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.