Hayatama Taisha enshrines a beautiful 800-year-old nagi tree; Kamikura Shrine pays tribute to a gigantic rock, Gotobiki-iwa, on top of Gongen Mountain.
Before heading to the last grand shrine of Kumano Nachi Taisha and the stunning Nachi Falls, pilgrims enjoy one of the easiest walks of the journey, which starts from Daimonzaka. (To get there, visitors can hop on one of the regular buses that pass through Shingu and get off at Daimonzaka.) This section of the hike is on a gentle slope made up of cobblestone stairs lined on both sides with gorgeous Japanese cedars.
Scenery aside, it's a great place to take in some old school cosplay action. Plenty of pilgrims head for Daimonzaka and change into traditional Heian-era kimonos from the 8th century.
"We dress up in these old kimonos once a month and walk to Kumano Nachi Taisha," a 27-year-old walker from Osaka named Sanae Takano told me as we shared a stretch of trail.
"It's the fourth time we've visited the Nachi Taisha in traditional kimonos," added her companion, Toshifumi Kurinobu. "It's how the earliest pilgrims traveled in ancient times."
Heian kimonos can be rented at the Daimonzaka Chaya teahouse by hikers who want to dress the part.
Best short route: Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha
Another easy walk is the Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha route. (See the green line on the map.)
"This walk takes about two hours through forests and farming communities," says Towle, of Tanabe City's international tourism promotion and development department. "It ends at Hongu Taisha, the grand shrine."
When I walked the route, I stopped at the Fushiogami-oji Chaya (tea shop), which is run by a group of volunteers of a local women's association.
In addition to volunteering at the shop, Matsumoto Seiko leads tours around the Hongu shrine.
"I have led 12 tours in April alone," said Matsumoto, who was born and raised in the area.
"When I was younger, I was working in Osaka. My accent from the countryside made me very conscious and shy, but since my hometown has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I'm so proud to introduce it to others."
In addition to tea, the shop serves shiso juice and coffee made from local hot spring water.
Up for a challenge? Try this route, tiger
Fit pilgrims will want to hit the 14.5-kilometer route between Koguchi and Nachi, which is said to be the most challenging section of the pilgrimage.
"It's a three-hour hike up the mountain from the 60-meter high village of Koguchi to 800 meters at the peak," says Towle.
"Going down the other way to Nachi is just as bad. That's why it has a nickname -- 'sore-back slope.'"
Where to stay
Chikatsuyu-oji and Kumano Hongu Taisha are the towns where most Kumano Kodo visitors crash for the night -- both offer plenty of accommodation options.
With its three historic onsen (hot spring) areas, Hongu is particularly popular.
Yunomine Onsen has a small public booth beneath the bridge and a public hot spring pool. Wataze Onsen has a public swimming pool that can be accessed for a nominal fee.
I stayed at Fuziya (rates from JPY14,700/$151 per night, including two meals), one of the two bigger ryokans (guesthouses) at the Kawayu Onsen. It's the only place where holes are dug along the river to create natural outdoor bathing areas.
Travelers with enough time might want to consider the Takahara Kiri-no-Sato (Village of Mist) rest area.
Just four kilometers from Takijiri-oji on the way to Chikatsuyu (which you'll recall is the most common first stop on the Kumano Kodo trail), the area is known for its mystic, foggy mountain scenes.
Takahara Lodge (rack rate from JPY10,444/$107, including two meals) has a scenic dining area at the terrace, which is sometimes used for concerts.
A rental house overlooking the mountains is also available (JPY6,930/$71 per night).
What to eat
The local Wakayama food is as fulfilling as the pilgrimage itself. And far less exhausting to deal with.
Booths set up by local villagers dot the trails of Kumano Kodo, each offering different local products for hikers, from homemade lunchboxes to hot tea and handicrafts.
Transactions are based on the honor system -- travelers drop the requested amount in the collection box and take the objects of their choice with them.
Restaurants in Tanabe City and Nachi Katsuura are famous for their fresh local produce.
Bonito tuna is a star, whether eaten raw or the creative soft-fried version found in Bodai, Nachi-Katsuura.
In Tanabe City, there are more than 200 restaurants cramped in a few alleys that make up Ajikoji, or Corner of Tastes.
While fish markets usually open early in the morning, the port of Tanabe City operates in the afternoon servicing local restaurants.
Shinbe is a family-run restaurant with memorable bonito tuna sashimi.
"Restaurants here mostly serve locals instead of tourists, so they must be very good and affordable at the same time," says Towle.
That said, English menus are available in many of the restaurants.
Other local specialties include umeboshi (pickled Japanese apricot), oranges and whitebait (baby sardines).
Getting there and around