A Transformational Pilgrimage for Spiritual Seekers

Kumano Kodo - The Best Hiking Destination in Japan.

The unspoiled mountains of the Kii Peninsula in central Japan are home to the three sacred places of Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan, and Yoshino/Omine. Spiritual connections to the Kumano region date back to prehistory, and these three areas hold a special spiritual significance for the Japanese people. In particular, these and other cultural and natural features of the Kii Mountain Range have deep connections with Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion, Japan’s unique schools of Buddhism, and Shugendo, which is a synthesis of the two. In July 2004, these three sacred places of worship, the pilgrimage routes connecting them, and the cultural landscape formed over time by nature and human activity, were recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

What is the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage?

The Kumano Sanzan, located deep in the south of the Kii Peninsula, has long been revered as a sacred place where Shinto and Buddhist deities reside and where the spirits of the dead gather to be reborn. Kumano Sanzan is the collective name for the three most important shrines in the area: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha. It was believed that by making a pilgrimage to Kumano, overcoming the trials of the journey, and offering prayers at the shrines and to the natural beauty all around, one could ensure happiness in their next life, as well as experience a kind of living rebirth among the vibrant nature, itself in a constant cycle of life and death. This is the Kumano Pilgrimage.

Walking Ancient Paths of Prayer

Kumano Kodo is the network of historic walking paths that weave among the Kii Mountains and lead to the Kumano Sanzan. These routes include the Kiiji, Nakahechi, Ohechi, Kohechi, Omine Okugake Michi, and Iseji. Each has its own story to tell, difficulty level, and unique scenery. The “kodo” of Kumano Kodo can mean both old road–literally referring to the pavestones beneath your feet worn smooth by natural processes and generations of pilgrims–and old way, as in an old method of thought or teaching. For hundreds of years, pilgrims and other travelers have walked these same roads among these same trees and mountains. A few steps here and you will understand why these paths are as much a place of prayer and meditation as the Kumano Sanzan they lead to.

The Iseji Route

The most well-known and most visited Kumano Kodo route is the Nakahechi, but because of this, overcrowding has recently become a problem and finding lodging has become tricky. The Iseji route has yet to see the numbers of tourists that other routes regularly do, so not only does this help with accommodations, but it also means a more traditional and authentic experience, not to mention a more tranquil one. Here, you’ll also enjoy more varied scenery than other routes due to it being the only one that traverses both along a stunning coastline and through verdant mountains, allowing a unique glimpse into the lives of people in rural fishing and farming villages. The Iseji route also boasts the longest cobblestone paths, so your feet can touch the exact same stones that the pilgrims of old did. This ancient pilgrimage route is a true unspoiled gem, where you can enjoy the natural beauty of the Japanese countryside and experience true pilgrimage culture.

The History of Kumano Kodo Iseji

The western routes of Kiiji and Nakahechi were the paths taken by nobility from the mid-Heian to the Kamakura periods. In contrast, the eastern route, Iseji, became popular from the Edo period onwards and was the path of the common people, such as travelers who had finished their Ise pilgrimage or toured the 33 sacred places of western Japan (The Saigoku Thirty-three Kannon Pilgrimage). Travelers changed into their special pilgrims’ attire at Tamaru, the traditional starting point of the Ise route, and crossed the steep mountain passes on their way to Kumano, fulfilling a life-long dream for many.

Our Mission for the Area

Heartland Japan is dedicated to supporting rural communities with sustainable tourism that not only respects but helps preserve unique local cultures and traditions. For instance, guidebooks of the time say that pilgrims in the Edo period wore a red oizuru jacket or vest over the standard pure white pilgrimage costume. Your own oizuru awaits you as you help us to preserve the same experiences of Edo period pilgrims. The oizuru are made of local fabric, hand-sewn by local craftsmen, and will have an inscription hand-written by a local calligrapher. Just as these traditions and skills were passed down to these artisans through the generations, Heartland Japan is committed to passing on these local traditions to future generations throughout the world. Come join us on your own transformational journey, your own pilgrimage through the spiritual heart of Japan.

Tour Application Information

Application deadline: September 30, 2024, 18:00(JST)
*Landing from Europe, Oceania and North America

FeePlease see itinerary pages below
Tour LeaderMari Ohara or Ted Taylor
Language of GuidesEnglish
Tour operatorHeartland Japan (Liberta Inc.)

Heartland Japan Original Packaged Walking Tour of Kumano Kodo

These videos will give you an idea of the story of the hiking field and how wonderful the trails are.

This is a video of the latest walk, a 12-day itinerary. It depicts the walk from Ise Grand Shrine to Nachi Falls, enjoying the contrast between the beautiful mountains and the sea.

A local researcher of Kumano Kodo Iseji talks about the value of an ancient pilgrimage trail Iseji. It provides a glimpse into the story of efforts to pass on to the next generation.

This is a two-and-a-half-minute summary of the actual walk from Ise to the Kumano Sanzan. Get an idea of the historic pilgrimage route.

This video is just over 16 minutes long, so it may seem a little long, but it gives a more detailed feel and specific image of the actual trail of the route you will be walking.

Vol.2 Day9
-Nigishima-toge Pass

-Okamizaka-toge Pass
-Atashika Beach Hadasu
-Obuki-toge Pass

Vol.3 Day10
-Matsumoto-toge Pass

-Hanao Iwaya, Shishiiwa
-Konouchi Shrine


Vol.4 Day11 -Traditional “Sandanbo” Sail Boat -Hayamata Taisha Grand Shrine -Kamikura Shrine -Miwasaki -Ukui
Vol.5 Day12 -Fudarankusanji Temple -Pictorial Guide of Kumano -Bikuni Nachi Mandara -Mandara no Michi -Daimonzaka -Nachi Great Falls -Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine -Seigantoji Temple

Kumano Kodo Iseji -What people have to say about their experiences.

Reiko Sono

Researcher on Japanese culture and religion in US

The mountain passes were very beautiful and the beaches on the way down were tropical and beautiful

Asakichi Ryokan impressed me with its history. The local guide was very friendly (Day-1).

I felt the love of the local guide when we crossed the mountain pass, was a really nice person (Day-4).

It was a day of nostalgia and humanity on the old road and in the seaside town (Day-6).

It was very nice to just climb the mountain. The mountain paths were long and tough, but if you took your time, it was fine. I didn’t know that the Koshinko ceremony is still practised today. It was a very valuable experience to hear about it (Day-7).

The focaccia and burgers were delicious (Day-8).

The mountain passes were very beautiful and the beaches on the way down were tropical and beautiful (Day-9).

I think it’s a good climax. Starting from Ise, a famous sightseeing spot, it felt like coming back to the human village again (Day-12).

Christopher Jon Nelson

Marianas Trekking and Guam Adventures
Founder in US

Some of my favorite moments were experiencing the homes and residents of the small fishing villages that we slept in each night

I have spent a lot of time hiking around the world in places like Peru, Nepal, Tanzania, Patagonia, Hawaii, and Spain. This trip was one of the best hikes and overall trips that I have ever participated in.

Japan is such an interesting country and I have had the good fortune to spend quite a bit of time there. Kumano Kodo means “old road” and while the country itself races forward, the old roads stay in place, but you do have to look for them and the look is well worth it. Customs, traditions, and nature are still a major part of the fabric that makes up rural Japan and the ability to see that in a relatively compact, safe, and stunningly beautiful area is a graduate level course in Japan.

We walked on the Iseji Route which hugs the eastern side of the Kii Peninsula with the Pacific Ocean never far out of sight. It’s a land of forests, streams, mountain passes, and fishing villages. Much like the Camino de Santiago, its’ importance lies not just in reaching the destination but in the journey itself. Along that journey there is a mixture of faith, history, tradition, culture, and a real world connection to those who walked before us and those we walk with today.

The trail tells a story that is simultaneously ancient and present, and some of my favorite moments were experiencing the homes and residents of the small fishing villages that we slept in each night. It’s easy and interesting to find a personal connection with both the locals and the group that you walk with. This rural part of Japan is getting smaller in population each year and many of the residents are elderly. It feels important to be there now. The mountain passes are quite manageable and filled with beauty, the Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples are interesting as well, and the food was terrific.

This is experiential tourism at it’s best and my goal became to somehow leave the destination better than I found it. You will learn a lot about Japan on this journey and perhaps even more about yourself.

Alena Eckelmann

Inbound tourism specialist from Germany living in the Kii Peninsula in Japan

Kumano Kodo Iseji is local and authentic, not mass tourism but still an insider location that few people have traveled so far

The lunch stop at Atashika in the middle is just right and the accommodation at the end is well located for this this day. Taking time over lunch and talking with the owner couple of the restaurant about their lifestyle and activities is nice local interaction. The option of interaction with the locals is interesting for some visitors.

Kumano Kodo Iseji is local and authentic, not mass tourism but still an insider location that few people have traveled so far.

Visitors prefer small family run restaurants and accommodations to have more interaction with the locals and local feeling.

Dermot Killoran

Irish-born photographer and writer living in Tokyo

Through this shared experience, you get to know and experience new friendships with your companions

Walking on the Kumano Kodo Iseji Pilgrimage

In mid December of last year, I had the pleasure of participating on the Heartland Japan walking tour of Kumano Kodo Iseji Pilgrimage. This was in Mie prefecture and starting from the Ise Grand Shrine, the tour works its way south through the Kii Peninsula travelling a distance of 160 KM (99 miles). During the Edo period (1603-1868),Japan was quite a different place compared to the modern hectic image it is so well known for today.

Back in history, Japan was a very spiritual place with the culture and everyday life steeped in the beliefs of Shintoism. This tour traces one of the pilgrimage routes to Kumano Sanzan through woodlands and over mountain passes which are often only single file width. What struck me most is that this area is covered in mountains and woodlands and much of the physical environment has been mostly unchanged for over a thousand years. As you journey through these same well worn paths that the pilgrims of the past walked over you begin to experience a spiritual closeness with these long gone travellers who had come this way. 

You climb up over very stones they treaded on. The calm and mystical stillness of the dense giant trees seem to vibrate and whisper encouragement as if to keep you trekking onward to your journey’s destination.  This emotional experience serves to open your mind and spirit to an older and authentic Japan that has been fast disappearing in the world of today. Although living in Japan for nearly 30 years, I have to say this tour opened my eyes to a side of Japan and an experience that I had never encountered before.  

On a small pilgrimage group like this (usually 8 to 10 fellow travellers) you get to know and experience new friendships with your companions.  Some of the participants were Japanese who seemed to be encountering a part of their own culture that they had barely experienced or known about except from their school history books. It was clear that they were captivated by the sense of that old Japan they were encountering.

Other participants were visitors from overseas who were equally mesmerized by this ancient and hidden side of Japan. For them, it was an experience of the country that foreign tourists are mostly unaware of and rarely get to participate in. These are the memories of a personal journey and an unique experience that will hold a special place in their hearts long after they return to their home countries.  

Through this shared experience we bonded as a group and ended our time together by enthusiastically taking photos of each other and swapping our social media contact informations.

(And yes, even some tears were shed!). 

These are the experiences, memories, and friendships of the Kumano Kodo Iseji Pilgrimage that I will always cherish.

Two short presentations of my memories.

Kumano Kodo Iseji 1

Kumano Kodo Iseji 2

Jim Z.Selkin

Professional travel photographer  working internationally

I got the essence of what the this trip meant to pilgrims

Hearing the lady’s talk about the folk religion was quite interesting(Day-7).

Interesting story of the yama-no-kami as the female deity but has human feeelings(Day-8).

Midori-san’s explanation [through Xiaoling’s the translater] was very interesting and helped in understanding the life cycle and symbolism of Nachi falls.

The way this particular version of the Kumano Kodo Iseji route was structured, it would appeal first to an adventure crowd and then to spiritual practitioners.

I realise that this was a condensed version of the tour, with a lot of varied experiences put in. I got the essence of what the this trip meant to pilgrims.

There are many ways to draw more people from various markets while incorporating sections of the Iseji route(Day-12).

Jim Z.Selkin’s Photo Gallery

Comments from the people who have experienced this pilgrimage route, experts in individual fields, and fans of the Kumano Kodo Iseji.

Camila Wada

Tourism marketing Specialist

This trip had amazing experiences that I will never forget. The trails were easy to walk, and it was easy to prepare for each day we had a clear picture of the distances to cover. We had the chance to exchange words with many locals on our way (shop owners,  joggers, hikers, and even school kids having their physical education class!).  What I appreciated the most of the preparation of this tour was the shipping service of the luggage. Would my family or friends visit Japan, I would gladly do this tour again with them. One highlight for me was the cleansing of the soul we performed in a river on the way to Nachi. The feeling and the views at Nachi falls and Daimonzaka were just amazing. The horagai conch-shell performance was a lovely surprise too. Nachi was so beautiful, I loved it so much, that I wished I had one full day to spend there!

Fernando Vincente Padilla Parot

Co-founder of Cicloaustral Cycling Tourism

Sacred places, entertainment and beautiful and important history of the pilgrimage in some places.  The best of the days pass the pass, the encounter with the river and birds in the shrine and the home stay was lovely.  The sea views are spectacular, small guests house and community development through tourism.  The authentic story from the mandala mixed with the beauty of landscaping create an special last days atmosphere.  This is good for people interested in nature based tourism, cultural heritage tourism, slow tourism, sustainable and community based tourism, even mountain tourism and religion based. Can be also young couple inbound tourists with work, group of friends and solo trip, joining with other in a scheduled tour.  Thanks for everything, don’t forget that this type of travel experience can also be connected with friendship development if you invite people yo join same tour from different countries.

Robyn Janelle DeVoe

Travel designer for an American travel agency

This trip is for those that are looking to get away from the crowds, enjoy forest bathing, coastal villages, long walks, fresh seafood, and learning from the local people. It is for those that prioritize an immersive experience over luxury accommodations. The hiking itself feels doable for a wide range of fitness abilities with frequent stops and unexpected sights. Shrines with majestic thousand-year-old trees were interspersed with stunning coastline. In the evenings we often had the pleasure of staying with local hosts and cooking traditional Japanese meals together.  We learned about the spiritual side of this place, the notion of “nature worship” – a sense that this trail is a welcoming teacher to all, no matter what beliefs the traveler carries. We certainly worshiped nature on this trek, the views were incredible, including from atop a rocky outcropping where we found ourselves “closer to the spirits” and closer to each other, as a group. Along our route we supported the communities we passed through, sampling a wide variety of mandarins grown by the local farmers, and enjoying a tour on a traditional wooden boat, witnessing the next generation carry on practices from the elders. We were accompanied by locals each day who enthusiastically shared their passion and stewardship as caretakers of sections of the trail that passed through their communities. The blend of both natural landscapes and connections with the people on our route made this trip uniquely special. To be accompanied by a local nun, dining in small town pubs, dressed in kimono by women who live here, and taken under everyone’s wings like a friend, this is the essence of being a traveler and not a tourist, to have a deeper experience with a place than scratching the surface of bucket list sites. I feel quite lucky to have experienced these places today as the raw, undiscovered, “real” side of Japan. I hope you celebrate the great success of this trip and I look forward to spreading the word about this region.

Pauline Kitamura

Professional trekking guide

Watching the Kagura at Ise Jingu was very good. And watching and being able to take part in the Ise Ondo dance was a very good experience.t was also nice to be able to make our own Goshuin stamp books. Midori-sans performance and lecture about the mandala was particularly excellent and a wonderful way to start off the tour. Asakichi Ryokan was a very interesting historical hotel. Our room was also very nice.
The tea ceremony at Kinoshita-san’s house was was an excellent and very enjoyable.
It was very good to have a local guide providing explanations along the way as it made the walk more meaningful. His costume was good too.

Route map provided by a contributors who experienced Iseji

Location of the Kumano Kodo Iseji

Heartland Japan Original Packaged Walking Tour of Kumano Kodo

Feedback from our customers

My husband and I had an incredible week on a private tour in May. From the booking process to the end of the tour, we cannot recommend this trip highly enough.

Being lucky enough to have private tours of soy sauce factories, sake producers, blacksmiths and being able to meet with the owners, executives and their families enabled us to have incredibly informative discussions an gave us great insight and understanding into the effect of depopulation on rural Japan and the desire these passionate people have to revitalise their region.

Being greeted with a bunch of home grown flowers in the colours of the Japanese flag by the mother of our bright and breezy local guide Naoko before heading out on her grandfather’s fishing boat, followed by abalone and other fish on an open fire shows the thoughtfulness and consideration of these beautiful locals. The food was incredible, the passion and gentleness of the people, their willingness to share their time and culture, the tea ceremonies, the onsens, the temples, shrines, pagodas, camellia forest, kagura performance.

If you are looking for an “off the beaten track” experience with people who are real and passionate and who love their land, this trip is priceless.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any queries.

(Charmian Hayes/New Zealand/Apr,2019/Hagi&Tsuwano Waking Tour)


This is our fifth trip to Japan, previously having walked the Nakasendo and Kumano Kodo, gone snowshoeing in Nagano and gone from Tokyo to Hirado with a different tour company. We are so glad that this time, we booked a trip with Heartland Japan.

The whole experience can be described as a moveable feast. Every day brought a new experience, and showed us a different facet of Japan.

Riding a fishing boat to catch the sunset, then riding with Naoko early in the morning to haul their catch for the day, feeling the force of nature at the Susa Hornfels, watching history unfold at the Samurai museum, walking in the footsteps of great, resolute men who shaped Japan in Hagi, tea degustation at Tsuwano, learning and making pottery with Seigan-sensei… it is impossible to choose a highlight.

The whole trip was a joy from start to finish, and left us with some sadness that it had come to an end.

Kimura-san was an excellent guide- patient about my incessant questions, anticipating our needs and even arranging a surprise to celebrate our wedding anniversary at dinner.

Heartland Japan truly lives up to its aims of providing unique glimpses of Japan for its guests. We plan to travel with them in future!

(Jane Estrella/Australia/Dec,2019/Hagi&Tsuwano Waking Tour)


Photo Gallery of Kumano Kodo Iseji Pilgrimage Walking Tour

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