Japan’s Kii Peninsula is part of a remarkable network of ancient pilgrimage trails known as the Kumano Kodo. Besides the Camino de Santiago in Spain, these are the only pilgrimage itineraries that have received World Heritage status. In this vein, it should be noted that Kumano Hongu Taisha is one of the three Kumano shrines.
The mountainous area of the Kii Peninsula is covered in temperate rainforest and sparsely populated. Mountains, forests, and streams are places of worship for Shinto followers since ancient times. Shrines and monasteries grew and, with the arrival of Buddhism in Japan after 500 AD, they became sacred to both religions.
Pilgrimages to Kii have been known for more than 1,000 years. It is interesting to note that the imperial cities of Nara and Kyoto are located north of the peninsula and are only 150 and 180 km from the heart of remote forests. In fact, emperors frequently traveled to shrines on the Kii peninsula. It should also be noted that, through the centuries, people of all social classes made these journeys, which led to the development of a network of pilgrimage trails.
The three shrines of Kumano
There are roads along the west coast, from Osaka (Kiji route) and the east coast, from Ise (Iseji route). The destination of most of the routes is the three Kumano shrines, which are collectively known as Kumano Sanzan: Hongu Taisha, Hatayama Taisha, and Nachi Taisha.
From Tanabe, on the west coast, there is the Ohechi route that connects Tanabe and Kumano Sanzan along the south coast. However, the most famous is probably the Nakahechi Imperial Route, which takes pilgrims from Tanabe to the heart of the Kii Peninsula and to Hongu Taisha. Within the green forests, small Oji shrines are on the way and, while protecting the pilgrims, they are a place to rest. Before reaching Hongu Taisha, the main shrine, you have a natural hot spring, an Onsen in Yunomine, a place to take a ritual bath.
From Hongu Taisha to Hatayama Taisha, the pilgrimage continues by boat, a very unique way for such a spiritual journey. The Kumano River carries pilgrims almost to the ocean before reaching the sanctuary.
Nachi Taisha, the third of the Kumano shrines, is located in the mountains in front of one of the highest waterfalls in Japan. Here, a centuries-old hollow tree is part of the sanctuary complex.
Sacred places north of the Kumano Sanzan
From Hongu Taisha, the difficult mountain trails continue north to Koyasan. This is a former monastery, which grew into a community of 120 temples and a center for Buddhist studies in Japan. Many of the temples offer accommodation, making the visit a worthwhile experience.
To the east are Omine, which is one of the most sacred mountains in Japan, and the Yoshino area, where more than 30,000 cherry trees are grown offering a spectacular view of cherry blossoms.
Those ancient pilgrimage trails
Today, the Kii Peninsula is not as remote as it once was. Modern highways and rail lines connect it to urban areas in Japan. For example, Keihanshin, the metropolitan area of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, is less than 100 km away and is home to almost 20 million people. Still, the ancient trail system leading to the holy sites survived and is an important part of the spiritual life of the Japanese.
Due to the increasing popularity, since it became part of the World Heritage in 2004, the Kumano Kodo also attracts foreign tourists who can enjoy this unique experience of Japanese culture.
Koyasan is a basin that extends 2 km from north to south and 4 km from east to west, surrounded by mountains of 1000 meters high, it is located in the Kansai region.