Fresh from a long hike through the lush hills and valleys of Japan's southwestern Kii Peninsula, Shugendo monks stand in their mud-splashed boots in front of the thatched-roof pavilions of the Kumano Hongu Taisha. Some chant and pray, others blow conch shells. The monks, whose spirituality mixes Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism and animism, have arrived to worship after navigating the Kumano Kodo a network of well-marked and well-maintained trails that winds through forests, fields, towns and villages nearly 600 km from Tokyo. It's a journey religious figures, royalty and regular folk have been making since the Heian period (794-1192).
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes and the sacred sites they connect have attracted more attention since making the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004, taking their place alongside Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James). That has prompted local tourism authorities to make this hidden gem more accessible by putting up English signage along the four major routes (Nakahechi, Kohechi, Ohechi, Iseji) and creating an English-language version of its website, tb-kumano.jp. The site lets you download maps, book tour guides or reserve a night or two in the ryokan (traditional inns) and minshuku (family-run guesthouses) that line the trail. Itineraries can be as short as an hour or as long as a week.
As well as shrines, there are plenty of onsen, or hot springs, en route. Yunomine Onsen, discovered 1,800 years ago, is one of the oldest in Japan. The geological wonder known as the Kawayu Onsen is another popular spot. Hot-spring water bubbles just below the bank of the Oto River, so all would-be bathers have to do is dig a hole, let the waters seep in and then sit in it. If you don't find heavenly bliss in one of the shrines, chances are you'll encounter it in your own riverside bath.