Katsuragi 28 Shuku Kyozuka Trail

Follow in the footsteps of the first of the Yamabushi

By Gary Luscombe    - 8 min read

Japan is renowned the world over for its pilgrimage trails. Walking along the mysterious Kumano Kodo or trekking the Nakasendo feature highly on many a traveller's bucket list. But there are also a number of old roads and trails that are hardly known at all.

One such half-forgotten trail is the Katsuragi 28 Shuku Kyozuka that runs through the mountains separating Osaka, Wakayama and Nara Prefectures. This pilgrimage trail dates back to the 8th century and follows a line of 28 tiny shrines. It starts on the island of Tomogashima, off the coast of Wakayama and finishes at the Yamato River south of Shigisan.

It is said to mark the very first route that a young En-no-Gyoja took through the mountains when he first started laying the foundations of Shugendo, the mystic, ascetic form of training practised in the mountains by Yamabushi.

A portrait of En-no-Gyoja
A portrait of En-no-Gyoja (Photo: Public domain)

En-no-Gyoja was born in the middle of the 7th century near Mount Katsuragi in Nara Prefecture. He spent his youth exploring the Kongo and Ikoma mountain ranges and developed a great understanding of herbs. He founded numerous temples in the region, from small temples such as Kanshin-ji in the city of Kawachinagano to the massive Kinpusen-ji on the sacred mountain of Yoshino.

While they tend to be overlooked by most hikers, they are still commonly visited by modern Yamabushi. This can be seen in the fresh, inscribed wooden tablets left at them. And despite it being virtually unknown outside of the Yamabushi world, the Katsuragi 28 Shuku Kyozuka has recently been awarded cultural heritage status.

The Katsuragi 28 Shuku Kyozuka

The pilgrimage trail is roughly 80km long, as the crow flies, but the exact distance is hard to measure as it can sometimes be very difficult to locate a direct route between Kyozuka. The first 18 shrines lay along the mountain range separating Osaka and Wakayama prefectures and the final 10 between Osaka and Nara Prefectures.

Several Kyozuka sit along the Diamond Trail, a popular hiking route that runs from Mount Makio in Osaka to Mount Nijo in Nara. Though they often go unnoticed or treated as a simple curiosity by the hikers who pass them. Some however are quite a bit harder to find and require leaving the trail by some distance and a fair amount of exploration to pinpoint.

Approaching Kyozuka 15
Approaching Kyozuka 15

I only became aware of this trail very recently. Through my work in the tiny village of Amami in southern Osaka, I knew there was one unusual little shrine in the Nagaretani area but I didn't know the significance and had never visited it.

As it happens, there are a total of four Kyozuka in the city of Kawachinagano and this was the 16th in the series. I then discovered that number 15 was on nearby Mount Iwawaki and 17 was hidden deep in the woods right on the border with Wakayama Prefecture. Number 18 was much further away, in the village of Chihayaguchi and quite far off the Diamond Trail.

Kyozuka 15

The 15th shrine in the sequence is located on Mount Iwawaki, a mountain popular with hikers year round, though particularly in Fall due to the pampas grass field at its summit. The Kyozuka itself is hidden on a small, wooded outcrop a few hundred meters up the road from the mysterious Iwawaki Temple.

Iwawaki Temple
Iwawaki Temple

The trailhead is difficult to spot; just a break in the trees and one very small sign but there is a great sense of serenity here and it is easy to see why this location had been chosen. Previous visitors had left some unusual offerings; a smaller version of the conch shells used by Yamabushi and a selection of what looked like coral.

Kyozuka 15
Kyozuka 15

Kyozuka 16

The next Kyozuka can be found at the top of the village of Nagaretani, again very close to the road but difficult to access. While there is one clear sign to point you in the right direction, once you get into the trees there is very little to guide you.

The steps to Kyozuka 16
The steps to Kyozuka 16

After just a few meters though, the short trail widens into a clearing bordered by a low metal fence to keep out the wild boar. To find the Kyozuka, you must carefully climb the fence and look for a short ladder made of logs to help you scale the hillside. The Kyozuka can then be found a short distance away, along a very narrow and quite slippery path.

Kyozuka 16
Kyozuka 16

Kyozuka 17

The 17th Kyozuka is somewhat more difficult to reach. It is actually located at a rest stop on the Diamond Trail, right on the Osaka / Wakayama border. Anybody hiking the Diamond Trail from Mount Kongo, through Kimitoge to Mount Iwawaki will likely pass it.

It can also be accessed from Nagaretani, up a virtually unmarked road followed by a hike up a quite poorly maintained trail. The route is quite direct but is made challenging by slippery surfaces and many fallen trees.

Fallen trees block the path to Kyozuka 17
Fallen trees block the path to Kyozuka 17

Once at the rest stop, the shrine itself is just a few meters away from a storage hut, though just off the trail enough that you can walk straight passed it without knowing it is even there. This is the largest of the four Kyozuka in the area and the perpetual half-light this deep into the forest gives it the most mysterious feeling.

Mysterious Kyozuka 17
Mysterious Kyozuka 17

Kyozuka 18

The last of the Kyozuka in Kawachinagano is also the most difficult to reach. It is a long way from the Diamond Trail and far off any of the more commonly used hiking trails in the area. One way to reach it is to walk up through the village of Shima-no-Tani on the eastern side of Amami.

Eventually the road here turns into a hiking trail and you can follow a route north until it eventually turns back into a road. This lonely farm road leads to the village of Chihayaguchi and can also be reached from Chihayaguchi Station on the Nankai Koya Line. The road in this direction is very steep and takes at least an hour to reach the trailhead.

The hidden trail to Kyozuka 18
The hidden trail to Kyozuka 18

The Kyozuka itself can be reached along another virtually unmarked trail at the point where the farm road finishes. Along an old creek bed, it leads into an especially dense area of woodland and up onto a low ridge.

Kyozuka 18
Kyozuka 18

With trails leading off to your left and right, taking the right-hand trail brings you very quickly to a path so steep, you must pull yourself up using a rope that previous visitors attached to the trees. The Kyozuka rests silently on this tiny hilltop and the only way back down is to use the rope. The challenge of not only finding this Kyozuka, but actually reaching it, was very satisfying.

The climb to Kyozuka 18
The climb to Kyozuka 18

While this trail is used almost exclusively by Yamabushi, it is an interesting and challenging route for explorers looking for a more spiritual alternative to the Diamond Trail. It takes roughly 4 to 5 hours to walk from Kyozuka 15 to 17. With an early enough start, you could also include number 18 though I personally wouldn’t recommend it as the area is quite isolated. A better alternative would be to do a loop from Amami Station, through Shima-no-Tani then down to Chihayaguchi Station.

I have not included pictures of the trail heads and have left the descriptions deliberately somewhat vague as the challenge of finding the Kyozuka is perhaps the most important part of the journey.

Getting there

All four Kyozuka can be reached by walking from Amami Station on the Nankai Koya Line.

To walk them in numerical order is more difficult as there is no public transport direct to Mount Iwawaki. Most people walk to the mountain either from Amami or by hiking from Takihata Dam to the west.

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Gary Luscombe

Gary Luscombe @gary.luscombe

I work for a very traditional ryokan deep in the countryside of southern Osaka. I have a fascination with Japanese history and culture and am lucky that my work gets me deeply involved with both. When I am not welcoming guests or assisting in tea ceremonies, I can be found wandering the the more unknown historical sites and nature trails of southern Kansai.I am also the Japan Travel regional partner for Mie Prefecture so if you have any questions, or even suggestions for cool places to visit, feel free to drop me a message! 

Join the discussion

Susan Tumanon a week ago
Nice article. I was wondering if you saw fellow adventurers along the trail?
Gary Luscombe Author 2 days ago
What made 18 most difficult was trying to climb while carrying my trekking pole (although that day I was using a big umbrella I borrowed from Chihayaguchi Station).

I didn't know how far away the Kyozuka was after the climb or if there was another way down so I took my umbrella/pole just in case. As it happens, the shrine is right at the top of the climb so next time I would leave the pole at the bottom.
Alena Eckelmann a week ago
The trail is well-known in Yamabushi circles in the Kansai area and many followers of Shugendo walk this trail each year as part of their training. As such it is an ascetic training trail and the Kyozuka are places for prayer along the trail. 28 Kyozyuka = 28 chapters of the Lotus Sutra, one chapter each buried at these prayer stations. Have you read the Lotus Sutra yet?
Alena Eckelmann a week ago
Well, you could read a chapter of the Lotus Sutra but some chapters take more than one hour. Chapter 25 is quite short. Or, alternatively, recite the Heart Sutra and the En-no-gyoja mantra.
Kim a week ago
Hadn't heard of this route at all, so thank you for highlighting it!
Gary Luscombe Author a week ago
There is virtually no information on it at all outside of Yamabushi circles. Although it recently received cultural heritage status, I didn't know that until I started looking into it a little more.

I didn't realize looking into the background of one curious little shrine near the ryokan would open up such a huge world!
Bonson Lam a week ago
Great article! I wonder if getting lost is part of the journey here, to immerse yourself in this ancient land.
Bonson Lam a week ago
I think a series is a great idea, readers can follow their own journey as they make the way through each article. I also love how the sunlight bathes the way and the leaves in the first photo.