We tried it: Hiking 70 miles of pilgrimage routes in Japan

"On these trails, I realize that it's not how quickly I get to the destination, but what I experience along the way," writer Susan B. Barnes on her 11-day hike in Japan. Courtesy of Susan B. Barnes

On our first day of hiking the Kumano Kodo, I look up to where the trail ascended, set my sights on the arching tree tops reaching for the sky, while at the same time trying to quiet my breathing.

Fumiko, the REI Adventures guide on our journey along this network of five pilgrimage routes in Japan, had forewarned our group that a continuous steep path makes the first 10 minutes of the hike the hardest, and advises us that we could easily back out and take the bus to our ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn.

I begin to feel my quads and glutes burn -- 10 minutes in -- and wonder how I will make it through nearly 70 miles of hiking over 11 days. Then I remember what I saw in the pilgrimage center just before we began our trek at Takijiri-oji. Heian-era Kimonos, the traditional attire worn by pilgrims on their quests for worship and spiritual purification, were on display. But what sticks with me now, as doubt starts nudging me off the path, are the geta, traditional shoes that resemble flip-flops or wooden clogs. I figure if generations of pilgrims could persist in that footwear, I can certainly follow in their footsteps in hiking gear.

Rise and Shrine

The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes, designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, cover 191 miles and cross Kii Hanto, the largest peninsula in Japan at 6,152 square miles. The routes have been traveled for more than 1,000 years by members of all levels of society, from merchants and peasants to retired emperors. Their destination was the three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha, collectively known as Kumano Sanzan. By worshiping at all three of these Grand Shrines, pilgrims believed they would achieve spiritual purification.

At each Grand Shrine, our hiking group of nine stop and make our own personal spiritual offerings. Each time, I feel a sense of calm wash over me, and my thoughts clarify. The mostly quiet trail is lined with bright green leaves bursting from the boughs of trees, with cherry blossoms splashing delicate color. These surroundings distract my mind from the physical challenges, allowing me to focus on the journey. Brief breaks to catch my breath and take sips of water let me surrender to the experience. On these trails, I realize that it's not how quickly I get to the destination, but what I experience along the way.

Baring My Soul -- and More

Nearly 20 miles and six days into our trip, we leave the Kumano Kodo, traveling by train and bus roughly 200 miles to the Japanese Central Alps and the Nakasendo Trail. My body is thankful for the rest day. The Nakasendo is an ancient trading route connecting Kyoto and Tokyo that was used by feudal lords en route to the shogun in Tokyo; today, hikers make up most of the traffic. The Nakasendo gives us a different experience than Kumano Kodo, leading us through a series of historic post towns. Groups usually hike the Kumano Kodo or the Nakasendo, but the distance separating them makes hiking both of them relatively uncommon.

Our trip's itinerary begins in Kyoto and will end in Tokyo, after a series of hikes, between three and seven miles, with elevation changes of up to 1,400 feet. Along the way we are introduced to regional cultural experiences. Before flying to Japan, I had spent time brushing up on its customs: how best to greet the locals (with a slight bow of both my head and body); the nuances of shoes (remove them when arriving, face them in a certain direction, change into slippers and later into "bathroom slippers"); and chopstick etiquette (never stab your food).

On the trails, the thought of entering an onsen, a communal Japanese bath, separate for women and men, continues to give me pause. Though I always love a good soak in natural hot springs -- it's that I will be au naturel that stops me in my tracks! Onsen is the only bathing option available on four of the days of the trip; but when we arrive at larger accommodations, en-suite personal shower and bathing facilities were available.

I have never been a woman who is self-confident when it comes to body image, and bathing in front of strangers -- let alone people I am becoming friends with on the trails -- is daunting. Fortunately, the first few inns are small and our group fills most of the rooms, so we schedule private bathing in the onsens amongst ourselves. After my first individual onsen at Organic Hotel Kirinosato-Takahara, I understand the draw -- the soaking tub, fed by hot springs, soothes my aching muscles and lull my tired body into complete relaxation.

On our last day of hiking we stay at Nukumorino-yado Komanoyu, a larger ryokan, and the allure of the large, public onsen outweighed my body image insecurities. After some back and forth -- literally, from my room to the onsen and back few times -- I committed and was all in. As I settled into the warm water, with the other bathers, I came to the realization that it was not uncomfortable at all; my anxiety was for naught.

I'm Coming Home

My visit to Japan comes to an end on April 5, and on the (long) flight from Tokyo to Atlanta, I realize I am transformed. Not only was I challenged physically on my own pilgrimage, but mentally and spiritually. Along the way, I built up strength and endurance, overcame a poor body image and enriched my spirituality. This experience, and the beauty of Japan, has become a part of me.

Susan B. Barnes is a freelance travel journalist whose bags are always packed and ready for her next adventure.