In Japan, a deep reverence for nature and tradition vies with a fascination of all that is futuristic—and this jarring contrast is part of the country’s strong allure. Our adventure starts off amid the skyscrapers of Osaka; then we step back in time in Asuka, one of Japan’s ancient capitals. In the sacred mountains of the Kii Peninsula, embark on the Kumano Kodo, a beautiful pilgrimage route that has drawn emperors and kimono-clad worshippers for more than a thousand years. Delve into Japan’s spiritual traditions as we hike to stunning shrines nestled amid cedar-covered slopes. Soak in hot springs, stay in traditional mountain inns and ryokans, and experience the diversity of Japan’s fine cuisine—from the lively pubs of Osaka to delightful, locally sourced meals along the Kumano Kodo.
Spend four days hiking the Kumano Kodo, one of only a few pilgrimage routes in the world designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Walk past burial mounds and rice fields in the ancient capital of Asuka, and enjoy a private performance by a taiko drummer.
Take part in an authentic tea ceremony in Kyoto, and enjoy a special visit to a Zen temple normally closed to the public.
Settle into an authentic Japanese ryokan and soak in the neighboring Kawayu Onsen, one of the oldest hot springs in Japan.
Itinerary - 11 Days
Day 1 — Osaka, Japan
Arrive in Osaka and transfer to our hotel. Meet for an orientation and welcome dinner at a local restaurant. Osaka Miyako Marriott (D)
Day 2 — Asuka/Osaka
Journey by train to Asuka, the site of some of Japan’s first Buddhist temples. Small shrines, ancient stone monuments, and the burial mounds of Japan’s first emperors dot the terraced rice fields. Explore the town on foot and, weather permitting, meet a farming family for a picnic lunch. Then visit a local studio to watch a private performance by a taiko drummer and try your hand at drumming. Return to Osaka and enjoy dinner in this culinary capital. (5 miles hiking, 3-4 hours)
Osaka Miyako Marriott (B,L,D)
Day 3 — Kumano Kodo to Takahara
After breakfast, travel by private coach south along the coast to Takijiri, on the Kii Peninsula. Set off on the Nakahechi trail, part of the network of ancient pilgrimage routes known as the Kumano Kodo. The rich spiritual history of the region is evident along our route, which links three important Shinto/Buddhist shrines and is scattered with smaller shrines called oji. The first challenging leg of our hike brings us to the village of Takahara, where we’ll relax in the hot springs at our Japanese-style hotel. (3 miles hiking, 2 hours)
Organic Hotel Kiri-no-sato Takahara (B,L,D)
Day 4 — Kumano Kodo/Chikatsuyu
Starting from Takahara, we continue eastwards along the Nakahechi pilgrimage trail. Hike through lush cedar forests, passing small jizo bodhisattva statues placed by locals to protect travelers and old tea houses, which provided rest to pilgrims until the early 20th century. Descend to Chikatsuyu, and return by bus to our inn in Takahara. (7 miles hiking with a moderate ascent and descent, 4 hours) Organic Hotel Kiri-no-sato Takahara (B,L,D)
Day 5 — Chikatsuyu to Kawayu Onsen
The trail ascends to Tsugizakura-oji, one of more than 100 small shrines along the route where pilgrims leave offerings. Travel from Tsugizakura-oji to Hosshinmon-oji by local bus, then hike the final section through ridge-top villages before descending to the Hongu Taisha, one of the grand shrines of the Kumano Sanzan. En route to the shrine, meet a local Shugendo priest to learn firsthand about this ascetic Buddhist sect that focuses on the connections between humans and nature, and pass under the majestic Oyunohara torii (wooden gateway). Later, make the short drive to Kawayu Onsen, one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, just a few steps from the ryokan where we’ll stay the night. (8 miles hiking, 4 hours) Fujiya Ryokan (B,L,D)
Day 6 — Hongu Taisha to Yunomine Onsen
Today we’ll walk the Danichi-goe and Akagi-goe sections of the Kumano Kodo, which link the Hongu Taisha shrine with Yunomine Onsen. Hike along a forested trail, passing small mountain settlements and taking in panoramic valley views. Travelers may opt to limit their hike to the portion of the trail running between Danichi-goe and Yunomine Onsen, or spend a day relaxing at our ryokan. (2-6 miles hiking, 1-5 hours) Fujiya Ryokan (B,D)
Day 7 — Kumano River/Katsuura Bay
Take a scenic boat ride on the Kumano River, cruising along a route historically used by pilgrims to travel between the Hongu Taisha and Hayatama Taisha, another one of Kumano Kodo’s grand shrines of pilgrimage. Continue to Katsuura, and settle into our hotel, built into the rock on the edge of Katsuura Bay. Soak in the hotel’s hot springs, set within a cave overlooking the water. Hotel Urashima (B,L,D)
Day 8 — Nachi Taisha/Kyoto
After breakfast, pay a visit to Nachi Taisha, another of the three Grand Shrines of Kumano, and see the nearby waterfall, said to be inhabited by the kami spirit Kiryu Gongen. Continue by coach to Kyoto, and enjoy free time to explore before dinner. Royal Park Hotel The Kyoto (B,L,D)
Day 9 — Kyoto
Head to Nijo Castle, the former seat of the Tokugawa shoguns in Kyoto. At the castle’s Ninomaru Palace, see work by artists from the Kano school and take note of the “nightingale floors,” designed to squeak when walked upon to ward off intruders. Take a guided tour of the Higashiyama district, stroll past cherry trees on the Philosopher’s Path, and venture into the Zen gardens of Nanzen-ji temple. (2-3 miles hiking, 4 hours) Royal Park Hotel The Kyoto (B)
Days 10 & 11 — Kyoto
Experience the complex traditions of the Japanese tea ceremony, a highly stylized ritual that began in the 16th century when tea was first brought to Japan. Later, enjoy a specially arranged visit to a Zen temple normally closed to the public. This afternoon, we enjoy lunch with a maiko, or apprentice geisha, and learn about her ancient arts. After time at leisure, meet up for a farewell dinner. The next day, transfer to the airport for your flight home. Royal Park Hotel The Kyoto (B,L,D; B)
National Geographic Active Expeditions are unique, active itineraries for intrepid travelers that combine spectacular places, cultural interaction, and physical challenge. You'll explore fascinating, off-the-beaten-path places with top guides, and wherever possible, meet National Geographic experts in the field.
This is a hiking and cultural trip. Our hikes range from 2–4 hours per day (1–8 miles) on well-worn paths with some steep rocky and uneven terrain. During hikes on the Kumano Kodo trail, transportation by local bus is available for those who prefer not to walk. Vehicle support is provided on all other days.
Click here for a description of all activity levels.
What To Expect
We will spend 6 nights in comfortable hotels and 4 nights in a ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse).
Transfers on this trip will be by public train or private bus. There will be 2 nights during which we will be without our luggage and we carry what we need in our day packs.
Note that seafood and soy are both prevalent in Japanese cuisine. Please contact us to discuss any special dietary requirements.
Contact Us: 1-888-689-2557
Call to speak with an adventure specialist about this trip.