Japan’s glittering neon office blocks and squeezed-in houses start to fall away after an hour on the train from Osaka. At first, just a dappling of green appears in stands of bamboo and compact rice paddies. Then plum orchards blossom on hillsides as the countryside crumples into hazy, purple hills. Just before the train pulls into Kii-Tanabe, it swoops down onto a coastline of tumbled rocks and bright-blue sea. Even teenagers look up from their phones and smile at the scenery.
The journey from the pulsating streets and raucous yakitori bars of Osaka only takes two hours, but modernity and urban hubbub have peeled away, replaced by the forests and tea plantations of a rugged peninsula whose remote Kumano Mountains have long been revered by the Japanese. The Kii Peninsula is dotted with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, many linked along the ancient Kumano Kodo trail that’s both a pilgrim route and a scenic hiking path.
In the old days, it took wandering monks two months to walk here from Kyoto, carrying their staffs and begging bowls. These days, public trains and buses allow you to enjoy anything from a week-long hike to day excursions along the trail’s most scenic or historical sections. There’s still a feeling of remoteness however, and a sense of transcending urban stresses and the woes of daily life. Walks alternate between forest and views of serried hills, and accommodation tends toward the rustic but peaceful, though the peninsula’s coastal fishing-turned-holiday towns offer more sophisticated hotels. The pilgrim trail also encourages a community spirit. Hikers stop along the way, swapping information as they sip chilled plum juice from a village stand, or compare the red stamps obtained in their pilgrim booklets commemorating the shrines they have visited.
Many visitors start hiking at Takijiri Shrine, traditionally the spiritual entrance to the sacred mountains, though not necessarily the finest walk along the Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail. The path climbs steeply through a humid forest, shunning views, and making the heart pound. At the crest of the hills, pines give way to bamboo and ferns and you arrive in Takahara village. Now you’ll see what hiking here is all about: old ladies wade in rice terraces that tumble down the valley, temples hunker under gnarled trees, and the landscape opens up to endless purple ridges that turn orange at sunset. Check into Takahara Lodge and reward yourself with a restorative wallow in its hot baths, a Kirin beer, and a hearty beef hotpot with mushrooms and cabbage.