Many visitors to Japan make it a point to see Kyoto and Tokyo. But just next door to Osaka, not far from Kyoto and an hour from Tokyo by plane, lies a spiritual place filled with nature and tradition: Wakayama Prefecture.
This region, filled with history and commonly known as the spiritual heartland of Japan, is gaining world attention as a must-see destination. It was awarded Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2018, and this year it is part of the Airbnb 19 Destinations to Visit in 2019.
Going back to the Heian period (794-1185), the region has more than 1,000 years of history and is the site of the “Kumano Kodo” pilgrimage. People from all over the world have been fascinated with this region of Japan.
Traverse the Pilgrimage Route in the Kii Mountain Range
In ancient times, people believed so firmly in the Kumano-Sanzan deities that the steady flow of travelers in that area was likened to “a pilgrimage of ants,” with the road most traveled being the Nakahechi route. In particular, the arduous path from Tanabe to Kumano-Hongu was known to foster discipline.
Fast forward to the present: the routes are known today as one of the major “power spots” of Japan, and the walking and all-day trekking tours offered are popular. Because of their sacred significance, the pilgrimage routes in the Kii Mountain Range have held World Heritage status since 2004.
The Kii Mountain range encompasses the three grand shrines of the pilgrimage route that covers Kuman-Sanzan, Koyasan, Yoshino-Omine, and Kumano.
Kumano-Sanzan (literally “Kumano three mountains”) is the name given collectively to the three grand shrines of Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
There are more than 3,000 Kumano shrines throughout Japan and Kumano-Sanzan is the headquarters for all of them. Hence it is a historical and spiritual heartland wielding considerable influence over religion in Japan. It is said that visitors making the journey to Kumano-Sanzan can witness the true spirit of Japanese people as they experience Japan’s unique religion and culture.
The Kii Mountains stand proud at 1,000 to 2,000 meters high and have been worshipped since ancient times. After the spread of Buddhism, the area became a place for Shugendo — religious practices fused with mountain worship — and it is considered a divine place even today.
The pilgrimage route is particularly worthy of attention as it’s one of only two major UNESCO world heritage pilgrimage routes. The other is the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route in Spain. In fact, the two locations have joined forces. Those who complete designated cycling courses on the Kumano Kodo route in Japan and the Santiago route in Spain are eligible to receive an official certificate as “Dual Pilgrims,” making it a particularly popular destination for tourists from the United States and Europe alike.
Experience the History: Onsens and Folk Festivals
The region’s history and culture seep even deeper than the shrines in the Kii Mountain Range. In 2004, Tsuboyu Onsen was also registered as a World Heritage Site. Considered to be Japan’s oldest communal bath, this hot spring located on a sacred mountain offers soothing respite to visitors. Particularly popular are the hot springs along the river bank. Known as Kawayu Onsen, they are unusual even by Japanese standards, and among the favorites of foreigners coming to Japan.
Visitors in February can enjoy the Oto Matsuri, a fire festival and one of Wakayama’s most quintessential and awe-inspiring celebrations, found at Kamikura-Jinja. This shrine in Shigu City, Wakayama, is part of Kumano-Sanzan. The highlight of the energetic fire festival is thousands of men racing fiercely down the mountain from Kamikura-Jinja, with flaming torches in hand. Only men can participate in this impressive festival, but everyone can enjoy watching along the route leading to the shrine.
Enjoy Nature at Yoshino Kumano National Park
Many tourists visit the area to experience the ample and awe-inspiring Japanese culture, but its landscapes are equally breathtaking. The area offers encounters with sacred mountains that embody the spirit of Japan, as well as walking, trekking, and cycling courses.
Located on the western side of Japan’s largest peninsula — the Kii Peninsula — Wakayama boasts a varied landscape with a diverse array of attractions, from the mystical ambience of its sacred mountains to the vast and beautiful scenery along its coast. The region’s many charms include the flourishing coastal cities and the Shirahama Onsen, with over 1,300 years of history.
Famous as the symbol of Shirahama, Engetsuto Island, measuring 35 meters in width and 25 meters in height, is known for its beauty and it’s mesmerizing white beaches. Offering exceptionally beautiful views at sunset, this spot is definitely worth a visit.
Yoshino Kumano National Park is also filled with extraordinary natural beauty while being immersed in history and tradition. Here, in what is known as the “land of water,” trekking as well as river and sea activities are available to visitors. The stunning coastline and mountainous roads make for a route approximately 800 kilometers long, extremely pleasant both by bicycle and by car.
A spiritual heartland of Japan filled with history and culture, Kumano in Wakayama offers a meaningful experience for believers, non-believers, and people in general who just want insight into the real face of Japan.
On your next trip to Japan, why not stop by?
You can access Wakayama with a direct flight from Tokyo Haneda to Nanki Shirahama — a flight operated by Japan Airlines three times a day. Foreign tourists can also purchase the JAL Explorer Pass, as well as ride on the “pilgrimage bus,” which runs from Koyasan around Kumano-Sanzan to Kumano-Hongu, making it easy to get around and enjoy the sights in Wakayama.
(This article is published in cooperation with the Wakayama Prefecture in Japan. Let us hear your thoughts in our comment section.)