Hiking Japan's Sacred Kumano Kodo Trails in Winter

When most people talk about the Kumano Kodo, they are referring to the Nakahechi route, which starts on the west coast of the peninsula near Tanabe and finishes at the Kumano Sanzan, three extremely important temples located in Hongu, Shingu, and Nachi. Hikers usually spend 2-4 days on this route, depending on exactly where they begin and end. East of Hongu, the trail splits and heads to the coast, terminating at either Shingu or Nachi.

The four-day, north-to-south Kohechi route is a more difficult trek that connects Koyasan to the Kumano Sanzan. The Ohechi route runs along the coast from Tanabe to Fudarakusan-ji Temple, and finally, the Iseji route heads north along the coast from the Kumano Sanzan to the Ise grand Shrine.

See this page for full kumano kodo route descriptions and links to route maps.

The Kumano Kodo is a network of pilgrimage trails that connect various Shinto-Buddhist religious sites in the mountainous Kii Peninsula south of Osaka and Nagoya.

These expansive tracts of wilderness are replete with spiritual sights that have attracted pilgrims for over 1000 years, and today you can walk in the footsteps of priests and emperors of the ancient past.

The Kumano Kodo, including many of its temples, hot springs, and other spiritual sites, along with the sacred mountain-top temple town of Koyasan, are collectively classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I visited Kumano Kodo in winter, in the coldest month, February, which proved to be very rewarding, for reasons I'll describe below. I didn't actually hike the entire Kumano Kodo, but instead bused to various spots to take in the temples and hot springs, and I hiked the short Dainichi-goe route. I'll explain below why I did this, so you can decide what's best for you!

Mar. 21, 2018 by Nick Kembel

me on the Dainichi-goe Route. see the "Best way to get a taste of the Kumano Kodo" section below

If you plan on visiting or hiking the Kumano Kodo in winter, you will be rewarded with trails nearly devoid of people, and those hot springs at the end of the Nakahechi Route (or the temple-stay onsens in Koyasan) will feel that much more soothing.

The places you are most likely to see snow, if any, are Koyasan, and some higher-altitude sections of various routes. During my trip, there was a cold spell and record snows across Japan. In Koyasan, the skies were dumping snow when I visited (see photo above), which made the whole landscape look like a surreal Buddhist wonderland. See this page for lots of snowy pics and my full write-up on visiting Koyasan in winter.  

However, when I visited the Kumano Sanzan and did a small part of the Kumano Kodo from Yunomine to Hongu (see below), the trails were mostly snow free, with just a bit of frost on the ground in the upper portions.

If you don't want to hike the full Kumano Kodo, then I would suggest you do as I did: I bussed in to the area and stayed in the tiny hot spring village of Yunomine for three nights. The nearby town of Hongu is also a good choice. From Yunomine, I could walk to multiple hot springs and also do a small portion of the Kumano Kodo called the Dainichi-goe route, which goes over a small mountain from Yunomine to Hongu (1.5 hours). You can then return the same way or take a 10-minute bus ride. Click either link above to see where I stayed in Yunomine, by far the cheapest in town!

Different Routes of the Kumano Kodo

Koyasan, the official starting point of the Kohechi route, is one of the places your are most likely to see snow

It took me a while to research how to get to and from all these places, but there is a lot of English information online, especially on the Tanabe Tourism Website, including directions on how to correctly board the buses. Here is what I ended up doing:

Kansai (Osaka) airport to Koyasan:

Train Kansai to Tengachaya: 40 min

Train Tengachaya to Hashimoto: 45 min

Free bus Hashimoto to Koyasan: 1.5 hours (Usually the Koya train line goes all the way to Gokurakubashi and includes a cable car ride up to Koyasan, but it was closed when I visited (Feb. 2018) due to storm damage in late 2017).

Koyasan to Kumano Kodo Area:

People who are hiking the Nakahechi Route of the Kumano Kodo will likely catch the bus/cable car and then train to Tanabe via Wakayama (3-4 hours). For non-hikers, you could do this, then catch the bus from Tanabe to Yunomine or Hongu (2 hours). But it seemed slightly faster to do it this way:

Free bus (or cable car and train) Koyasan to Hashimoto: 1.5 hours

Train Hashimoto to Gojo: 15 minutes

Bus Gojo to Hongu/Yunomine: 5 hours (the longest public bus route in Japan!)

There is a direct bus from Koyasan to Hongu/Yunomine (5.5 hours) via Rujin Onsen, but it is only available in summer.

Hongu/Yunomine to Shingu and Nachi:

Bus Hongu/Yunomine to Shingu: 1hour 15 min (get off to see Kumano Hayatama Taisha temple)

Same bus, Shingu to Nachi Train Station: 30 min

Bus Nachi Train Station to Kumano Nachi Taisha/Nachi Waterfall: 15 min

Nachi Taisha/Nachi Waterfall back to Naichi Train Station (15 min) or Katsuura for cave hot spring (25 min)

Note that most of these buses only run a few times per day, so it is essential to check times beforehand. I was able to use my Osaka IC card on some (Gojo to Yunomine) but not all (Yunomine to Shingu and Nachi) of the buses.  

Getting to/from Ise

You can hop on the train from Katsuura or Nachi Station to Ise. From Ise I connected to Nagoya, where I boarded a Shinkansen (bullet train) towards Mt. Fuji and Tokyo. There are also connections from here to Osaka and other places in Japan.    

Getting to the Kumano Kodo Area

Hiking the Kumano Kodo in Winter

The lowest temperature I experienced was at Koyasan, which was -9° early in the morning. This was bloody cold, especially considering most temple accommodations there are barely heated (and I come from Canada, where it gets much colder in winter!) You need proper, full winter gear for visiting Koyasan in winter, no matter where you come from.

When I stayed in the tiny hot spring village of Yunomine for  three days (more details below), the lowest temperature was just below zero. My experience doing short hikes in the area was that you need to wear quite a bit when you start off in the morning, but when you continue hiking and your core heats up, you end up getting sweaty and shedding layers.

Gloves, winter hat, and several layers beneath a good winter jacket are still essential.  

Best Way to Get a Taste of the Kumano Kodo

For me, this was the perfect amount of hiking to get a good taste of the Kumano Kodo without spending multiple days slogging up and down the mountain trails. I can understand the appeal of doing the whole thing, but some of the hikers I talked to did confirm my suspicions that some of those days on the mountains did get a little tiresome and repetitive.  

gorgeous red hinoki (Japanese cypress) along the Dainichi-goe route of the Kumano Kodo

Yunomine hot spring village, the perfect base for exploring the region without hiking the Kumano Kodo in its entirety

The Dainichi-goe section connects two of the most interesting spots on the Kumano Kodo: the hot spring village of Yunomine, and the Kumano Kongu Taisha shrine and enormous Torii gate at Hongu. The trail is quite lovely, and I loved the beautiful red Hinoki trees.

the Dainichi-goe route, an easy but beautiful 1.5 hour section of the Kumano Kodo

the Dainichi-goe route, an easy but beautiful 1.5 hour section of the Kumano Kodo

I had a very relaxing three days in Yunomine, doing the Dainichi-goe route and other day walks, then soaking in my hostel onsen at night. Next, I caught a bus to Shingu and Naichi to see the other two grand shrines. If you catch the early (6:30am) bus, you can easily see those two shrines and the Nachi waterfall in one morning, then either spend the night at Katsuura and enjoy more hot springs as I did, or catch the train to your next destination.

free shuttle bus to Koyasan when the cable car was out of order

hot spring foot bath, perfect after a day of hiking the Kumano Kodo

and the best way to end of a day of hiking the Kumano Kodo is...

Hey, I'm Nick Kembel!

I'm a travel writer and photographer who is captivated by religious and natural sights.  

I write to share my inspiration with you!

I sell photo prints and other artworks here and donate a % of my earnings to charity.

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