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 the Shingu area, you can enjoy walking the ancient pilgrimage routes themselves, and visiting a number of different 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. The route will take you out further to Yoshino-Kumano National Park, part of which was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site called the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. Within the park, you can truly appreciate and connect with the beautiful nature of the Kii Peninsula.
Here, my 30-year-old travel writer self will introduce how to walk and enjoy the Kumano Kodo along with some historical background on the way.
When you arrive in Shingu City, the first thing you will want to do is visit the three UNESCO World Heritage sites in the city: Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, Asuka-Jinja Shrine, and Kamikura-Jinja Shrine.
On this trip, I was accompanied by Ms. Hitomi Tamaki from the Shingu City Tour Guide Group.
With my local tour guide in tow, my visit to the three shrines can finally begin.
First, we visited Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, which is also a registered World Heritage site under the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. It is one of the Kumano Sanzan shrines and one of the head shrines of over 3,000 Kumano shrines in the country.
While the first shrine from which the gods of Kumano descended is Kamikura-Jinja Shrine, of which I will talk about later, regular 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 gods during 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 just how in awe the sight of the shrine left me. Enshrined here 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 from classical Japanese literature like The Chronicles of Japan. As such, the shrine is said to bestow benefits of "marriage" and "family safety" to its visitors.
When I was paying my respects, 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 wards away evil spirits. He also told me that the structure of the shrine was built using the Gongen-zukuri style. If you look upwards at the shrine you'll notice that the Chigi, the timber placed on the roof, has a “heart-shaped” pattern. At first I thought it was like this because this shrine was known for its benefits to marriage, but he told me that the pattern is actually called “Inume” and has been used in Japanese 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”. Furthermore, it's said that the leaves were used as an amulet for a safe journey when people travelled the Kumano Kodo for pilgrimages.
This is the Sacred Nagi Tree. We are not allowed to touch it as it's designated as a natural monument of the country.
At the shrine’s management office, you can buy a "Nagi-mamori", an amulet in the shape of the Nagi leaf. They told me that it is meant to attract long-lasting and deeper relationships with others, as well as an unbroken stream of wealth because the Nagi leaf itself is hard to tear apart.
Mifune Matsuri is a Shinto ceremony that has lasted for some 1100 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 the Kawaraya Yokocho for a break. Kawaraya Yokocho is a sightseeing spot created to reproduce kawaraya, or simple riverside stores used from the Edo period to the Taisho period, so that people can relive the historic atmosphere from the temple towns of the past.
Every weekend and on national holidays, you can see a pictorial guide of the Kumano-Shingu Pilgrimage Mandala. The pictorial guide refers to storytelling using a large painting. It is said that Buddhist nuns called Bikuni travelled throughout the country carrying the picture to attract worshippers to the Kumano area, and the money charged to listen to the bikuni's explanation helped to pay for shrine repairs. Both the Shingu Pilgrimage and Kumano Hongu Pilgrimage Mandalas 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 simple stone torii gate almost feels as if you are being embraced by the shrine's history and dignity, the beautiful contrast of the painted vermillion and white stone is truly a visceral visual experience.
Remember to pray for a safe trip!
Address: 1-25-25 Asuka, Shingu-shi, Wakayama
The last shrine we visited is Kamikura-Jinja Shrine, which is said to be 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, the first shogun of the Kamakura period. 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 froze on the spot.
But at the 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 it's believed that you can gain power by just touching it. Plus, that is the place where the god of Kumano first descended. Well, there's nowhere to go but up from here!
I know it’s a cliché pose, but I just had to push it up!
Address: 1-13-8 Kamikura, Shingu-shi, Wakayama
After getting some spiritual power, you might want to explore the Kumano Kodo. But the Kumano Kodo is composed of several routes including Nakaheji, Koheji, Oheji, and Kiiji, though even the 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 several criteria like being listed on official documents and having the paths maintained properly to this day. But what she really means is that the Kumano Kodo is also a route you make 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 gleaming emerald ocean, and the trees swaying slowly under the sunshine is the most superb view and a great way to end the walk! The course was very satisfying as I was able to enjoy the Kumano Kodo and this superb view in around an hour.
Taking a picture with the superb view of Ojigahama coast. It always brings back memories of our journey!
Address: Maruyama, Kiwa-cho, Kumano-shi, Mie
After walking the course, I am certain that you will definitely enjoy your walk with an experienced guide who knows where to go and how to enjoy everything in the area, rather than walking by yourself. There is a guide fee to pay, but your satisfaction will be much higher so it is well worth it!
A guide group called the "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 was
Hitomi Tamaki, from the 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