What is KUMANO KODO Pilgrimage Route?
KUMANO KODO is a group of pilgrimage routes which is located at KII Peninsula where is across several prefectures such as WAKAYAMA, MIE, NARA, OSAKA. This group of pilgrimage routes was registered as an UNESCO World Heritage in 2004. KUMANO KODO is a generic term of pilgrimage routes leading to KUMANO SANZAN (3 major shrines) – which are KUMANO HONGU TAISHA, KUMANO HAYATAMA TAISHA, and KUMANO NACHI TAISHA.
KUMANO has been a symbolic place of nature worship and mountain worship from ancient times and it appeared in NIHON SHOKI* which is the oldest chronicles of Japan in the 700’s. From emperors to court nobles and common people, it has attracted a lot of people’s religious belief, and many famous people in Japanese history had visited there.
*NIHON SHOKI is said to be the oldest chronicles of Japan which tells the story of Emperor Jimmu (the 1st Emperor) transferred the capital from HYUGA (MIYAZAKI Prefecture) to KASHIHARA (NARA Prefecture) and ascended the throne of YAMATO Dynasty.
KUMANO KODO became famous in the 12th century. Then between the 12th and 13th centuries, “KUJUKU-OJI” a series of shrines where nearly 100 KUMANO GONGEN were worshiped had been established along KIIJI Route and NAKAHECHI Route. Then during 14th and 15th centuries, KUMANO SANZAN reached the peak of its prosperity and the spectacle of their advancing on a narrow mountain trail in a row was called “ARI NO KUMANO MODE” (ants’ pilgrimages to the KUMANO SANZAN). From 15th centuries onward through Edo period (1603~), it had become widely familiar to the common people. KUMANO KODO has such a long history.
KUMANO KODO is mainly divided into 5 routes.
- KIIJI Route: The route along the coast of western side of KII Peninsula (Yellow line on below map)
- KOHECHI Route: The route from KOYASAN to KUMANO SANZAN (light green line on below map)
- NAKAHECHI Route: The route starting from TANABE, WAKAYAMA Prefecture toward inland (brown line on below map)
- OHECHI Route: The route along the coast of southern part of KII Peninsula (light blue line on below map)
- ISEJI Route: The route from ISE JINGU to KUMANO SANZAN (purple line on below map)
There seem to be many routes which have not found yet.
Walking along NAKAHECHI Route
NAKAHECHI Route is the route starting from TANABE, WAKAYAMA Prefecture and its total length is 84 kilometers. This route is said to be where the largest number of people walked among all the routes of KUMANO KODO. During 700’s through 1200’s, this route had been the official route for court nobles’ pilgrimage which had been done over 100 times. I’ve decided to start walking from HASSHINMON OJI where is located around two-thirds of this entire route.
HASSHINMON OJI* is regarded as an entrance of shrine precincts of KUMANO HONGU TAISHA. It’s 7km from here to KUMANO HONGU TAISHA and takes 2.5 to 3.5 hours on foot, and it’s one of the popular walking trails even for beginners. It’s generally a gentle downward slope and some resting places are also in place on the way. You can enjoy various views and roads. Roads sometimes are old stone-paved road and earth road in a village where you can see beautiful rice terrace and tea plantation. Quite comfortable and feeling good to walk.
HASSHIN in Buddhism means deciding to embrace Buddhism or deciding to seek enlightenment. MON in Japanese means the gate. Therefore, HASSHINMON means the entrance to the sacred area. This is an important thing to feel when you come here. HASSHINMON OJI exists calmly inside the deep forest. There is an old well here and you can purify your hands before entering the sacred area.
Walking around 1.7km for 30 minutes, I’ve reached MIZUNOMI OJI and kept walking further. Then I’ve reached the old stone-paved road 1 hour after departed HASSHINMON OJI. Walking on this old stone-paved road, I was imagining the spectacle that hundreds of years ago a lot of people were walking right here, praying for their revival, step by step on this stone-paved road, surrounded by great nature with cypresses and cedars. I’ve heard that the JIZO, a guardian deity of children, which you can find here and there on the road, had been enshrined for the people who lost their lives on the way of pilgrimage. At present day, it’s easy to walk this distance even for beginners, but it seemed much much tough to walk this way.
Walking 1.9km for 40 minutes after MIZUNOMI OJI, I’ve reached FUSHIOGAMI OJI. Grown thick with moss and tea plantations are spread. There’s a tea house there and you can enjoy drinking coffee made with ONSEN and shopping some local souvenir. I opened my lunchbox and had a lunch break here. Place around here is a hill and you can overlook the shrine buildings of KUMANO HONGU TAISHA. In the past, travellers reached here and overlooked the shrine, and they fell down and worship it for this gratitude. FUSHIOGAMI in Japanese means to fall down and worship. The name of this place came from this.
Walking 1.2km further, I’ve reached SANGENJAYA ATO (SANGENJAYA Mark). As it literally says, there used to be 3 tea houses here. Taking a rest with tea is essential for long trip. A lot of people must have taken rest here just like I’m doing here.
I’ve gone into the deep forest for 1 hour. Kept walking in the deep forest. Lots of ferns are left untouched. The place around here is treasure place of natural untouched ferns and a lot of botanists are visiting this place at present day.
Walking 1.9km for 40 minutes, there’s HARAIDO OJI.This place is a kind of religious boundaries and only 200m away from KUMANO HONGU TAISHA. It’s for pilgrims to purify their mind and body and reset themselves before entering the shrine. This custom is still going on now and many people visiting here refresh their mind here to enter the shrine.
Finally arriving at KUMANO HONGU TAISHA
After purifying yourself and going across the boundaries, you are finally at KUMANO HONGU TAISHA. Walking along KUMANO KODO is a kind of the origin of traveling for Japanese people and it surely inspires you. It took 3 hours for me just to walk 7km in the forest. Walking along KUMANO KODO really makes you think about the people who used to travel here, feel spiritual power of great nature, and also think of and stare at yourself. This itself might be the power of KUMANO pilgrimage. Walking on NAKAHECHI Route, I was also feeling like touching great nature and its long history, and felt like being able to cleanse myself. I felt like I understood why this forest is called “The Resurrection Forest”.
What is KUMANO HONGU TAISHA?
The main enshrined deity is SUSANOO NO MIKOTO (SUSANOO Japanese deity). According to NIHON SHOKI, God descended this place and SUANOO was younger brother of AMATERASU OOMIKAMI (Sun Goddess) who are worshiped at ISE JINGU, and they are said to be the earliest ancestors of Japanese Emperor’s family. KUMANO HONGU TAISHA has surprisingly long history considering that it was B.C.33 when this HONGU was initially built at the sacred place OOYUNOHARA where is located at the sandbank of 3 rivers around.
Three-legged crows which you can see here and there at KUMANO HONGU TAISHA are also famous as YATAGARASU in Japanese which is used as the logo mark of Japan Football Association. YATAGARASU appeared in the tale of “Jimmu Eastern Expedition” in NIHON SHOKI and KOJIKI, and the YATAGARASU as a messenger from God navigated Emperor Jimmu from KUMANO here to NARA. From this episode, people started to worship YATAGARASU as a common God across KUMANO SANZAN.
To purify yourself
Just as India has its own culture that people are bathing and purifying themselves at Ganges River, Buddhism and Shintoism also have their own bathing culture. It is said that the bathing culture in Japan had been introduced from China in 700’s. At this KUMANO KODO Pilgrimage Routes, people had done YUGORI on the way of pilgrimage which is to bathe in ONSEN to purify their mind and body as well as removing the weariness of travel. Such YUGORI culture still remains at TSUBOYU in YUNOMINE ONSEN, and also KAWAYU ONSEN where is famous for ONSEN springing out from river.
Japanese people had enjoyed purifying their mind and body with plentiful supply of ONSEN. Different from many people at present day only taking shower, Japanese people in the past had bathed in ONSEN and released not only physical dirt but also mental dirt (weariness and stress) as well. Why don’t you bathe in ONSEN before visiting KUMANO KODO?