Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Kumano Kodo is located in Shingu City, Wakayama and is a popular sightseeing destination for both Japanese and foreign travelers as a spiritual sacred site. In Shingu area, not only can you enjoy walking the ancient pilgrimage routes themselves, there are a number of shrines, or “power spots”. The Kumano Kodo spreads out in all directions from Shingu area, connecting the Grand Shrine at Nachi, one of the three Kumano Sanzan shrines, and the Nachi Waterfall, one of the best-known waterfalls in Japan that is also the goshintai (sacred body of the Shinto god) of Hirou Shrine. The route will further take you to Yoshino-Kumano National Park, part of which was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site as Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. At the park, you can appreciate the beautiful nature of the Kii Peninsula.
Here, an almost 30-year-old travel writer introduces to you how to walk and enjoy the Kumano Kodo along with its historical background.
When you arrive in Shingu City, first you want to visit the three UNESCO World Heritage sites in the city: Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, Asuka-Jinja Shrine, and Kamikura-Jinja Shrine.
In this trip, I was accompanied by Ms. Hitomi Tamaki from the Shingu City Tour Guide Group.
Now my visit to the three shrines with a local tour guide begins.
First, we visited Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, which is also a registered site of World Heritage site "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range ". It is one of the Kumano Sanzan shrines and one of the main shrines of over 3,000 Kumano shrines in the country.
While the first shrine to which the god of Kumano descended is Kamikura-Jinja Shrine, which I will talk about later, people were not allowed to enter the mountain except during religious festivals. Therefore, Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine was built for people to visit and worship the god at ordinary times. The shrine has many visitors, including the Imperial Family.
Purifying your hands at the chouzuya (purification pavilion) and then standing in front of the shrine, I realized I was standing in awe. Enshrined this shrine are Kumano Hayatama-no Okami and Kumano Fusumi-no Okami, the two gods who became the first couple in Japan, who are often compared to Izanagi-no Kami and Izanami-no Kami in the Nihon Shoki. Therefore, the shrine is said to bestow benefits of "marriage" and "family safety" upon visitors.
When I was worshiping, I was able to hear an interesting story about the shrine from a Shinto priest. He told me that the vermillion color of the shrine is influenced by Chinese Buddhist culture and it is for avoiding evil spirits. He also told me that the structure of the shrine was built using the Gongen-zukuri style and that Chigi, the timber placed on the roof, has a “heart-shaped” pattern. At first I thought it had such a pattern because one of the benefits bestowed by the enshrined gods was “marriage”. But he told me that the pattern is called “Inume” and has been used in sculpture since the Heian period.
Last but not least, I visited the Sacred Nagi Tree. Leaves of this some 1,000 years old tree have been cherished as an amulet for fishermen, because the word “nagi” in Japanese also means “calm wind”. It is also said that the leaves were also used as an amulet for “safe trip” when people travelled the Kumano Kodo for pilgrimage.
This is the Sacred Nagi Tree. We are not allowed to touch it as it is designated as a natural monument of the country.
At the shrine’s management office, you can buy "Nagi-mamori", an amulet in the shape of the Nagi leaf. They told me that it brings to you a “good relationship” in human relationships and money as the Nagi leaf is hard to break.
This is a Shinto ceremony that has lasted for some 1,100 years. At the ceremony, nine rowboats including the vermillion-colored shinkou bune (onto which the divine spirit is loaded), morota bune, and saishu bune make three laps around Mifune-jima Island. It is held on October 16th every year.
・Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine
Address: 1 Shingu, Shingu-shi, Wakayama
After visiting Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, we stopped at "Kawaraya Yokocho" for a break. Kawaraya Yokocho is a sightseeing spot created to reproduce kawaraya, simplified houses used from the Edo period to the Taisho period, so that people can feel the lively atmosphere of Monzen Town.
Every weekend and on national holidays, you can see the “pictorial guide” of the Kumano-Shingu Pilgrimage Mandala. Pictorial guide is like storytelling using a big piece of painting. It is said that a nun called Bikuni travelled throughout the country carrying the picture for the purpose of attracting worshippers to Kumano. By the way, "Shingu Pilgrimage Mandala" and "Kumano Hongu Pilgrimage Mandala" did not exist until the Kumano Pilgrimage Routes were registered as a World Heritage site.
Address: 1-2-1 Funamachi, Shingu-shi, Wakayama
Next, we visited Asuka-Jinja Shrine. Going through the torii gate whose structure is simple but made of the stone that makes you feel history and dignity, the beautiful contrast of vermillion and white came into my eyes.
Remember to pray for your safe trip!
Address: 1-25-25 Asuka, Shingu-shi, Wakayama
The last shrine we visited is Kamikura-Jinja Shrine, which can be said as the birthplace of Kumano worship. Since Kamikura-Jinja Shrine is at the top of Mt. Kamikura, we had to go up the stone steps that are believed to have been donated by Minamoto-no Yoritomo. I was told in advance from the guide that the stone steps were nothing like an ordinary staircase, but when I actually saw the steps in person, I almost became frozen.
But on top of the mountain there is the “Gotobiki-iwa rock”, the biggest power spot. This rock is also the goshintai (sacred body) of Kamikura-Jinja Shrine, and you can gain “power” by touching it. Plus, that is the place where the god of Kumano first descended. Well, I must go up in any way…!
I know it’s a cliché photo pose, but I had to push it up!
Address: 1-13-8 Kamikura, Shingu-shi, Wakayama
After getting some spiritual power, you would probably want to explore the Kumano Kodo. But the Kumano Kodo is composed of several routes including Nakaheji, Koheji, Oheji, and Kiiji, and even courses for beginners sounded too hard for my out-of-shape body.
Thankfully, my guide enlightened me with her words “any way that takes you from home to Kumano is Kumano Kodo.” Of course, the routes that are registered as World Heritage sites meet criteria such as being listed on official documents and the path being maintained properly even today. But she means you can make “your own Kumano Kodo route” for yourself.
Finally, we made it to the scenic point that watches out Ojigahama coast, the finish point of this journey! The contrast created by the shining blue sky, the emerald green ocean, and the trees shining green under the sunshine is exactly a "superb view"! The course was very satisfying as I was able to enjoy the Kumano Kodo and this superb view in an hour.
Taking a picture with the superb view of Ojigahama coast. It always brings me back to the memories of our journey!
Address: Maruyama, Kiwa-cho, Kumano-shi, Mie
After walking the course, I felt that you will definitely enjoy your walk with an experienced guide who knows “where to go” and “how to enjoy” in the area, rather than walking by yourself. You will have to pay guide fees, but your satisfaction will be much higher with a guide!
A guide group called "Wakayama Local Guide Association" has been formed by volunteers in the Kinan area. The group also provides guide services in multiple languages including English.
The guide navigator for this trip
Hitomi Tamaki, Shingu City Tour Guide Group
・Shingu City Tourist Association
Address: 2-1-11 Jofuku, Shingu-shi, Wakayama
Guide Fees (Shingu City Tour Guide Group): Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine: 2,000 yen / Asuka-Jinja Shrine: 2,000 yen / Kamikura-Jinja Shrine (up to Gotobiki-iwa Rock): 3,000 yen / Koyazaka slope: 4,000 yen / Pictorial Guide: 5,000 yen (Up to 2 pieces), 8,000 yen (Up to 4 pieces)
*Guide fees will be the same for up to 20 people (All rates refer to guide services in Japanese)
・Wakayama Local Guide Association
*Services available in English