The mountain path is deep, dark and dense with trees that send their gnarled roots over the verdant forest floor. Some of the moss-covered trunks shoot up to the skies while others, massive and aged, seem to merge with hulking rocks that stand in the way of all but the most intrepid traveler.
We are standing at the entrance to an ancient pilgrimage route – one of seven trails that have for centuries led the faithful into these forbidding mountains to pay their respects to the gods.
Collectively known as Kumano Kodo, the mountain paths in this southwestern region of Honshu, Japan’s main island, have been used since at least the 10th century by pilgrims seeking to reach one of the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano : Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
Kumano Kodo, which was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004 as part of a group of sacred sites and pilgrimage routes in the Kii mountain range, is still popular among hikers and casual tourists alike. Most of the trails take several hours to complete and present some challenging climbs, but it is also possible to walk sections of the trails and drive or take a bus to the main shrines.
Not being experienced hikers, we opted for one of the easiest trails, which starts at Takijiri-oji, a small shrine across the road from the Kumano Kodokan Pilgrimage Center in Tanabe, a city on the west coast of the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture. Known as the Nakahechi Route, the trail stretches to the main shrine, Hongu Taisha, passing through Kogen Kiri-no-Sato Lodge in the quaint mountain village of Takahara along the way.
Rather than taking on the entire trail, which is 38-kilometers long and would require hiking for 6 to 7 hours a day for two days, we planned to walk up to Nezu-oji, which our guidebook indicated was a mere 15 minutes from the entrance. The oji are small shrines that are scattered along the Kumano Kodo trails to protect and guide pilgrims.
After all, a guide book we brought with us warned that even the route from Nezu-oji to Takahara would be a challenge for inexperienced hikers. “If you came to enjoy yourself or if you lack time, turn back after reaching Nezu-oji,” it advised.
The supposedly easy trail looked treacherous from the start, with steep and narrow steps of irregularly-shaped stones covered in damp leaves. Gazing at the path before us, it was clear that there was a danger of slipping on those fallen leaves or stepping on the wrong side of a misshapen stone.
Despite the guidebook’s advice, the climb to Nezu-oji took us about half an hour, rather than 15 minutes, so we were glad to turn back and head to lunch, with a brief stop at Takahara on the way.
It was the first day of our adventure on the Kii Peninsula, which is as popular for its seaside attractions as it is for the Kumano trails and shrines.
After our modest but scenic hike to Nezu-oji we drove about half an hour to Shirahama, a popular seaside resort on the southwest coast of the Kii Peninsula where we were to stay the night.
Shirahama, which is famous for its white-sand beach, stunning ocean scenery, fresh seafood and hot-spring baths, also has an airport that enables easy access from other parts of Japan.
Much to our surprise, the city is apparently also known beyond Japanese shores for Adventure World, a zoo featuring animals, including six giant pandas, and exotic marine life. We met a family from Hong Kong who had come to Shirahama specifically for Adventure World, and not for the first time.
One of the most enjoyable experiences in Shirahama was taking a dip in Saki-no-Yu, a hot spring bath right on the beach. It is a treat to sit in the hot bath formed of rocks and gaze out onto the ocean, which is only separated from the bathing area by a simple fence.
The western coast of Kii Peninsula offers some magnificent scenery created over the centuries by the forces of nature.
Our hotel, the Shiraso Grand Hotel, was in a rather unattractive, western-style building, but was right on the beach so offered magnificent views of the ocean from our room.
We left Shirahama the next day in our rented car and headed to Kushimoto, a town further along the coast on the southern tip of Kii Peninsula, to find the Okyo and Rosetsu Art Museum in the Muryoji Temple.
The temple is hidden away on a side street and can only be accessed by driving down impossibly narrow alleys. When we finally found it, the place was deserted and had a rather lonely, unused feeling to it.
Eventually, we found the information and reception area in a dilapidated building at the far end of the temple grounds, bought our tickets and were informed by the receptionist that she would be our guide.
Although the museum houses paintings by renowned artist, Okyo Maruyama, his student, Rosetsu Nagasawa, and other Edo period (1603-1868) artists, the main draw is two sets of paintings in a room in the hondo, or main temple building.
The paintings cover two sets of fusuma sliding doors featuring a scowling tiger on one side and a magnificent dragon on the other, both by Rosetsu.
The fusuma paintings, which are designated Important Cultural Properties, were drawn in 1787 when Rosetsu was staying at Muryoji and are considered masterpieces of Japanese ink painting.
Unfortunately, the paintings in the hondo are digital copies of the originals, which are stored in a warehouse to protect them from sunlight.
Nevertheless, even the rather crude digital copies in the hondo (the copies were made when digital technology was still new) manage to recreate the sense of surprise and awe that viewers of the originals undoubtedly experienced when viewing Rosetsu’s dramatic rendering of the magnificent animals. Sitting in the middle of the room, the tiger on the left and the dragon on the right seem to jump out from behind the statue of the Buddha, from the sacred world into the temporal world.
The final part of our tour took us to the warehouse where the real screens are kept. It was securely locked. Once inside, our guide turned the lights off and opened the doors slightly to let a minimum of light in and give us a sense of how the screens must have looked to people in 16th century Edo Japan, who had no electricity. The tiger’s eyes seemed to sparkle.
Leaving Muryoji behind, we drove to Hashigui-iwa, a curiously aligned string of craggy rocks off the coast just north of Kushimoto port.
Our next destination was Nachi Taisha, which is almost as famous for the views it affords of the nearby Nachi Falls – the tallest single-drop waterfall in Japan at 133 meters – as it is for being one of the three Grand Shrines of Kumano.
Although Nachi Taisha is a Shinto shrine, it forms part of a complex of religious sites, which includes Seigantoji, a Buddhist temple, highlighting the intermingling of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan.
After our visit to Nachi, it was time to take the ferry to our lodgings for the night – the Kumano Bettei Nakanoshima Hotel, which is situated on an island off the coast of Katsuura.
On the way, we passed through but did not stop in Taiji, the small fishing town just south of Katsuura that became notorious worldwide for its dolphin hunt depicted in the film “The Cove.”
The film shows dolphins being lured into a small cove and slaughtered en masse, turning the waters a shocking deep red. It is hard to imagine such a horrifying sight taking place in this sleepy seaside town with a population of just over 3,000.
At Katsuura, we left our car in the hotel’s parking lot at the port and boarded the small ferry that shuttles not only guests and staff but just about everything needed at the hotel, from food and drinks to toiletries and stationery.
Nakanoshima Hotel, which re-opened in April, 2019 after an extensive renovation, was by far the most comfortable and pleasant hotel we stayed at during our Kumano tour.
The traditional food was also better than at most of our other lodgings, although the only stand-out dish at dinner was the tuna sashimi, which was the chef’s special that night.
It was difficult to tear ourselves away from Nakanoshima Hotel the next day, particularly as the ocean around the island was a breathtaking palette of blues and greens.
After a short stop at Hayatama Taisha, the second of the three Grand Shrines of Kumano we visited, we drove to Yunomine Onsen, one of three hot spring villages right next to Hongu Taisha, the main Kumano Grand Shrine.
Yunomine is a quaint, somewhat run-down village where, after their long journey, pilgrims are said to have performed purification rituals in the hots springs before going to worship at Hongu Taisha.
The town’s main claim to fame these days is Tsuboyu, a small public hot spring bath which is the first hot spring bath to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.
Anyone can bathe in Tsuboyu for Y770 per head, but since it can accommodate only one group at a time, there can be a long wait to get in.
Although we were intrigued by the idea of soaking in a bath that was not only a World Heritage site but also considered by some to be Japan’s oldest hot spring, we were discouraged by the long wait – we were second in line – and the rather small, dilapidated bath house, so we skipped the opportunity.
We still had the highlight of our trip ahead of us – Hongu Taisha. All seven trails of the Kumano Kodo eventually lead to Hongu Taisha, the central shrine of the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano and of more than 3,000 Kumano shrines throughout Japan. In contrast to the dazzling vermillion buildings of Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha, Hongu Taisha is built in the traditional Shinto style with natural unfinished materials and is sombre yet majestic in its simplicity. It enshrines seven deities including Amaterasu Oomikami, the sun goddess who is the most important deity in Shinto.
The site of the original shrine, which is believed to have been built at least before the 9th century, is actually a short walk away from its current location. The shrine was moved in 1889 after floods completely washed away the older buildings.
A massive torii gate stands amid rice paddies at Oyunohara where Hongu Taisha was originally located.
Pilgrims and visitors come to Kumano from all over Japan and overseas but the draw of the Grand Shrines today cannot compare to their fame in Edo Japan, when emperors, aristocrats and commoners alike thronged to the shrines, forming what is described in popular lore as “a line of ants.”
We spent the final night of our Kumano adventure at Sasayuri Hotel, a modern establishment, which is part of a group of hotels with several hot spring baths in Watarase Onsen.
The hot spring baths were by far the best feature of this hotel, where our room was comfortable, spacious and clean but the meals were unexciting.
A four-day visit to the south of Kii Peninsula was hardly enough time to fully explore the region and enjoy the many activities it has to offer.
Visiting the Kindai bluefin tuna farm where fully-farmed bluefin tuna are raised, watching the tuna auction at the Katsuura fish market, which claims the largest tuna haul in Japan, and rafting on the Kitayama River are just a few of the things we look forward to on our next visit to the enchanting Kii Peninsula.