Hiking Nara’s Pilgrimage Routes
One of the pleasures of visiting Nara is the natural environment. Blessed with wide plains surrounded by hills, and mountains with fast running rivers and waterfalls in the south, there are hiking courses for all levels of fitness.
But these paths are about more than nature’s beauty. These are some of Japan’s oldest byways; paths through history that resonate with the adventures of thousands before you. Pilgrim routes take you through sacred mountains and ancient forests. You’ll find amazing sights along these paths; you might even find yourself.
Sacred Trails and Pilgrim Paths
Nara is connected to two of Japan’s most sacred sites, the great temple complex of Koyasan, and the three shrines of Kumano, in the west and south of neighbouring Wakayama Prefecture. For over 1200 years, pilgrims have made the long, difficult journey between these sites on foot. The paths, known collectively as the Kumano Kodo, are one of two World Heritage pilgrimages, along with the Camino de Santiago route from France to Spain.
You may not have time to complete one of the paths from start to finish, some take more than 4 days, but you can experience this ancient pilgrimage by hiking a section, for a half or whole day. The route that traverses Southern Nara is known as the Kohechi, or Mountainous route. It’s the shortest route, but also the steepest and most difficult.
Kumano Kodo Kohechi Michi
Connecting Koyasan with the Kumano Grand Shrines, this mountaintop route is challenging. The Kohechi Michi takes you through mountaintop villages known for their friendly residents, but there are few accommodations or restaurants along the way, so it’s best to pick up food and drinks before you start.
Hatenashi Village follows a paved, well-marked path from Totsukawa Onsen. Named one of Japan’s top 100 villages for its views and friendly residents, it’s a popular destination for photographers. The views from this mountaintop hamlet are stunning. Look out for the large stone marker indicating that you are on a World Heritage trail. The path is also dotted with many small Buddhist statues.
- Hatenashi Village is about one hour on foot from Totsukawa Onsen. Another hour will take you to Kannon-do Temple near the top of the mountain with rest facilities.
- The Kumano Kodo is clearly marked, winding up through the mountains. The trail is dotted with Kannon statues, erected in the 1920’s.
- Paved sections make for easy hiking, but become slippery when wet. Check the weather forecast and take care when walking in the rain.
Many hikers opt to finish their journey at Yakio bus stop, about five hours from Totsukawa Onsen. There is a rest area with restaurants nearby. You can continue on to Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine, or take a bus back to Totsukawa Onsen, Gojo and central Nara.
Connecting the mountains of Yoshino and Omine with the Kumano Grand Shrines in the South, this route has been used by Shugendo practitioners as part of their training since the 14th century. Climbing these mountain paths is a form of worship for Shugendo ascetics and parts of Mt. Omine are still off-limits to women.
- Try a section of the World Heritage trail around Mt. Tamaki, where the paths are manageable and the views are spectacular.
- The forest trails are often shrouded in mist, lending them a timeless, mysterious air.
- Looking across the mountains, you feel connected with the pilgrims who have followed these trails for thousands of years.
- Shugendo practitioners believe that hiking these difficult trails is an essential form of worship, connecting them closely with nature and the deities of these mountains.
Dotted with Buddhist statues and small temples, the trail is interesting and the views from the mountains are spectacular, but the paths are difficult and isolated in parts. Walking the entire trail is recommended for experienced hikers and proper equipment is a must. Less-experienced hikers should choose a shorter, more manageable section, such as the trail around Mt. Yoshino or around Tamakijinja Shrine, which will still give a sense of the challenges and the spiritual importance of the trail.
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