From Ancient Pilgrimage to Samurai Trails

Japan Hiking Highlights: The Kumano Kodo and the Nakasendo Trail

Starting from USD6325 / 11 days

Japan Hiking Highlights: The Kumano Kodo and the Nakasendo Trail

A special small-group guided walking and cultural tour with five hikes of 2-4 hours

 

Highlights

  • Walk and discover historic Kyoto, visiting Zen temples, strolling bamboo groves, and walking the atmospheric Gion district
  • Visit all three Grand Shrines of pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodo: Hongu, Shingu, and Nachi with 3 days of hiking on this UNESCO World Heritage route
  • Enjoy a lunch with a maiko apprentice geisha
  • Walk from post-town to post-town over 2 days on the storied Nakasendo
  • Stay in traditional Japanese inns, enjoying hot springs bathing and exquisitely prepared Japanese food showcasing local produce
  • Travel by flat bottomed boat along the Kumano River to Hayatama Taisha – following a route travelled by Emperors a millennium ago
  • Visit an artisanal Miso producer and enjoy a lunch featuring this traditionally aged seasoning
  • Leap forward in time with a visit to modern Tokyo with a visit to a historic garden, a cruise on the Sumida river, a visit to Senso-ji Temple, and then in stylish Omotesando – before walking to Shibuya Scramble

It’s the tour you’ve asked us for – a combination of the must-see cities of Kyoto and Tokyo, with highlights of Japan’s best loved trails – the Kumano Kodo and the Nakasendo! Enjoy a combination of more relaxed hiking with cultural discovery, more included meals, and special experiences, as you walk the trail with one of our expert local guides.

Your adventure also offers a deeper discovery of the unique culture that surrounds each. We’ve selected routes suitable for fit and active travellers, with none over 4 hours in duration, and, aside from one strenuous day to sample more advanced hiking, the route is accessible with moderate ascent and descent.  

Sample the best of Japan's most famous hikes on an itinerary that combines the highlights of both routes with the must-visit cities of Kyoto and Tokyo, with special features including: 

  • - Dining on an ekiben, or train station bento lunch, as you travel through the mountains
  • - Learning about the locally powerful governors of the Kiso Valley and visit one of the great checkpoints of the Nakasendo
  • - Enjoying more personal attention with an assistant guide joining groups with 9 or more participants

In Kyoto we walk along a delightful gorge and through the back lanes of the picturesque district of Arashiyama, famous for its bamboo grove, before the special treat of a lunch with a maiko, or apprentice geisha. The world of the geisha is notoriously difficult to enter. We’ll learn about the artistic training that the maiko undergo and their strict regime as a geisha-in-training.  We’ll then enjoy a walk in the Gion district – home to many teahouses and ochaya where the geisha and maiko perform and live.

Next, we travel south to the Kumano region, where we discover Kumano Kodo as we travel from coast to coast on the Kii peninsula. This pilgrimage route over a millennium old was followed first by Emperors, and later by Shinto and Buddhist pilgrims. Vermilion shrines and natural wooden temples, as well as stone jizo and torii are scattered through the green of the forest like so many gems that call to you from the centuries. It’s little wonder that the route is one of just two UNESCO designated World Heritage routes of pilgrimage. If you’ve hiked the other, the Camino de Santiago, you might wish to explore its Japanese counterpart. We will dine on the freshest local ingredients in inns and onsen (hot springs ryokan), and enjoy the most civilized way to end a hike of great hiking – a natural hot spring bath! 

We then continue on to the Nakasendo Trail where we enjoy village to village hiking along a historic route. The Nakasendo trail linked Kyoto to Tokyo during Japan’s feudal period. It was the ‘road through the mountains’ travelled by feudal lords and their retinues, samurai, merchants, and travelers. Along the route were 69 ‘post towns’, where weary travelers could rest before continuing on the next leg. We hike between the most picturesque of these.

When we aren’t on the trail, we learn more about the local culture with visits to historical sights, and learn the stories of those that travelled these routes. We travel as the locals do, on foot, and by local transportation, allowing us to meet local people and learn about their lives. With no more than 13 travellers on each departure, you enjoy an intimate discovery of Japan, and stay in inns that would not be possible with a larger group.

After our hike on the Nakasendo, we travel onward to the castle town of Matsumoto. Here we explore this imposing delight before we enjoy a lunch with an artisanal miso producer. We then dive head-first into modernity, taking one of Japan’s Limited Express trains to Tokyo and in doing so, leap from historic to modern Japan.

What's Included

  • Full-time services of an English-speaking tour guide, additional assistant guide with groups larger than 9 travelers
  • 10 nights in hotels and Japanese-style inns (Ryokan and Minshuku)
  • Daily breakfast, 4 lunches & 8 dinners
  • All transportation between tour locations
  • Entrance to museums, temples and other sights on the group's itinerary
  • Forwarding of one item of luggage

What's Not Included

  • Flights
  • Airport transfers
  • Pay locally for drinks with meals and meals not included
  • Entrance fees to museums, temples etc. not mentioned in the itinerary

Itinerary

Itinerary Map
Day 1 Meet your fellow tour participants in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan

Meet at the tour hotel in central Kyoto in the evening. There will be a Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant.

Day 2 Sightseeing in Kyoto: bamboo groves, Zen gardens, temples and dine with a geisha in Kyoto

Enjoy a day exploring on of Kyoto's most beautiful areas on foot. Today travel with your guide to the Kiyotaki area into the northern precincts of Arashiyama, replete with temples and shrines. We visit one of these, Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple along our way with its hundreds of statues of disciples of Buddha. Our walk also takes us past gorges, small local craft shops, temple precincts, and through Arashiyama’s famed bamboo grove, and eventually brings us to Tenryu-ji, Arashiyama’s most significant Zen temple. We enjoy time to explore the beautiful gardens of the temple as well as its prayer halls. 

Don’t leave it to chance to see a maiko or apprentice geisha in Kyoto. In the afternoon, we return to Kyoto by private vehicle for a special treat - lunch with a Geiko or Maiko (Geisha or apprentice geisha)!  You’ll enjoy a dance performance and a chance to ask questions about their lives of training in traditional Japanese arts, and the dedication demanded from a young age for those entering into this valued profession.

Following our special lunch, we enjoy a walking tour of the Gion district, home to beautiful wooden machiya and traditional buildings, a number of which are tea houses where maiko and geisha entertain their patrons with skillfully executed traditional Japanese dances and music. The remainder of the day is at leisure for you to make your own discoveries of Kyoto. Tonight, dinner is on your own for you to make your own choices. Your guide will be happy to assist with recommendations.   

Walking distance: 6.6 km/ 4.1 miles
Elevation gain: 130m/ 427 feet ascent/descent
Time required: 2.5 hours

Day 3 Begin hiking the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage

We travel south along the coast by train along the beautiful coastline and then local bus inland to the trailhead for the Nakahechi, one of the most beautiful of the network of ancient pilgrimage trails known as the Kumano Kodo, or Kumano Ancient Trail. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Kumano Kodo became popular from the 11th century as a place of pilgrimage from Kyoto by Emperors. In centuries past, Emperors walked this sacred route to pray for the well-being of the country in troubled times. The Kii Peninsula where the trail is located, has been viewed as sacred in Japan, as the spiritual place where one entered the mythical afterworld of the Yomi. This spiritual tradition continues and the three sacred shrines of Kumano, the Kumano Sanzan are found on the Kii Peninsula. The pilgrimage that was once the preserve of Emperors can now be walked by us mere mortals. The power and majesty of the route remains unchanged, with trees stretching to the heavens, and at times, an otherworldly mist across the land. Our hike today is a steep steady ascent of 2 hours to the hilltop village of Takahara. We enjoy the views over the valleys below before our first tranquil evening on the trail.

Walking distance: 4.5 km / 2.8 miles
Elevation gain: 370m/1,200 feet ascent, 175m/575 feet descent
Time required: about 2 hours

Accommodation: Ryokan (Travellers inn)
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner

Day 4 Hike to the UNESCO Hongu Grand Shrine and soak in hot mineral waters

Today we will hike scenic sections of the Kumano Kodo trail, passing ridge-top villages and oji shrines. Nobles would rest at these sub-shrines to refresh themselves and compose poems. We travel to Hosshinmon-oji by local bus and descend to Hongu Grand Shrine. The symbol of the shrine is the mythological three-legged raven, representing the Hongu, Nachi, and Hayatama shrines – the same motif as the one used by the Japan Football Association. The three-legged crow was in mythology sent to guide Emperor Jimmu, on his journey from Kumano to the Yamato Plain.   

After visiting the shrine and Hongu World Heritage Museum, we transfer by local bus (15 minutes) to Yunomine Hot Spring, one of the oldest in Japan. We stay overnight in a comfortable ryokan with its own rock-built outdoor hot spring bath or ‘rotenburo’. Traditionally, the hot springs waters were considered to have miraculous healing powers. After a hike, we can certainly enjoy some of their soothing warmth.

Walking distance: 7km / 4 miles
Elevation gain: 120m/395 feet ascent; 360m/1,180 feet descent
Time required: 3 hours

Accommodation: Ryokan (Travellers Inn)
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner

Day 5 Boat ride on the Kumano River and hike to Nachi falls

We transfer by local bus to the Kumano River. We board a traditional wooden flat-bottomed boat to take us on a gentle one-and-a-half-hour ride along the Kumano River to the Hayatama Taisha Shrine, just as Imperial pilgrims did in olden times. Afterwards, we will travel on to walk the Daimonzaka approach to Nachi Shrine. This approach is one of the most sacred, leading to both the towering Nachi waterfall, the stunning pagoda of Seiganto-ji, and ultimately, the third of the Kumano shrines of Pilgrimage, Nachi Taisha. We then continue on to our accommodation in an inn near the sea. This morning, we send our luggage ahead to meet us once more in Agematsu.

Walking distance: 2.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 232m/ 760 fee ascent,202m/ 660 feet descent
Time required: 2 hours

Accommodation: Hot-Spring Ryokan (Travellers inn)
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner                                                                                                                                                                         

Day 6 Travel by Train to the Japanese Alps, and then stretch your legs with a hike in an Edo era post town

This morning we follow the coast by train before making our way inland to the Japanese Alps to begin our hike of the Nakasendo. En route, we dine on an ekiben, a train station bento. Ekiben are highly prized by the Japanese as they provide an opportunity to try local specialties while on the move.  We arrive at our starting point for the Nakasendo Trail. This ancient pathway in the Kiso Valley became a major transport route in the Edo period of the 17th to 19th centuries, and was travelled by lords, their retinues, and samurai. Those of high rank stayed in specially designated inns along the trail and the passage of people on the route was tightly controlled. With the rise of modern locomotives and the development of rail travel in Japan, the world bypassed these beautiful mountain villages, and until a concerted conservation effort began, the towns were at risk of fading away into obscurity. Local residents have a fierce pride in their rich and fascinating culture and history.                                    

Following our arrival in the post town of Nakatsugawa in the midafternoon, we have a chance to stretch our legs, visiting the old town, and walking along a paved portion with traditional ishidatami paving stones en route to Ochiai. We spend the evening at an inn in the Nakatsugawa area.

Accommodation: Hot Spring Ryokan (travellers inn)
Meals: Breakfast, bento lunch, Dinner

Day 7 Hike through the villages, hamlets, and forests of the Nakasendo Trail

Today we spend some time in the morning to visit Magome. As we ascent through the town we can appreciated the beautiful inns, residences, and woodworkers’ shops that line the stone paved streets. This juku or post-town is known as the birthplace of Japanese author Shimazaki Toson. As we leave the village, we see the old rule board for those entering the town from Tsumago and can look out at the viewpoint at the valley below before we start our ascent from hamlet to hamlet and past shrines to reach the Magome pass. Once we reach the pass, we enjoy a gentle descent through the trees, along rivers and waterfalls, and stands of bamboo before arriving in the post town of Tsumago.  Here we have free time to enjoy the town, and perhaps to try the local snack - gohei mochi - a pounded rice cake that is covered in a sweet and savory nutty sauce and grilled. We then walk a short distance further to Nagiso. Here we are picked up by our inn for the evening located in the post town of Kiso Fukushima, or in Agematsu, which was once a trading center for the prized Kiso Hinoki or cypress.

Walking distance: 8.3 km / 5.2 mi
Elevation Gain: 326m /1069 ft ascent; 430m / 1410 ft descent
Time required: 3 hours

Accommodation: Hot Spring Ryokan (travellers inn)
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner

Day 8 Explore Kiso Fukushima and hike the Torii Toge pass to Narai

This morning, we take a shuttle to the regional hub of Kiso Fukushima. Here we have some time in Kiso Fukushima to visit the Sekisho, or checkpoint here in the town. In the Edo period, the Nakasendo was one of the routes travelled by lords or daimyo from the new capital of Edo. Some had to leave family members in Edo as hostages, such as wives of heirs. The checkpoints played an important role in controlling the passage of people and goods through this area. We also learn about the powerful Yamamura family - Local Governors who ruled over this area.

Then, we travel onward by train the short distance from Kiso Fukushima to Yabuhara, where we begin our hike of the Torii Pass to Narai. The Torii pass takes its name from that for a Shinto shrine gate. It is said that a local samurai prayed for a victory in battle in the 15th century here, hoping to seek the favor of the guides at Mt. Ontake. After his success, he built a torii gate and Ontake shrine with gratitude to the spirit of the mountain. We hike into the town of Narai, which was one of the most prosperous of the post-towns on the trail. 

Walking distance: 6.2 km/ 3.9 mi
Elevation Gain: 344m /1128 ft ascent; 270m / 885 ft descent
Time required: 3 hours

Accommodation: Minshuku (family-run inn)
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner

Day 9 Visit Matsumoto Castle and a local miso maker and leap forward in time to Tokyo

Today we leave behind the Edo period. We first travel by train to Matsumoto. Here we have an opportunity to visit Matsumoto Castle. Matsumoto Castle is often known as the 'crow' castle due to its dark imposing feel. We explore the inside of the castle - it keep and donjon and learn its importance in depending the area.  We also visit a miso maker and learn about this important component of Japanese food. The miso producer is the 6th generation producer and creates small-batch artisanal miso that is made the traditional way - aged three years for a mellow smoothness. As a fermented food, miso is not only healthy but tasty!  Then, we board the train once more and head to Tokyo - crossing not just distance, but leaping from the Edo period to this hyper-modern city. Tonight, dinner is on your own so you can try one of the many restaurants available in the city. If you need a recommendation, your guide will be happy to help.

Walking distance: 5 mi city walking
Elevation Gain: negligible
Time required: 2 hours

Accommodation: Hotel
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch

Day 10 From Edo to Tokyo - the modern Capital

Today, we discover two sides of the capital – old Edo and modern Tokyo. We begin by exploring Hama Rikyu gardens - traditional gardens located on Tokyo Bay that were once duck hunting grounds for local lords. Then, we take a boat for a journey up the Sumida river to Asakusa. Here we can see that while Tokyo is a capital, it is still very assuredly a working port. Asakusa is home to Sensoji Temple and the traditional shops and arcades of Nakamise Dori and the surrounding shotengai or shopping arcades. The shops here make a magnificent place to purchase a last-minute souvenir or snack. We then catapult forward to the modern age with a visit to Omotesando and Harajuku, source of many cutting-edge fashion trends as well as cutting edge architecture. We finish with a walk to the bright lights of Shibuya, and see the famed Shibuya scramble before our farewell dinner this evening.                                    

Walking distance: 5 mi city walking
Elevation Gain: negligible

Accommodation: Hotel
Meals: Breakfast, Farwell Dinner

Day 11 Tour ends

Our journey through Japan ends in Tokyo this morning. If you are departing today, your guide can advise transfer options to your departure airport, or which of the nearby subway or rail stations would best for you to continue your onward travels.

Meals: Breakfast

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