Trek ancient trails in the tranquil countryside of Japan.
Stray onto the beaten track with an eight-day trekking adventure on some of the ancient pilgrim routes in Japan. The Koya-san and Kumano Kodo treks take you deep through the wilderness and into the mountainous landscapes of Honshu, as well as provide insight into the strong connection with past and present pilgrims hiking these historic routes. Along the way, stop by peaceful temples and tranquil monasteries, soak in traditional onsen and discover the cultural hubs of Kyoto and Osaka. This small-group adventure will give you both a physical and cultural workout around the best of enchanting Japan.
- Explore Kyoto on a couple of nearby hikes for a different perspective on the life and culture in this notable city, as well as visiting some sites of natural and religious significance.
- Experience two of the main religions in Japan – Buddhism and Shintoism – by following the footsteps of ancient pilgrims on their quest for faith along the Koya-san and Kumano Kodo trails.
- Discover two of the major cultural hubs of Japan on foot, walking the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto and strolling through the Dotombori district in Osaka.
- Join in on the morning prayers and share a traditional shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) meal during an overnight temple stay in Koya-san, deep in mountainous Wakayama prefecture.
- Soak in an ancient onsen after a day of trekking in Yunomine – there’s no better way in Japan to relax and rejuvenate, as well as understand local cultures, than in the natural mineral waters of a hot spring.
Day 1: Kyoto
Konnichiwa! Welcome to Kyoto, Japan. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6 pm today. Originally founded as Heian-kyo – ‘tranquility and peace capital’ – in AD794, Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1000 years before the emperor and government relocated to Tokyo. After the meeting tonight, perhaps head out for your first taste of traditional Japanese food. As the millennium-long home of the imperial kitchen, Kyoto is known as the centre of Japanese culinary tradition, so you’re sure to have a delicious meal wherever you go.
Day 2: Kyoto (Hiking)
Get active this morning with a walk to the eighth century Shimogamo Shrine – located right at the intersection of the Kamo-gamo and Takano rivers. The shrine is dedicated to the god of harvest and holds many rites around purification and agricultural produce, and this visit will provide you an introduction to Shintoism – an indigenous belief system connecting ancient past and present Japanese culture together. Continue onwards to renowned Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Silver Pavilion, to see Japanese garden design at its best and learn about the key principles of Japanese Zen. Afterwards, take a short but steep hike up behind Ginkaku-ji for some scenic views over Kyoto. On your way back to the hotel, walk along Philosopher’s Path, lined with cherry blossom trees, and if there’s time, stop by two other Zen temples. Today’s introduction to the importance of Buddhism and Shintoism in Japanese culture will inform some aspects of your hiking trails in the days to come. Today’s walk is around 15km for a total of about 8 hours (with many stops). (B)
Day 3: Koya-san (Hiking)
Leave your accommodation after breakfast and take a train to Kudoyama Station in the Koya-san district, ready for your forest trek. Koya-san is the name given to a monastic complex in the Koya-Ryujin Quasi-National Park, and is one of Japan’s most sacred sites. Begin your 11-kilometre trek on the Koya-san Choishi Michi trail, passing by stone signposts (choishi), which stand every few hundred metres to help the original pilgrims find their way. After approximately 4.5 hours, you’ll reach Daimon Gate – a two-storey crimson gate that marks the entrance to Koya-san. Being the centre of Shingon Buddhism, Koya-san is steeped in centuries of history, and you’ll be able to learn about its role as an active spiritual centre this afternoon. Tonight, you will stay in traditional shukubo (temple stay) accommodation, and enjoy a shiojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) meal provided by your hosts. (B, D)
Day 4: Yunomine
This morning, you’ll have the chance to participate in the monastery’s morning prayers, before making tracks to Yunomine Onsen by local bus. This 4.5-hour journey weaves through the Koya-san and Kumano Kodo mountains, so you’ll definitely want a window seat. Yunomine is an ancient onsen town that forms part of the Kumano Kodo trail – of which you will be trekking in the coming days. Yunomine Onsen has such a long history that one of its onsen baths, Tsuboyu, is designated as a World Heritage-listed site. Historically, pilgrims would perform purification rituals in the hot spring water as part of the religious process of their pilgrimage. Today you’ll also get to visit Kumano Hongu Taisha – one of the three grand Shinto shrines on the Kumano Kodo. (B, D)
Day 5: Kumano Kodo to Koguchi (Hiking)
Embrace an early start as you’ll hike part of the historic Kumano Kodo today. The Kumano Kodo is one of only two World Heritage-listed pilgrimage routes in the world, the other being the Way of St James (Camino de Santiago) in Spain. This morning, transfer to Ukegawa by bus (a short 15-minute ride), then begin hiking this pilgrimage route to Koguchi. The first 5 kilometres are a gradual uphill to Hyakken-gura, then it’s an undulating trail to the Sakura-toge Pass for around 3.5 kilometres. After this, it will mostly be downhill until you reach Koguchi. Today’s trails are surrounded by natural forest, full of cedar and cypress trees, and upon reaching the Hyakken-gura peak, you’ll be greeted with sweeping views of the mountainous terrain of Wakayama. (B, L, D)
Day 6: Kumano Kodo to Kii Katsuura (Hiking)
New day; new trail – get ready for another full-day hike on the sacred Kumano Kodo. For around the first 3 hours, it’s a steep uphill climb, rising to over 800 metres. After reaching the Echizen-toge Pass, follow the ridge of the forest for another couple of kilometres until you reach the highest point at Funami-jaya teahouse (868 metres). Continue mostly downhill for approximately 4.5 kilometres to Nachi Taisha – another of the three Kumano shrines, and probably the most photographed because of the nearby waterfalls that cascade in the background. Enjoy the peaceful scenery and sense of accomplishment before heading by taxi to Kii Katsuura this afternoon. Your accommodation this evening is a short ferry transfer from town – equipped with a cavernous hot spring and panoramic views across the Pacific, you’re in for a comfortable and relaxing night. (B, L, D)
(NOTE: This is a challenging hike, known to locals as a ‘body breaking slope’. If you are not up to the hike today, there’s an option to take the local bus to Nachi Falls, explore that area by yourself and meet the group when they get there. Once you start the hike, it will be very difficult to turn back. Your luggage will be transferred to tonight’s accommodation, so you’ll only need to carry a day pack with you on the hike today.)
Day 7: Osaka
In the morning, visit the local tuna market at Kii Katsuura, where tuna from the cool waters of the Pacific is traded daily, before you hop on a train and rest your legs for the long journey to Osaka. You’ll hit Osaka around lunchtime, just in time to head on a walking tour with your leader to the famous Dotombori neighbourhood, which is the city’s most popular shopping, food and entertainment district. At night, this district is lit by hundreds of neon lights and mechanised signs, including the famous Glico Running Man and Kani Doraku crab. How about getting a group of your travel pals together for a night of food, drinks and possibly some karaoke! (B)
Day 8: Osaka
With no activities planned for today, you are free to depart at any time of the day.
- Meals: 6 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 4 dinners
- Transport: Train, Public bus, Taxi
- Accommodation: Hotel (4 nights), Ryokan (1 night), Guesthouse/Ryokan (1 night), Temple Stay (1 night)
Images courtesy of Intrepid Group