Soul-searching in Japan’s sacred Kii Mountains
Wakayama’s rugged coastline and mountainous, heavily forested interior is home to some of Japan’s holiest shrines, temples and monasteries that date back over 1,200 years. Linked by a network of ancient pilgrimage routes known as the Kumano Kodo, these sacred sites (Yoshino and Omine, Koyasan, and Kumano) offer pilgrims and visitors the chance to step back in time. Kumano Kodo is one of only two UNESCO World Heritage-recognized pilgrimage routes along with the Camino de Santiago in Spain (pilgrims who successfully complete both are entitled to Dual Pilgrim status and recognition).
Prior to my trips to Koyasan and Kumano, I spent several weeks researching the excellent English-language resources provided by Visit Wakayama (en.visitwakayama.jp/) and Kumano Travel (www.tb-kumano.jp/en/kumano-kodo/), including reading up on the various pilgrimage routes and booking activities, English-speaking guides and accommodations online. In addition to detailed hiking maps and bus schedules, you’ll also find recommended restaurants, activities, and cultural events.
Mount Koya is the center of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism and was established by Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi) in 816 AD. “Shingon” translates as “true word” and the sect believes that the Buddha’s wisdom is developed and realized through the use of body, speech and mind through symbolic gestures, mystical syllables, and meditation.
Getting to Koyasan is an adventure in itself, requiring a limited express train from Osaka Namba Station, a cable car ride up the mountain, and a bus ride into town (part of the railway was damaged by a typhoon and only recently reopened after repairs). As the town is used to international visitors, bus announcements and information is provided in English, French, and other languages, making getting around easy.
There are numerous Important cultural properties in Koyasan: Danjo Garan is the central temple complex with its striking Konpon Daito Pagoda that houses a statue of Dainichi Nyorai (the Cosmic Buddha / Variocana), the central Buddha in Shingon Buddhism. Kongobuji Temple, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism, boasts the largest rock garden in Japan, while the ornate Tokugawa Mausoleum calls to mind Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine (also constructed by the Tokugawa Shogunate).
Koyasan is also home to Japan’s largest cemetery, Okunoin, which is a combination of ancient and modern graves, some with whimsical designs. Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum (where he is said to be eternally meditating) is visited twice a day by monks who offer him ritually prepared meals. Visitors can participate in a nighttime English-language walking tour of Okunoin led by monks from Eko-in Temple. The cemetery takes on a completely different ambience after nightfall, when the only light comes from stone lanterns lining the path. The monk who led my tour stopped at Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum to chant Hannya Shingyo (the Heart Sutra, which is recited by millions of Buddhists daily), and it was an absolutely magical experience chanting in the darkness with only candlelight and the shadows of the ancient towering cedars overhead.
Originally home to over 2,000 temples and monasteries, today 52 of the remaining 117 temples offer lodgings known as “shukubo” with vegetarian meals (shojin ryori) along with the opportunity to participate in morning prayers, meditation and sutra writing. I stayed at Fudoin, which has several rooms with private baths overlooking the temple gardens as well as the absolute best vegetarian temple food I’ve had in Japan. It is conveniently located near a bus stop, which makes getting back to the cable car station easy.
Kumano Kodo / Kumano Sanzan
Kumano has been an important pilgrimage site for over 1,000 years. According to legend, a three-legged crow, Yatagarasu, guided Emperor Jimmu to Kumano (Yatagarasu is also the mascot of the Japan Football Association, and soccer fans will delight in the autographed soccer memorabilia and merchandise on display at area shrines).
The region practices a unique blend of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs known as “Shinbutsu shūgō” and is home to three Grand Shrines (Kumano Sanzan): Kumano Hayatama Taisha in Shingu, Kumano Hongu Taisha in Tanabe, and Kumano Nachi Taisha in Nachi.
The Kumano Kodo is made up of five routes that cut across the Kii Peninsula linking the three Grand Shrines as well as Koyasan and Ise: Kiiji (which connects Kyoto to Tanabe), Nakahechi (the Imperial Route), Kohechi (the mountainous route), Ohechi (the coastal route), and Iseji (the eastern route), totaling 307 km (191 miles) in all. Japan’s Imperial family made pilgrimages to Kumano nearly 100 times between the 11th – 13th centuries, and in the 15th century the general population began making pilgrimages to Kumano as well.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Kumano Kodo suffered as the new government strictly controlled religion, prohibited Shinto-Buddhist syncretism, destroyed tens of thousands of temples, and forcibly removed artwork. The cultural loss was enormous, and the Kumano pilgrimage largely fell into obscurity.
In 2004, the Kumano Kodo was granted UNESCO World Heritage status as part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range,” and since then the number of Japanese and international visitors looking to (re)connect with their spiritual roots on the Kumano Kodo has increased dramatically.
There are ample English-language hiking maps with detailed explanations, elevation, clearly marked rest areas, etc. available from Kumano Travel or from the Kumano Hongu Visitor Center in Tanabe. You can hike Kumano Kodo solo, you can choose to hire a licensed guide through Mi-Kumano (en.mi-kumano.com/), or several companies offer package tours to hike entire routes.
I chose to explore Kumano across several days and used Nachikatsuura as my home base. This sleepy coastal fishing town is a haven for both natural hot springs (there are over 20; for 1300 yen you can get a one-day pass that will give you access to three different onsens) and fresh tuna. Katsuura’s morning tuna auction (Sunday – Friday from 0700 to 0800) boasts the largest tuna catch in Japan and visitors can watch auctions from the second-floor observation deck. Area restaurants serve maguro in every possible configuration, and for the culinarily adventurous, whale meat is also on the menu.
The first day, I disembarked at Shingu and visited ancient Kamikura Shrine. Over 500 jagged stone steps lead up to a giant boulder believed to mark where the Kumano deities descended to earth. Next, I visited Kumano Hayatama Taisha. I then took a bus to the beginning of Ogumo-tori-goe, one of the most difficult mountain passes on the Nakahechi Route that runs 14.3 km between Koguchi and Nachi Falls and includes the ominously named “Dogirizaka” (body-breaking slope).
The second day, I hired an outstanding private guide through Mi-Kumano. I chose the half-day walk from Daimonzaka to Nachi Falls. Daimonzaka is the steep 3 km-long stone stairway leading up the hill to Kumano Nachi Shrine and Seigantoji Temple (the famous red pagoda often seen on travel posters). You can choose to rent Heian-era pilgrim’s kimonos for about 3,000 yen and it makes for memorable photos as you ascend Daimonzaka and explore the Nachi shrine, temple, and Nachi Falls. The tallest waterfall in Japan at 133 meters high and 13 meters wide, Nachi Falls has been protected since ancient times and is used for ascetic training by monks who practice Shugendo, a Heian-era religion that combines folk religion, mountain worship, Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.
If you are short on time, the best option for experiencing Kumano is to take a full-day bus tour offered by Kumano Kotsu that includes stops at all three Grand Shrines as well as Daimonzaka, Seigantoji, and Nachi Falls, an upscale boxed lunch overlooking the Dorokyo Gorge, and collectibles at each stop. There is no guide provided, instead you watch a series of short videos on the bus as you transit between destinations and all videos are in Japanese only. I did the bus tour on my third day in the Kumano region and had numerous photo opportunities as well as the chance to make new Japanese friends and collect unique stamps, collectibles, and goshuin (shrine / temple seals) at each destination.
Okunoin cemetery walking tour reservations
Fee: 2100 yen (with return bus transfer), 1800 yen (without bus transfer)
Nighttime walking tours not offered on the 20th of each month / may be cancelled in inclement weather
**Before signing up for the night walking tour, be careful to check your curfew with your temple lodgings as most lock the gates at 2100.
Fee: Price per person starts at 15,950 yen / Hanare Rooms with garden view and private bath from 20,900 yen (minimum double occupancy for Hanare rooms), includes breakfast and dinner. Rooms have private toilets but shared baths with the exception of the Hanare rooms, which have both private toilets and private baths.
Address: 456 Koyasan, Koya-cho, Ito-gun, Wakayama Prefecture, 648-0211
- 90 min by train from Nankai Osaka station to Gokurakubashi station (Nankai Railways)
- 5 min by cable car from Gokurakubashi to Koyasan
- 12 min by bus from Koyasan bound for Okunoin, 1 minute walk from “Renge-dani” bus stop.
Koyasan Shukubo Association
Koyasan tourism information office
Address: 〒648-0211 Wakayama Prefecture, Ito District, Kōya, Koyasan, 600
Mi-Kumano tours and licensed guides
Address: Mi-Kumano office: Tanabe tourist Center 2F, 1-20 Minato, Tanabe, Wakayama 646-0031
Hours: OPEN 9:30 a.m. – 3 o.m.
Kumano Kotsu sightseeing tour
Details: Kumano Sanzan Circuit Tour and Lunch Box, includes entrance / stops at Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, Seigantoji Temple, Daimonzaka, and Nachi Falls
Hours: Departs and returns from Kii-Katsuura station, 8:30 a.m. – 3:39 p.m.
Fee: Adult: 8,500, Child: 5,280, Infant: Free