In just a few short days I’ll be hopping on a plane to Japan’s Mie Prefecture to hike the stunning, challenging Kumano Kodo Iseji.
After approximately five years of navigating China’s busy cities: honking horns, dodging e-bikes, constant construction… imagining myself hiking through the wilderness with just me, my boyfriend, and my backpack sounds almost too good to be true.
It also sounds super scary.
Can I actually survive a two-week trek through Japan’s forested mountain trails? Can I walk kilometers on end carrying all of my belongings on my back? Will I be in good enough shape after working in an office for two years??!
What’s the Kumano Kodo?
Great question. To be honest, I asked the same exact thing when I first heard about it a few months ago.
For the last thousand years, Japanese people from all walks of life made the difficult pilgrimage to Kumano Sanzan. This includes everyone from local peasants to the emperor, who trekked for 30-40 days down from Kyoto. This network of routes paths throughout the Kii Peninsula is known collectively as the Kumano Kodo.
Along the way, you’ll hike through cedar and cypress forests and find over 3,000 shrines, including the Kumano Sanzan, or Three Grand Shrines. If you don’t want to camp, you can stay in temples, ryokans, and small guesthouses while you make your way along this historic trek.
The more I read about the Kumano Kodo, I couldn’t help but think of the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James.) Both hikes have historic roots and involve stopping through small towns and villages along the way. They’re also the only two UNESCO pilgrimage routes in the world!
When you visit the Kumano Kodo, you’re even given a “Dual Pilgrim Passport” where you can collect red stamps along your route. This passport also has a second side for the Camino if you ever decide to visit Spain in the future.
My Kumano Kodo Route
One of the most interesting things about the Kumano Kodo is that it’s not just one path, but a network of routes through Japan’s Kii Peninsula. Because of this, there are many different routes you can take, ranging from a few days to a few weeks.
Most Western tourists do the 3-day trek from Tanabe, which seems to be the most popular route overall. However, in typical Adventures Around Asia fashion, I’m doing things a bit differently.
My two-week trek along the Iseji Route, will begin in the city of Ise and end in the Kumano Sanzan area. Along the way, I’ll pass through Magose and Matsumoto Pass, take a river cruise, visit shrines and tea houses, soak in hot springs, and sleep in ryokans and little guesthouses.
After spending a few hours searching and reading, I couldn’t actually find an account in English of the Iseji route that we’re taking. On our shortest days we’ll only be hiking 4-5 kilometers (3 miles), but on our longer days, we’ll be hiking up to 18 kilometers (11 miles)! A few of these days involve actually climbing a mountain… so that should be interesting.
I’ll be eating healthy local food, carrying my own pack, and exploring Japan off the beaten path. What’s not to love?
Why I’m Hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji
To be honest, I had never even heard of the Kumano Kodo until a Mie Prefecture representative reached out to my boyfriend Chris and I. But from the moment I learned of what I could accomplish, I became obsessed with exploring the region.
An off the beaten path hike in Mie Prefecture Japan? Visiting temples and shrines and sleeping in local ryokan guesthouses? This is my dream come true.
However, I was also a bit nervous. The longest hike I’ve ever done was a 5-hour epic Great Wall hike from Jiankou to Mutianyu, and I didn’t even carry a backpack! Am I cut out for something like this? Could I possibly hike for two weeks with a giant pack?
It All Began With the Camino de Santiago
I first heard about the Camino a few years ago when Jess from Curiosity Travels embarked on a 9-day Camino hike. I read about her adventures: meeting people from all over the world, dealing with blisters and stumbling on a wine festival.
Then I found more stories. I read about how Candice’s body image changed along the trek and the types of people you might meet while hiking. The more I read, the more I realized that I wanted to do something similar one day.
Then I Read Wild
Earlier this year I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I’d already seen the Reece Witherspoon movie, but reading the book definitely made a big impact on me. If this woman, with all of her personal problems and lack of information, could hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself, carrying all of her gear, over the course of months, then why can’t I do a two-week trek in Japan?
Reading Wild made me realize how much I need to challenge myself. After two years of working behind a desk in Beijing, I’ve put on weight and become unhappy with my fitness and my appearance. I’ve tried calorie counting, giving up alcohol and carbs, running at night, and nothing seems to make much of a difference.
It’s my hope that after two weeks of carrying a big pack, climbing mountains, eating healthy, and breathing in fresh air, I’ll begin to feel better about my body, my strength, and myself. Maybe I won’t lose those extra 20 lbs, but hopefully, I’ll gain a renewed appreciation for my body and what it can actually do.
How I’m Preparing For the Kumano Kodo Iseji
While I’d like to think I’m in decent shape, the idea of preparing for a two-week trek was a bit daunting. I had grand plans about how I’d practice walking all the way to Beijing’s Forbidden City carrying a heavy backpack. I’d hike the Great Wall once a month, and wear my hiking boots around the neighboorhood. I would do yoga every morning and run every other night.
It’s safe to say almost none of that actually happened.
I did hike the Great Wall five times in three months, and I did do some running and yoga, but my epically long walks occurred in tennis shoes and travel sandals while showing my parents around China. I didn’t practice hiking with a weighted pack, and I’ve only used my hiking boots twice.
But for some reason, I feel alright about this. I may not be as fit and prepared as I wanted to be, but I’ll learn on the road. Those first few days might be really hard, but as long as I can finish it on time, carrying my own pack, I’ll be proud of myself.
Hey, if I can do a two-week trek after years of sitting at a desk every day, then you all can too!
What I’m Packing for the Kumano Kodo Iseji
My Hiking Pack
While I have a really awesome travel backpack, Osprey Farpoint, it’s not the best for long-term hiking. To prepare for this trip I picked up a 35-liter hiking backpack at Beijing’s Pearl Market. I’m 95% sure its fake because I couldn’t find the brand on Amazon, but it’ll definitely work for this hike.
While I’m a bit nervous about how absolutely tiny the backpack is, I figured the small size will keep me from overpacking. I just resigned myself to being stinky and gross for the next two weeks. Hopefully, the lovely ryokan owners don’t mind…
Because I’ll be working on the road, I also need to bring my laptop with me. Thankfully my backpack has a small space in the back where I can store it. Obviously bringing a laptop on a two-week hike isn’t ideal, but I guess that’s the price I pay for actually being able to travel full-time.
My Clothes and Shoes
I’ve never been a good minimalist, so packing for a two-week hike in a 35-liter backpack is painful for me. While I haven’t finished packing all of my clothing yet, here’s a rough idea of what I’m bringing for two weeks.
- 5 tank tops
- 2 underarmour tops
- REI lightweight puffy jacket
- Lightweight waterproof jacket
- Thick sweater
- 2 pairs of athletic leggings
- 2 pairs of thin cheap everyday leggings
- 1 pair of warm thick leggings
- 3 sports bras
- 10 pairs of lightweight underwear
- 4 pairs of hiking socks
- 2 pairs of thick socks
- 3 pairs of ankle socks
- Solid Shampoo
- Hair Brush and hair ties
- Wet wipes for face and body
- Diva Cup
Warm Weather Clothing
- Macbook Pro (because I have to work)
- Nikon D3100 DSLR
- iPhone 6S
- Extra batteries and SD cards
- Portable charger
- Earbud Headphones
- Kindle Paperwhite
- Japanese SIM Card (in case I get lost or need help)
- Mini Travel Towel (just in case)
- Packing Cubes
- Camelbak Mt. Rainer water bottle
- Mini laundry soap sheets
All of the items above will be in my backpack, with the exception of the sunscreen and first aid, which will probably go in Chris’ pack because his backpack is literally twice the size of mine.
I’ll definitely be keeping tabs on what I used during the trek, and I’ll update this list after the hike to give you a more accurate idea of the perfect packing list.
Wish Me Luck!
I’ll be embarking on the Kumano Kodo Iseji in two days, and I’m beyond excited. I’ll definitely be keeping everyone updated during the trip, so be sure to tune in on Facebook, Instagram, IG Stories, and Snapchat for an in-depth look at what it’s really like to hike the Kumano Kodo Iseji!
Want to Know More?
Here are some awesome posts about the 3-Day Kumano Kodo trek that most people do:
- Hiking Japan’s Holy Pilgrimage, Kumano Kodo – The Ruby Ronin
- Solo Pilgrimage: Walking the Kumano Kodo – Inside Japan Tours
- Walking the Kumano Kodo – Lin Zhaowei
- Kumano Kodo: A Walk in the Woods and a Soak in the Onsen – Temporarily Lost
Have you ever heard of the Kumano Kodo Iseji? Does this sound like something you’d do? Let me know in the comments below!
Thanks to Mie Prefecture for inviting me to experience the Kumano Kodo’s lesser traveled path. As always, all opinions, info, and experiences are my own!