kumano kodo guide-cover

Why trek the Kumano Kodo?

The Kumano Kodo (熊野古道) is a pilgrimage route used by Japanese buddhists for over 1,000 years in Kii, south of Osaka/Kyoto, and is one of the best trekking routes in Japan. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Nakahechi trail (the main trail of the Kumano Kodo system) leads the trekker through dense forests and quiet mountain hamlets, passing dozens of small shrines and large temples such as the Kumano Nachi Taisha, famed for its tower and waterfall. This trail constantly pushes the trekker to confront his/her inner wilderness but also yearning for civilization. Highly accessible, the trail presents a wonderful opportunity to converse with the forest even for the moderately fit. The availability of ryokans (traditional Japanese guesthouse) at every stop along the route makes the journey extremely comfy and tasty. At the end of a hard day, soak in a hot tub before munching on delicious home cooking and passing out on a soft roll over spotless tatami floors.

 

BEST FOR: Buddhist pilgrims and enthusiasts, forest lovers, leisure trekkers


All rights to this Kumano Kodo Trail Map belong to www.tb-kumano.jp

This is a 2-5 day point-to-point trek in Wakayama Prefecture (South of Osaka and Kyoto), Japan, covering ~86km. The trek requires moderate fitness level to complete, perfect for practicing heavy-gear trekking. The trail is incredibly accessible (all overnight stops and many major landmarks are accessible by car most of the year), making this route a choice road trip. I started in Tanabe and ended at the stunning Nachi Taisha shrine. Although not required, this can be easily modified for reverse or circuit route.

The trek was completed from 03/10-13 in good weather and during offseason. This guide is written based on my personal experience completing this trek in one occasion. It is meant to provide the reader with an account of the trek from one trekker’s perspective. However circumstances may differ. Please use the information provided as that of a rough guide. 


Day-to-day Explained

The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route map above only shows the trekking segments of the Nakahechi Trail itinerary

Day 1: Lijiang (丽江) - Shangri-La (香格里拉), bus 4hrs: we started in Lijiang and took a 4-hr bus directly to Shangri-La. Both cities are pretty much abandoned in November - off-season. Hoping to gather a few more trekkers in a hostel, we stayed the night in Shangri-La. Unfortunately, we seemed to be the only ones staying in a 6-bed dorm. Shangri-La is a good place to stock up on food and snacks for the next few days: cup noodles, milk and sausages...However, the prices of local specialty goods seem a tad lower here than in Lijiang. So this is a good place to buy local goods (often yak-related).

Day 2: Shangri-La - Deqin (德钦- Feilai Temple (飞来寺), bus 4hrs: we took a taxi from our hostel in the old town to Shangri-La's bus station (7 RMB during the day, 10 at night), then caught the 10am bus to Deqin. The driver stopped mid-way for a quick lunch but do note that some drivers don't stop at all. When we arrived in Deqin, the driver asked if anyone was going to Feilai Temple (most tourists are). We paid an extra 5 RMB/person for the 15-minute journey up the mountain. Feilai Temple is a tourist town surrounding a Tibetan buddhist monastery and directly faces the peaks of Mt. Meili. The town is crowded with varying types of accommodation, restaurants and small shops. We stayed the night at hostel 6740 on the edge of town with an unobstructed, panoramic view of the mountain and told the hostel owner that we would leave for Xidang Village the following morning.

Day 3: Feilai Temple - Xidang Village (西当村) - Upper Ribeng (上雨崩), bus 1hr then trek 6hrs: our easy day yesterday meant we had to make up for the lost distance today. Expecting a long day ahead, we started early at 8:00 and snaked up and down the mountain under cover of clouds. Our friend Ming decided to take the bus to Ukegawa and was able to sleep in, help ferry my 30lbs pack, and get to the final destination early for check-in. The sky cleared at around 10:00, giving the woods a golden glow. Around 15:00 we found ourselves lost on a highway. We have not seen any wooden trail markers for over 20mins, when we should be passing one every 5-10mins. We were no longer on the Nakahechi trail. The good news: roadsigns and google maps indicated our road leads to Hongu, our final destination for today. We followed it and found a way back on the trail at Hosshinmon-oji (発心門王子). This means we missed Inohana-oji (猪鼻王子) on the stamp book. There is a detour up near the final approach to Hongu offering a spectacular view of the giant tori gate at Hongu. Be sure to take those extra steps up! At around 17:45 we finally exited the mountain to a major stop on the route - the Kumano Hongu Taisha (熊野本宮大社), the temple was closing for the day as we arrived. To our dismay, our night's lodging is located in the town of Ukegawa, another 3km south of Hongu Taisha. We walked along the highway, the river to our left, and arrived at 18:30 to hot buckets of water for soaking our feet. Ukegawa is quite close to a few onsens - little pieces of heaven on earth that people describe as "Japanese hot springs". Yunomine Onsen and 2 others are 2-4km from Ukegawa and also offer (more expensive) lodging. Check on their websites beforehand to see availability and last check-in times. 

Day 4: Upper Ribeng - Holy Waterfall (神瀑), trek: my friends left me in the morning, heading for Osaka and Kyoto. I started at 8:00 and took my time with the shortest day of the trip, an easy 13km to Koguchi. The sun was out. Puffs of clouds sailed through the sky. I lunched at the top of a hill with a view of the surrounding forests. After, I took a nap on a wooden bench under the sun. I arrived in Koguchi at 14:00 and decided to check availability at the first one I hit: Koguchi Shizen-no-le Lodge (小口自然の家). The lodge is deserted until 15:00, the check-in time. There are vending machines and a convenience store in town, but no ATMs or restaurants. Since I was alone and running out of cash, dinner at the lodge was not an option (2,000 yen), so I made do with cup ramen at the convenience store. The lodge has wonderful tatami rooms, a nice warm bath with a hot tub and showers, serves delicious dinner (I smelled it), and offers mediocre onigiri bento boxes for 560 yen. The rate (6,000 yen/pax) includes a delicious and very filling breakfast. Upon request, the guesthouse owner happily showed me the trailhead to Nachi (5min walking from the lodge).

Day 5: Upper Ribeng - Holy Lake (神湖), trek: started at 8:00 for the most strenuous day of the trek. Today, I was to climb two mountains and cover some serious elevation. I first reached the Echizen-toge pass, then the Ishikura-toge pass. Note that the appearance of the trail markers changes halfway through this section! I finished most of the climbing at around 10:30. There are vending machines and restrooms at the forestry road junction, which is also a good place to get lost. Be sure to get on the right track by finding the kumano kodo sign or direction towards Irokawatsuji. Finally, I passed the Funami-toge pass. After what seems to be a radar station, I re-entered the woods and saw a small wooden pavilion above to my left. I walked up the path to find the Pacific Ocean stretching into the horizon. After more than 3 days with nothing but trees, the vast expanse of the ocean hit me like a fist. No pictures here as I hate to spoil things for you, but don't miss this spot! I arrived at Nachi Kogen Park (那智高原公園) at ~ 16:30 and took the stairs down next to the parking lot, towards the grass to get back on the trail. It started raining softly. A bit more walking took me to Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社), an enormous complex of old and new shrines. A few more steps down from Nachi Taisha is Hirou-jinja and the Nachi-no-Otaki (那智大滝) - a silver waterfall next to an ornate orange tower.  This marks the end of the trek. 

Day 6: Upper Ribeng - Glacial Lake (冰湖), trek: started at 8:00 for the most strenuous day of the trek. Today, I was to climb two mountains and cover some serious elevation. I first reached the Echizen-toge pass, then the Ishikura-toge pass. Note that the appearance of the trail markers changes halfway through this section! I finished most of the climbing at around 10:30. There are vending machines and restrooms at the forestry road junction, which is also a good place to get lost. Be sure to get on the right track by finding the kumano kodo sign or direction towards Irokawatsuji. Finally, I passed the Funami-toge pass. After what seems to be a radar station, I re-entered the woods and saw a small wooden pavilion above to my left. I walked up the path to find the Pacific Ocean stretching into the horizon. After more than 3 days with nothing but trees, the vast expanse of the ocean hit me like a fist. No pictures here as I hate to spoil things for you, but don't miss this spot! I arrived at Nachi Kogen Park (那智高原公園) at ~ 16:30 and took the stairs down next to the parking lot, towards the grass to get back on the trail. It started raining softly. A bit more walking took me to Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社), an enormous complex of old and new shrines. A few more steps down from Nachi Taisha is Hirou-jinja and the Nachi-no-Otaki (那智大滝) - a silver waterfall next to an ornate orange tower.  This marks the end of the trek. 

Day 7: Upper Ribeng - Ninong Village (尼农) - Deqin (德钦) - Feilai Temple (飞来寺), trek 4.5hrs then van 1hr: started at 8:00 for the most strenuous day of the trek. Today, I was to climb two mountains and cover some serious elevation. I first reached the Echizen-toge pass, then the Ishikura-toge pass. Note that the appearance of the trail markers changes halfway through this section! I finished most of the climbing at around 10:30. There are vending machines and restrooms at the forestry road junction, which is also a good place to get lost. Be sure to get on the right track by finding the kumano kodo sign or direction towards Irokawatsuji. Finally, I passed the Funami-toge pass. After what seems to be a radar station, I re-entered the woods and saw a small wooden pavilion above to my left. I walked up the path to find the Pacific Ocean stretching into the horizon. After more than 3 days with nothing but trees, the vast expanse of the ocean hit me like a fist. No pictures here as I hate to spoil things for you, but don't miss this spot! I arrived at Nachi Kogen Park (那智高原公園) at ~ 16:30 and took the stairs down next to the parking lot, towards the grass to get back on the trail. It started raining softly. A bit more walking took me to Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社), an enormous complex of old and new shrines. A few more steps down from Nachi Taisha is Hirou-jinja and the Nachi-no-Otaki (那智大滝) - a silver waterfall next to an ornate orange tower.  This marks the end of the trek. 

Day 8: Feilai Temple - Deqin - Shangri-La (香格里拉), bus 4hrs: started at 8:00 for the most strenuous day of the trek. Today, I was to climb two mountains and cover some serious elevation. I first reached the Echizen-toge pass, then the Ishikura-toge pass. Note that the appearance of the trail markers changes halfway through this section! I finished most of the climbing at around 10:30. There are vending machines and restrooms at the forestry road junction, which is also a good place to get lost. Be sure to get on the right track by finding the kumano kodo sign or direction towards Irokawatsuji. Finally, I passed the Funami-toge pass. After what seems to be a radar station, I re-entered the woods and saw a small wooden pavilio


Preparing for the trip

To Do List:

  1. Select dates for your trek: to catch good weather while avoiding the crowds, pick non-holiday seasons between Sept-Dec, take special care to avoid Golden Week (Oct 1-7). November was wonderful - empty, dry and not yet too cold. Rainy season in Yunnan runs between Jun-Aug, when the weather sucks and trails get dangerous, be sure to avoid these months
  2. Prep personal equipment for trek: basic trekking gear is needed for this trek - comfortable, waterproof boots, along with items listed in the "Equipment" section below. All but one trail is well marked, with waypoints (showing km covered/km to go) and maps along the way. All treks listed can be completed in one day, thus camping is not necessary. Drop your tent, pad and sleeping bag. Furthermore, camping is NOT ALLOWED in the mountain and campfires are especially PROHIBITED! You will be entering a special protection zone - a forest and a mountain holy to Tibetan buddhists, please be respectful of local regulations and customs. There will be a special note on camping in the "Surviving Ribeng" section later on
  3. Prep food: the closer you get to Ribeng, the further you are from civilization and the more expensive food gets. We tried to save as much as possible by bringing compact biscuits, cup noodles (ramen) and preserved meat with us for most of the anticipated protein and carb intake. Our rule: 10 RMB/p for breakfast, compact biscuits for lunch, 20 RMB/p or cup noodles for dinner. Chocolate and trail mix are great snacks when on the mountain!
  4. Prep cash: unless you have WeChat or Alipay (and have a bank card tied to these accounts), you'll want to withdraw enough cash in Shangri-la before heading into the mountain. There are no ATMs in Ribeng (upper or lower) and many hostels do not take card. $80-100 (500-600RMB) should be ample for one person's hostel, basic meals and ticket out of Ribeng
  5. Get to Shangri-La (香格里拉/中甸): accessible by bus, train and air, Shangri-La is the largest urban center close to Ribeng and Mt. Meili. Fly to Gyalthang (DIG-Diqing) Airport (迪庆 香格里拉机场), then take the shuttle bus to the old town district (xx mins); OR take a bus to Shangri-La Bus Station. From Shangri-La, take a bus at the bus station to Deqin (德钦). When you arrive at Deqin, ask the bus driver if he is going to Feilai Temple (飞来寺). If yes, pay him an extra 5-10 RMB/person to reach the Temple (15mins away). If not, exit the Deqin bus station to find a crowd of vans waiting to take you there for 10 RMB/p

Equipment

Must-brings are marked with * ; sunglasses are needed to prevent snow-blindness, sunscreen to shield against the high-altitude sun, torch for night trekking; camping gear is NOT NECESSARY

  • Waterproof trekking boots*
  • Rain gear (jacket and pants)*
  • Trekking poles*
  • Sunglasses*
  • Sunscreen*
  • Torch*
  • Cap
  • Utility knife
  • Water bottle
  • Camping gear (tent/sleeping bag/pad)
 

Costs

All costs are measured in local currency-Chinese RMB (yuan). Lodging costs cover 4-man dorm bunks. Equivalent cost in USD: TOTAL-$145; AVG-$18/p/d


Surviving Ribeng

  • It's easy to survive Ribeng. And, if you've got the cash, you can "survive" quite comfortably. Ribeng has got all the comforts of home: electricity, 24-hr hot water, wifi, good food and a bed with clean sheets and warmed by an electric blanket. The only things it lacks is a supermarket and an ATM. So, whoever you are, get your cash game straight (unless you're Chinese. In which case almost everyone accepts WeChat or AliPay); and if you're on a budget, bring some food with ya to avoid paying ¥5 for an egg at breakfast.
  • I'm separating the treks in Ribeng into 3 parts: In, Day-Trips, Out.
    • In: there are two ways to enter or exit Ribeng from 1) Xidang (西当), or 2) Ninong (尼农). 
    • Day-Trip • Yubeng Waterfall
    • Day-Trip • Lake of God
    • Day-Trip • Glacial Lake
    • Out: same story, exit through Xidang (西当) or Ninong (尼农). 
  • Navigating the trail:
  1. All trails besides the trek to the Lake of God are official, marked trails. A few things to look out for on these official trails: 1) trail markers, 2) trail maps and 3) mani piles.
  2. The trek to the Lake of God deserves special attention. First, the trek is not an officially approved one, so let your hostel owners know where you're going beforehand in case of emergencies. Second, the trek is long (10-12hrs) and difficult (ascending 1.7km in 6hrs to 4.7km/15.5k ft altitude), I would prep 2 meals, headlights, and light but warm clothing (down jacket). Third, the trail is muddy and the last part icy, leave enough time for the descent and do not attempt during or right after severe weather. Fourth, don't count on having cell-phone signal. And finally, respect the locals, do not urinate, camp, or start a fire on the shores of the Lake of God. 

Left: trail marker from Takijiri - Koguchi; Right: trail marker at the last segment between Koguchi-Nachi

  • The Xidang - Yubeng trail crosses no natural water source. Bring enough water from your point of origin (Feilai Temple or Yubeng), or pay ¥6/bottle mineral water (¥5 for hot water)...
  • Protect the forest, respect local customs, don't be that guy.

Trek Cheat Sheet

Day 1: Tokyo (东京) - Kii-Tanabe (田辺), Shinkansen to local train 8-10hrs

Day 2: Kii-Tanabe - Tajikiri (滝尻王子) - Chikatsuyu (近露王), local bus then trek 1hr

Day 3: Chikatsuyu - Ukegawa (請川), trek

Day 4: Ukegawa - Koguchi (小口), trek

Day 5: Koguchi - Nachi (那智), trek

Day 6: Nachi/Katsuura - Kyoto (京都), local bus then train

All trekking time besides Chikatsuyu-Ukegawa section indicates time taken with 30lbs pack