熊野古道 Kumano Kodo

by Daniel Simmons

For thousands of years the forested, waterfall-strewn, mist-shrouded mountains of the Kii-hanto have been venerated and traversed by pilgrims in search of solace and salvation. The resulting crisscross of sacred routes was honored in 2004 by UNESCO as a World Heritage area in recognition of its deep historical and spiritual significance. These routes remain very much off the typical tourist trail, and a short trip south from Osaka or Nagoya will quickly plunge you into the Wakayama wilds.

A full accounting of the many routes is impractical here, as most of the trails are multi-day affairs, but travelers with a weekend to spare can get a taste of the region’s pleasures by visiting the Kumano Sanzan (熊野三山) in the southeast of the peninsula: three grand shrines linked not only by ancient walking trails but also by decidedly modern public bus services. As part of this itinerary you can also visit the globe’s only World Heritage-registered public hot spring and admire Japan’s tallest waterfall.

The most interesting and scenic of the three shrines is the Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine, part of a building complex that shows off the peculiar intermingling of religious symbolism which has resulted from the use of these trails over the centuries by peoples with diverse spiritual beliefs. The shrine and the neighboring temple of Seiganto-ji (青岸渡寺) display a harmonious blending of Shinto and Buddhist architectural styles and images. Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the middle of the 6th century, by which time this site had already enjoyed a long association with Shintoism. Before that it’s likely that the nearby waterfall was worshipped by adherents of an even more ancient faith. The 133-meter plunge of Nachi-no-taki from a wooded precipice makes a spectacular backdrop to the pagodas and temple roofs here.

Hongu Taisha, the head of the Kumano shrines, is within easy driving distance (or less easy busing/walking distance) of Oyu no Hara, which boasts the biggest torii gate in the world (33m tall). It’s also close to two utterly charming hot springs, Yunomine Onsen and Kawayu Onsen. The former, whose discovery dates to 1,800 years ago, was used for passers-through who wished to purify themselves in the course of their pilgrimages. Now there are a few recommendation-worthy ryokan here, including Adumaya with its beautiful wooden bathhouse. Those who don’t wish to stay can still enjoy a private soak in the World Heritage-registered public bath, Tsuboyu (750 yen for 30 minutes). As an afternoon snack, purchase a netted bag of eggs or vegetables and boil them in the 90-degree Celsius hot water well in the town center.

At Kawayu Onsen you can dig your own hole in the gravel riverbank which then gradually fills with hot spring water. During the winter months (December-February) the town bulldozes the riverbed to create the massive Sennin-buro, a “1,000-person” free open-air mixed-gender bath. Since the bath is clearly visible from the road, you’re free to wear a bathing suit… but what fun would that be?


Buses will take you to Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine from either Kii-Katsuura station (600 yen, 30 minutes) or Nachi station (470 yen, 20 minutes). To walk a beautiful, evergreen-lined 600m stretch of the old pilgrim trail to the shrine, ask the driver to drop you off at the Daimonzaka bus stop en route.

From Shingu station, irregular buses to Yunomine Onsen take about 70 minutes; the stop for Kawayu Onsen is along the way.










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