I knew I was going to have to climb 538 stairs to get to Kamikura Shrine in Wakayama, Japan.
What I didn't know was that those steps -- leading to the lofty highlight of my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage -- would be on a 70-degree incline.
Ever tried climbing a rock face? Or the roof an A-frame house?
Run a rolling pin over your calves a few times and you'll get an idea of what I was looking at.
Already exhausted from hiking Kumano Kodo's ancient trails in the Kii Mountains -- the route starts about an hour by train from Osaka -- the only things pushing me upward were the encouraging smiles from a grandpa, a girl wearing a long maxi-dress and salarymen in stiff shirts and dress pants who walked past me as if they were taking a stroll to the grocery store.
So, was that uphill torture worth it? Of course -- what great hike isn't?
Anyway, the rest of the trail was relatively easy to get through -- the biggest obstacle was all the stops for photos.
And there is good reason for that. The views and little stops along the way make this one of the best (and possibly most overlooked) treks on the planet, a glorious march -- or in my case, occasional scramble, that includes hot springs retreats, delicious local food and rich cultural insight into a relatively unexplored part of Japan.
When I say unexplored, I mean for international travelers. Though the pilgrimage has been in operation for more than 1,000 years it remains quite off the map for most visitors to Japan who consider Kyoto or Osaka a far enough detour from the main access point of Tokyo.
And this is a good thing -- because it means a richer, more peaceful experience for those that make it to Wakayama prefecture and the Kumano Kodo. And for those that think Japan is expensive, food and accommodation prices are better than reasonable.
This guide will give you all to know to capture a truly epic adventure. And like most epic adventures, there's a bit to it.
The religious stuff
Before getting too carried away with directions and recommendations, a step back.
Kumano Kodo is the name of a hiking route made up of seven trails that snake through the Kii Mountain Range in Japan's Wakayama prefecture. As you can see by the inset map it is about 100 km south of Osaka.
It's one of only two pilgrimages in the world registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Spain's Way of St. James is the other.)
To characterize the experience solely as "a pilgrimage" doesn't do Kumano Kodo justice.
Though there is some stiff competition, Kumano Kodo just might be one of the world's top nature hikes.
The route dates back more than a thousand years, when imperials and aristocrats took weeks-long journeys from as far away as Kyoto to hit up the area's three major Buddhist/Shinto shrines, Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
Together, the trio of shrines is referred to as Kumano Sanzan.
Instead of a 30-day commitment (as walkers doing Way of St. James sign up for), Kumano Kodo's infrastructure makes it possible even for the exercise-averse or time poor to enjoy the area's mountains, cedar-filled forests, farms and hot springs.
If you don't have the strength, time or desire to do the entire pilgrimage -- not everyone considers walking 40-plus kilometers a holiday -- there are other ways to take in the highlights (the gallery above shows most of those).
Kumano Kodo has a good transportation network that allows hikers to bite off shorter walks by traveling to various points along the route by bus or train.
The full Kumano Kodo hiking experience takes four or five days.
Help from higher authorities
Regardless of spiritual beliefs, most visitors find it's useful to learn about the local religious culture before embarking on the Kumano Kodo experience.
Along the way, walkers encounter about 100 "oji" (subsidiary shrines of Kumano Sanzan), at which Japanese pilgrims stop and offer prayers.
The oji's purpose is to enshrine natural landmarks in the area -- be it an ancient tree or a majestic waterfall.
Here's the routine: drop a coin in the donation box in front of the shrine, ring the bell above the box, bow twice and clap twice, pray then bow once more. Got it?
"Any coin is fine, but the most common is the five-yen coin, called 'goen' in Japanese," says Brad Towle, director of Tanabe City's international tourism promotion and development department.
"It means 'good relationship' and offers hopes for a bonding with God."
Where to start
Among the seven major Kumano Kodo routes, Nakahechi, which stretches from Tanabe City in the west to Shingu in the east, is the most popular and what we are focusing on here.
Local buses run from Tanabe City's KiiTanabe train station to Takijiri-oji, the entrance of Kumano Kodo and beginning of the Nakahechi route. (Check out the "Getting around" section at the end of this article for the link to an English-language bus schedule.)
Here you'll find an information center offering details on the route, as well as free bamboo hiking sticks and a booklet to fill with stamps from various landmarks along the hike.
Bamboo stick in hand and five-yen coins in pocket, Kumano Kodo hikers usually reach the Chikatsuyu-oji mini shrine in Nakahechi on the first day. It's about 16 kilometers from the Takijiri-oji entrance and takes about six hours of walking.
The following day is a whopper -- hikers trek 26 kilometers from Chikatsuyu-oji to reach Kumano Hongu Taisha, the first main shrine on this route.
Kumano Hongu Taisha was relocated to its current location from Oyunohara after being salvaged from floods in 1889.
There's a large exhibition hall and information center nearby with an interesting mix of details on the pilgrimage.
Most pilgrims then take the 90-minute boat ride from Hongu down the Kumano-gawa river to Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kamikura Shrine in Shingu -- the one with all those steps.
(Click on the map above for an enlarged look at all the routes.)