For several hundreds of years, roads of pilgrimage have converged upon Kumano Sanzan, a group of shrines and temples in the deep wood and mountains of the Kii Peninsula, the heartland of ancient Japan where nature has provided solace to the souls of retired emperors and the most common traveler alike. These roads and routes are known as Kumano Kodo, and range from wide trails to narrow cobblestone paths as they wind through rural villages and past the picturesque rivers of this region to reach Kumano, a holy site and their namesake. The first pilgrims began to make the 30-40 day journey from the ancient capital of Kyoto in the early 900s, in search of purification of body and soul amongst the waterfalls and old-growth forests. This is not just ancient history, though, even in a country as modern and cosmopolitan as Japan is in parts — this history is alive and well, in the decoration of Kumano’s shrines, the traditional comforts of its ryokan inns, and the calming waters of the onsen hot springs. The natural beauty of Wakayama Prefecture is on full display in Kumano, and the forests tell an ancient story that is still being written.
The term “Kumano Sanzan” refers to the three grand shrines and Nachisan Seiganto-Ji Temple that were established in this region as a result of local nature worship in ancient times, often ensconced in the forest and constructed in such a way as to preserve the natural beauty while providing a place for rest, relaxation, and reflection. Together with the sites at Koyasan and the ancient trails that stretch across Wakayama Prefecture and the Kii Peninsula, they comprise the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range,” denominated in 2004. Over the course of millenia, through many dynastic changes in Japan and the march of modernization, the serenity and unique local culture of this area has remained stalwart and constantly enriched by the arrival of travelers, from near and far.
To emphasize the spiritual importance of the Kumano shrines in Wakayama Prefecture, more than 4,700 Shinto shrines known as “Kumano” can be found all across Japan — the three that are found in the Kii Mountains are simply the head shrines, from which all others have received their blessings in an intricate series of rites and rituals. While these shrines and the religious symbolism that they embody may not be instantly familiar to travelers coming to Japan for the first time, the iconic torii gates that have come to be a symbol of Japanese culture across the world will immediately provide visual context in a dramatic fashion: the largest such gate in Japan can be found at one of the Kumano Sanzan. Over 100 feet tall and 137 feet wide, the Oyunohara torii gate designates the entrance to a sacred area, a barrier between the secular and the spiritual worlds.
While these shrines, gates, and other physical markers of religious observance are now the main attraction, having earned UNESCO designation, the belief that the Kii Mountain region of Wakayama holds some healing property is thought to have originated in prehistoric times, outdating all forms of recognizable “religion” in Japan. The progression and expression of these beliefs over the course of history is fascinating, and mirrors the development of Japanese society itself. The indigenous Japanese religion of Shinto is a system of nature veneration that existed alongside and even blended with Buddhism after Japanese monks brought Buddhist teachings home from elsewhere in Asia. For example, the monk Kukai founded Koyasan, the home of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, not far from Kumano in Wakayama Prefecture. Because Kumano is also home to Buddhist temples, it is notable as a site where Buddhism first blended with Shinto in what is known as Shinbutsu-shūgō, which was Japan’s only organized faith tradition until 1868, when the Meiji government officially separated the two again.
In the period when Shinbutsu-shūgō originated in this region, it was the belief that the kami, or nature spirits, were actually aspects of Buddhas, and thus these spirits were enshrined as representations of deities. Much like Kukai believed the area around Koyasan resembled a lotus flower, a key symbol in Buddhism, many Shinto practitioners believed that some aspects of physical landscape around Kumano were actually the earthly embodiments of Shinto deities.
At all of the major shrines in Kumano, festivals and the performance of religious rites continue to this day that have their origins in the previous millennia of history. One such event occurs at the base of a waterfall, Nachi no Taki, that represents its purification as a holy abode of a kami. Now that the Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine embodies 12 kami, the Nachi Fire Festival on July 14th every year involves men clad in all-white carrying massive 12 Ogi-mikoshi shrines that represent these kami. The shrines are themselves almost 20 feet tall, and the torches used to light the way with purifying fire weigh more than 100 pounds.. The laborious and eye-catching task is one such ritual performed at the shrines of Kumano, and just one way that history continues to live on here.
When visitors who come here are not taking in the majestic shrines, stunning waterfalls, and beautiful processions of ritualists dressed in medieval garb, they can choose any number of ways to relax that are similarly steeped in history and beauty. This can start with where you choose to lay your head at night, and the numerous ryokan inns throughout Wakayama are known for their hospitality that in some cases, stretches as far back as 30 generations. One such abode is Kamigoten Ryokan, where the 11 guest rooms are adorned with delicate shoji (paper sliding doors), tatami (reed) mat flooring, and traditional spaces for decoration with scrolls and flowers. These guesthouses are also commonly home to onsen, or Japanese hot springs that are said to do wonders for the skin.
Spend your days soaking in these onsen, enjoying the local cuisine of Kumano that includes fresh-caught seafood and edible plants straight from the mountains, and going with the flow of the Kumano-gawa river on a boat tour or kayaking excursion. If you’re up for an even more thrilling river excursion, head to the Kitayama-gawa river for traditional log rafting, an exhilarating experience that is unlike anything you’ve done before.
For planning purposes, Tanabe City is the second-largest in Wakayama Prefecture and the most convenient port of departure for the Kumano Kodo. Hikers and pilgrims alike can send their luggage ahead when traveling to one of the Kumano Sanzan. Come to Wakayama and you can enjoy the adventure of a trek down the Camino de Santiago, which is paired with the Kumano Kodo as a sister trail, while also having unique, off-the-tourist-track experiences in a region rich with Japanese history.
Words by Joseph Ozment.