Japan is renowned the world over for its pilgrimage trails. Walking along the mysterious Kumano Kodo or trekking the Nakasendo feature highly on many a traveller's bucket list. But there are also a number of old roads and trails that are hardly known at all.
One such half-forgotten trail is the Katsuragi 28 Shuku Kyozuka that runs through the mountains separating Osaka, Wakayama and Nara Prefectures. This pilgrimage trail dates back to the 8th century and follows a line of 28 tiny shrines. It starts on the island of Tomogashima, off the coast of Wakayama and finishes at the Yamato River south of Shigisan.
It is said to mark the very first route that a young En-no-Gyoja took through the mountains when he first started laying the foundations of Shugendo, the mystic, ascetic form of training practiced in the mountains by Yamabushi. As he explored this area, historically known as Katsuragi, he came across many places of power. At 28 of these places he is said to have buried a chapter of the Lotus Sutra and it is these places that form the basis for the pilgrimage.
En-no-Gyoja was born in the middle of the 7th century near Mount Katsuragi in Nara Prefecture. He spent his youth exploring the Kongo and Ikoma mountain ranges and developed a great understanding of herbs. He founded numerous temples in the region, from small temples such as Kanshin-ji in the city of Kawachinagano to the massive Kinpusen-ji on the sacred mountain of Yoshino.
While they tend to be overlooked by most hikers, they are still commonly visited by modern Yamabushi. This can be seen in the fresh, inscribed wooden tablets left at them. And despite it being virtually unknown outside of the Yamabushi world, "Katsuragi Shugen" has recently been awarded cultural heritage status.
The Katsuragi 28 Shuku Kyozuka
The pilgrimage trail is roughly 80km long, as the crow flies, but the exact distance is hard to measure as it can sometimes be very difficult to locate a direct route between Kyozuka. The first 18 shrines lay along the mountain range separating Osaka and Wakayama prefectures and the final 10 between Osaka and Nara Prefectures.
Several Kyozuka sit along the Diamond Trail, a popular hiking route that runs from Mount Makio in Osaka to Mount Nijo in Nara. Though they often go unnoticed or treated as a simple curiosity by the hikers who pass them. Some however are quite a bit harder to find and require leaving the trail by some distance and a fair amount of exploration to pinpoint.
I only became aware of this trail very recently. Through my work in the tiny village of Amami in southern Osaka, I knew there was one unusual little shrine in the Nagaretani area but I didn't know the significance and had never visited it.
As it happens, there are a total of five Kyozuka in the city of Kawachinagano and this was the 16th in the series. I then discovered that number 15 was on nearby Mount Iwawaki and 17 was hidden deep in the woods right on the border with Wakayama Prefecture. Number 18 was much further away, in the village of Chihayaguchi and quite far off the Diamond Trail, while number 14 was at an isolated temple in an area known as Takihata.
This tiny shrine can be found in the grounds of Kotaki-ji, one of the most isolated temples in Kawachinagano. It lies just off a narrow road in the far southwest of the city in an area known as Takihata. This region was once an important training area for Yamabushi thanks to the presence of 48 waterfalls hidden within the thick forests. The kyozuka itself sits next to the main hall of the temple.
There is also a potential second site for Kyozuka 14 on nearby Mount Minami-Katsuragi. Although sometimes visited by Yamabushi, this alternative spot is actually thought to be a place where famous local samurai Kusunoki Masashige buried a mirror. Though I am yet to visit this one myself.
The 15th shrine in the sequence is located on Mount Iwawaki, a mountain popular with hikers year round, though particularly in Fall due to the pampas grass field at its summit. The Kyozuka itself is hidden on a small, wooded outcrop a few hundred meters up the road from the mysterious Iwawaki Temple.
The trailhead is difficult to spot; just a break in the trees and one very small sign but there is a great sense of serenity here and it is easy to see why this location had been chosen. Previous visitors had left some unusual offerings; a smaller version of the conch shells used by Yamabushi and a selection of what looked like coral.
The next Kyozuka can be found at the top of the village of Nagaretani, again very close to the road but difficult to access. While there is one clear sign to point you in the right direction, once you get into the trees there is very little to guide you.
After just a few meters though, the short trail widens into a clearing bordered by a low metal fence to keep out the wild boar. To find the Kyozuka, you must carefully climb the fence and look for a short ladder made of logs to help you scale the hillside. The Kyozuka can then be found a short distance away, along a very narrow and quite slippery path.
The 17th Kyozuka is somewhat more difficult to reach. It is actually located at a rest stop on the Diamond Trail, right on the Osaka / Wakayama border. Anybody hiking the Diamond Trail from Mount Kongo, through Kimitoge to Mount Iwawaki will likely pass it.
It can also be accessed from Nagaretani, up a virtually unmarked road followed by a hike up a quite poorly maintained trail. The route is quite direct but is made challenging by slippery surfaces and many fallen trees.
Once at the rest stop, the shrine itself is just a few meters away from a storage hut, though just off the trail enough that you can walk straight passed it without knowing it is even there. This is the largest of the four Kyozuka in the area and the perpetual half-light this deep into the forest gives it the most mysterious feeling. It is known as Amami-Fudo and in years gone by, local villagers would come here to pray for rain.
The last of the Kyozuka in Kawachinagano is also the most difficult to reach. It is a long way from the Diamond Trail and far off any of the more commonly used hiking trails in the area. One way to reach it is to walk up through the village of Shima-no-Tani on the eastern side of Amami.
Eventually the road here turns into a hiking trail and you can follow a route north until it eventually turns back into a road. This lonely farm road leads to the village of Chihayaguchi and can also be reached from Chihayaguchi Station on the Nankai Koya Line. The road in this direction is very steep and takes at least an hour to reach the trailhead.
The Kyozuka itself can be reached along another virtually unmarked trail at the point where the farm road finishes. Along an old creek bed, it leads into an especially dense area of woodland and up onto a low ridge.
With trails leading off to your left and right, taking the right-hand trail brings you very quickly to a path so steep, you must pull yourself up using a rope that previous visitors attached to the trees. The Kyozuka rests silently on this tiny hilltop and the only way back down is to use the rope. The challenge of not only finding this Kyozuka, but actually reaching it, was very satisfying.
While this trail is used almost exclusively by Yamabushi, it is an interesting and challenging route for explorers looking for a more spiritual alternative to the Diamond Trail. It takes roughly 4 to 5 hours to walk from Kyozuka 15 to 17. With an early enough start, you could also include number 18 though I personally wouldn’t recommend it as the area is quite isolated. A better alternative would be to do a loop from Amami Station, through Shima-no-Tani then down to Chihayaguchi Station.
I have not included pictures of the trail heads and have left the descriptions deliberately somewhat vague as the challenge of finding the Kyozuka is perhaps the most important part of the journey.