[From May Issue 2012]
The Kumano-kodo are pilgrimage routes leading to sacred spots in the Kii Mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. As part of “the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range,” the paths were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, attracting a lot of attention. Depicted in the Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan), Japan’s oldest history book, this area is a holy place which first became famous after the retired Emperor Shirakawa paid visits to Kumano around the 11th century. Consequently, it became a popular site of worship for commoners as well.
There are two main reasons why the routes became a World Heritage Site. One reason is that the Kii Mountain Range has three sacred sites which have all contributed to the development of Japan’s long religious history: Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan, Yoshino and Omine (all connected to the outside world by paths). Another is that these holy places and the old paths that took people there have remained unchanged to this day.
Kumano Sanzan, located in the south western part of the Kii Mountain Range, collectively refers to a set of three temples: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha. These are the main shrines of some 3,000 Kumano shrines across Japan. It is said that one can atone for all past sins by visiting the Kumano Sanzan shrines, thus achieving future happiness and passage to heaven when one dies.
Koyasan was established by the monk Kukai in the early Heian period as the headquarters of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism, with Kongobuji as its main temple. Having about 1200 years of history, it still houses some 120 temples. Yoshino and Omine, situated in the Omine Mountain Range, also known as “The Roof of Kinki,” is an important place for those pursuing enlightenment.
The Kumano-kodo mainly consists of five pilgrimage routes: Kiiji, Nakahechi, Ohechi, Kohechi, and Iseji. These paths lie in the natural surroundings of the Kii Mountain Range that straddles the three prefectures of Wakayama, Mie and Nara. Walking along these routes allows you to discover the scenery of the ancient Heian period. Although some of the paths are quite steep, while walking on them you can encounter beautiful scenery and historical cultural assets.
Kiiji is a route from Osaka to Tanabe, which has a tough steep section called Shishigase Mountain Path. It is said that FUJIWARA no Sadaie, a poet in the Kamakura period, was greatly grieved by its steepness. Yuasa-cho along the way, is believed to be the birthplace of soy sauce, and its old streets have been designated as an important conservation spot by the nation. The local specialty in the nearby town of Minabe-cho is nankou-ume plums, and some visitors take this route in order to buy them.
Nakahechi is a mountainous path leading from Tanabe to Kumano Sanzan. It’s popular because it’s easy to walk on, with gentle up and down slopes. You can see the same mountain scenery as monks of Kumano moude (visiting shrines) would have seen as they walked along the route as part of their training. Climbing up Daimonzaka, an old, cobblestone path leads through a centuries’ old cedar forest, arriving at Kumano Nachi Taisha. Close to the shrine is Nachi Otaki, a waterfall that drops 133 meters, the highest in Japan. Kumano Hongu Taishai is a popular spot for hot springs such as Kawayu Onsen Sennin-buro (entry is free of charge. Open between November and end of February) and Yunomine Onsen Tsuboyu (entry for a fee), where footsore travelers can recharge their batteries.
Walking along Kiiji and Nakahechi, you will come across a number of small shrines and stone monuments. Called “Kujuku Oji,” pilgrims are believed to have prayed for safe passage and rested their legs there. Kujuku (99) does not represent the actual number of the shrines, but indicates the fact that they are high in number.
Ohechi is a route that runs along the coast from Tanabe to Kumano Sanzan. There are steep paths called Shijuhassaka at Tonda-zaka (in Shirahama-cho) and Nagai-zaka (in Susami-cho). Around Kushimoto-cho some paths command sweeping views of the sea and rice fields. Known for its bathing beaches, hot springs, and Adventure World – an amusement park with eight pandas – Shirahama is a popular tourist area all year around. The Katsuura Fishing Port near Nachi Taisha is well known as a tuna port and has many restaurants serving fresh tuna.
Kohechi is a path connecting Koyasan and Kumano Hongu. Depending on the direction you’re headed, the same path is called by different names: walking from Koyasan it’s “Kumano-michi” and starting from Kumano Hongu it’s “Koya-michi.” It is a tough route going over a series of 1,000-meter-high mountains in the Kii Mountain Range. Scattered about along the way, you can see the moss-covered Sanjusan Kannon Sekibutsu (33 stone statues of Kannon).
Iseji is a path that links Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine) in Mie Prefecture and Kumano Sanzan. It has become known to the public as a pilgrimage route for the common people, rather than as a route used by emperors and retired emperors. It is said that people made this pilgrimage when they visited Ise Jingu in Mie.
To walk comfortably along the Kumano-kodo remember to choose an outfit that is easy to move in and easy to remove. That’s because with its steep slopes and narrow, rough paths, it’s more physically demanding than you may expect. Signposts and signboards placed at intervals of 500 meters allow you to check the route as you go along. They also indicate which areas have no cell phone reception. It’s advisable to check the route in advance on websites introducing the Kumano-kodo.
As well as being a World Heritage site that symbolizes Japanese culture, the Kumano-kodo are roads on which people offer up prayers to the local gods. Hardly anyone drops litter and when they find it some people pick up trash off the paths for those who will walk along them next. There are rules for those taking the pilgrimage routes which every visitor follows as they walk. These rules consist of eight articles including: “We will protect mankind’s heritage” and “We keep the spirit of prayer passed on from the ancient times alive in our hearts.”
To get to the Kumano-kodo you can take a one hour and 10 minute flight from Haneda Airport to Nanki-Shirahama Airport. From JR Tokyo Station to JR Kii-Tanabe Station, taking a shinkansen then special express train, it takes approximately four hours and 40 minutes. Access is also possible from JR Nagoya Station to JR Kii-Katsuura Station using a special express train, which takes roughly three hours and 30 minutes. From the airport or station, you can take a bus or a taxi to the starting point of each route.
Text: SEKI Hideo, First Penguin