Wakayama is 80% mountainous area with the Kii mountain range towering across the center of the prefecture. Since ancient times, these mountains were believed to be the abode of the gods. To the north and south are three sacred areas – the Kumano Sanzan, Koya-san, and Yoshino & Omine. These three sites fostered a unique fusion of Japan’s Shinto beliefs and Buddhism, imported from China – distinctly illustrating the interchange of religions in Asia. In July 2004, the three sites were registered as World Cultural Heritage under “Sacred Sites & Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.” The only other pilgrimate route in the world registered by UNESCO is the Santiago de Compostela route in Spain.
I spent a week in Wakayama in late March to explore this spiritual heartland and traverse the ancient trails. My itinerary focused on the Kumano Kodo route and Koyasan – Yoshino & Omine’s high altitude route over formidable ridges will have to wait until I’m more in shape.
Being only an hour south of Osaka, Wakayama is easily accessible via the big hub city. Alternatively there are three flights a day from Haneda Airport in Tokyo directly to Shirahama, which was what I took. From the airport, we drove to the Kumano region.
On the way as we followed a narrow, winding road into the mountains, we stopped to have lunch at an inn at Takahara Village. Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge, meaning Village of Mist, was perched at the top of a ridge and had an amazing panoramic view of the Hatenashi mountain range and mist-filled valley. Just five minutes walk away from the inn is one of over 3,000 Kumano shrines. This humble wooden inn sits along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route and offers respite to those who walk the trail.
We stayed overnight at Fujiya, a family-owned ryokan that has been passed down through the generations. It is one of the few ryokans that sit directly in front of Kawayu onsen, a crystal clear river with natural hot spring water that bubbles up from the stone bed. In the winter, a giant bath is carved into the riverbed. In the summer people enjoy the cold river water and have the option of digging up their own bathtubs in the riverbank with shovels supplied by the ryokans. That evening I soaked in the shallow river bath and watched the steam rise into the cold mountain air – definitely a good way to prepare the body, spirit and mind for the pilgrimage.
The sacred Kumano Sanzan is a set of three grand shrines with roots in prehistoric nature worship. The Kumano pilgrimage was started in the 10th century by the Imperial family from Kyoto. It took 30-40 days to complete the pilgrimage from and return to Kyoto. Over time, people from all over the country travelled on various routes to the Kumano region. The physical journey was considered just as important as visiting the sacred sites.
Instead of starting from Kyoto, we opted for the much easier and popular 4.3 mile section of the route from Hoshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha which only takes half a day. We started at the top of the mountain trail early in the morning when it was cool. The route was a combination of mountain trails and roads through quiet mountain villages. Fields of tea bushes and fruit trees and quaint old homes punctuated the forested mountain sides. There are wooden boxes on posts along the roadside in front of homes that would hold packages of tea and fruit and a tin cannister for honest passers-by to leave money if they took any goods.
After a few hours, the sun was high in the sky and the trail descended through the forest to Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the three grand shrines and the head shrine of the Kumano faith. All Kumano pilgrimate routes lead to this shrine. It was originally built on a mystical sandbank when in 1889, a severe flood destroyed many of the buildings. Of the original five main pavilions, only three were rebuilt. This austere grand shrine now sits further in-land at the top of a grand stone staircase, gazing down upon the sandbank which is now marked with the largest torii shrine gate in the world at 111.5 feet tall and almost 138 feet wide.
The grounds were tranquil, and few people including monks were quietly walking around. It was explained to me that big moments in life such as birth of a child or a marriage are celebrated at the shrines, and this was the Shinto aspect. When Buddhism was introduced, it was incorporated into Shintoism as an answer for the afterlife – so funerals and memorials were Buddhist affairs. I’m sure this is a very simplified distillation, but it made it easier to picture how Shintoism and Buddhism were peacefully practiced in conjunction with one another.
The second grand shrine we visited was Kumano Hayatama Taisha, located in Shingu city where the Kumano river empties into the Pacific Ocean. Traditionally the pilgrims would travel by boat on the Kumano river to reach this shrine, but we instead drove an hour along the river. The boat option is available for those seeking the authentic experience. Hayatama Taisha was very different from the muted brown pavilions of Hongu Taisha – the bright red cinnabar shrines, large ornate decorations, and open sunny pavilion created a more cheerful, inviting atmosphere. On the grounds is a giant Chinese black pine that is more than 1000 years old, amongst other rare artifacts and treasures stored within the Hayatama Taisha’s shrines. One funny anomaly about this shrine cannot be missed – at the very front of the shrine is a roped off parking space that is specifically for brand new cars that their owners brought in for blessings. It is a tradition to have new property blessed, from cars to homes, but this particular shrine is the only one to have a specially designated parking spot for that purpose.
From Shingu we drove an hour further towards the sea to Katsuura, an unassuming little fishing village that is the number one port in Japan for fresh tuna and the largest tuna fisheries in the area. Katsuura is also known for its many hot spring accommodations, uniquely by the sea. We stayed overnight at Nakanoshima Hotel, a ryokan located on a private island in the bay that is accessed via a short ferry ride. Since I grew up by the ocean, this ryokan was my favorite because of the amazing ocean view right outside of my balcony. What’s unique about this ryokan is the outdoor bath, which lets bathers enjoy authentic hot spring waters and gentle ocean mist from the sea just a few feet away. I also had the most memorable, fresh array of seafood during the kaiseki dinner – envision course after course of delicacies like fish and lobster sashimi, beef cooked on personal-sized hot stone grill, spring bamboo shoots and clams, and rice boiled with lobster shell. This onsen area is a popular destination to relax, especially during Silver and Golden week.
The next morning we drove a short distance to the beginning of the trail that would lead us to the last of the three Hongu grand shrines. We began in a residential neighborhood and followed small signs that lead us up a path and over a bridge. There was the Daimonzaka Slope, seemingly endless lichen-covered stone steps lined by ancient cedars that lead up the mountain to the shrine. Two imposing 800 year old cedars stand at the bottom, and mark the change in scenery from neighborhood to enchanted forest. The stone steps were slippery with moss, cracked and uneven at places. There was a large landslide a couple years ago due to lots of rain and evidence of trees broken at the trunk and rotted wood could be spotted through the dense foliage. It really felt like we were on an enchanted path in the quiet woods, slightly damp with mist. There was even a small door at the base of a tree, just big enough for an elf!
After what seemed like half an hour, we rose out of the trees and onto a road. As it turned out, the shrine was still some distance away and there were more stairs involved – we had the option to take a car the rest of the way, but we decided to power through, committed to the pilgrimage. The rest of the walk up was steeper and the path was more narrow, with many trinket shops lining the way.
At the entrance of the shrine, the path spilt into two, one for Shinto followers, and the other for Buddhists. Kumano Nachi Taisha is the name of the Shinto shrine, and it shares the grounds with a Buddhist temple. This union of both faiths was commonly seen back in the days when the Kumano religion was popular, but during the Heian period, Buddhism was repressed and temples were deconstructed. However, both original shrine and temple still stand together at Nachi Taisha. It was interesting to see the difference between both – the Shinto shrine was a made of a few vermilion and white buildings while the temple was one large building with incense wafting out of the doors. On the grounds stood a large 850 year-old Camphor tree with a large hole at its wide base. It is said that if you write your wish on a small wooden plaque, go into the hole of the tree, and come out at an the other end, you are considered “reborn” (or perhaps cleansed), and your wish may come true.
This third Grand shrine is dedicated to the deified waterfall that sat opposite the temple on the mountain face across the valley. This waterfall is the tallest in the country at 436 feet high. After seeing the shrine, we got ume flavored ice cream and walked down to the viewing platform to see the waterfall.
The walk to the third temple and exploring the grounds and waterfall took up a little more than half a day. After a quick lunch by the sea, we followed the coast line back to Shirahama where I first flew in. It was a couple of hours’ car ride with pretty views of the coast the whole way. The warm sunny spring weather we were having had turned stormy during the ride and we arrived at Shirahama beach to a downpour.
Shirahama beach with its 1968 feet crescent of white sand beach is popular as the former honeymoon mecca of the country. Besides the beach, whose sand is imported from Australia, Shirahama offers hot springs, a large zoo whose star attraction is pandas, and scenic cliff faces. Despite it raining and being largely empty, I could imagine the crowds and liveliness during the hot summer months.
We turned in early due to the rain and enjoyed the drizzling weather in our own private wooden bathtubs on our terraces at Kaishu ryokan. The water pumped into the bathtubs on the terraces is not hot spring water, which is only found at the ryokan’s many bathhouses dotted down the hill. Guests at Kaishu are relieved of their footwear at the lobby and are encouraged to walk around the tatami covered ryokan floors barefoot. Guests are also given a choice amongst many stylish yukata designs to wear around the property. This lent a homey and relaxed feeling, perfect for family vacations or a couples getaway.
It was a pleasant evening to watch the sun set over the Pacific ocean while in a bathtub, and then enjoying another fantastic kaiseki dinner. We had seen all three Kumano Grand Shrines over the past couple of days and were spoiled by the onsens, ryokans, fresh air and natural scenery from mountains to ocean. This was to be our last evening enjoying these luxuries because the next night was to be spent lodging in a working temple with monks on Koyasan. I both excited and intimidated by what I anticipated as an enlightening albeit ascetic experience.