When you ask foreign tourists what they want to see in Kansai, it’s mostly Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Wakayama Prefecture is often ignored although there are many interesting spots you should check out!
I’m sure some of you have heard of Mount Koya, but did you know that it’s connected to the “Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails”? In 2004 these routes were registered as UNESCO World Heritage and they’re definitely something you don’t want to miss. Here’s why:
The sacred Pilgrimage Trails of Kumano Kodo
Kodo (古道, koudou) means “old roads”. Kumano Kodo (熊野古道) refers to an ancient network of pilgrimage trails spread throughout the Kii Peninsula, the largest peninsula in Japan. The sacred routes can be found in several places of southern Kansai including Wakayama, Mie and Nara Prefectures.
They are the only pilgrimage trails in Japan that are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For more than 1000 years these routes have been and still are used by pilgrims. Besides praying and other religious rituals, purification plays a big role during the pilgrimage. Some of the trails go through mountainous terrain, thus they are not easy and sometimes even dangerous. However, overcoming hardships like that is part of the religious background of the pilgrimage.
The mountain trails are still intact nowadays, but most of the coastal routes have disappeared. The major pilgrim trails that people still can access are called “Kumano Sankeimichi” (熊野参詣道):
Map of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails
© Wakayama World Heritage Center
The most popular pilgrim route was and still is the Nakahechi (中辺路) one. Since the early 10th century many pilgrims from Kyoto used this route. It’s a comparably easy trail and you can enjoy some small isolated villages and beautiful forest landscapes on the way. It connects Tanabe in the west with the Kumano Grand Shrines in the east. From the start point “Takijiri-oji” in Tanabe to the end point Hongu Taisha it’s about 30-40km – a distance that can easily be managed in 2 days. In Chikatsuya Oji there are a few accommodations where you can stay overnight.
The sacred Mount Koya is connected to the Kumano Grand Shrines by the ~70km long Kohechi Trail (小辺路). It runs through the center of the Kii Peninsula from north to south. Compared to Nakahechi it’s not an easy route as it consists of steep slopes. If you try to take this trail, please prepare accordingly. There are almost no accommodations or villages on the way, so you shouldn’t go alone!
While the more popular Nakahechi trail was used by pilgrims from all social ranks departing from Kyoto, the Kohechi trail was mainly used by Mount Koya’s Buddhist monks.
The Ohechi Trail (大辺路) used to be the most scenic one as it was mainly running along the coastal area of the Kii Peninsula. A major part of the original route has disappeared as modern roads were built instead. It connects Tanabe with the Fudarakusanji Temple (補陀洛山寺) which is close to Nachi Taisha, one of the Kumano Grand Shrines.
The Iseji Trail (伊勢路) leads from the famous Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture to the Kumano Grand Shrines in Wakayama. The route offers picturesque sights such as terraced rice paddies, bamboo forests and beaches along the coast of the Kii Peninsula. In order to prevent erosion the trails have mainly been covered by paved roads just like the Ohechi trail.
Maybe less important nowadays, but yet another major pilgrimage trail is the connection between the Kumano Grand Shrines and Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture. Omine Okugakemichi is a very difficult and dangerous route, so it’s only recommended for experienced hikers.
Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails Maps:
If you’re interested in trying any of the introduced trails, I highly recommend that you prepare accordingly. Luckily there are a lot of good maps and websites that will help you do so. Here’s a really good pamphlet for starters, providing some general information in English.
You should also check out the following websites:
Kumano Grand Shrines (Kumano Sanzan)
The major destination of pilgrims using the Kumano Kodo are the three Grand Shrines of Kumano also known as Kumano Sanzan (熊野三山). They are connected to each other through the Nakahechi Pilgrimage Trail. The distance between the shrines is about 20-40km.
The shrines are all located in the Kumano region of Wakayama Prefecture (map) which shouldn’t be confused with Kumano City in Mie Prefecture. If you have a car, you can probably visit all three shrines in one day, but it’s safer to calculate 2 days so you can really enjoy the ancient atmosphere and walk along (a part of) the Kumano Kodo.
Actually more than 3000 Kumano shrines exist in Japan nowadays. However, all of these originated from the head shrines, the Kumano Sanzan. Each of those shrines has received their kami (god) from another shrine. Predating all modern religions in Japan, the religious cult originating from the three Kumano shrines has a very long history. While each shrine once worshiped its own distinctive form of nature, they were later worshiped together as the three deities of Kumano under the influence of the Shinto-Buddhism fusion.
More detailed blog posts about each of the three shrines will be published soon. Here’s a short introduction of the Kumano Sanzan:
Kumano Hayatama Taisha
Kumano Hayatama Taisha (熊野速玉大社) is located in Shingu City (Wakayama Prefecture) near the Kumanogawa River. Some of the shrine buildings have been rebuilt, but the location has not changed since at least the 12th century.
Every year on February 6th a traditional fire festival called “Kumano Otomatsuri” is held.
Kumano Nachi Taisha
Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社) is located in the Higashimuro District of the Kii Peninsula (Wakayama Prefecture). It’s about 350m above sea level which is halfway up Mount Nachi.
The nearby waterfall, Nachi no Otaki (那智の大滝, lit.: the big waterfall of Nachi), has been worshiped since ancient times and is the religious origin of the shrine. In the past the shrine was located at the foot of the waterfall.
Annually on July 14th the fire festival “Nachi no Himatsuri” (那智の火祭り) is held to celebrate that the god is coming back to his original place, the waterfall.
Nachi no Otaki: One of the best-known waterfalls (133m) in Japan is near the Nachi Taisha.
Besides the three Kumano Grand Shrines there are two temples, Seigantoji Temple and Fudarakusanji Temple. Located near Nachi Taisha the temples have been connected with the shrine since the Sinto-Buddhism fusion. Seigantoji and Nachi are even seen as one religious institution.
Kumano Hongu Taisha
Kumano Hongu Taisha (熊野本宮大社) was originally located next to the Kumanogawa River (Oyunohara). The area was hit by several typhoons and a flooding of the river in 1889 destroyed parts of the shrine buildings. The remains were moved to the present location. In September 2011 another strong typhoon hit the area.
The world’s largest shrine gate (33m) marks the location where the shrine was originally located.
Luckily the main buildings of the shrine survived the flooding in 1889 as well as the typhoon in 2011.
Travel Tips for Kumano Kodo:
Do you feel like visiting now? Great!
I understand that not everybody has the time to walk along all the pilgrimage trails. You can still get a feeling for how the pilgrims must have felt and experience it a little bit yourself.
I recommend visiting the Kumano Sanzan. You should have time to visit all three, but if you don’t, then my first choice would be Kumano Nachi Taisha. It’s by far the most interesting and scenic! It’s also the one that gives you the quickest and best “pilgrimage trail” experience. I highly recommend accessing the shrine via the “Daimonzaka Trail” which is part of Kumano Kodo.