When locals in Kansai head to the beaches and the mountains for a little summer respite, many find themselves in Wakayama Prefecture. With mild weather year-round, a long coastline providing ample fishing and diving spots, and mountains galore, Osaka’s southern neighbor offers ways-a-plenty to hit the outdoors and soak up some culture. Rafting spots and hot springs also dot the landscape.
Today’s journey takes us to the Kii mountain range, which makes up for a major part of Wakayama’s mass, and is home to some of Japan’s most significant shrines and pilgrimage routes. Their importance was recognized in July of 2004, when UNESCO designated the sites of Mt. Koya (Koya-san) and Kumano (Kumano Sanzen – Three Grand Shrines Kumano), along with the connecting trails (Koyasan Choishimichi and Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes) as World Heritage sites.
Kumano Nachi-Taisha (shrine) located in Nachi-Katsuura-cho is one of the three grand shrines of Kumano; the others being Kumano Hongu-Taisha and Kumano Hayatama-Taisha. Kumano Nachi-Taisha includes the 133-meter high Nachi Falls (Nachi-no-Otaki), home to the spirit Hiryū Gongen who is worshipped at the shrine.
An interesting aside; Wakayama produces more fruit such as Japanese apricots, persimmons and mandarins, than anywhere else in Japan.
In July, when summer temperatures begin to soar and the heat becomes unbearable, the falls and the surrounding evergreens offer a place to cool your heels. One of the scenes to greet your eyes is that of the granite steps, plunging down among the tall pines that line both sides of the path.
As your eyes adjust to the dimness of the forest, you will also appreciate the silence and, for just a moment, you’ll lose yourself in time. Make your way farther down the path, and silence gives way to the sound of water spiraling down the tall rock face at a rate of one ton per second.
The silence becomes a roar.
Nachi no Himatsuri
Each year on July 14, spectators and worshipers flock from all over Japan to watch the spectacle of the Nachi Fire Festival.
Twelve vermilion mikoshi (portable shrines), six meters tall and decorated with Japanese fans and mirrors, start the day at the shrine before being brought down to the falls in the afternoon.
A large pine torch, weighing 50 kilograms, accompanies each shrine. The torches represent the 12 deities living in the Kumano area. In the early afternoon a great cry goes up and echoes throughout the forest. The torches are lit, and the bearers begin carrying them up the stairs and down again in ever broadening circles. With each loop, they make their way farther up the path before running back down again.
As the procession continues, the pace and the frenzy increase, and the bearers begin to move the torches around in wild circles. Finally the procession of mikoshi meets the torches and the flames are used to purify them. At this point the pace is frantic, and the torches are waved over the heads of the onlookers as the motion begins to concentrate in a small area in front of the falls. Finally things come to a standstill. A ritualistic dance is performed in front of the falls, prayers are offered to the gods, and it is over just as quickly as it began.
It is a dynamic festival and well worth seeing.
Traditional Log Rafting
Another way to beat the heat in Wakayama is to enjoy the 600-year-old tradition of log rafting on the Kumano River. This is a one-of-a-kind experience in Japan and is unique to Kitayama Village. Logging was once prevalent here and, after being felled from nearby forests, the lumber was assembled into long log rafts and ridden down to the mouth of the river to Shingu on the coast.
Rafts are piloted by three oarsmen, two at the front and one at the rear, who use their long, narrow-bladed oars to prevent the logs from hitting rocks while staying on track. The logs are ridden standing up and, while it looks a little hairy, it is suitable for kids as well. There are plenty of stretches where you are invited to sit down and dip your feet in calm and cool waters.
To hit both requires at least a two-day trip, and I recommend staying at the Okutoro Park resort which has bungalows and space for camping. You can book tickets for the log rafting there, and a bus will pick you up and drop you off after the river journey. There is a hot spring there along with a store to pick up local goodies such as honey and local lemon specialties.
The prices are reasonable, and the park also serves as the local stop for buses running from JR Kumano Station to Komatsu. The park is right on the river, so you can fish if you feel inclined or just enjoy the view.
A regular bus runs from Katsuura Station and Nachi Station, directly to Nachi-san. From here you can walk to the falls in about 10 minutes. For details on bus timetables for both locations please refer to the Web site: www.tb-kumanao.jp/en/transport/bus/#localtimetables
Nachi Fire Festival: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/spot/festival/nachinohi.html
Kitayama and Okutoro Park: www.vill.kitayama.wakayama.jp