Kumano Kodo: Iseji Route
Pay your respects to Ise Jingu, Japan’s most holy shrine, and hike in the footsteps of the gods in Mie Prefecture.
Traversing steep mountain passes, bamboo forests, cobbled stone paths, and sandy beaches, Kumano Kodo’s Iseji trail is one of the oldest surviving sacred sites in Japan. It connects two of Japan’s most holy sites, Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture, and the Kumano Sanzan in Wakayama.
Yet, the well-maintained and highly-spiritual Iseji hiking trail is surprisingly overlooked by both local and foreign travelers.
Iseji is free from the foot traffic that often mares the reflective peace of Japan’s religious attractions. To enjoy a deep and immersive quiet rarely found in Japan these days, look no further than Iseji.
Ise Grand Shrine
For millennia monks, samurai, Imperial family members, and common folk alike have traveled great distances to pay homage to the nation’s most important shrine—Ise Jingu, or Ise Grand Shrine.
A visit to Ise Grand Shrine means standing before the goddess who birthed Japanese spirituality.
Why is this shrine so important, you ask? According to legend, the first iteration of Ise Grand Shrine was founded over 2000 years ago in honor of the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu. She is the most revered of all Japan’s deities and can be traced back to the country’s earliest creation stories. A visit to Ise Grand Shrine means standing before the goddess who birthed Japanese spirituality.
For nearly as long, pilgrims have sought the cleansing landscape of Wakayama Prefecture, home to the Kumano Sanzan, or Three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha, and Hatayama Taisha.
Connecting these two holy places is the Iseji Route of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails, which was fashioned to guide people from all across Japan to this land of the gods. Iseji runs from the town of Ise along the east coast of Wakayama’s Kii Peninsula, hence its nickname “the Eastern Route.”
Though people typically arrive at Ise Jingu and the Kumano Sanzan by bus, car, or train, it’s far more rewarding to hike there on foot as the ancient pilgrims did for hundreds of years.
Hiking the Iseji Route
Iseji is long, spanning 170 kilometers (106 mi) from start to finish. Hiking the trail all the way from Ise Jingu to the Kumano Sanzan is doable, but would take about two weeks. Most people break up the hike into shorter stretches, such as simple day hikes or multi-day treks.
Luckily, modern infrastructure like hotels and convenience stores are located along the way, so travelers can take their time as well as stock up on provisions. There are also railways roughly following the route, so you can hop on a train when your legs get tired.
Read our comprehensive guide to hiking Iseji for sample itineraries, info on how to hire a local guide, and more.