JAPAN’S KUMANO KODO
Temples, Shrines and Mountain Blessings Without UNESCO Crowds
By Elaine Masters
An ancient network of trails, shrines, and temples lace through the Kii mountains of Japan’s Wakayama Peninsula. Thousand-year-old pilgrimage routes grew out of nature worship and later melded with Buddhist practices, but the landscape is what drew the area out of the mundane. Gods and goddesses, myth and legend overlap here in over 4,000 sacred sites as modest as a stone marker or multi-storied like the shrine next to Japan’s highest waterfall. Today hikers can follow the well-marked and maintained Kumano Kodo trails; stepping where Imperial processions, samurai warriors, Buddhist and Shinto clergy walked.
On this episode of Big Blend Radio, travel writer Elaine Masters talks about the traditions and the deeply moving hikes through ancient Cypress groves, past small village farms, and a breathtaking local festival at the temple site of Japan’s tallest waterfall.
In the 7th century the beloved first Emperor of Japan, Jimmu Tenno, was lost in a tangled Kii forest where poisonous centipedes, snakes, and wild boar roamed. According to legend, a great crow helped liberate him. Current pilgrims marvel at crow statues, purchase souvenir bells, and t-shirts imprinted with the Yatagarasu, three-legged crow emblem. As mascot, he inspires the national soccer team to victory. There are many explanations for the three legs but a good place to start is with the Kumano Sanzan, the three UNESCO temples and shrines on the Nakahechi Imperial Route.
Trek planning begins at the Kumano Travel website (tb-kumano.jp,) a bilingual community-based reservation system run by the Tanabe City Tourism Bureau. As with a pilgrimage, you need patience here. This is not a high-tech experience but a site full of up-to-date information on the different routes, lodging suggestions, and itineraries. Tourism has evolved here over generations. Some of the guesthouses remain internet free but the Kumano Tourism group works with them to assure that Japanese and foreign visitors get the most out of their time on the trails. A handful of independent companies also offer packaged trips that run from a few days to weeks. There are books and maps of the most popular routes and different levels of difficulty from beginner to intermediate, but the wisest are strong walkers.
Medieval pilgrims wore cloth or wooden-soled shoes on their journeys through the forests. Today, worn-in hiking boots with lug soles and waterproof gear make it easier to take in the beauty and power of the scenery. The trails are diverse from paved roads through villages, cobblestone stairways to uneven surfaces. Preparation is key and much depends on which season and the difficulty of your chosen route. The trails are open year-round and often rainy, not only in early fall and spring. Temperatures are moderate with scattered snow at the summits in the coldest months. Dress in layers, carry a day pack with food and water and watch for trailside stands to pick up fruit and nuts, even green tea leaves.
The Wakayama peninsula is simple to reach by JR trains which run along the coast from Osaka. Another access line runs along the east coast from Nagoya. Most pilgrims reach the heart of the Kumano by local bus from the station in Tanabe. It’s the central trail town with shops, lodging, and the Tourism Board office; and the final place to gather supplies or last-minute gear. On the east side of the peninsula, visitors can begin their adventures from a choice of villages to the Kumano Sanzan sites by bus.
Nakahechi Route – The Gateway to the Kumano Kodo
The Tokei shrine in Tanabe is a launching point for many pilgrims. At the Tori gate entrance, traditional rituals begin with a pause as you leave the physical world and enter the spiritual. Inside wooden ladles balance over a quiet trough of spring water. These are found at temples and shrines across Japan for a purification rinsing of the hands. Even the sound walking over gravel paths is designed to ward off evil spirits. These practices began over 1,000 years ago.
In the 12th century, the head of the Tokei shrine and commander of the Kumano navy, Betto Tanzo, changed history during a great civil war between two clans. Unsure which side to favor, Tanzo asked the Kumono gods for help and held a cockfight between seven roosters. Those with red feathers supported the Heike clan. White feathers symbolized the Genji Clan. In the end, his fleet of 200 ships and 2,000 soldiers helped win the battle of Dannoura, for the Genji. Today, a massive statue of Tanzo and his famous son, the warrior Benkei, holds court in the shadow of a massive Camphor tree. Offerings to the 1,200-year-old are said to bestow long life and freedom from illness.
The bus route from Tanabe follows the river valley before rising into the mountains. There are elective stops along the way and non-Japanese speakers can follow their progress from an illuminated sign over the driver’s shoulder. Stop to soak sore muscles at Japan’s oldest hot spring, town, Yuomine Onsen or, in season, the river hot springs at Kawaya.
One trail route begins at Hosshinmon-oji, known as the gate of awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment, and the outermost entrance to Kumano Hongu Taisha’s sacred area. Pay your respects at the small shrine and follow the marked trail along the road through villages, past the water shrine, Mizunomi-oji. In season, enjoy tea and traditional sweets at the outdoor cafe near the Fushiogami-oji stairs. It marks the lookout where early pilgrims enjoyed their first glimpse of their goal, the Kumano Hongu Taisha in the hills below.
A glimpse of the roofline’s gilded tips rising above the trees announces your arrival at the Kumano Hongu Taisha. In this Kumano district, sacred crows are said to be messengers of God. Inside the temple grounds, crows are memorialized in stone and stamped on souvenirs near the temple entrance. A great staircase leads down from the temple to the riverbank and the tallest Tori gate in the world, built where the original temple was washed away by a flood in 1886.
Nachisan Mist and the Kumano Culmination
The Daimon-zaka slope stairway winds past hundred years old cypress trees and stone Oji, shrines. Lined with granite, the walk climbs gently from the riverbank to the shrines and the Nachi waterfall, tallest in Japan. There are resting benches along this part of the pilgrim route and at the paved section before arriving at Nachisan on the top slope.
Two temple faiths merged at the temples of Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha in the 10th century. Buddhist gods were embraced as the embodiment of the Shinto nature spirits. Here broad views of the mountain valleys, the iconic falls meet the quiet power of the wooden and red temple architecture. Stairs lead down to the Nachi falls where the mist is said to carry blessings. It’s a fitting end to a pilgrimage quest and more practically, close to a bus leading back into the valley and the urban complications of our current age.
Ever curious and hungry for adventure, Elaine Masters is a freelance travel writer and digital storyteller. Since founding www.Tripwellgal.com in 2010, her weekly stories and travel tips have been encouraging Boomer gals and their pals to go far, often and do it well. Her stories include urban to soft adventures, culinary explorations, cultural exchanges, and sustainable travel. With over 300 dives in International tropical waters, Elaine’s passionate about taking pictures and video, above and beneath the surface.