Kumano Kodō – Find your spirituality on these old pilgrimage routes
To finish our column ‘6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan’ we decided to choose the Kumano Kodō. These old pilgrimage routes are located on the Kii Peninsula, which is the largest peninsula on Honshu, and have been travelled for ages. They offer the most spectacular views and the chance to find yourself in a spiritual way. Since 2004 these trails have become part of the Unesco World Heritage of Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. Koyasan, Yoshino and Omine Mountain are also part of this site. For this article we have decided to focus on the Kumano Sanzan, the three main shrines along the Kumano Kodō. But if we want to tell you more about these wonderful routes and places in Japan, we have to tell you something about the Japanese ‘religions’ as well. Join us on our journey on the Kumano Kodō and become enlightened by the raw nature and spiritual energy residing in these mountains.
Buddhism and Shintoism – a short introduction into the region
The Kii Mountains have been a spiritual place for a long time. In the third century BCE, when the Japanese people began to harvest rice and settled down, a religion called Shintoism began to emerge. In this religion natural features such as mountains, trees, rivers and many more were seen as gods and were treated like them as well. However it was thought that the mountain gods had control over the flow of water and thus also over how and where rice grew. For this reason the mountain gods were revered even more. In the 6th century CE, Buddhism was introduced in Japan and quickly adopted as religion for the nation. Each province had temples and slowly the Buddhist concept of the Pure Land was associated with the Kii Mountains. During the 8th century, the Buddhist sect Mikkyo, which became the Shingon school, was brought to Japan. The focus in this sect was put on training in the mountains to attain awakening. This sect was again quickly embraced by the Emperor and various aristocrats. It also started to be combined with Shintoism, creating a religion that held its ground until the 19th century.
This focus on mountain asceticism made the Kii Mountains even more famous. Due to social unrest in the 9th and 10th century, the number of pilgrims visiting the Kii Mountains grew and most of the modern pilgrimage routes, or Kumano Kodō, were made. The rising popularity of the Buddhism-Shintoism combination brought even more people to the Mountains and during the 11th and 12th century the temples, shrines and land received support by the Imperial family and aristocrats. Because a pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodō was believed to guarantee a better life in the hereafter, retired Emperors and aristocrats started visiting the Mountains as well. This resulted in the creation of inns and Oji, which were small shrines lining the different pilgrim trails, the improvement of shrines and better management of the site. Thus at the end of the 12th century the Kii Mountains were established as the main sacred mountain site in Japan and the Kumano Kodō became well-travelled.
During the following centuries, the military government took power away from the Imperial factions resulting in the weakening of Imperial and centralised authority but also in the growth of economic stability. The pilgrimages were now open to anyone who could afford the journey instead of only those of wealth. Improved roads made it even easier to reach the Kii Mountains and tourists began to walk the Kumano Kodō as a fun activity instead of a spiritual journey. In 1868 Japan was opened by the West and the Emperor took control away from the militaristic government. In an attempt to become a stronger and more modern state, the government introduced the Shintoism and Buddhism Separation Decree that prohibited activities related to the fusion of both religions. Statues of Buddha were removed from shrines and temples and both received less support, but thanks to the demand of society to maintain the Kii Mountains and its shrines and temples, the Ancient Shrines and Temples Preservation Law was introduced. Because of this law, the Kii Mountains’ shrines and the Kumano Kodō were well-maintained. After the Second World War, the economy grew stronger again and visitors once again were able to return to the region in a quest for their lost spirituality. Visitors still walk the trails of the Kumano Kodō in large numbers.
As mentioned above, Inari would like to focus on the collection of three shrines called the Kumano Sanzan or the Three Mountains of Kumano. You will find separate descriptions of all three shrines below.
Kumano Hongu Taisha
The Kumano Hongu Taisha is one of the three major shrines in the Kumano Region. It was already established around the 9th century CE and is the head shrine over 3000 other Kumano shrines. In 1889 its location was changed due to flooding problems and the only thing left on the original location is the biggest torii gate in Japan with a height of 33 meters. Besides being known for its beautiful shrine where the Kumano gods and the Sun Goddess Amaterasu are revered, Kumano Hongu Taisha is also very famous for its onsen or hot springs. There are three onsen: Yunomine, Kawayu and Wataze. Yunomine is so old that one of the bathhouses in its domain is a Unesco World Heritage Site and pilgrims use these onsen as a form of spiritual cleansing. Wataze is mostly known for having the largest outdoor bath in western Japan. Kawayu is known for its unique hot spring. A hole is dug in the gravel riverbank and then hot spring water flows into the hole creating a unique temperature for the visitors.
Kumano Hayatama Taisha
The Kumano Hayatama Taisha is a shrine that was built in the 12th century on the Kumano riverbank and was recently rebuilt. It houses religious artefacts going back to the 3rd century CE that show that the place was worshipped even before the shrine was built. There is even a legend that three Shinto deities or kami fell down from the sky on a rock not far away from this location, of course this rock has been worshipped until this day. On the site is also a thought to be over 800-year-old tree that is worshipped as well. But the Kumano Hayatama Taisha is mostly known for its Treasure Hall that has over a dozen national artefacts existing out gifts from pilgrims on the Kumano Kodō.
Kumano Nachi Taisha
The last of the three main shrines in Kumano is the Kumano Nachi Taisha and it’s simply stunning. It is a clear example of the Buddhism-Shintoism combination as the shrine is built directly next to the Buddhist Seigantoji temple with its famous three-story pagoda. To complete the perfect picture, the shrine and the temple are built next to the tallest waterfall in Japan called the Nachi no Taki. It measures 133 meters in height and is thought to be a kami. To this day visitors are still amazed by the sight of this majestic wonder of nature. For people who want to experience the pilgrimage routes but don’t have much time, Kumano Nachi Taisha is a perfect choice. You can hike up the Daimon-zaka on a 600 meter long paved trail and see the gates of Kumano Nachi Taisha.
The most important pilgrimage routes
There are quite some pilgrimage routes in the Kumano Kodō but we decided to choose the three most important ones for you. These are the Nakahechi Route, the Kohechi Route and the Iseji Route. The first one connects the Kumano Hongu Taisha with Tanabe on the western coast of the Kii peninsula. It’s fairly easy to walk and is about 40 kilometers in length with some minshuku or Japanese B&B along the way. The Kohechi Route connects the Kumano Sanzan with the breathtakingly beautiful Koyasan. This location is one of the most mysterious and beautiful places this author has seen in Japan and an article just about this place is bound to happen. It is a very challenging route and it should not be taken without preparations. The last one is the Iseji Route and it leads towards the famous Ise shrine in the Mie Prefecture. It has mostly been covered by paved roads but in some places the original route still exists. Especially the Matsumoto Pass on this route is definitely worth it.
How to get there
Getting to the Kumano Kodō is fairly easy since you can get there by train from every major city in the vicinity like Osaka, Nara and Kyoto. If you don’t feel like walking the trails, you can always take a train to the Kumano Sanzan but then you would miss quite a lot of what the Kumano Kodō has to offer.
This was our final entry in the column ‘6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan’, if you want to find out more, don’t be afraid to leave a comment, send us an email or visit this page. We hope that you have read this column with much enjoyment and perhaps you might even visit some of these places. Next week we will tell you more about what locations were close to being added to the 6 places and also what our next big column will be about.