Man wearing traditional pilgrimage costume

Kumano Kodo

With so many temples and shrines squirreled away in its mountains and valleys, it should come as no surprise that hiking in Japan is almost inseparable from pilgrimage.

Our favorite way to soak up history, lose ourselves in the landscapes, learn about religion — and see people in great hats — the Kumano Kodo is a portal to a totally different side of Japan. A network of ancient footpaths criss-crossing the mountainous south of Osaka, the Kumano Kodo has been pounded by priest and pilgrim alike for over a thousand years, linking three major Shinto shrines via numerous tiny villages, onsen towns, and traditional inns. Historically, people from all levels of Japanese society would undertake the pilgrimage, from aristocrats and samurai to commoners, and you’ll find people of all ages and nationalities retracing their steps today.

When our senses are buzzing from information overload and our heads perhaps a little fuzzy from too many beers on Dotonbori, we come to the Kumano Kodo for a little balance. Japan can be intense, but it can also be serene — and if you’re the kind of person who loves to drop into bed exhausted, happy and full of home-cooked food after a day of rambling, there’s no better place to do it. You don’t need to be spiritual, and you don’t need to have to have weeks to spend. All you need is an appreciation for the simple things: sleeping on tatami-mat floors, eating hearty local fare, soaking in outdoor hot-spring baths and rubbing shoulders with your fellow pilgrims.

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