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The important Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine. Picture: Bronwyn Brown

Hidden deep within the Kii Peninsula are a series of ancient pilgrim paths, known collectively as the Kumano Kodo: the Kumano Old Road.

These mountain paths date back to the 10th century and link the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Tanabe and Wakayama to the three grand shrines of Kumano. These three grand shrines - Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha - started out as popular pilgrimage destinations for the imperial family and aristocrats, before gaining popularity with commoners during the 15th century.

In 2004, Unesco declared the Kumano Kodo along with its sacred sites and shrines to be World Heritage sites - making this only one of two pilgrimage routes to achieve this status, the other being the more famous Camino de Santiago in Europe.

Many sections of the ancient mountain paths have been restored and with comfortable traditional guesthouses along the way (known as ryokan and minshuku) it is now possible to undertake your own pilgrimage and walk your way into a small part of Japan's history.

The beauty in undertaking this pilgrimage is threefold - you get to see amazing mountain scenery and actually have the time to appreciate it; you get to immerse yourself in the traditional Japanese way of life, including how they sleep, eat and bathe; and you get to take part in something much bigger than yourself, a sense of achievement that comes from successfully completing your pilgrimage, whatever your motives, as others did so many hundreds of years ago.

We started our adventure by taking the train from Kyoto to Tanabe. Near the train station there is an excellent tourist information office where they will answer any of your questions (in perfect English) and have many maps and brochures on the Kumano Kodo. We stopped here to have lunch before catching a local bus to our pilgrimage starting point, Takajiri.

Our four-and-a-half-day pilgrimage took us 70km along the Nakahechi route, through remote mountain paths and forests, past innumerable oji shrines and, most importantly, to two of the Kumano grand shrines - Hongu Taisha and Nachi Taisha.

The pilgrimage does test your fitness and endurance, with many long, lung-cleansing inclines followed by steep and slippery, joint-jolting declines. The scenery throughout the whole trail is breathtaking - from pristine mountain vistas, to misty wooded forests, to bamboo groves and lush river valleys.

We stayed in five quaint little villages along the Nakahechi route, where our hosts were always welcoming and very helpful, even if they didn't speak much English. Our dinner each evening was a gastronomical delight, each meal cooked freshly by our hosts and consisting of pickles, noodle soups, fried fish, tempura seafood and vegetables, sashimi and sticky rice. We washed down all this wonderful food with delicious local sake.

Each guesthouse had a lovely traditional communal Japanese onsen for bathing. An onsen is a hot spring bath, which the Japanese believe to have healing properties. Whether it does or not, soaking in a lovely hot bath is the perfect end to a tough day of hiking and a great remedy for aching muscles.

Each night we stayed in tatami mat rooms and pulled our futon mattresses out of the closet to convert our living room to a bedroom. We would leave the window open to enjoy the cool mountain breeze throughout the night, and slept the wonderful deep sleep of those who have earned it.

Our pilgrimage came to an end at the grand shine of Nachi Taisha, in a lovely little tourist town called Nachi-san and which is also home to the sacred Nachi-taki waterfall. Here we had a communal dinner with other pilgrims and shared stories of our experiences on the Kumano Kodo. We all agreed; it had been a tough but highly rewarding experience.