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.
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 started from Kyoto, back when it was Japan’s capital, but now starts much further south in the seaside town of Tanabe. However, you’ll need to take the 40-minute bus ride from Kii-Tanabe Station to the start of the trail at Takijiri-oji.
Like other remote stretches of the Kumano Kodo, places to eat and rest are few and far between, and the trek will take you across steep mountains and rocky paths. You should pack a few provisions just in case. However, several guesthouses and a few coffee shops are available in Chikatsuyu Villages at the halfway point of the trail, but keep in mind that they may not be open. You can also find small hotels and onsen near Hongu Taisha at the end of your journey.
Photo by: Wiki
The Nakahechi route is well-marked so don’t worry about getting lost. 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.