An ancient pilgrimage trail with a newfound appeal, Japan’s Kumano Kodo could be the best hiking route you’ve never heard of
Story & photographs by Leisa Tyler
A millennium ago, in the heyday of Japan’s imperial court, nobles from Kyoto would embark on weeks-long treks to pray at the three main Shinto-Buddhist shrines of Ku- mano, a rugged swath of the Kii Peninsula in southernmost Honshu. The journey would take them over waterfall-laced mountains that in spring were awash with the blossoms of wild cherry trees, and through dark forests threaded with raging streams. Dressed in byakue, the white coat of the pilgrim, they would make offerings to the dozens of smaller subsidiary shrines, or oji, that marked the way, as well as to the trees and rocks themselves. Trekking the Kumano Kodo, as the network of trails came to be known—kodo means “old ways”—was as much a purification rite as a celebration of nature.
And people have been walking the ancient pilgrimage circuit ever since. Yet by the dawn of Japan’s modern era in the late 19th century, the Kumano Kodo had begun to slip into obscurity, its tracks grown over and its shrines and temples falling into disrepair. Then in 2004, it became one of only two pilgrimage routes in the world to be recognized as a World Heritage site (the other is Spain’s Way of St. James). Restorations began and visitor numbers grew, mainly among Japanese keen to visit the three grand shrines of Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha, collectively referred to as the Kumano Sanzan. But thanks to the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, which has developed detailed route maps, a handy online hotel-bookings system (in English as well as Japanese), and drop-off and pick-up bus services along the country roads that parallel the walking trails, the Kumano Kodo is increasingly attracting foreign trekkers as well.
The object of the initiative is not just to draw attention to Kumano Kodo’s ravishing landscapes, but also to generate new sources of income for the rural communities scattered along it. Urbanization, trade liberalization, and dwindling government support have seen more than half of Japan’s farms abandoned since the 1970s. Once rich in rice fields and fruit orchards, the Kumano region is no exception; many of its farms have been re-claimed by the forest or reduced to a decrepit state, while its youth, seeking employment, have left the countryside for the bright lights of Tanabe, Osaka, or beyond.
Brad Towle, a Canadian working with the Kumano Tourism Bureau, tells me that when he first came to Kumano six years ago, there were seven schools. Now, there are three. “We want to use tourism on the trail to create jobs for rural people, and to encourage them to stay here.” One measure in place to help achieve this is a new regulation that supports the hiring of local guides. Another has been encouraging ryokans, or traditional inns, to return to using locally sourced produce and mushrooms, roots, and herbs foraged from the forest.