Kumano Kodo Guidebook Review

It’s the winter of 2007, and I’m hiking along an isolated track called the Kogumotori-goe in southern Wakayama Prefecture with my newlywed wife Kanako. The faint, poorly-marked trail leads up to a viewpoint flanked by a large weather-beaten jizō statue. Armed with a Japanese magazine about the Kumano Kodō, we scan the kanji text and barebones descriptions to find that we’ve reached the Hyakken-gura tenbōdai. We pause here, admiring the splendid views while poring over the limited knowledge in our less-than-ideal information source.

Had we been armed with Cicerone’s latest guide to the Kumano Kodo, Kanako and I would have been in much better hands and definitely would have taken a bus to Yunomine Onsen instead of opting for the extra 6km uphill walk on a paved roadway at dusk.

The Kumano Kodō has come a long way since our fateful walk a dozen years ago. Since becoming a World Heritage site in 2004, Wakayama Prefecture has invested an immense amount of money into both promoting and maintaining the Nakahechi route, adopting the ‘if you build it he will come‘ philosophy that would make Kevin Costner proud. Indeed, the Field of Kumano Dreams has not only brought in the tourists, but has put the Kumano Kodō on the world stage by teaming up with the Camino de Santaigo to form a dual pilgrim program and creating an English-language support network connecting visitors to the many inns and facilities along the way. This has resulted in a 40-fold increase in overseas visitors compared to just a decade ago.

But I really don’t need to tell you all that. One quick net search will reveal a wealth of information about the riches of Wakayama Prefecture, and it’s one reason why I haven’t devoted much of my server space to the Kumano Kodō on this website. Indeed, with the diligent work of their bi-lingual employees, the Kumano Tourism Bureau has created an on-line guide like no other available in Japan, all for free of charge. There’s enough on that website alone to help you plan and walk the Kumano Kodō. So why buy a guidebook at all?

The answer lies within the 230 pages that Kat Davis has devoted to her informative guidebook, a well-researched gem of a publication filled with nearly a hundred spendid full-color photographs. Rather than clicking through web pages and trying to collate all of the information into a notebook, you have everything you need in this guide, and you won’t need a wi-fi connection to enjoy it.

The guide features full descriptions of the Nakahechi and Kohechi routes, each of them 4-day treks through an interesting part of the Kii Peninsula. Part nature walk, part history lesson, the 6 routes outlined in the guidebook offer visitors a chance to experience an ancient pilgrimage route steeped in history. It is the informative explanations of the various Buddhist statues, teahouse ruins, and hidden shrines that sets this guide apart from others, as the author adds context to the historical markers along the way, many of which do not have English explanations.

Additionally, the full-color maps give just the right amount of detail without being too overbearing, and the elevation profiles for each route, marked in a myriad of symbols, provide vital distance and elevation gains that are essential for trip planning. While at first the symbols can be a bit difficult to decipher, a quick study of the map legend at the front of the book, along with a bit of practical use will surely have walkers praising their inclusion. She even goes as far as to include the location of vending machines on the maps, something that even I have come to appreciate during my exploration of Japan’s hidden backroads. The only thing missing from the maps themselves are kanji characters, which Kat makes up for by providing the kanji within each hike description, which will surely be helpful for those unable to read the language.

Besides the concise descriptions of the walks themselves, the book contains recommendation for places to stay and eat for each hike, along with information about soothing hot spring baths and local specialties. Vegetarian hikers will want to bookmark the Japanese phrases on page 45 of the introduction so they can use at the various inns and restaurants they encounter along the way. Indeed, the guide seems to have all of the bases covered, offering a handy arsenal of practical and up-to-date information that both first-time visitors and long-term residents can appreciate.

If there is one thing I would like to see added to the guidebook, it would be at least one walk on the Okugakemichi, which is by far the most beautiful section of the Kumano Kodo. The tough route connects Kumano Hongu Taisha with Yoshino in Nara Prefecture 100km to the north, and features towering old-growth forests, precipitous cliffs, and spectacular views from some of the highest mountains in western Japan. Regrettably, one section of the route is still off-limits to women, and much of the terrain is hardly tourist-friendly, requiring a head for heights and route-finding ability. Still, the final section between Tamaki Shrine and Hongu via Mt. Godaison would be the icing on the cake for this Kumano Kodo guidebook. Perhaps the publisher will allow a slight expansion of routes for the second edition of the guide, if the book proves to be popular. Do your part now to ensure that such valuable resources continue to remain in print by purchasing this excellent guidebook.

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