There is an area at the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula known as “Kumano” where you can wander through villages, listen to local legends and meet living ones.
“Timeslip” is an English expression often used in Japan. During my journey to Kumano, I often felt that time had stood still and I had returned to an age when life was simpler and nature worshipped and respected in profound ways.
There are more than 3,600 peaks in the Kii Peninsula, which spans parts of Nara, Mie and Wakayama prefectures. Spirituality connected to ancient nature worship, which predates the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, has flourished in this area and continues to attract worshippers to this day.
For more than a thousand years, pilgrims and courtesans on sacred journeys, some from as far as Kyoto, would walk for months at a time to get to Kumano Hongu Taishi, built on the banks of the Kumano River. Those who complete the pilgrimage to this shrine are said to have their souls saved in the afterlife. Not to mention they would be in great shape by the end of the journey.
A Walk in the Woods
I am walking along the 88-km. Nakahechi Trail, which connects Kumano’s three grand shrines (and two grand temples) known as the Kumano Sanzan. This area, including the impressive network of footpaths and trails, was designated a World Heritage Site in 2004. Since then, it has been a destination for tourists and pilgrims alike wanting to experience the mystery and the beauty of the many well-preserved sacred sites.
This section of the trail is rocky and slow going. My companion, Irwin Wong, puts on a good face as he hauls his heavy pack full of camera equipment up another section of the steep trail. I count the oji (shrines that line the route) as we rise to a commanding view of the mountains surrounding us and soak in the view of the ridgeline and many peaks. Feeling like a feudal lord, I try my pen at a haiku, inspired by the traditional surroundings, the misty hills and lush beauty of the Japanese countryside.
Fades into blue light so old
Island in the fog
Villagers kindly greet us with smiles and expressive local dialects as we meander along the path dotted with farmhouses, waterwheels and the flowers of the season. We reach Takahara Lodge where Kunie Morimoto, a spry elderly woman, prepares us a tasty dinner that includes carrot-tofu and locally grown vegetables.
Meanwhile the manager, Jian Shino, tells us colorful stories about being a bar owner before he took on the task of managing the inn. The new lodge’s rooms are clean, the cedar bath hot. In this area and with this kind of hospitality I’m convinced travelers will spread the word and return to this place and perhaps unwittingly help keep the pilgrimage route alive.
‘It is solved by walking’ In Spain, the Camino Sant iago de Compostella (The Way of St. James) is the only other pilgrimage route designated a World Heritage Site. In 2008, Tanabe City and Santiago de Compostella City initiated a joint promotion project to raise awareness of their mutual pilgrimage heritage.
I’m reminded of the Latin expression “Solvulator amblando” which means, “It is solved by walking.” I am convinced moving through the cultural landscape on foot is the best way to feel the history come alive.
The next day we continue over valleys and across rivers, stopping to take in the views and consult the maps, signposts and brochures, all translated into English. Although we enjoy the mystery of the ancient path, it is nice to know we are heading in the right direction.
From Hosshinmon-oji we descend through the forest, come to a confluence of roads and decide to take a break where three tea houses once stood. Seventy-two-year-old Masako Noshita who greets weary travelers with a youthful smile, sells honey and sews beanbags, befriends me. As we depart in the direction of the first grand shrine, Kumano Hongu Taisha, she stops juggling long enough to wave good-bye. I think I am in love.
Ietaka Kuki is the guji (head priest) at Hongu Taishi, the main shrine of the more than 3,000 Kumano shr ines scat tered throughout Japan. All the pilgrimage routes pass through this area, and Hongu Taishi was the final destination for many travelers.
The guji is looking smart in his white robe and speaks with urgency about the need for people to respect nature and how the Kumano area continues to be a place of unusual spiritual attraction and practice.
Groups of people pay their respects and wander around in awe of the austere architecture of the shrine as I try to get my head around the names of the gods, what they represent and their importance in our present world.
I take a walk at Oyunohara; the original site of Hongu Shrine which was destroyed by a massive flood in 1889. As I lie down on the grassy banks of the Kumano River, staring up at Japan’s largest torii gate, I begin to feel something good washing over. I wonder if it isn’t Amida, the Buddha of Compassion and Wisdom, telling me everything is going to be alright.
Recharging the batteries
We rest for the night at Adumaya Ryokan in Yunomine Onsen. Boasting a 1,800-yearold history, the town has waters said to have healing powers rivaling Gunma’s Kusatsu Onsen. Owner Hiroko Kikuchi joins us for dinner and seems pleased we are enjoying the fresh, healthy local food. Although she recognizes the World Heritage mission is preservation and not tourism, she is pleased more foreign travelers are coming to the area and believes the influx of tourism can be a positive way for the local villages to sustain and share their culture and history. After a bit more sake and another late dip in the medicinal waters, I am convinced she is right.
Following a morning soak in Kawayu Onsen, where you can build your own pool by arranging rocks in the Oto River, we return to the Kumano River and float down the only waterway pilgrimage route recognized by UNESCO, enjoying the commentary by our animated and friendly river guide Haruji Wakabayashi.
Kumano Hayatama Taishi is the second grand shrine on our quest. It is known as “Shingu” (new shrine) and is said to be a place of healing where the Kumano gods descended from heaven. The annual Oto Fire Matsuri takes place here (Feb. 6). It’s a ritual of hopeful purification for participants in this dangerous, beautiful event (that is if you aren’t burned carrying a torch down the steep stone steps).
Why we came this way
Returning to the mountains, we climb the well-worn steps up Daimonzaka hill as the third grand shrine, Kumano Nachi Taichi, comes into view. The immaculate shrine, along with Seiganto-ji Temple (known as Nyorindo before the Meiji Restoration) are perched 350 meters above sea level next to Japan’s largest waterfall, the spectacular 133-meter Nachi Taki.
We are fortunate to meet Ryu Shinohara, the vice guji at Nachi Taishi who speaks solemnly about his gratitude for what nature provides, emphasizing this by leading us out to the private viewing balcony where the thunderous waterfall crashes down beyond a stunning pagoda. After a few cups of green tea and some polite conversation, we take the short walk across the manicured courtyard to speak with Ryohei Takagi, Seiganto-ji’s vice head priest. This Buddhist priest and Shugendo disciple is personally responsible for resurrecting the yamabushi practices banned for more than 120 years.
Yamabushi are Shugendo mountain priests whose training combines physical endurance, strength and meditative willpower attained by sitting under icy waterfalls and trekking over arduous mountain passes. Over the past 20 years he has personally begun a Kumano waterfall pilgrimage that visits 48 waterfalls in the surrounding area and treks through virgin forests that have been protected throughout history. His message is simply, “Human happiness is the supreme goal of life.”
You can access the Tanabe-Kumano area by car
By Car: From Nagoya/Osaka: Take the Hanwa Expressway,
then Route 42 to Tanabe City. Then route 311 to Kumano Hongu Taisha.
By Train: Take the Super Kuroshio / Ocean Arrow or JR Kuroshio-go
From Tennoji – Kii Tanabe (105 min.)
From Shin Osaka – Kii Tanabe (120 min.)
From Kyoto – Kii Tanabe (165 min.)
Kii-Tanabe to Kumano Hongu Taisha by bus (120 min)
From Nagoya take the JR Wideview Nanki Express
Nagoya-Shingu (210 min.)
Shingu-Kumano Hongu Taisha by bus (60 min.)
By Air: Tokyo Haneda – Shirahama Airport (60 min.)
Shirahama Airport – Tanabe City by taxi (15 min.)
Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau