Hikers on the cobble lined Nakahechi route
When you start to research walking holidays ideas in Japan, you are going to come across the Kumano Kodo and the Nakasendo Way, Japan's most famous hiking trails.
So, which one should you do?
Similiarities Between The Kumano Kodo and Nakasendo Way
Both the Kumano Kodo and the Nakasendo Way travel through mountainous regions, and they both offer a deep immersion into both the rich culture and splendid natural beauty of rural Japan.
Along both routes you’ll find hot springs (called onsen) and associated facilities like small traditional family-run hotels (ryokan) where you can relax after a day of trekking, as well as shrines that offer insight into Japanese religion.
But there are a few differences to consider when choosing which walk to do in Japan.
The Kumano Kodo - for the more confident walker
The Kumano Kodo is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes that was created when Buddhism came to Japan during the 6th century.
The classic Kumano Kodo trek, known as the Nakahechi route, traverses the rugged Kii Peninsular from the west to east, starting near the village of Kii Tanabe and ending near Katsuura on the east coast. It’s about 68 kms long, but don't underestimate the challenge based on the length.
The Nakahechi trek isn’t a straightforward walk in the park, so to speak. Much of the trail consists of cobble stones or dirt track with lots of tree roots. These sections can be uneven and difficult to walk on, especially when they are mossy and/or wet.
There are many sections of stone steps, and some of the forests are so dense and dark you’ll need to watch your step closely. In other areas it follows mountain ridges and offers expansive panoramas. While it’s rated 4 (introductory to moderate), the track undulates considerably for much of its length.
The Kumano Kodo trail network has UNESCO World Heritage status. And, because of its remote location on the Kii Peninsula, you’ll encounter fewer people. On certain days, you might not see another party. There are, however, “get out” routes along the trail so you can get back to civilisation—e.g., a taxi or bus—easily.
To be sure, the Nakahechi route is really about the great shrines. There are three grand Buddhist/Shinto shrines along the walk: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. These grand shrines will instill in you a feeling of ancient tradition and beguiling calm as you ponder their construction and the devotion of their pilgrims.
The Nakasendo Way - a snapshot into Japan’s past
The Nakasendo Way is less remote and travels from Kyoto to Tokyo through more populated areas of Japan, so it’s often done in smaller sections. In fact, because the Nakasendo Way is so accessible to public transport, many local people use public transit and walk only the most spectacular sections of the trail or short sections they have time for.
The Nakasendo Way is much younger than the Kumano Kodo network. It was established during Japan’s Edo period (1603–1867), built so that 17th century feudal lords, samurai and traders could transport their missives and minions between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo).
For most of the hike, you’ll walk through beautiful bamboo forests, past stunning waterfalls, and through traditional rural areas. The trail is less demanding than the Nakahechi route, but it still has a few hills you should train for.
The highlights of the Nakasendo Way are the post towns. Post towns are charming wooden villages dotted along the trail that were designed and built to offer royalty, samurai, and traveling merchants places to stay as they journeyed in this region of Japan.
Originally there were 69 post towns built along the 500-kilometre Way. Over the years some have burned down, and some have fallen into disrepair. Many of them have been restored at various times, their dark wood and traditional delicate Japanese design are pleasing to the eye.
Some travellers have likened them to a snapshot into Japan’s past.
Three of the most charming post towns are Narai, Tsumago, Magome, which are also home to museums. All the post towns along the Nakasendo Way offer unique gastronomical experiences.
Whether you pick the Kumano Kodo or the Nakasendo Way for your active adventure, you can rest assured that you’re going to see the best, most beautiful areas in the Land of the Rising Sun.
View Kumano Kodo walking trips
View Nakasendo Way walking trips