Hiking the Kumano Kodō
It's possible to hike the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodō year-round, though bear in mind that you'll have fewer daylight hours to work with in winter, so plan accordingly (it's a good idea to have a headlamp). Clearly signposted in English, the well-maintained trails are a mix of paved paths, packed earth and stone worn smooth after centuries of pilgrims treading them; the latter can get quite slippery when wet – poles can be a good hedge for balance. Otherwise, the gear you'll need depends on what level of hiking you plan to do. Bears are rare, though you do need to keep an eye out for pit vipers, mukade (big, poisonous centipedes) and aggressive hornets.
You can spend anywhere from a day to a week on the trails. For shorter visits, there are two good hikes around Hongū: the final stretch of the Nakahechi from Hosshinmon-ōji to Kumano Hongū Taisha, a gentle, 7.5km, mostly downhill hike that takes two to three hours and passes through a mix of farmland and forest, with stops at Fushiogami-chaya and a lookout point with views of Ōtorii; buses run from town to the trailhead. There's also the Dainichi-goe trail, a short (2km) but steep up and down that connects the southern end of Hongū with Yunomine Onsen in an hour or two; you can follow the hike with a soak at Tsubo-yu.
Longer itineraries may start at Takijiri-ōji, from where it's a two-day trek to Hongū (usually including an overnight stop in Chikatsu-yu village); there are villages along the way where you can pick up the Tanabe–Hongū bus, if you've hit bad weather or get in over your head. From Hongū you can continue by bus to the embarkation port for the Kumano River Boat Tour, which takes you to Kumano Hayatama Taisha in Shingū, or hike for two more days along the Kogumatori-goe and the challenging Ōgumatori-goe to Kumano Nachi Taisha, in the mountains at the edge of Nachi-Katsuura.
For more detail about the trails, see www.kumano-travel.com. You can also visit the Kumano Travel office in Tanabe to ask questions and pick up detailed trail maps.