Hiking the Ancient Choishimichi Pilgrimage Trail to Koya-san

Quick Summary For Those Short On Time:

  • Cost: 2000 yen round trip train cost, 0 yen to hike the trail
  • Distance: 24km
  • Time to Complete: 7 hours +, took me around that much time and I moved quickly due to the short days in December
  • Trails: Well kept, but still rugged
  • Hiking Boots: Yes
  • Hills: More like mountains
  • Trail Marking: Stone pillars every 109 meters exactly
  • Station to Start: Kudoyama Station
As the sun rose on a frigid but clear December day in Japan I was locking the door to my small 15m apartment and making my way to the train station. Even with full winter gear on I couldn't help but shivering as the sun's heat still hadn't had time to warm the land of the rising sun.
After a brief walk I hit my Icoca card on the train station gate and entered catching one of the first trains of the day. The only ones around me where bleary eyed businessmen on their way to a long day at work.  From there I began a two hour journey from my little town of tsukaguchi to the even smaller town of Kudoyama.
During the trip with each train change the trains felt like they were going further and further back in time. By the time I reached Kudoyama station I was on an ancient train that could only move at a crawl on the dated rails of the Ki mountains.
After disembarking I swiped out of the station and took in the amazing view that now surrounded me. I was on the foothills of the Ki mountain range with a beautiful clear winter morning surrounding me. I was a little bit groggy but needed to get up early in order to complete the Choishimichi trail before the sun went down. It was the second week of December so the days were short.
I was determined to complete the 7-8 hour hike before the sun set in the evening!
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The train station was a small train station that looks like it doesn't get many visitors. From here I knew I needed to head west in order to hit the trailhead. Where exactly this trail head was however I didn't know. I figured it shouldn't be too hard to locate.
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I started to walk through the sleepy town of Kudoyama following signs for the trail-head. The temperature was about 3 degrees (37 degrees Fahrenheit) on this Saturday morning so there was barely a soul in this town out and about at this time.
I pushed on through the town taking in my surroundings happy to be out of the big city for a while. The views of the area were just breathtaking.
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After trekking through the town for a while I ran into someone who I think worked for the town. My Japanese wasn't good enough to get that information. All I know is that she guided me to the trail-head and chatted with me along the way. It was just another example of the kindness shown by Japanese people.
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From the trailhead it was around 23.5 KM to Daimon Gate through an ancient forest spread through the Ki mountains.
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This is when I saw my first marker. These choishi are placed every 109 meters and count down in kanji to Daimon gate. These were put here in 1285 and most of them are still original! The number of significant people that must have followed this trail and touched these same markers was mind boggling. I still can't believe I was able to stare up closely at something that was put in the ground nearly 900 years before!
The trail quickly ascends into the mountains from Kudoyama. At this point the hike had warmed my body enough that I was able to take off my heavy winter jacket and start hiking in just a light jacket.
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After about an hour of hiking I stumbled upon an overlook that showed all of Kudoyama and the mountains that surrounded it. I was astounded by the beauty of the area I was in. The only sounds I could here from here was the soft rustling of the wind. It was a nice break from the trains and cars that I heard from my apartment in Tsukaguchi.
After quite a bit further in hiking I left the town behind and was left with nothing but nature and the occasional fellow hiker to accompany me. It was so peaceful in the mountains. The course while at times was difficult was very well maintained. The markers also kept me on the right track. Several times there were poorly marked forks in the road and I could tell if I was on the right path by going 109 meters and seeing if I could find a marker. If not, I turned around and went the other way!
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The fall and winter colors of the trees were amazing and added a nice color break from the sea of green you would see in the summer.
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About a quarter of the way through the trail you will stumble upon this torii. The rock below it is actually sacred and is a UNESCO world heritage site. It was apparently the spot where a famous monk had some sort of enlightenment. I have never been to a UNESCO world heritage site before that was all to myself. This alone was worth it!
As the day progressed the views only got better and better. The trail ran along many small towns where people were going about their business uninterrupted by the tourists that must frequent the trails.
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My favorite view was of this quiet farm village deep in the mountains where everything just felt so peaceful. These kinds of places are the kinds of places that don't care about politics, or world news, or anything else bad in the world, nothing like that is really important for their small village.
As I neared the end of the trail about 6-7 hours had passed and I was getting exhausted. I started counting down the markers until the end. Luckily I could read the kanji on the pillars and was able to keep track of how many were left.
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Even though I was exhausted the view never diminished during the entire trip. The forest was so incredibly beautiful and undisturbed. I felt like this was the same forest that so many pilgrimages probably traveled through out the centuries.
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After about 7-8 hours I counted my last pillar and made it to the end of the pilgrimage. It felt amazing to have completed 24 km in a single day. I was so exhausted as I made my way through the temples at Koyasan. I was so tired I forgot to take any more pictures.
After making my way from Daimon gate to koyasan I found the first 7-11 and grabbed some food. From there I found a bus that would take me to koyasan station. The next bus however didn't arrive for another hour. The train station however was only about a kilometer away. I waited for the bus. I was too exhausted to go any further!

Tips for the Choishimichi Trail

  • Once you hit the trail there is only 1 small shop on the way that only sells snacks. So make sure to bring some food to eat on the hike! I recommend some granola or anything that will keep you energy levels up throughout the hike!
  • The same goes for water! Make sure to bring plenty of it! I went in 30 degree weather so I didn't have to worry about it as much, but if you go in the warmer months it could be a major problem! Especially since the first part of the hike is without any shade.
  • Make sure to wear hiking boots or shoes. these trails are well kept, but they are not paved, there were several locations I would have rolled my ankle if I didn't have on my hiking boots.
  • Bring a good camera, you will use it a lot!
  • Read up on bear protection, there was a sign near the end of the hike that a bear had been spotted recently, I doubt you will have to worry about it, but it is bear territory, so make sure you know what to do in that situation!
  • Lots of people hike there and then spend the night at the temples, make sure to make a reservation beforehand if you want to do the same!
  • Please respect the pillars. I touched only 1 the whole time just to say I did, these things are 800+ years old, don't disrespect them!

Getting To The Choishimichi Trail

There are many different ways to get to Kudoyama station from Osaka station, they all depend on the time you start the journey, here are the directions for the way I took:
  1. From Osaka station get on the Osaka Loop Line in the counter-clockwise direction. This will be on platform 1.
  2. Ride the train for 8 stops until you get to Shin-Imamiya Station. Get off here.
  3. When you get off the station you will need to change to the blue Nakai-Limited Express Line. This should be on platform 3 of that station. Get on that train.
  4. After 6 stops and about 45 minutes you will get off the train at Hashimoto station.
  5. Switch to the Nankai-Koya Line, it should be marked in green at the station. Get on that train!
  6. After 3 stops you will reach Kudoyama station.
  7. From here follow the google map directions I have below. Follow this path and then make a left at the intersection where the directions end. That will be the trailhead of the Choishimichi trail. From here just keep looking for the markers that will lead you all the way to the Daimon Gate!

Alex Anderson