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November 2023

Cultural Article

The Kumano Kodo: A Historic Pilgrimage in the Japanese Mountainside

by Suzannah Nevas

The Kumano Kodo is a network of historical pilgrimage routes through the beautiful mountains of the Kii Peninsula in the southern Kansai area of Japan. 

These scenic and sacred trails have been traversed for over 1000 years, making the Kumano Kodo one of only two pilgrimage routes to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Markers along the path of the Kumano Kodo

The Kumano Sanzan

The heart of the Kumano Kodo was formed by ancient pilgrimages to the three main Kumano shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha. These three shrines are collectively called the Kumano Sanzan. 

Kumano Hongu Taisha

Kumano Hongu Taisha is the northernmost of the three, and acts as the head shrine for the over 300 Kumano Shrines located throughout Japan. Due to flooding in 1889, the shrine was moved 1 km away to higher ground (get ready to climb 158 steps!) and now the original site of the shrine, Oyu no Hara, boasts the world’s largest torii (gate), a towering 33m picture frame to the surrounding rice paddies. 

Kumano Hayatama Taisha

Kumano Hayatama Taisha lies to the southeast, in today’s coastal town of Shingu City. The shrine structures have been built and rebuilt in this location since at least the 12th century, but religious artifacts found in the area date back as far as the 3rd century. The shrine compound is home to two sacred ties to nature: the rock where the Kumano deities are said to have first touched down onto earth, and an Asian Bayberry tree estimated to be over 1000 years old. 

Kumano Nachi Taisha

Kumano Nachi Taisha might be the most accessible of the three grand shrines. Travelers who are short on time or encumbered by stairs will appreciate the parking lot just next to the nearby Seigantoji Temple, accessible by car. However, if you are up for the hike, the Daimonzaka Slope trail will lead you to Nachi Taisha through a forest of breath-taking, centuries-old cedar trees. The ascent climaxes at the front gate of Nachi Taisha, with an incredible mountainous vista. Pass through the gate and you will see a sacred camphor tree- over 850 years old. You can actually go inside the tree- a truly magical experience!

The sacred camphor tree (left) and other sites along the Kumano Kodo

Other Points of Interest 

Beyond the Kumano Sanzan “big three”, there are many other sacred and noteworthy sites to explore.

Just a short distance from the Nachi Tasha shrine complex, you will find Seigantoji’s iconic, red vermillion 3-story pagoda scenically framing Nachi Waterfall –the tallest single-tiered waterfall in all of Japan! There are several places from which you can view the sacred falls, and there is even an option to pay a small fee to drink the holy water which is said to promote health and longevity. 

The Kohechi route heading north out of the Hongu Taisha area will take you to Mount Koya, home of Kongobuji, the head temple of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. There are over 100 temples on Mount Koya, and nearly half of them offer shokubo- temple lodging. These temple lodges offer a unique first-hand experience of buddhist monastery life and are very popular with vegetarian tourists, as an overnight stay includes shojin ryori- the traditional, meatless cuisine of Budhist monks.

Tucked away in the folds of the mountains are several onsen towns worth visiting. After a long day of hiking, have a stay at one of the family-operated, Japanese-style bed and breakfasts (minshuku) and enjoy the healing power of the natural hot spring water. Yunomine Onsen, near Hongu Taisha is colloquially called “Japan’s Oldest Spa”, and the long history of its bath, Tsuboyu has earned it the designation of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 


Tips for Planning Your Trip

It’s important to note that the Kumano Kodo is by no means a linear route- its a network of paths, almost like a choose-your-own-adventure book. You can start anywhere and end anywhere, go in any order, and seek or skip any site that you so desire. You may wish to backpack for a week, or send your luggage ahead and take trains and buses to major destinations to cherry-pick a few scenic sections of the trails to walk. 

Whether you identify as a pilgrim or a tourist, it might be impossible to wander these sacred paths without recognizing and appreciating something spiritual and moving, permeating the beautiful nature.


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