Searching for Heaven on Earth, The History of Kumano Kodo
Kumano is the spiritual heartland of Japan, where nature and enlightenment interact to create its unique atmosphere. Down the centuries, its picturesque rivers, soothing thermal hot springs, waterfall-laced mountains and verdant eerie forests have appealed to both the body and the soul.
For millennia, the rugged Kii Mountains of Kumano, with their ancient forests, majestic waterfalls and ambling rivers have been thought of as Japan’s spiritual heartland. Referred to as the “holy ground where the gods dwell”, this mystical landscape has offered an earthly path towards self-discovery, purification and healing. Pilgrims first journeyed to this remote and sacred region during the Heian period (794 – 1185). Early pilgrims included Japan’s emperors and aristocrats. They made the 30 to 40 day arduous journey from the ancient capital of Kyoto – along routes that would come to be called the “Kumano Kodo” – in search of heaven on earth. As Buddhist influences had entered Japan by this time, Kumano also came to be known as the “Pure Land” or “pure world where Buddha dwells.”
The Kumano Sanzan, the three grand shrines of Kumano and Nachisan
Seiganto-ji Temple, were established in this sacred region. Numerous subsidiary shrines known as Oji shrines – places for rest, purification rites and prayer for pilgrims – can still be found dotted along the Kumano Kodo. The main route is known as the Nakahechi route which stretches across the peninsula from Tanabe City to Shingu City. In 2004, along with Koyasan, Yoshino and Omine, the Kumano Kodo was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
World Heritage: The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes
Kumano, the spiritual heartland of Japan has stood the test of time. The Kumano Kodo is one of only two pilgrimage World Heritage Sites globally. Its history stretches back over a thousand years.
For millennia, the mountainous region of Kumano has been thought to be the mythical “holy ground where gods dwell.” During the Heian period (794 – 1185), the Imperial household and court made 30 to 40 day arduous journey from the ancient capital of Kyoto to this remote area, in search of heaven on earth. It is here that Kumano Sanzan, the three grand shrines and Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple, were established.
From Japan’s Emperors to The World
During the early days of the Heian period, the Kumano faith would filter down from the imperial family and aristocracy, spreading to the samurai warrior class, and beyond. So many people came, that the pilgrimage came to be known as the “march of the ants to Kumano.” The Kumano faith was unique in Japan because it was open to everyone regardless of class or sex, including the disabled. Today, there are about 3,000 Kumano Shrines in Japan.
The sacred sites collectively known as Kumano Sanzan, are Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine (Shingu), Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine and neighboring Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple (Nachi-Katsuura), and Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine (Tanabe). The region’s landscape and sacred sites, are often described as possessing mysterious auras. These characteristics are said to have been influenced by their differing origins, and worship practices around the natural world. Despite these differences, that also manifest architecturally, resolutely they continue to exist harmoniously with their environments, and leave visitors markedly impressed.
Kumano Sanzan combined the Shinto and Buddhist faiths into one, known as Shinbutsu-shugo (literally the convergence of Buddhism and Shinto). The notion that deities (kami) are present in all things on the earth is deeply embedded into Japanese culture from ancient times.
White paper folded into the shape of lightning and hung at shrines delineates areas where kami are believed to preside. When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, Shinto deities were identified with the different forms of the Buddha, to create Shinbutsu-shugo.
The Pilgrimage Routes
Over the past ten centuries, people from all levels of society have journeyed to the tranquil Kii Mountains, following many pilgrimage routes to the revered Kumano Sanzan Shrines. The various paths are known collectively as the Kumano Kodo. The seven routes are the Nakahechi (the main route), Ohechi, Kohechi, Iseji, the Choishi-michi Route which links the sacred Shingon Buddhist Koyasan to the Kumano Shrines, and the Yoshino & Omine route, an isolated treacherous mountain trail reserved for ascetic practices by the Shugendo sect, and one recommended only for expert hikers. In 2004, the majority of these routes – excluding a modern route called the Kiiji – were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On July 7, 2004, the three sacred shrine sites, Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple, and the arterial pilgrimage routes, were designated as World Heritage Sites as the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.” The site includes the Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture, and Yoshino & Omine in Nara Prefecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Site designation states that these sites form a cultural landscape that reflect the fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism, and a persistent and well-documented tradition of sacred mountains maintained over 1200 years.
Kumano Kodo and the Way of St. James (Spain)
Kumano Kodo and The Way of St. James are the only two World Heritage UNESCO-listed pilgrimage routes. As sister pilgrimages, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan and Galicia Province, Spain have officially twinned to develop friendly relations between regions and countries, and contribute to world peace and development. Though Kumano Kodo is located in the East, while the Way of St. James that leads to Galicia’s Santiago de Compostela Cathedral – one of the three holiest sites of Catholicism – is located in the West, both ancient roads testify to a parallel history of faith, originating in the early 10th century.
Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine
This shrine, with its beautiful sweeping cypress bark roofs, is one of the three main shrines of the Kumano faith, of which there are more than 3,000 shrines. Originally located at Oyunohara, a sandbank at the confluence of Kumano-gawa and Otonashi-gawa Rivers, the shrine was moved to its current location following the great floods of 1889. The Oyunohara torii shrine gate marks the original location.
Located on a delta between mountain ranges is Oyunohara. All of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes lead to this sandbank, where the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine once stood. Measuring 33.9 meters tall and 42 meters wide, stands the world’s largest Torii shrine gate. This monolithic structure symbolizes the division between the secular and spiritual worlds; it is the entrance to a sacred area.
Kumano Kodo Picture Scroll Procession
Participants in this matsuri festival, held annually on November 3rd, wear Heian Era (794-1185) garb, reminiscent of members of the Heian imperial household and the Court who were the first pilgrims to travel along the Kumano Kodo.
A sacred Kumano Sanzan site, Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple is included in the sites awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. The area is thought to have been established during the early 5th century. Its precincts are renowned for their picture-perfect views of the Nachi Falls, the Nachi Primeval Forest, and the Pacific Ocean.
Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine
Ensconced in the forest stands the vermillion Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, one of the three Kumano Sanzan Shrines. It is home to a sacred conifer tree, the largest in all Japan.
The Mountainous Kii Peninsula
The sacred sites of Koyasan and Kumano offer glimpses of the landscape of the Kii Mountain Range as it was in ancient times. This deeply forested range comprises most of the Kii Peninsula, whose peaks range from between 1,000 to 2,000 meters.
To this day, innumerable subsidiary shrines known as Oji shrines – places for rest, purification rites and prayer for pilgrims – can still be found along the pilgrimage routes.
Shide, the lighting-bolt-shaped folded paper streamers, often attached to Shimenawa (rice straw rope), are used for purification in Shinto rituals, and are hung around sacred areas. The shimenawa over Nachi Falls, indicates the presence of a kami (deity).
Yata-garasu, The Legendary Three-Legged Raven
The insignia of Kumano Kodo is the three-legged sacred raven, Yata- garasu. This Shinto deity symbolizes guidance and divine intervention. According to folklore, the mythological creature guided Japan’s first Emperor, Jimmu (reigned ca 660 – 585 BC), who had lost his way whilst travelling through Kumano. Each of the three Kumano Sanzan shrines sell beautiful paper talismans featuring the Yata-garasu.
Useful Tips and Things to Know
Hikers and pilgrims alike can send their luggage ahead whilst traversing between the Kumano Sanzan shrines along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes; a handy service particularly for international visitors travelling with suitcases.
The weather in southern Wakayama is generally quite mild all year round, with very little snow. January is the coldest month of the year when average temperatures hover between 3°C ~ 7°C. Humid and hot, temperatures peak in August, whereas May, June, September and October are the most temperate months of the year. Rainfall is highest during these months, particularly from May to August.
Tanabe City, the second largest city in the prefecture, is the most convenient access point to the Kumano Kodo. The Tanabe Tourism office has an online booking service to help you plan your trip, from making reservations to booking guides.
The trails rise from 100 m to 600 m, and therefore comfortable walking clothing, hiking shoes, breathable rain-gear, an adequate water-supply, a hat and towel are recommended. Walking sticks also help to take the pressure off knees, and are available at most trailheads.
Kumano Kodo and The Way of St. James have a joint program called the “Dual Pilgrim”. It celebrates, honors, and shares the stories of those who have completed both of these UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage routes. Register at the Kumano Hongu Heritage Center or the Tanabe Tourist Information Center.