A thousand years ago, Japanese aristocrats would take weeks-long treks between three Shinto Buddhist shrines in Kumano, the southern part of the mountainous Kii Peninsula in Wakayama.

The Kumano Kodo, as the network of trails became known, weave across waterfall-laced mountains that in spring were peppered with the blossoms of wild cherry trees, through dark and eerie forests cut with raging mountain streams and past majestic wooden and stone temples and Shinto shrines seeped in history and spirituality.

Dressed in the white of the dead and shunning meat and garlic, the nobles made these pilgrimages to purify themselves and pray to the deities they believed were dwelling in the trees and rocks.

Kumano was widely regarded as the birthplace of Japanese culture and spirituality; walking its trails was deemed a celebration of nature.

The trails were declining in popularity before receiving World Heritage status in 2004, one of only two pilgrim routes in the world (the other is the Way of St James in Spain).

Even after the recognition, visitors were few and mainly Japanese, paying homage to the three main shrines, Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha, or tackling the physically demanding trails. But thanks to a new English-language website, which provides detailed route notes and maps, bookings at small mountain guesthouses en route and a pick-up, drop-off bus and luggage service, Kumano Kodo is now attracting non-Japanese as well.

The revival project was spearheaded by the Wakayama Prefectural Government to not only reinvigorate the trails but to offer a new source of income for rural people living along it. Depopulation, trade liberalisation and dwindling government funds have seen more than half of Japan’s farms abandoned since the 1970s. Many of those that still exist along the route are decrepit, the rice terraces dried up and their farmers ageing.

“We’d like to use tourism to create jobs and keep people in the countryside, while regenerating the pilgrim route from the base up,” Shingo Uoi, from the Tourism Exchange at the Wakayama government, says.

We are lunching at Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge, a ryokan – or inn – and restaurant in Takahara, our first stop on a part-driving, part-walking trip along the Kumano Kodo. Perched on a vertiginous hillside, with spectacular views over rolling hills blanketed by forest in every shade of green, this ryokan is one of many along the trail serving foraged herbs and wild vegetables; delicacies in this part of the world and high on my hit list of Kumano’s hidden treasures.

The lodge has prepared a smorgasbord of mountain morsels spread out on plastic mats: boiled konnyaku (otherwise known as devil’s tongue), knotweed, wild spinach, carrot and sesame, eggplant with onion and a sukiyaki broth made from dashi and teamed with fatty slivers of pork.

Kumano Kodo’s most popular trail, the Nakahechi route, officially starts at Takijiri-oji, a few kilometres downstream. But as we are travelling the trail the cheat’s way – a few kilometres walk, twice as many driving – we’re completing the first leg the easy way, downhill.

Traipsing through Takahara, we pass a woodcarver selling walking canes and three-legged crows, the symbol of Kumano. Veering off the trail, we stop at two sacred camphor trees, each about 800 years old, which locals believe to be inhabited by kami, or spirits, and decorated with zigzagged waxed-paper hangings called shide.

The trail, here barely a metre wide, winds through bamboo groves, up flights of stone steps – the rock worn smooth with thousands of pattering feet – and along the crest of a hill, occasionally poking its head out to vistas soaring across the mountains. The air is scented with pine and abounding with bird song and dappled sun glints through the forest canopy.

We stop for the night at Kawayu Onsen, a small clutch of ryokans beside a mountain stream bubbling with hot springs.

Some trekkers have made bathing ponds by building walls using river stones and, wrapped in ochre-coloured kimonos, are dipping their tired trekking legs. I prefer a full body soak, so retreat to the relative peace of our ryokan’s stone-lined bathhouse.

Kameya Ryokan, our lodging for the night, also uses herbs and roots foraged from the forest floor in its nightly meals. We are served a salad made with wild rocket and daikon, charcoal soba noodles, sea bream and squid, silken tofu, fatty cured pork, herb-infused rice, miso with fresh seaweed and the most spectacular, sweetest and succulent custard made from local mikan, an orange mandarin. The proprietor boasts there are only 900 calories in the whole meal.

Bursting at the seams, we retire to our tatami-lined rooms with windows opening to the gush of the stream below. My room’s low-slung table has been replaced with a dense futon mattress and rice-filled pillow – a combination more traditional than comfortable.

Up early the next morning, we meet a man with wire through his earlobes and tattoos on his hands, who has brought his pet baby goat on holiday to Kumano. Bleating softly, the pampered kid ravages a bowl of hay while the townsfolk of Kawayu Onsen drop by to remark on the owner’s good fortune.

Starting at a small farming village, we hit the trail, ambling through cedar and cypress forest, passing mountaintop villages terraced with tea bushes and fields of bright yellow and orange calendula flowers. We stop to buy freshly picked shiitake mushrooms from a roadside honour stall and again to place a coin under an oji, a small shrine for a deity, this one for healthy teeth.

At noon, we stop at Fushiogami-oji, a mountain pass with views down a pine-filled valley. This is where the ancient pilgrims would first glimpse the spiritual heart of Japan: the Kumano Hongu Taisha, a shrine perched on a sandbank at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi rivers, to which all Kumano Kodo trails lead.

Partially destroyed by flooding in 1889, the shrine was moved uphill and a dark-hued torii, or gate, built in its place. It’s the torii we can now see from Fushiogami-oji, as we picnic on bento boxes of balls of rice and vegetables wrapped in pickled leaves.

The Kumano Hongu Taisha is, for me, the most beautiful of Kumano’s three main shrines. Wooden and thatch pavilions with pitched roofs and elaborately carved awnings front a white pebble garden and back up against a forest of camphor trees. Devotees ring a bell attached to a length of thick white rope three times before bowing deeply and saying a few words of prayer.

In the past, pilgrims would travel by boat down the Kumano-gawa to reach the next grand shrine, the orange-coloured Kumano Hayatama Taisha and, from there, to Kumano Nachi Taisha by foot. We make the journey by car.

It’s mid-afternoon when we reach Kumano Nachi Taisha, a series of temples and shrines halfway up a mountain with views tumbling down to the sea and across to the impressive Nachi-no-Otaki, Japan’s tallest waterfall, which pours out of the forest and free-falls to the bottom of the mountain.

The Nachi Taisha bustles with devotees tying shide to an ancient tree in the temple courtyard and lighting incense in a cast-iron bowl guarded by two dragons.

Like us, most are modern pilgrims, having made the journey by car.

The Kumano Kodo might have modernised but it lives again.

Five must-try delicacies in Wakayama

Pickled ume fruits, known as salt plums in English, grow prolifically throughout Wakayama. They are best devoured as umeshu; a sweetish liquor teamed with ice and a dash of soda water.

A large “orange-mandarin” that grows without seeds, Mikan’s syrupy brightly hued interior is best eaten fresh.

Shirasu (Whitebait)
These translucent immature fish the size of a child’s finger are best drawn from the waters around Wakayama.

Katsuura, on Wakayama’s west coast, is one of Japan’s biggest tuna ports. Try chutoro katsu, tuna steaks coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried, a local delicacy you are unlikely to find anywhere else. Just beware of the tuna species: Bluefin, highly prized in Japan, is an endangered species.

Forest herbs and mushrooms
Foraging may be the latest buzz word for international fooderatis but the ryokan kitchens in Kumano have been doing it for centuries.

Touring there

Tanabe City, about 110km south of Osaka, or one hour by train, is the best starting point for exploring the Kumano region. The Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau’s website has free audio guides and hiking maps. It also lists timetables for the get-on, get-off bus service, luggage drops plus you can book taxis, ryokan accommodation and picnic boxes to eat en route. Takijiri-Oji is considered the point of sacred entry to Kumano. The 40km journey to Kumano Nachi Taisha can easily be broken into two or three days.

More information

See tb-kumano.jp/en

This article appeared in the September 21, 2013 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers.