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Kumano Kodo pilgrimage hike and autumn leaves viewing in Japan 2016 – Trip Overview


After a successful trip to Japan to walk the Nakasendo Way in late spring 2016 with some good friends, we set our sights on walking the more challenging Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route in the Kii Peninsula. We had already planned to visit Japan in autumn to experience the famous and magnificent autumn foliage around Kyoto and adding in a week’s hike in the mountainous Kii Peninsula in November was not a bad idea. Weather-wise, November is a good time to hike the ancient route through the forests and mountains. In summer, the weather would be wet, hot and humid. Who needs more of that when I experience such weather daily in my home country. The weather forecasted for November is dry and cool and we may even get a chance to see some colourful autumn foliage along the journey.


What is Kumano Kodo?


For thousands of years, emperors, aristocrats, common folks have made the pilgrimage trek across the Kii Peninsula to Kumano. The focus of the Kumano pilgrimage is to worship at the three Grand Shrines of Kumano. As a set they are referred to as the
Kumano Sanzan: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha.

Walking the ancient Kumano Kodo is a fantastic way to experience the unique cultural landscape of Kumano's spiritual countryside. Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes were also registered as UNESCO World Heritage in 2004. There are actually many routes to the shrines such as the Nakahechi (route used by the emperors!), the Kohechi (The Mountainous Route to Kumano) , the Ohechi (The Coastal Route to Kumano) and the Iseji (The Eastern Route to Kumano).
What is good for royalty is good for us! Besides, the Nakahechi Route was the most popular. This trail has traditional lodgings in isolated villages along the way and is excellent for multi-day walks.

The best way to plan and book our Kumano Kodo adventure was through the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau website. The suggested itineraries were simply excellent.

We chose the 5 days/4 nights Nakahechi Route from Takijiri to Hongu, boat ride to Shingu & train to Nachi. The detailed itinerary can be found here. This itinerary included a variety of experiences related to the ancient Kumano pilgrimage and was one of the less strenuous options. The most strenuous one in my opinion would be the 6 days/5 nights route that include a challenging day crossing a steep mountain pass called the Ogumotori-goe. Being unsure of our fitness level, we decided to stick to the relatively “sissy” option.

The route we selected included some walks on the main portion of the Nakahechi pilgrimage, a visit to all three Kumano Grand Shrines, a trip on a traditional boat, and a few nights in onsen villages to enjoy the hot springs. There is a diversity of walks: a bit of challenge (first two days) with some steeper climbs and descents (without being exhausting!) and easier highlight walks around the shrine areas (last 3 days). All accommodations in the villages were booked easily via the bureau and we actually added a few extra days (a side trip and overnight stay at Kawayu Onsen and an extra night at Kii-Kasuura) to the proposed itinerary.


This is the overview of our trip plan.

Day 1 (13 November 2016)

Travel from home to Kansai International Airport.

Upon arrival, forward our main luggage to our hotel (in Nara) after Kumano Kodo hike so we only carry what is needed for the Kumano Kodo hike in backpacks. Hineno Station has direct train to Kii-Tanabe and is just one stop by train from the airport. So Hineno is a good place to stay for the night since we arrived late.

Where I stayed: Kanku Joytel Hotel at Hineno. This hotel is conveniently located next to the Hineno train station.


Day 2 (14 November 2016)

Travel by train from Hineno to Kii-Tanabe (duration 1.5 hours).
Travel by public bus from Kii-Tanabe to Takijiri (duration ~40 minutes).

Walk KUMANO KODO - Takijiri-oji to Takahara (3.7 km, ~2.5 hours)

Where I stayed: Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge. There is not many places to stay at Takahara. Try to book this place to stay as early as possible.

View of the mist over the Kii mountain ranges from the Kiri-no-Sato Lodge in the morning.


Day 3 (15 November 2016)

Walk KUMANO KODO – Takahara to Chikatsuyu-Oji (9 km, 5 to 6 hours).

Where I stayed: Minshuku Chikatsuyu. Nice minshuku located next to a river and has its own onsen.


Day 4 (16 November 2016)

Take bus to Hongu and transfer to a bus that bring us to the start of the trail at Hosshinmon-oji.

Walk KUMANO KODO - Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha ( 7 km, 3 hours). See the giant Torii Gate and Hongu Taisha, one of the three main Kumano Shrine.

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After the walk, take the public bus to Yunomine Onsen for overnight stay.  Yunomine Onsen is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan and directly connected with the Kumano Kodo. It is a quaint little collection of inns tucked into a small valley. Each accommodation has their own hot spring bath (onsen), and there is a special public bath called Tsuboyu. This bath was used by pilgrims past to purify themselves with the hot water. Tickets are sold at the booth next to the temple.

Where I stayed: Yoshinoya Ryokan at Yunomine Onsen. This ryokan features a free private outdoor onsen in a nice garden setting.


Day 5 (17 November 2016)

Try the Tsuboyu Onsen in the morning.

Tsuboyu is a small cabin by the creek that runs through Yunomine Onsen.This bath is private use for 1~2 people for 30 minutes. It is a first-come first-serve bath with no reservations. It is the only hot spring that you can bathe in that is registered as UNESCO World Heritage. It is also very popular with couples.

Try also to cook eggs using the hot spring by the creek. Fun activity.

After check-out, travel to Kawayu Onsen by public bus. “Kawa” means “river” and “yu” means “hot water”. In Kawayu Onsen hot spring water bubbles to the surface of the crystal clear river.

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You can dig your own hot bath or bathe in a prepared one by the river. We added a visit to Kawayu Onsen to the original itinerary proposed by the Kii-Tanabe Tourism website.

Where I stayed: Fujiya Ryokan at Kawayu Onsen. One of the best ryokan in Kawayu Onsen and ideally located next to the hot springs by the river.


Day 6 (18 November 2016)

Travel like ancient pilgrims in a boat down the Shingu river and visit the Kumano Hayatama Taisha shrine at the end of the boat ride.

Take a train or bus to Kii-Katsuura for overnight stay.

Where I stayed: Hotel Charmant in Kii-Katsuura. Value hotel with western style rooms, located near the train station.


Day 7 (19 November 2016)

Visit the fish market in Kii-Katsuura at 7 AM. Note: It was closed on this day when we came!
Take bus to Nachi and walk KUMANO KODO -  Daimon -zaka. (Distance:~1.5 km. Time: ~1 hrs). Daimon-zaka is picturesque stone staircase with giant trees lining the way.

Visit Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine and the Nachi Falls.

Where I stayed: Hotel Urashima in Kii-Katsuura.

Hotel Urashima Resort & Spa features a cavernous hot spring bath with a wondrous view of the Pacific Ocean from its cavern and buffets centered on locally caught tuna. There are seven baths scattered throughout the facility including one in a cave overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We added a visit to Hotel Urashima to the original itinerary to enjoy hot spring baths by the ocean.


Day 8  (20 November 2016)

Wake up early to see sunrise from the Sunrise Terrace in the hotel.


Visit the fish market (again) in Kii-Katsuura at 7 AM.

Travel from Kii-Katsuura to Nara by  train.

Where I stayed: Super Hotel Lohas JR Nara Eki at Nara. This hotel is conveniently located next to the JR Nara Station.


Day 9  (21 November 2016)

Explore Nara and enjoy the autumn leaves and friendly deers at Nara Park.

Where I stayed: Super Hotel Lohas JR Nara Eki at Nara.


Day 10  (22 November 2016)

Travel from Nara to Kyoto by train. Visit Tofukuji Temple on the way.

Usually best in the second half of November, Tofukuji Temple displays some of Kyoto's most spectacular autumn foliage.

Time permitting, visit Fushimi Inari Shrine which is located near to Tofukuji Temple.

In the night, walk to Kodaiji Temple, known for its evening illuminations. The sight of the lit up maple leaves, reflecting on the surface of the temple's pond, are particularly breath-taking.

Where I stayed: APA Hotel Kyoto Gion Excellent at Kyoto. This hotel is conveniently located at the Higashiyama/Gion area. Ideal for our itinerary as many places we wanted to visit are near to Gion.


Day 11  (23 November 2016)

Visit Ginkakuji Temple with its Silver Pavilion.

Walk down Philosopher Path to Honen-in Temple, Eikando Temple, and Nanjenji Temple to see the autumn leaves.

In the afternoon and evening, do some shopping at Teramachi-dori, Nishiki market and Shijo-dori area.

Where I stayed: APA Hotel Kyoto Gion Excellent at Kyoto.


Day 12  (24 November 2016)

Visit Arashimaya area.
Explore the Bamboo Forest enroute to Okochi-Sanso Villa. The villa is known for its fabulous garden and is especially beautiful in autumn.

Visit Otagi Nenbutsu with its numerous stone Rakans.

Note: We skipped Tenryu-ji Temple since we had visited the temple in spring. Else, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is worth a visit.

Where I stayed: APA Hotel Kyoto Gion Excellent at Kyoto.


Day 13  (25 November 2016)

Visit Kiyomizudera Temple and the shopping streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka. See Ishibei-koji Lane and Nene-no-Michi Lane.

Travel from Kyoto to Kobe in the late afternoon. We forward our luggage to our hotel in Kobe for ease of travel.

For dinner, try Kobe beef at Steakland Kobe. Must try in Kobe – Kobe beef!

Where I stayed: Sannomiya Terminal Hotel at Kobe. This is hotel conveniently located within the Sannomiya Train Station complex, a transportation hub in Kobe.


Day 14  (26 November 2016)

Do a day trip to visit Himeji Castle from Kobe by train. Himeji is less than an hour by train from Kobe.

After visiting Himeji Castle, travel back to Kobe to have lunch at the Wakkoqu (Kobe beef Teppanyaki restaurant) before exploring Kobe’s historic Kitano-cho district.

Visit Harbourland area in the evening. After dinner, walk around Meriken Park with views of waterfront and Kobe Port Tower.

Where I stayed: Sannomiya Terminal Hotel at Kobe.


Day 15  (27 November 2016)

Travel from Kobe to Osaka by train.
Do some shopping and eating at Osaka’s Umeda area. Visit Grand Front Osaka - go see the Northern Building, with its Knowledge Capital and Umekita floor.
Visit Umeda Sky Tower Observatory for sunset and night views, if weather is good.

Where I stayed: Hotel Monterey Osaka at Umeda Osaka. This hotel is conveniently located within walking distance to the Umeda/Osaka Station in Osaka.


Day 16  (28 November 2016)

Visit Kuromon Ichiba Market in the morning. Go with an empty stomach to enjoy Osaka’s street food, especially seafood.
Explore Osaka’s Namba district, e.g. Shinsaibashi street, Dotonburi.

Dotonburi is especially lively and beautiful at night.

Where I stayed: Hotel Monterey Osaka at Umeda Osaka.


Day 17  (29 November 2016)

Visit the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan and see the whale shark in a giant 9 meter deep tank.

Dinner at Dotonburi before collecting luggage from hotel and head for the airport for late night flight home.


Some other points and comments about the above itinerary

Late November and early December is one of the best times to visit Japan, especially Kyoto since it is the Autumn leaves season. The actual dates for the peak of the autumn leaves depends on the location in Japan and also weather for the year. It is not easy to time the visit to co-incide with the peak of the fall foliage but autumn leaves season typically last 2 to 3 weeks, unlike the cherry blossoms which only last a few days! Check the autumn leaves forecast websites to get latest information on the forecast for the year while planning the trip.

Luggage Forwarding Service or Takuhaibin is a convenient service for sending parcels, luggage and various other types of goods from door to door nationwide. Delivery is usually on the next day, and costs are moderate. We made use of this service to make our travels much more pleasant and enjoyable. No need to lug our suitcases up the trains, buses, elevators and through crowded stations and malls. Worth every yen spent!

For the Kumano Kodo hike, there are also luggage forwarding services from one village to the other that could be booked via the Tanabe City Tourism Website. I did not use this service as the cost was much higher than the usual Takuhaibin Service. The higher cost is understandable since the business volume is not high. In a way, the service is almost a personalised service. We chose to carry what we need for our Kumano Kodo hike through the Kii-Peninsula in backpacks and forwarded the rest of our luggage to a hotel after our Kumano Kodo trek. Having to carry what we need for the Kumano Kodo trek on our backs actually adds to the overall experience!

Check out this article for tips on packing for the pilgrimage hike.

The hotels in Kyoto and Osaka are generally more expensive during the peak autumn foliage season. To save some money, we chose to stay a few days in Kobe and used this as a base to explore areas like Himeji and Kobe rather than make day trips to visit Himeji or Kobe from Kyoto or Osaka. Kobe could potentially be a base for day-trips out to explore Osaka or Kyoto too.

Local cuisine is one of the things to enjoy while visiting a country. Japanese cuisine is one of the yummiest and comes very well presented too. I will write more about the food we tried and restaurants we visited in the trip journal. Many regions and cities have their local specialities. We try to experience them if we could.

Japan is trying to make the country more tourist friendly and free wi-fi are available in most areas that tourists frequent. However, connection is spotty and may not be available when we need them most. We bought Prepaid Data SIMs for use in my smartphone and use tethering to share with my travelling companions. Armed with portable internet access at all times, I could refer to Hyperdia on my smartphone to check up trains times, routes and platform information on the go. Many mobile data plans are available at this econnect website. They delivered the ordered SIM to my hotel in Hineno.

For long travels across cities, e.g. Kyoto to Kobe, Kii-Katsuura to Nara, rail passes can potentially save money. It is also for convenience. There are many to chose from at the JR West website and can be confusing as to which is the most suitable. For the itinerary above, we did not find any rail passes that could help us save money. So, we just buy our tickets as we go.

Train service to Kii-Tanabe is not very frequent and it is a long ride. The KUROSHIO Express that links the cities in the Kii-Peninsula (e.g. Kii-Tanabe and Kii-Katsuura) with Osaka and Kyoto runs through Hineno which is one station away from the Kansai Airport. This makes Hineno a perfect place to stay if we have an early plane to catch or if we are arriving late in the evening.

Lastly, a word about hotels and ryokans/minshukus.
I booked my hotels about 6 months before my travel dates. Rooms in Japanese hotels are very small by comparison to other countries and there are more smoking rooms than non-smoking rooms. Also, more single and twins rooms than doubles. So, I booked early (with free cancellations at
Booking.com) to get the non-smoking rooms and also the rooms with large double beds. Be careful about double beds. Some hotels markets their super-single sized beds as small doubles! One of my main criteria for hotel is location. Preferable, within walking distance to train and bus stations and also near to places to visit. Also, there are more eateries and shops found around the Japanese train stations. In this trip, I stayed in the Gion area while in Kyoto as that was where most temples with excellent fall foliage were located.

Booking.com

Ryokans and minshukus in the small rural villages along the Kumano Kodo routes are limited. So, I need to book well ahead of the trip.  The Tanabe City Tourism Bureau website is highly recommended. Payment needs to be made in advance but the good thing is that I don’t have to carry too much cash during the hike. And payment is by cash only in the small villages.

Half the fun in going for a do-it-yourself vacation is in the planning. With the above plan, the 17 days trip through Central Japan and the Kii Peninsula went without a hitch and was truly amazing and enjoyable. More details about the trip could be found in the trip journals.

Hope you find the above itinerary and trip overview useful.

Note: There are a few affiliate links in this post and blog, meaning that if you book/buy something through one of my links, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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