I enjoy the benefits of this on my first day on the west-east Nakahechi route, the most popular of the four Kumano Kodo trails and the one favored by aristocratic pilgrims a thousand years ago. At the ridge-top village of Takahara, we feast on a smorgasbord of mountain morsels at Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge: boiled konnyaku (a yamlike tuber otherwise known as devil’s tongue), flowering bamboo, wild spinach, eggplant with onion, and a dashi broth enlivened by fatty slivers of pork.
That night we stop at Kawayu Onsen, a 17th-century village on the banks of a mountain stream that bubbles with hot springs. Kameya Ryokan, our lodging, also uses herbs and roots from the forest floor in its nightly meals. It’s what Mrs. Kobuchi, the proprietor, calls “pre-emptive medicine food”—food so rich in mountain goodness that germs won’t dare to go near you. There is a salad with daikon and wild rocket, charcoal-hued soba noodles, fresh sea bream and squid, silken tofu made that morning, fatty cured pork, miso with seaweed harvested from the Wakayama coast, and the sweetest and most succulent custard, made from local mikan oranges. Before retiring to my futon, I treat my walk-weary muscles to a soak in Mrs. Kobuchi’s serene stone-lined bathhouse.
But it’s the pleasure of nature that is still at the heart of the Kumano Kodo. From Takijiri-oji, the official trailhead, the route winds through bamboo groves, up flights of stone steps worn smooth by the passage of countless feet, and along the crests of hills that open to endless mountain vistas. Sacred camphor trees, each of them many centuries old, line the sun-dappled route, and the air is filled with bird song and the smell of pine.
Nature reaches a high point at the southernmost of the three grand shrines, Kumano Nachi Taisha, which sits plump on a mountainside with views that tumble down to the shimmering Pacific Ocean. In the past, pilgrims would have traveled by boat down the Kumano River to reach the pebbled grounds of Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and fromthere made their way to Nachi Taisha on foot. These days, many arrive by car or bus, though they still need to tackle the climb up the Daimon-zaka, a 600-meter-long stretch of cobblestone stairs flanked by towering cedars, their ancient trunks mottled with moss and lichen.
It makes for an atmospheric approach to the shrine, which occupies a fifth-century site overlooking the magnificent cascade of Nachi Falls, the country’s tallest waterfall. Today, Nachi Taisha bustles with devotees and day-trippers. Some place sticks of incense in a cast-iron urn guarded by a pair of lion-dogs; others have donned imperial-era costumes for photo ops in front of the complex’s triple-tiered Buddhist pagoda, the Seiganto-ji. Times have clearly changed on the Kumano Kodo—and for this once forgotten corner of rural Japan, that’s probably all for the better.
Tanabe City, located 60 kilometers south of Osaka’s Kansai International Airport—two hours by train —is the best starting point for exploring the Kumano region. Takijiri-oji, the trailhead for the popular Nakahechi route, can be reached by bus or taxi from Tanabe. From there, it’s about 40 kilometers to Kumano Nachi Taisha, an excursion best broken into two or three days.
Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau’s website carries free audio guides and hiking maps, as well as a wealth of other information about the Kumano Kodo. It also hosts a reservation system through which you can arrange everything from ryokan accommodation and guided tours to bento boxes for picnics along the way.
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2013 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Stepping Out in Kumano”)