Iseji Route: The Eastern Route of Kumano Kodo

Man walking in forest in Japan

I am on my way to walk part of the Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo. I reach for my camera bag a little hesitantly. Mt. Fuji is fully visible on this overcast winter day in Honshu. It feels strange that I still get excited every single time that I get a look at the perfectly picturesque peak of Mt. Fuji. After all, I have traveled to Japan five times before, and I now live here, in Tokyo, where you can get clear views of Fuji on most winter days.

The uncool excitement that I still feel about Mt. Fuji (being the only one reaching for their camera/mobile phone in Nozomi, which is the fastest Shinkansen not covered by the Japan Rail Pass, thus mostly used by residents) is a good sign for the week ahead. I am bound for Mie Prefecture to cover part of the Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo for my first week-long solo trip after I moved to Japan nearly a year ago. I am excited but also a little nervous if the magic is lost, and I no longer feel as moved by the things I see in Japan now that I call it home. The whole trip turns out to be the antithesis of my fear. 

Kumano Kodo: the ancient pilgrimage route of Japan

Iseji Route and the entire Kumano Kodo are integral parts of Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes located in the Kii Mountain Range. The region was added to the list of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites in 2004 (more than ten years after Yakushima, which is proud to be the first UNESCO Heritage Site in Japan along with Shireteko in Hokkaido).

Morning pray at Joki-in along Kumano Kodo

The route is part of the region including Yoshino, Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koyasan, which are all connected not only to each other but also to the ancient capitals of Japan, Nara, and Kyoto via pilgrimage routes.

The perfect harmony between two religions, Shinto and Buddhism

What it makes the region stand out is how it reflects the great harmony and fusion between the native religion of Japan – Shinto – and Buddhism acquired from China and Korea. This harmony between the two religions is among the primary reasons leading to the inclusion of the region in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Unesco describes the region as a cultural landscape – meaning “cultural values created jointly by humans and nature” and I get the chills whenever I come across this description.

Four different routes of Kumano Kodo

There are four main routes that form the Kumano Kodo. The most popular one is Nakahechi, followed by the Kohechi trail, which is the route climbing up to Koyasan and is known as the most difficult trail among all Kumano trails.

Women walking in a forest in Japan in Kumano Kodo

The lesser-known two trails are the Iseji Route and Ohechi Route, which is another coastal route following the southern coast of Wakayama Prefecture. Nakahechi is no doubt the most travel-friendly one out of the four routes with a central accommodation booking system and luggage forwarding service (please refer to the practical information section in the second part of this post for the comparison of Nakahechi and Iseji Routes in addition to travel tips). I walked part of the Nakahechi trail in February 2018, and it was a great introduction to the concept of long walks that feel meditative in the best of ways. 

Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo: lonelier yet a wonderful option

Iseji Route, also known as the Eastern Route or the route for the ordinary people in the olden days (to separate it from the Imperial Route – Nakahechi) starts at Ise-shi and goes all the way down to Shingu. It is a 170-kilometer-long trail where you are never too far off from the sea even though you do not see it for most of the trail, which follows forests and mountain passes (and the highway).

There are more than twenty different sections and passes along the Iseji Route, which connects the most praised shrine of Japan, Ise Jingu in the Northern end of Mie prefecture, with Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine located in Wakayama. It is commonly assumed and reported that finishing the whole route may require somewhere around ten days to two weeks at a leisurely pace. 

Perfect base along Iseji Route: Owase

For my short Iseji walk, I decided to base myself in the same town for all five nights. My choice was mainly due to the lack of luggage forwarding service on the Iseji Route and the necessity to carry unnecessarily heavy things with me for my work-related duties.

Fishing boat on the sea in Japan

Following a quick one-night stop at Ise City to visit Ise Shrine (I highly recommend Kazami Guesthouse with a welcoming atmosphere and stylish decoration – all within meters of the train station), I chose Owase Town as my base for its central location, connection to the rail network, proximity to two great passes and a reasonably priced Huuhan Minshuku located right by the fisherman’s wharf. 

In the end, I was very happy with my choice as Owase turned out to be a town with many different faces.

Owase: the many faces of Japan

The first night I arrived in Owase, I was greeted by a very dark town (literally, not many street lights) and many abandoned buildings, a testament to the declining population in rural Japan. It had a very creepy vibe (somehow in a strangely visually pleasant way), and I felt like walking into the set of a horror movie. I quickly changed into my accommodation. 

But the next morning, the semi-lively town (a very reasonable degree of liveliness for the rural parts of Japan) that I woke up to had a completely different vibe. It was home to beautiful shrines and temples, a partially abandoned but still charming old street, a good range of stores for all your immediate needs, and more importantly, a beautiful fisherman’s wharf where you can watch the morning trade between the fisherman and the restaurant owners.

Magose Pass: one of the most picturesque sections along Kumano Kodo

On my first day in Owase, due to the weather forecast indicating heavy rain, I did not plan any long hikes following the advice of the locals. However, I still decided to get a sneak preview of Magose Pass, which was originally on my schedule for the next day. You can catch a local bus from Owase to the Magose Pass trailhead for a little under 400 Yen and walk the trail back to Owase.

Maybe due to the rain, the popular Magose Trail was not crowded. As a matter of fact, I ran into only one other local hiker – as I found out the next day – who walks the trail almost every single day. Magose Pass, the most well-known trail along the Iseji Route was charming and as picturesque as it is rightfully known to be.

Magose trail takes around two hours with (many) photo stops. However, there are several detours that you can take to turn it into a longer hiker – a 30-minute long steep climb up to Mt. Tengurasan and a two-hour climb up to Binshiyama featuring a semi-famous rock shaped like an elephant’s back. 

On my first day, I did not take any of the detours but walked the trail twice in anticipation of the rain. I like the dark forest feeling that the rain brings to unicolor-green trails. In the end, the forecasted heavy rain turned out to be just a light rain, but still persistent enough to turn every single rock into a slippery threat. 

Hiking up to Mt. Tengurasan

The next day I met up with Yamawaki San whom I got connected with through the wonderful guide network of the Iseji Route managed by Mie Prefecture. The trails of Iseji Route are not technical or difficult enough to require the presence of a guide. However, in my view, the company of a local guide greatly enriches the experience allowing you to have insights about the trail/region that you would not be able to discover on your own. I have always had wonderful experiences in all my guided hikes in Japan.

Yamawaki San is a retired journalist but he still contributes to the local newspaper on a freelance basis. He has been living in the area for all his life and is therefore keen to contribute to the tourism appeal of the wonderful Iseji Route. He conducted a brief interview with me during the walk listening to my story of how I ended up in Japan and also what I think of Kumano Kodo and particularly the Iseji Route.

Unlike the day before, the Magose trail was very busy thanks to the fine weather making me take off my hiking jacket in mid-February. We encountered many Japanese families hiking the trail with their very animated and happy-looking toddlers. We also climbed up to Mt. Tengurasan, which greeted us with a small shrine located right next to the stairs leading to the top of a rock offering a panoramic view of the surrounding sea. I have no complaints about the viewpoints and the beautiful panoramic scenery. But after walking through dense forests, I sometimes feel too exposed at those peaks/viewpoints and feel the urge to rush back into the forest and disappear.

My first encounter with Yamabushis

Well, I am now very glad that I made us rush back into the forest. On our way down to Owase from Mt. Tengurasan, I experienced one of the luckiest days of all my hikes in Japan – a chance encounter with two Yamabushis.

In my every guided hike in Japan, I heard intriguing stories of “yamabushis”, the mountain monks who follow Shugendo, which is – according to Japan Times – “an ancient ascetic religion combining aspects of mountain worship, Buddhism, Shintoism, and Taoism” but has never come across them before (there is a great short documentary about their practices including an interview with recent day converts).

We came across the two yamabushis including a women monk on their way up to Mt. Tengurasan. They kindly stopped and allowed me to take their pictures. They were fully dressed in white (which I understand signifies purity) with almost sock-thin white shoes, making me appreciate their endurance. They played their horagai (法螺貝) for us, a long shell allowing them to connect with the other yamabushis in the region. 

After the hike, which is very manageable even for beginner hikers, Yamawaki-san and I first visited the local shrine, the entrance of which was already covered by early Sakura in February. 

Yamawaki-san then took me to the oldest street in Owase where the shops only open on weekends. We walked by the old sento (the door of which features the image of Mount Fuji, well of course it does), which is unfortunately no longer in operation. Our last stop for the day was another temple hiding between many short streets of Owase where I was encouraged to ring the temple bell. It was a little after 1 pm, and I hesitantly obeyed and hoped that the locals would not be unnecessarily alerted by the ring at this unusual hour.

Yakiyama Pass: the most challenging pass along the Iseji Route

I took my dinner at Huuhan Minshuku, which is run by a mother and son duo, who go out of their way to make your stay a very comfortable one. Each night I enjoyed the delicious dinner menu (always including sashimi among other rotating sets of dishes) and the chance to practice my very underdeveloped Japanese with other guests who traveled to Owase for work. The highlight of my stay at Huuhan was the view of the fisherman’s wharf right from my Japanese-style tatami room and the ability to watch the fishermen prepare for take-off right before daylight.

Owase Town along Iseji Route

The Yakiyama hike, arguably the most challenging section of the Iseji Route, was on my schedule for the next day. As I had been repeatedly warned about the difficulty of the trail, I decided to pack very lightly. I only took my mirrorless Fuji X-Pro 2 along with 27mm pancake lens, 56mm, and 90mm primes. The trail deserved a much wider angle, but it was not an option for me since I broke my 16mm lens a couple of weeks earlier, and I did not want to carry my much heavier Canon DSLR and wide lens with me on this trail.

Rainbow in forest in Japan

Yakiyama Pass turned out to be one of the most impressive trails that I walked in Japan. It is, based on my hopefully objective assessment, definitely not a very difficult trail and can be easily managed by any moderate-level hiker. Yes, the first two hours involve a constant climb, but nothing too strenuous and any difficulty you may face is surely balanced out by the magnificent views along the trail. 

The perception about the difficulty of the trail may be more a result of homage to the old days when the route was infamously known to be the most dangerous route of Kumano Kodo not only due to steep sections but also the bandits and wolves, which deserted the area around two hundred years ago. There are many tombstones lining the trail, a testament to the difficulty of the trail and the lives that it claimed in the old days. 

The trail takes you up to a viewpoint where you get superb views of the sea and the surrounding peaks, but it was again the inner moss forest parts, which stole my heart. Out of all the trails that I walked in Kumano Kodo including Nakahechi Route, Yakiyama Pass was the one trail where I truly felt like following the footsteps of old pilgrims.

Other trails of Iseji Route

Now that I live in Japan, I left the other trails of the Iseji Route for another visit (including the famous Matsumoto Pass). My week-long trip down to Mie and Wakayama included more stops such as Ise Shrine, Yunomine Onsen in Wakayama – thanks to the kindness of Yamawaki San – Nachi Falls and a visit to the memorial of a Turkish ship sunk off the Kushimoto cost in the late 1880s.

Practical info about the Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo

How to get to Ise

I traveled from Tokyo. I first took the Shinkansen to Nagoya where I changed to Mie rapid train, which took me to Ise town in around 90 minutes. The entire coastline starting from Ise is served by the railway, which makes it very convenient to choose one base accommodation but still cover various trails. This also helps to keep your hiking pack very light for a more enjoyable trail experience.

Where to stay along the Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo

In Owase, I stayed at Huuhan Minshuku – wonderful views of the wharf, great food, and amazing hosts, thus highly recommended (around 3500 Yen a night with no food and a little over 6000 Yen with dinner). There is also a camping ground available near Owase. 

If you start your trip in Ise City or spend a night there to visit the Ise Shrine (like me), I highly recommend the hostel-style Guest House Kazami, which offers a very welcoming atmosphere and stylish decoration (within meters of the train station).

Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo v. Nakahechi Route of Kumano Kodo

While the Mie Prefecture has one of the most useful hike-planning sites that I have ever seen in Japan, the trip-supporting services are not as developed as in Nakahechi. There is no luggage forwarding service to begin with. Also, many of the accommodations along the route are not integrated with the central Kumano Kodo booking system. 

There are more than 20 sections along Iseji Route where the trails are usually much shorter than Nakahechi unless you want to cover more than one pass in a day. I felt like Nakahechi was better in terms of that uninterrupted forest walk feel whereas, in Iseji, you quite quickly hit the towns (but luckily very pleasant towns with picturesque fishermen’s wharves). Unless you have time for the entire route, it requires a little bit more planning than Nakahechi to get the best out of the many trails during a limited time.