Let’s try virtual tour to the pilgrimage routes in Kii area. Last time, I tried virtual visit to Shuri Castle in Okinawa. This time, another virtual tour in Central Japan. If you read Japanese guide books, you may find many pilgrimage routes. But this one in Kii Peninsula has unique characteristics. The routes are the symbol of the mixture and the integration of Shinto and Buddhism.
1. Kii Peninsula
Kii Peninsula connects Osaka and Nagoya. Kyoto locates in the north of this peninsula. Having confirmed the location of the peninsula, you may wonder what is special in this area. Well, the heart of this peninsula is a centre of old religions. Shinto is the religion originated in Japan. The start of this religion goes back to pre-history era. Another religion, Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century. Both religions met in Kii Peninsula. Then they started to develop together with the help of yet another religion called Shugen-do. Shugen-do has a deep connection with Japan’s ancient mountain worship.
But why did they all come to Kii Peninsula? Because from the ancient times of mythology, people regarded Kii area as a sacred place where gods resided. Buddhism also considered this area as Pure Land of Buddha. And this is where Buddhist monks conducted practices. Kii Peninsula has three holy lands of Kumano, Koya-san and Yoshino and these are the places where people came to worship or practice.
2. Pilgrimage Routes in Kumano
From the old days, people called the pilgrimage routes in Kii area as “Kumano Kodo”. This means “old routes in Kumano”. These routes stretch towards three main shrines in the area; Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine and Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine.
Kumano Kodo are composed of many routes but the three pilgrimage routes are inscribed to the list of World Heritage Sites; Kumano Sankeimichi, Omine Okugakemichi and Koya Sankeimichi. Each route consists of many small paths.
Here are some photos of the parts I found on Wikipedia.
Most of the routes go through the deep woods in the mountains. In a sense, walking along the pilgrimage routes in Kumano may be something like hiking. In old days, people did such hiking as a religious travel. And at that time, it was a rare and precious opportunitiy for ordinary people to go on a trip. Today, many people follow these routes like the people in old days. If you look up guidebooks, they offer several different model courses. You can try just one day but if you like, there are courses for several-day walks.
3. Mountain Worship and PilgrimageRoutes
One of the routes called “Omine Okugake Michi” is a route for religious practice of Shugendo. The origin of this religion is Shinto. The teaching says that everything in the universe has a life and spirit. Starting with Shinto, Shugendo developed by incorporating mountain worship and Buddhism.
Mountain priests of Shugendo went deep into mountains, valleys and forests to conduct practices. Kumano was one of the most popular sacret mountains for the practices.
Omine Okugake Michi may give you idea of the severity of the practices. For instance, If you go to the highest mountain in this route, you have to climb as high as 1915m. Moreover, along the route, you will have to pass through steep slopes and rocky paths. Such scenery becomes the holy places to practice. The priests go into the river and practice meditation under the waterfall.
4. Shrines along Kumano Kodo
The pilgrimage routes lead to three shrines; Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
The legend says that Kumano Hongu Taisha was established at around the first century.
The second shrine, Kumano Hayatama Taisha was also believed to be from the first century. This shrine has a vast number of treasures such as sacred costumes, armours, sawing kits for religious purposes, gold-relief lacquerwares and so on. These are national treasures.
You will find a very tall big tree inside. It is a holy tree called Nagi (Nageia nagi). It seems it is over 1,000 years old.
The origin of the third shrine, Kumano Nacho Taisha was not very clear. There is a waterfall called Nacho-no-Taki nearby and from the ancient times, this waterfall was the centre of worship. And it seems the establishment of this shrine was after the first two shrines. Even today, as a part of the religious practice, people go under the waterfall and make meditation. This mountain, Mt. Nachi, has many streams and waterfalls. So from the ancient times, the whole mountain was regarded as a holy place.
5. Mt. Koya and Kongobuji Temple
The worshippers along Kumano Kodo aim at the above three shrines. But at the other end of the route, there is another important religious spot, Koyasan. Kayasan or Mt. Koya is a birthplace of a Buddhism sect called Shingon-shu Sect. The founder of this sect, Kukai opened Kongobuji Temple here.
Koyasan is a very unique religious town surrounded by high mountains with over hundred temples. These temples function as a train centre for Buddhist monks. And half of the temples serve as Shukubo which are lodges for monks. You can also stay at Shukubo and if you do, you can experience Buddhism practices.
6. The History of the Pilgrimage Routes
During the long history over 1,000 years of Kumano Kodo, maybe millions of Japanese worshippers visited shrines. They included both aristocracy and the general public. Many emperors and feudal lords (samurai) paid their respects at the shrines. For example, Emperor Goshirakawa visited Kumano Kodo as many as 33 times during the 11th Century. When they traveled, they went along the routes to the shrines on foot. As a result, the holy routes to the shrines were developed and improved.
For More Information on Kumano Kodo
Kii Peninsula where Kumano Kodo locates is accessible from both Osaka and Nagoya. But you will have to transfer trains. Also you may want to take busses once you get to the pilgrimage routes. Therefore, a good website can help you prepare your trip.
I think Kumano Tourism Bureau gives you every kind of information you need. They have several model routes for hiking.