Set amongst the isolated mountain ranges of the Kii Hantō (紀伊半島) peninsula, in southern Wakayama prefecture, southeast of Ōsaka, is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes known as the Kumano Kodō (熊野古道). In 2004, Kumano Kodō, literally the “Kumano ancient road”, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An area of stunning natural beauty – old-growth forests, charming mountain tea fields, magnificent waterfalls and healing hot springs – it is also the spiritual heartland of Japanese mythology and religion, and unique for its synthesis of Shintoism and Buddhism, in which indigenous Japanese deities were accepted as manifestations of Buddhist deities. This is where the mountain-worshipping Buddhist-Shinto practice of Shugendō evolved and is still active today.
Though mentioned in the eighth-century Kojiki historical record as the “Land of the Dead”, where the spirits of the gods reside, Kumano Kodō became popular from the tenth century mainly through Imperial pilgrimages by retired emperors and aristocrats, who made the trek from Kyoto to worship at the Kumano Sanzan (熊野三山), a set of three important Grand Shrines of Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha, and to perform rites of purification in the surrounding rivers and waterfalls. The working classes were also attracted to worshipping here, and consequently, by the fourteenth century pilgrims from all over the country had forged routs here from other parts of the county. Unlike nearby Kōya-san, some seventy kilometres away, female pilgrims have always been welcomed in Kumano from its earliest history.
Another reason for the historical popularity and significance of the Kumano Kodō is the number of excellent hot springs, many in remote villages, which since ancient times have been known for their healing and restorative powers. The Kumano Kodō is a special place to visit both for its serene natural beauty and its ancient spiritual atmosphere. Despite its remoteness from modern, hi-tech Japan, it is an incredibly friendly place, with a good transport and accommodation infrastructure that caters well to international visitors.
The Kumano Kodō is actually a rubric for the network of four pilgrimage routes; the Imperial Nakahechi route, the mountainous Kohechi route, the coastal Ohechi route and the eastern Iseji route. The Kohechi and Iseji routes link up Kumano with Kōya-san and Ise-jingū, respectively.
The Nakahechi is the most popular route to the Grand Shrines. Beginning in Tanabe, it traverses the mountains eastwards towards Hongū, where it splits into a river route to Shingu and a mountain route to Nachi. The Nakahechi passes through some remote villages but has excellent accommodation facilities for multi-day walks. This route has many oji, small roadside shrines for worshipping various deities, hence many of the villages are named accordingly. Most pilgrims take a bus from Kii-Tanabe station to Takijiri-oji, a major trailhead, and walk to Chikatsuyu (6hr) on the first day, stopping at Takahara Kumano-jinja to see the wonderful vista of clouds and mountains. The second full-day walk leads to Hongū and its onsen. Many pilgrims continue on the trail for another few days, also taking in Kumano Nachi Taisha and its amazing waterfall, before arriving at the final destination in Shingū. It is also possible to use a combination of buses and selected trail walks to experience the Nakahechi route – either way, it takes in some of the most tranquil natural scenes in Western Japan, and is a great way to visit the Kumano Sanzan Grand Shrines. Remember, however, that this is a mountainous area and the weather can change quickly, so it’s important to be prepared for different temperatures. Detailed information on all the routes, as well as suggested itineraries, are available in English.