos. The fall is also supposed to have the least amount of rain.
I hiked in mid-November to early December and I have to admit, it was a bit too cold for me. Granted, everyone told me it was unseasonably cold, but I’d still recommend going a bit earlier in September, October, or early November.
The main reason you don’t want to hike when its too cold is that most of the buildings in this area are not insulated, so they’re absolutely freezing! While I managed to heat up our room with a small radiator or air conditioner, I still froze every time I walked into a hallway or bathroom. (Will someone tell me why Japanese people leave the bathroom windows open, even in the winter??)
The only worry you should have when hiking in the fall is the possibility of a late typhoon. This year there was a giant typhoon in October that wreaked havoc on the area.
Typhoons and Destroyed Trails
The Kumano Kodo Iseji route is long, and while some parts are World Heritage listed, most of it is not. Along the route, you might find that a trail has been washed away by storms, or you may have to climb through a collapsed bamboo forest.
At one point we were walking on a trail that ran alongside the beach until we discovered our trail had been completely washed away by the sea! Fortunately, we were able to just walk in the sand until we reached the start of the trail again, so it wasn’t a big deal, but it was definitely a shock.
Just remember, the Kumano Kodo is an adventure, so don’t be surprised if the elements have a mind of their own. When in doubt, be safe, and backtrack if a particular trail seems dangerous. You can always bypass trails on the road if you have to.
Is the Kumano Kodo Safe?
I remember reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed and thinking: is this girl crazy?! Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail solo with no preparation as a woman is not very safe. What was she thinking?! Granted, it made for an amazing novel.
I’ve had a few people ask me how safe the Kumano Kodo is, especially for a solo hiker. For the most part, the Kumano Kodo, just like the rest of Japan, is extremely safe. You won’t need to worry about crime, theft, or anything of that nature at all. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, and the Kumano Kodo is no different.
The only dangers you may face while hiking are wild boars (yes, these are a thing here), snakes, and injuring yourself while hiking. Your chances of encountering a boar are petty slim. While I did see a few tracks, I never once actually saw a boar. Snakes can be easily avoided by hiking in the fall, otherwise, you’ll just want to be careful, wear long pants, and keep an eye out.
Finally, while injuries do happen, the chances of hurting yourself while hiking solo are no different than any other hike. Just make sure you have the Japanese emergency number programmed into your phone, buy good hiking boots, and carry an emergency kit with you just in case.
Discover Japan’s Best Kept Secret
The Kumano Kodo Iseji is the new Camino de Santiago. If you want to embark on an off-the-beaten-path pilgrimage before everyone else, this is your chance. Seriously, I’m already envisioning myself as a 60-year-old telling everyone who will listen that I hiked this pilgrimage “before it was cool.”
Travelers are always looking for the next new destination, be it Myanmar, Bhutan, or Mongolia. Right now, the Kumano Kodo is just beginning to realize its tourism potential and trust me, this route is worth visiting.
My suggestion is to go NOW before everyone else discovers how incredible the Kumano Kodo Iseji is. Sure, you might struggle a bit with finding accommodation and following the route, but that’s part of the adventure, isn’t it?
Why You Should Hike the Kumano Kodo
Hiking the Kumano Kodo was one of the most incredible life experiences I’ve ever had, and I really learned so much about myself and what I’m capable of. I became stronger and healthier, inside and out, and gained a new appreciation for what my body and mind can really do.
In addition to personal growth, I also fell in love with rural Japan. I learned about how Japan’s aging problem has affected Mie prefecture. I met some of the kindest individuals, and I experienced traditional Japanese culture in a way you just can’t find in Tokyo or Kyoto.
Hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji is one of those experiences I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I loved it so much, I know I’ll be back to hike it again soon.
Do you have any questions about hiking or planning a hike through the Kumano Kodo?
I tried to make this guide as comprehensive as possible, but I know I couldn’t have possibly addressed everything. I’m really invested in helping people hike the Kumano Kodo, so if you do have any questions, please leave a comment below!
I’m always online checking for new comments so if you have a question, ask below and I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as possible!
Quick Note: Chris and I completed this hike in conjunction with the Mie Prefecture Tourism Ministry. Throughout our two weeks, we worked very closely with Toppan and 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.
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