Kumano Kodo: Nakahechi Route
This stunning trek through Wakayama Prefecture was once favored by emperors and nobles.
The Nakahechi route is the most popular of the surviving Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails. It’s safe, accessible, (relatively) easy, and above all, gorgeous. Mountains, forests, villages, hot springs, and more await those who seek its healing landscape.
Hiking here will take you from the town of Tanabe on the Western coast of Wakayama’s Kii Peninsula eastward towards Kumano Sanzan, a trio of holy shrines.
The web of trails comprising the Kumano Kodo has lead pilgrims between Japan’s most holy sites for over 1,000 years. Travelers who wish to immerse themselves in Japanese traditional and spiritual culture without the hardships of a more strenuous hike are sure to fall in love with the Nakehechi trail.
Why Nakehechi is the most popular Kumano Kodo route
Nakahechi was used by emperors and nobles from the 10th century onwards to pay homage to the Kumano Sanzan, hence its nickname “The Imperial Route.” The original trail began in Kyoto, back when it was Japan’s capital, but now starts much further south in the seaside town of Tanabe.
Today, the trails are easy enough for beginner hikers, but also steep and scenic enough to wow experienced trekkers.
Nakahechi has inns, bathhouses, and convenience stores along the way, meaning there’s no need to lug around heavy tents and provisions like on the more remote stretches of the Kumano Kodo. There are train stations and bus stops nearby, so you have the option of breaking up the walk into shorter stints.
The signs along the Imperial Route are clearly marked and written in both Japanese and English (other trails on the Kumano Kodo are missing signage in places). Simply follow the brown signposts with white lettering, even when they seem to guide you through strange places.
Though the walk mainly features thick forests and quaint villages, you may have to occasionally walk across a highway or golf course. That’s because modern infrastructure has been built right on top of sections of the trail. Just trust the signs, they won’t lead you astray.
Highlights along the Nakahechi route
The Imperial Route meanders through terraced rice paddies, rugged mountains, and pine forests. Start at Kii-Tanabe Station and don’t miss these highlights along the way.
Tanabe may seem small, but this coastal town is one of the larger settlements you’ll encounter. If staying the night, head to the Ajikoji district to experience the local nightlife.
This shrine serves as the modern-day trailhead for the Nakahechi hike. Many other Oji shrines, which are subsidiaries of the Kumano Sanzan, serve as guides along the way.
Pilgrims used to cleanse their bodies in this 1800-year old hot spring oasis before paying their respects to Hongu Taisha and the other Kumano shrines. There are several ryokan in the area where you can rest overnight.
One of the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano, Hongu Taisha is an impressive ancient shrine located in a town of the same name. In front of the entrance stands the biggest torii gate in the world at 33 meters (108 ft) tall.
From there, it’s possible to continue to the other two Kumano Shrines—Nachi Taisha and Hatayama Taisha—on foot or by bus, train, or boat.