- 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.
- Settle into an authentic Japanese ryokan and soak in the neighboring Kawayu Onsen, one of the oldest hot springs in Japan.
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.
Arrive in Osaka and transfer to our hotel. Meet for an orientation and welcome dinner at a local restaurant.
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 for dinner. (5 miles hiking, 3-4 hours)
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, 820' ascent)
Starting from Takahara, we continue eastwards along the Nakahechi pilgrimage trail. Hike through lush cedar forests, passing old tea houses and small jizo bodhisattva statues placed by locals to protect travelers, 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, 4 hours, 1,200’ ascent/descent)
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, 780’ ascent/descent)
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. (6 miles hiking, 5 hours, 1345' ascent/1065' descent or option for 2 miles hiking, 1 hour, 855' ascent/670' descent)
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 in to 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.
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.
This morning, stroll past the cherry trees that line the Philospher's Path, then venture into the gardens of Nanzenji Temple for a Zen meditation session. After lunch, we 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. (2-3 miles hiking, 4 hours)
In the morning, visit Tokufuji Temple, which features a unique zen rock garden. Then enjoy lunch with a maiko, or apprentice geisha, and learn about her ancient arts. After lunch, 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. After time at leisure, meet up for a farewell dinner. The next day, transfer to the airport for your flight home.