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Touring the Kumano Sanzan from Nagoya
In 2004 the Kumano Kodo became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a popular worldwide-tourist destination as one of only two pilgrimage paths designated as World Heritage Sites.
Kumano Kodo is not a single road but the collective name for five roads passing through the Kumano area. These roads pass through three grand shrines (Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha) and one temple (Seiganto-ji), known as the Kumano Sanzan.
This article introduces a sample hike for visiting the Kumano Sanzan from the Nagoya area. Kumano is easier to access since the Kumano Owase Road opened in 2021.
Kumano Kodo and Kumano Pilgrimage
The steep paths will astonish you, even on a short walk along the Kumano Kodo.
In the late Heian Period (around the 11th to 12th century), emperors, after relinquishing the imperial throne, began visiting Kumano, overcoming the steep path. For example, Emperor Shirakawa visited Kumano 9 times, Emperor Toba 21 times, and Emperor Go-Shirakawa a whopping 34 times. Kumano pilgrimage took about one month. They eventually spread to samurai and commoners alike and are known as the Ants' Pilgrimage to Kumano, because of the many people lined up on their way to Kumano, like ants lining up in a queue.
But why did they cross such steep mountain paths and take longer to reach the Kumano region?
Since ancient times, Kumano was a remote area closed off by deep mountains, thick forests, sheer cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and strange rock formations. The people of Kumano lived in awe of the inhospitable nature of the area, challenging it and eventually coming to worship it.
The gods descended to the land of Kumano are the Kumano Gongen. Belief in the Kumano Sanzan has deep ties to the syncretism of Shintoism and Buddhism. Gongen is a deity who appeared in this world in the guise of a Buddha. Under this syncretism, Buddha and Shinto deities are enshrined together.
Kumano is where the deity Kumano Gongen descended, and overcoming the hardships of pilgrimage to this place leads to salvation. Such faith, combined with a yearning for the beauty of the natural surroundings, led to the tradition of Kumano pilgrimages.
The Kumano Sanzan Pilgrimage
Before starting the Kumano Sanzan pilgrimage there are a few things you need to know. Each of the three shrines is about 20 to 40 kilometers apart. It might sound far but it is possible to visit all three in a single day by car or bus.
In the past, it was necessary to travel from Kyoto, and visit the shrines in a specific order: first Kumano Hongu Taisha, then Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and finally Kumano Nachi Taisha. But today, there is no restriciton, so take the most convenient route for you depending on your mode of transportation. We'll assume that you are traveling by car from Nagoya, starting from Kumano Nachi Taisha, the most distant and longest to visit, followed by Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and ending with Kumano Hongu Taisha.
Kumano Nachi Taisha and Nachi Great Falls
Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Road Daimonzaka
Park your car in the lot near the Daimonzaka bus stop in front of the shrine. Then walk along the Kumano Kodo to get a feel for the Kumano pilgrimage of yesteryear.
After parking your car, walk up the driveway till you see a sign that reads Daimonzaka. Turn away from the road to the left, and you will find a pair of cedar trees, said to be 800 years old. Between them, a beautifully stone-paved path leads on. Daimonzaka is part of the main route called Nakahechi, which connects the Kumano Sanzan along the five Kumano Kodo routes.
The path at Daimonzaka is approximately 600 meters long with a height difference of 100 meters. After it rains, the beauty of this divine is enhanced. But the cobblestones get slippery, so watch your step.
If you want to visit Kumano Nachi Taisha without hiking on Daimonzaka or taking the stairs, you can use the Seiganto-ji Temple parking lot (no parking fee, but an ¥800 toll is required to access the road here).
Kumano Nachi Taisha and Seiganto-ji Temple
After passing through Daimonzaka, you reach the entrance to the Mt. Nachi approach. From here, visit the main shrine of Kumano Nachi Taisha and climb up another long flight of stairs.
The main hall of Seiganto-ji Temple is located to the right of the main shrine of Kumano Nachi Taisha. There is no clear boundary between the grounds of the shrine and Seiganto-ji Temple. The site is a remnant of the Kumano Shinto/Buddhist syncretism.
The main hall of Seiganto-ji Temple is considered one of the oldest buildings in southern Wakayama Prefecture and is a National Important Cultural Property. Proceeding to the north side is an observatory from which you can view the Nachi Falls and the vermilion three-story pagoda. The distant sound of the falls creates a mystical atmosphere.
A popular photography spot lies past the precincts of Seiganto-ji Temple and down the stairs toward the three-story pagoda. The three-story pagoda is the main focus of the photos, and you can view it from a different angle than on the observation deck. Visitors can also enter the three-story pagoda, where a Buddha statue is enshrined, and enjoy a view of the Pacific Ocean from the upper level of the pagoda (¥300 entrance fee).
Nachi Great Falls and Hirojinja Shrine
After passing the three-story pagoda, continue down the path to get up close to the waterfall.
Nachi Falls is one of the three most famous waterfalls in Japan. With a 133-meter drop, it is the largest single-level waterfall in the country. Up close, the falls can feel overwhelming. Waterfalls falling in straight lines have been considered sacred since ancient times.
Below the waterfall is Hirojinja Shrine, a branch temple of Kumano Nachi Taisha. It costs ¥300 for adults and ¥200 for elementary and junior high school students to visit the shrine. Visiting the shrine brings you closer to the waterfall basin, so prepare to be splashed.
It is a 30-minute walk from Nachi Falls back to the parking lot of the Daimonzaka bus stop. There is also a local bus service from the Nachinotaki-mae bus stop to the Daimonzaka bus stop, so if your timing is right, you should take this bus on the way back (about 6 minutes, ¥250).
Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kamikura Shrine
Following Kumano Nachi Taisha, head for Kumano Hayatama Taisha. It is about 20 km from Kumano Nachi Taisha to Nachi Taisha. By car, it takes about 40 minutes.
Kumano Hayatama Taisha
Kumano Hayatama Taisha is in the center of Shingu City, a 15-minute walk from JR Shingu Station. Originally the shrine was the new shrine of Kamikura Shrine.
The bright vermilion color of the five pavilions, lined up side by side, is beautiful and impressive. Each of the pavilions enshrines one of the Twelve Kumano deities.
The tree on the temple grounds is a natural monument, estimated to be 1,000 years old, as well as the Shimpokan museum (admission ¥500), which exhibits national treasures and other items remaining at Kumano Hayatama Taisha.
About 1 km from Kumano Hayatama Taisha lies Kamikura Shrine, considered the "original shrine." Legend has it that the deities of Kumano first descended on a huge rock called Gotobiki Iwa Rock, the object of worship for this shrine.
Here is where the gods descended, and it is not easy for humans to approach. After passing through the torii gate, a hopelessly steep staircase rises to the top. At the top stands Gotobiki Iwa Rock, from which one can enjoy a panoramic view of Kumano's city center and the ocean beyond.
The 538-step staircase of Kamikura Shrine is hard to describe in words alone. It is astonishingly steep and is the most difficult point throughout this tour of the Kumano Sanzan.
The climb is very satisfying so make sure you walk it in comfortable shoes.
Kumano Hongu Taisha and Oyunohara
Now head to Kumano Hongu Taisha for the last stop on our tour of the Kumano Sanzan. From Kumano Hayatama Taisha to Kumano Hongu Taisha is about 35 km, heading upstream on Route 168 along the Kumano River, and takes about 50 minutes.
Kumano Hongu Taisha
Kumano Hongu Taisha, in Hongu-cho, Tanabe City, is the main shrine of the over 3,000 Kumano Shrines. Among the Kumano Sanzan, Kumano Hongu Taisha has a particularly old-fashioned atmosphere.
The pavilions of Kumano Hongu Taisha are similar to those of Kumano Hayatama Taisha, but in contrast to the bright vermilion of Hayatama Taisha, the pavilions of Hongu Taisha have an ancient style of roofing, characterized by its subdued colors.
Following the Kumano Hongu Taisha, visit Oyunohara, a 5-minute walk away.
Oyunohara is a sacred place where Kumano Hongu Taisha once stood until a major flood in 1889. Rumor has it that Kumano Hongu Taisha was eight times larger than it is today. Traces of it are visible, like the giant torii gate, said to be the tallest in Japan (photography is prohibited beyond the torii gate as it is a Shinto sanctuary).
In front of Oyunohara are rice fields, and the rice harvested in these fields is used to make kamamochi, a famous confectionery at Kumano Hongu Taisha.
Directions to the Kumano Sanzan from Nagoya
To recap the journey: we started at Kumano Nachi Taisha and Seigando-ji Temple, the furthest from Nagoya and takes the most time to visit, then we went through Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kamikura Shrine, and finally to Kumano Hongu Taisha.
Nachi-katsuura Town, the tour's starting point, is a famous tuna fishing port, and you can savor fresh seafood at Nigiwai Market. The market is open from 8:00 a.m., so eat a hearty meal in the morning to get ready for the Kumano Sanzan tour.
- Kumano Nachi Taisha
Time required: 3 hours, including the hike up Daimonzaka
- Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kamikura Shrine
Time required: 90 minutes
- Kumano Hongu Taisha and Oyunohara
Time required: 60 minutes
↓By car: 40 minutes
↓By car: 50 minutes
If you are driving
It takes about 2 hours and 30 minutes from Nagoya to Kumano Nachi Taisha in Nachi-katsuura Town. First, take the Tomeihan Expressway, Ise Expressway, and Kisei Expressway and get off the expressway at the Kumano Odomari IC on the Kumano Owase Road. From there, it is about 1 hour via National Route 42. Including rest time, the drive should take about 4 hours.
If you are using public transportation
If you are going to Kumano Nachi Taisha by train from Nagoya, take the JR Kisei Honsen limited express to Kii-Katsuura Station, a 3-hour and 50-minute ride without transfers. From Kii-Katsuura Station, Kumano Gobo Nankai Bus operates a regular sightseeing bus service to the Kumano Sanzan (it departs in the morning, so you must stay the night before in the Kii-Katsuura Station area).
With the opening of the Kumano Owase Road in 2021 and the improvements to the surrounding roads, access to the Kumano area has improved dramatically, making it even easier to visit. If you are coming from Nagoya, we recommend visiting the Kumano Kodo Ise Road, which offers hiking along with Magosetouge Pass and the Matsumoto Pass. How about stepping onto one of the ancient paths and imagining the bygone travelers who set out on the Kumano Sanzan?