For over 1,000 years, Japanese people from all walks of life, including retired emperors and aristocrats, have made the arduous pilgrimage of Wakayama. The Kumano Kodo is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes that traverse the Kii Peninsula in southern Wakayama Prefecture. These sacred paths have become Created to serve as pilgrimage routes to enter the sacred Kumano Sanzan area, which includes the three great shrines of Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. In July 2004, the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes were established as part of the "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range" added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
There are 4 main routes in total: The Nakahechi Route is the most popular route. From the 10th century onwards, the Nakahechi route was used extensively by the imperial family on pilgrimages from Kyoto. The Kohechi route connects the Buddhist temple complex of Koyasan and Kumano-Sanzan. Hikers should be well prepared if they want to take this route. The Ohechi Route offers picturesque views over the Pacific, while the Iseji Route features a variety of mountain passes, bamboo forests, terraced rice fields and beaches.
Takijiri-oji shrine marks the beginning of the Nakahechi trail, one of several old pilgrimage trails that crisscross the Kii Peninsula. Takijiri-oji is considered to be the point where “the passage into the precincts of the sacred mountains begins.”
The Ohechi Route (大辺路) follows the 92 km southern coast trail around the Kii peninsula, from Tanabe to the west, around to Nachi Taisha.
The Kohechi Route (小辺路) is a 64 km trail connecting the Kumano Sanzan area to the Buddhist mountaintop temple complex of Koyasan to the north. Following rugged mountainous terrain, it is considered one of the most strenuous routes. This joins up with another sacred route, the 24 km Koyasan Choishimichi route which originates at Jison-in temple at the foot of Mount Koya, in the Kudoyama area of Wakayama.
Hike the ancient path of the gods, following the 170 km Iseji Route (伊勢路) which connects Kumano Sanzan to Japan's most sacred shrine of Ise to the east in Mie prefecture.
One of the three main Kumano Sankeimichi (熊野参詣道), the Kiji Route travels along the western coast of Wakayama (originating as far as Osaka/Kyoto), before splitting into two routes, the inland Nakahechi Route and the coastal Ohechi Route.
The 80 km Omine Okugake trail (大峯奥駈道) stems north past the Omine mountains to the Yoshino area's Kinpusenji temple – a sacred place for Shugendo. Photo: Indiana Jo /CC BY-SA 4.0
You might have heard of The Way of St. James, a Christian pilgrimage route that lead across Europe to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain where the remains of Apostle Saint James are buried. A similar, over 1,000 years old network of pilgrimage routes exits in Japan where all trails lead to the Hongu Taisha, a shrine in Wakayama Prefecture’s Kumano area. The European and the Japanese pilgrimage routes, although tens of thousands kilometres apart, not only share the pilgrimage tradition but they both are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Kumano area, a mountain range full of scenic beauty, traditions and mystery, is often referred to as the spiritual heartland of Japan. For over 1,000 years Kumano has attracted Japanese worshippers and seekers and old trails, more or less intact, cross-cross the Kii Peninsula and lead to some sacred sites. The Kiiji route was the main trail travelled by imperial families and aristocrats from Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital leading along the west coast of the Kii Peninsula via what is now Wakayama City to present-day Tanabe City, both located in Wakayama Prefecture. Near Tanabe City the Kiiji trail splits into the Nakahechi route, which from there cuts across the mountains, and the Ohechi route which continues around the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula. The Kohechi route starts at the Buddhist temple complex of Mt. Koya and runs across the center of the Kii Peninsula. The Iseji route runs along the east coast and connects the Ise Grand Shrine with the Kumano area. As the old saying goes “All roads lead to Rome.” so here too, all trails lead to the Hongu Taisha, one of the three Grand Shrines of Kumano. Parts of the trail were paved with stones to avoid erosion by the elements and apparently to ease the pilgrims’ journey. However, anyone who has walked these stone paths and climbed countless stone steps is forgiven for wondering whether the real purpose was not to test the pilgrim’s spirit and endurance. No one really knows who first laid them or when but some of these stone paths have remained until today and have now become a symbol of the Kumano Kodo. Oji (subsidiary shrines of the Kumano Grand Shrines) were established along the Kiiji Trail and the deities enshrined were thought of as offspring of the gods worshipped at the Three Grand Shrines. These Oji, said to number 99, offered not only places of worship but also places for a much needed rest. Some of these Oji are still there and for the modern-day pilgrim or hiker they mark stages of travel more than places of worship along on the Nakahechi trail. Some of these Oji are still important landmarks as much as they used to be points of passage to the sacred sites in the past. Takijiri-oji marks the beginning of the Nakahechi trail and Chikatsuyu-oji can be found on the way to the Hongu Taisha. In the old days there were also many tea houses along the pilgrimage paths that served pilgrims as a place for rest and information exchange. Today there are only vacant lots and any remains are overgrown by lush green vegetation. Often there are some benches at these spots where you may sit down and rest. You better bring your own tea and provisions though or else you might starve as there are no convenience stores around the next corner of the forest. Let your fantasy take hold and follow the tales of pilgrims and locals who walked and lived along these trails. Many of their tales are retold, even in English, on wooden boards that can be found along the trails.
Chikatsuyu-oji is a small village located in a mountain basin about halfway between Takijiri-oji and the Hongu Taisha (the Hongu Grand Shrine) on the Nakahechi pilgrimage trail in the Kumano area. This is an ideal place for staying overnight on a two-day walk to the Hongu Taisha shrine. After walking along the Nakahechi mountain trail for hours, the sight of this small settlement promises a well-deserved break. Soak your tired legs in onsen water and enjoy the hospitality of the locals. You can first catch a glimpse of the river and the Chikatsuyu-oji settlement when you decent from the surrounding mountains. Crossing the bridge over Hiki River, tired pilgrims and hikers will find the most luxurious facilities that a secluded Japanese mountain village can offer, namely a Coop grocery store, a post office and some minshuku (B & B). In the old days pilgrims would perform cold-water purification in the river, one of many religious rites they performed on their way to the tree holy Kumano Grand Shrines. Nowadays you may soak your aching legs in the hot water of a local onsen (hot spring). Whether you want to say a prayer while relaxing in the hot spring waters is entirely up to you but walking along the old Kumano pilgrimage trails lends to introspection and to thinking about your own spiritual roots. An ideal place to stay overnight is Minshuku Chikatsuyu. The modern one-storey house was built right next to Hiki River which you can overlook from the dining room while enjoying a delicious Japanese dinner and breakfast. The rooms are simple Japanese style, meaning that you will sleep on a futon on the tatami floor. The shared indoor onsen is housed in a small building next to the minshuku where guests bath and relax. While there are some other options for accommodation in the area, hikers and pilgrims on the Nakahechi trail appreciate the hot, soothing waters of Hisui-no-yu onsen located right next to the minshuku after a long day’s walk. Guests of the minshuku may use this onsen for free while non-guests pay yen 550 (adult). After crossing the bridge over Hiki River (coming from Takijiri-oji), you will easily find the minshuku and the onsen near Chikatsuyu-oji, the Oji, or subsidiary shrine of the Kumano Grand Shrine, after which the settlement has been named. Searching for this Oji, don’t look for a wooden shrine building but for a large rock with kanji inscription and a shimenawa, a sacred rope, around it. Along the Kumano Kodo trails you will often see these sacred ropes bound around rocks and trees in Japan. These spots notify a shintai, a holy place where a kami is thought to reside. The cost for an overnight stay at Minshuku Chikatsuyu of around 9,400 yen per person (adults; depending on season) includes breakfast and dinner. This might sound a bit expensive at first but you have to consider that some sumptuous Japanese meals are included in the price, in addition to a glass of the owner’s delicious home-made plum liquor. He is also very knowledgeable about the Kumano area and he took time to answer my questions (in Japanese though) and drew a map of the Kumano Kodo trail from Hongu Taisha to Nachi Taisha (Nachi Grand Shrine), the second of the three Kumano Grand Shrines. In fact, there are no other places in the Chikatsuyu-oji settlement other than minshuku and the local Coop store where you can get some meals. I would recommend to take the bento (lunch box) prepared by the owner’s wife at a small extra cost. If you are walking towards the Hongu Taisha, then you have a long day ahead and there are not many options for getting food along the trail. With a delicious bento in the rucksack and some friendly words for the way you are well equipped for your onward journey to the Hongu Taisha, the goal of all pilgrimage trails in Kumano.
If the 5 heritage listed sites, spiritual significance and scenery of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage interest you but you do not have a week to complete the journey, there is no need to panic. Sections of the trail can be tackled to get a glimpse of what it offers to help you plan a return trip for next time.
The Magose-Toge Pass is known for its beautiful stone path which has been maintained for multiple centuries.
Did you know that the Green Pheasant is Japan's National Bird? This pheasant is endemic to Japan and one can still see it roaming around in unattended meadows and abandoned paddy fields in the Hongu area, near the Kumano Kodo ancient pilgrimage trails.
The Rhododendron is a flower of spring in mountainous Totsukawa Village in Nara Prefecture. The Rhododendron flower park is located in the mountains near famous Tamaki Shrine in Totsukawa, the largest village of Japan. The perfect location for a road trip this Golden Week!
Celebrate spring at Kansai's best ume (Japanese plum) viewing spot at the Kishu Ishigami Tanabe Ume Orchards in the south of Wakayama. More than 300,000 ume trees cover the hillsides right up to the Pacific Ocean. What a breath-taking view!
The Kishu Ishigami Tanabe Ume Orchards near Tanabe City in the south of Wakayama Prefecture have more than 300,000 ume trees. The orchards cover the hillsides around Ishigami Village and they stretch out right to the Pacific Ocean in the distance.
The Kumano Nachi Taisha is a Shinto shrine and part of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed holy sites and pilgrimage routes in the Kii Mountains of Japan. The Kumano Kodo Route connects it with other sites of the same classification, mainly in Wakayama Prefecture This is the perfect area for hiking enthusiasts. The shrine is part of a large complex of neighboring religious sites that illustrate the amalgamation of Buddhist and Shinto influences that is characteristic of the Kumano region. The site also has the highest waterfall in Japan. The 133 meter high Nachi no Taki still impresses many travelers with its strength and natural beauty.
Nachi Waterfall (那智滝, Nachi no Taki) in Nachikatsuura, Wakayama Prefecture, is one of the most famous waterfalls in Japan. With a drop of 133 meters, it is the highest waterfall in the country with a single, uninterrupted stream of water. The highest waterfalls with multiple waterfalls in Japan however, the Hannoki Falls with 497 meters and the Shomyo Falls with 350 meters. If you go down the stone stairs after going under the gate of the Hiro Shrine, you can immediately see the huge waterfall falling from the cliff. Since this waterfall is considered god, touching the rippling water is a blessing. It is one of the "100 selected Japanese waterfalls" and "100 soundscapes in Japan". At the top of the falls, there are two rocks that are the guardian gods of the falls and the Shinto shrine.
Kamikura Shrine (神倉神社, Kamikura Jinja) is related to the Hayatama Taisha Shrine and can be found on top of a hill of 538 stone steps, some as steep as 45 degrees. Facing east makes the shrine a good place for watching the sunrise. Every year on February 6 the Oto matsuri, a fire festival, is held where they run from the top to the bottom of the hill in the dark.