Japan’s wild, mountainous Kii Peninsula, located south of Osaka and Nagoya, has been sacred for thousands of years. Ancient Japanese believed the area was inhabited by kami, or Shinto spirits, which were later incorporated with the idea of Bodhisattvas when Buddhism arrived.
Priests and emperors would come from afar and trek along pilgrimages connecting the region’s three major sites: Koyasan, Yoshino and Omine, and the Kumano Sanzan.
Today these three sites, along with many other shrines and the pilgrimage trails connecting them, are collectively classified as the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.”
If you want to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is not a one-stop attraction but rather a region that you can plan a whole trip around, which is exactly what I did in winter at the beggining of 2018. Below I’m going to share with you everything you need to know about this incredible, off-the-beaten-track World Heritage Site and how to plan your trip there!
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Good to Know: this guide to the pilgrimage sites in Japan comes to us from Nick Kembel from Spiritual Travels. He shares all about his trip on a Japan pilgrimage to the UNESCO World Heritage Site the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountains.”
The sacred, mountaintop village of Koyasan, or Mount Koya, dates all the way back to AD 816. It was established by Kukai, or Kobo Daishi, who traveled to China and founded Shingon Buddhism in Japan. He is one of the most revered figures in Japanese history and people also believe he invented the Japanese kana script.
Koyasan is incredibly sacred to Japanese, and many aspire to visit here at least once in their lives. The top site in Koyasan is Okunoin Cemetery, where Japanese people believe Kukai is awaiting the return of the Future Buddha.
Before visiting Okunoin, my expectations were high, but the cemetery, with its 200,000+ tombstones, still blew me away. Because I visited in the dead of winter, I had the cemetery practically all to myself, which made for an intimate and contemplative experience. Visiting at night was particularly awe-inspiring, but it was so cold that I couldn’t take pictures for long before my fingers started to freeze.
Another highlight of staying at Koyasan is that most accommodations are temple stays (shukubo) in the town’s 50+ major temples. Staying is a temple in Koyasan is not a true monastic experience, but rather like staying in a traditional Japanese guesthouse which happens to be in a gorgeous temple. It is definitely set up for tourists and you don’t really see the behind-the-scenes temple activities, but I still found it to be a very enjoyable experience and loved being able to spend the time in the gorgeous temple setting.
At 7 am (6:30 in summer), guests should wake up to observe the Morning Prayer and Homa Fire Ceremoney, in which monks beat drums, chant, and burn sticks which guests have written prayers on. It’s done purely for tourists, but haunting and evocative nonetheless.
One of the best parts of the temple stay for me was the amazing shojin ryori, or Buddhist vegan set meals, that are served by the monks directly in your room. The food is meticulously and artfully prepared, and the goma dofu (sesame tofu) is the best tofu I have ever eaten (and I have been eating mainly vegetarian for nearly 20 years).
Also, you may be surprised to find that you can also order beer or sake with your meal! As a vegetarian, beer lover, and temple aficionado, this was a kind of heaven for me. Also, for people with tattoos, you will happy to know that you can bathe in the temple bathhouses (people with tattoos are not permitted in many of Japan’s traditional onsens).
Besides visiting Okunoin cemetery and chilling in your temple stay room, you can also visit Garan, a large park with several large shrines, Konkobuji, the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect, and there are several walking trails around the village.
Practicalities for Visiting Koyasan
The Nankai Koya line takes about 1.5 hours from Osaka, and the ticket includes a ride on the Koyasan cable car. After you disembark from the cable car, there are regular buses into town. The town is small enough that you can walk from one end to the other in about 20 minutes.
Note that when I visited in early 2018, the cable car was out of order from storm damage in late 2017. There was shuttle bus service from Hashimoto to Koyasan.
Where to Stay
Staying a temple at Koyasan is a must, and most of them are 10,000 to 13,000. If you find this a little steep, there is one great hostel in town. For me, I felt the cost of staying in a temple was more than worth the experience, and made up for it by staying in some cheaper places elsewhere on my trip. I found Eko In to be the best of the two I tried, but it is also quite popular and can be full and reviewers complain of noisy tourists in high season.
Read about my stay at Eko In Koyasan for more information about temple stays in Koyasan, Okunoin Cemetery, and visiting Koyasan in winter.
Yoshino and Omine
Mount Yoshino and Mount Omine are two sacred mountains located in Nara prefecture, not far from Koyasan.
Mount Yoshino figures prominently in ancient Japanese poetry. Several shrines located on the mountain are pilgrimage sites, including Yoshino Mikumari Shrine, Kimpu Shrine, and Kimpusen-ji.
However, nowadays Yoshino is mainly known among tourists as a sakura (cherry blossom) viewing destination. Some even say it is the best cherry blossom viewing spot in all of Japan, with over 30,000 cherry trees, the first of which were planted some 1300 years ago. The best time for seeing the cherry blossoms at Yoshino is early to mid April, but it is packed with tourists at that time.
Nearby Mount Omine is another sacred mountain in Nara, and is known for Ominesanji, a temple on the top which is the headquarters of the Shugendō sect of Japanese Buddhism. The whole mountain is a pilgrimage destination and training ground for ascetic hermits, but it is less accessible for tourists and requires a hike to get there.
Because I was visiting in February, when the region was covered in snow, I didn’t make it to these two mountains.
Getting to Mount Yoshino and Mount Omine
Yoshino can be accessed from Osaka, Kyoto, or Nara (2-3 hours by train each way). The Yoshino ropeway up to Yoshino village on the mountain takes five minutes, but lines can be very long in peak season.
To visit Mount Omine, you can take the trail which beginsoutside Kimpu-jinja in Yoshino, or get to there by train or bus to Dorogawa onsen and climb from there to the summit. The walk takes around 3 hours, and the usual pilgrimage season is from May 1 to September 30.
Where to Stay
If you do want to spend the night on Yoshino, hot spring hotels such as this one are a great option, especially in winter, but many people go as a day trip from Osaka, Kyoto, or Nara.
On the east coast of the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama prefecture, there are three incredibly important Shinto-Buddhist shrines that serve as the headquarters for thousands of temples across the country.
The first and most important is Kumano Hongu Taisha in Hongu, which sits at the intersection of several main pilgrimage routes. It is a beautiful Shinto-style shrine made of Hinoki (Japanese cypress) and surrounded by calm forest.
Despite its importance, it was very quiet when I visited in winter. I stayed at an amazing hostel in Yunomine onsen, a small spring village that has the only UNESCO-classified hot spring in the world. To get from my hostel to the temple, it was a one-hour walk along one leg of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, and also passed Otorii, the largest Torii gate in Japan.
Staying in Yunomine onsen was one of the highlights of my trip. This tiny village is famous for Tsuboyu, the only UNESCO classified hot spring in the world. The spring is in a tiny 1-2 person hut on the river, which you can use privately for 30 minutes. In ancient times, pilgrims would bathe here at the end of their walk, so you can now do the same!
I also loved staying in Yunomine because there were two other awesome hot springs within walking distance of town.
The second and quietest of the Kumano Sanzan is Kumano Hayatama Taisha in the town of Shingu on the coast. When I visited this pretty, vibrant orange temple, I was the only visitor on the entire temple grounds, watching as the temple attendants swept and did morning prayers.
The third and most visually stunning is Kumano Nachi Taisha. This mountaintop temple complex overlooks Nachi-no-taki (Nachi Waterfall), the highest waterfall in Japan. The picture postcard view looks out from the temple grounds at Seiganto-ji pagoda, with Nachi waterfall in the background. After that, you can walk all the way down to another shrine at the base of the waterfall.
Read more about the Kumano Sanzan here!
Getting to the Kumano Sanzan Shrines
The three Kumano Sanzan shrines are major stops on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage (see below), so many visitors arrive on foot.
I did not get to these temples by walking. Rather, I caught the train from Koyasan to Gojo, where I transferred onto a 4-hour bus ride (the longest public bus route in Japan!) to Hongu. After staying in the area, I took the bus from Hongu to Shingu, where I stopped to see Kumano Hayatama Taisha, before getting back on the same bus to Kumano Nachi Taisha.
I would suggest you stay for a few nights in Hongu or Yunomine like I did, then visit Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha in one day and leave the area by train from Nachi train station.
Where to Stay
I would strongly suggest staying at J-Hoppers Kumano Yunomine. I’m usually not even a fan of hostels, but this one was amazing, with really private capsule-style dorms, three onsens that you can use privately, and it’s right on the Kumano Kodo trail. Blue Sky Guesthouse in Hongu is also highly recommended.
Walking the Kumano Kodo
The most rewarding way to enjoy the highlights of this UNSECO World Heritage site is to walk the region’s pilgrimage trails. There are in fact four main routes that you can walk:
The Nakahechi Route is by far the most popular one. Most people do it in 2-4 days, starting on the peninsula’s west coast near Tanabe, and finishing at one of the three Kumano Sanzan. I would recommend visiting Koyasan first, then getting to the start of this walk by public transportation.
The tougher Kohechi Route starts in Koyasan and connects to the Kumano Sanzan. The Ohechi route runs along the coast, and finally the lesser-known Iseji route connects the Kumano Sanzan and Ise Grand Shrine, the most important shrine in Shintoism.
See here for more details about how to get a taste of the Kumano Kodo walk without doing the whole thing. I loved this option, because I wanted to see all the famous shrines in the area, but I didn’t particularly want to walk for days on end to get to them, and I was still able to walk a few small sections of the Kumano Kodo from where I stayed.
I also felt that visiting the Kumano Kodo in winter was great because I had the trail all to myself, and loved the crisp, cool weather (lowest temperature was around zero at night), but the most popular times are in spring on fall, while summer could be a little too hot.
Getting to the Komodo Kodo
For the Nakahechi Route, most people take the train from Osaka to Tanabe (2.5 hours), from where there are buses to the start of the walk (various starting points, 30 min to 1 hr). At the end of the walk, Shingu, Naichi, or Katsuura train stations have connections to Ise, Nagoya, or Osaka.
Where to Stay
Accommodation along the route is in traditional guesthouses, where you can expect to pay 8-12,000 yen per night, with a cheap hostel option in Yunomine onsen that I mentioned above.
There is a huge amount of information about the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, getting around the region, and booking traditional guesthouses on the English Tanabe tourism website.
How Much Money to Bring
To be honest, visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site is not cheap, but there are ways to balance your costs.
Guesthouses are the biggest expense by far. Many of them charge per person, and if you travel alone, they charge a solo-use room fee. Traveling alone, I spent over 10,000 yen on some guesthouses, but under 3000 for hostels, so in the end, it balanced out to about 7500 per night for accommodation.
The good news is that there isn’t much else to spend money on! Guesthouses mostly include breakfast and dinner, and visiting most of the temples and shrines listed here is free. So if you want to make a trip budget, go with a rough guess of 7500 yen per day for guesthouses, 2000 for lunch and snacks, your bus and train ticket prices, and souvenir/drinking budget, then you should come up with a decent guess!
Note that most guesthouses take cash only, but I found that some (especially in Koyasan) accepted credit card too.