Itineraries

Kumano: the Land of Gods

Walk the centuries-old path of pilgrims

Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine

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A visit to the Kumano region is to follow in the footsteps of pilgrims from down the ages, and step into the spiritual heartland of Japan. The World Heritage Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes allow you to experience the breathtaking beauty and mystic atmosphere of the Kii mountains. Pilgrims then and now travel these trails to reach the sacred Kumano Sanzan shrines, three of the most revered shrines in Japan. Visiting all three is believed to bring good luck to your past, present, and future lives. Centuries ago, the journey took weeks; this itinerary introduces the area's must-see sights in just three days. From paper-making to power spots, pagodas to prayer, a trip to Kumano offers an array of unique experiences.

Kii-Tanabe Station is the hub for buses to the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine. Take the 8:00 a.m. bus to arrive at Hongu Taisha-mae for 9:35 a.m. If starting the day in Shirahama, catch the 7:26 a.m. bus departing from Shirahama Bus Center.

The bus service from the Shirahama Bus Center to Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine is limited. Buses bound for Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine depart twice daily: 7:26 a.m. and 9:41 a.m.

1 Kumano Hongu Heritage Center

This fascinatingly informative facility is just across the road from the Hongu Taisha-mae bus stop. Besides detailed historical information on Kumano Hongu Taisha, panel explanations and a 20-minute video give a detailed overview of the Kumano Kodo trails, the three Sanzan shrines and mountaintop temple complex, Koyasan. Staff at the center speak English and Japanese, and can recommend activities in the area. Coin lockers are located a short distance from the Heritage Center outside the Karasuya gift shop. Store your luggage there to enjoy the day's activities baggage-free.

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Bags can be left with shop staff when all lockers are in use.

2 Kumano Washi Paper Otonashi

At this workshop, a short walk from the Heritage Center, you can try your hand at paper-making the traditional Japanese way. For a small fee, you get to make and take home a sheet of washi paper as well as design your own washi bookmark. If you take your piece of paper with you when you visit the three Kumano shrines, you can have it stamped at each, with a decorative fortune-bearing stamp (a small fee is charged for goshuin stamps). The Kumano Hongu Heritage Center provides information on the workshop, and can assist with reservations which are necessary, except on Saturdays when walk-ins are accepted.

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Pick up some snacks at a nearby store for lunch on the go, and catch the 12:00 noon bus from Hongu Taisha-mae to Hosshinmon-oji.

3 Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route

Follow in the footsteps of pilgrims and walk the Kumano Kodo. The scenic section of the Nakahechi route from Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine is a pleasant 6.9 km, and one of the most popular walks. Relatively easy, expect to complete the walk in about three hours including breaks.

4 Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine

Enshrining Izanagi-Okami—the deity fabled to have created the islands of Japan— Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine holds a revered status among the Japanese. You may want to offer a prayer here; doing so is believed to bring favor and good fortune in the next life. It's also a great place to get your first goshuin stamp.

After a day on your feet, catch the 4:45 p.m. bus from Hongu Taisha-mae to either Yunomine or Kawayu Onsen. These hotspring hamlets are only a short ride away.

5a Yunomine Onsen

A local pastime worth giving a whirl. Boil eggs in the 90°C thermal waters of this atmospheric hot spring hamlet. Eggs are available at the small shop just over the bridge from the bus stop. With eggs at the ready, head down to the special boiling area below the bridge. While in Yunomine, don't miss out on taking a dip in Tsubo-yu , a legendary hot spring bath with healing properties.

5b Kawayu Onsen

Never taken a hot bath in a river? Try one here in Kawayu Onsen. During the cold winter months, a large bathing area is cordoned off in the river. Although the bath is just a temporary setup, geothermal water bubbles up from the riverbed year-round. Lodgings in the area will often lend guests a shovel, so you can dig a spot in the riverbed and create your own private bath. Unlike many Japanese hot springs, riverbed bathing is mixed. There are no separate baths for men and women.

Bring your swimsuit along if bathing naked in the river doesn't appeal. It is a mixed-bathing location.

6 Hot Spring Hamlet Stay

The Hongu area has three small hot spring hamlets of particular interest: Yunomine, Kawayu, and Wataze Onsen. Each has its own unique characteristics, but what they all have in common is their rejuvenating thermal waters and traditional lodgings with unbeatable Japanese hospitality. If spending more than one night in the area, why not explore all three?

Day 2 takes you to the Nachisan area and the second Kumano Sanzan shrine, Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine . To get there, catch the Shingu Station-bound bus departing from Hongu Taisha-mae at 8:40 a.m. It also picks up passengers from Yunomine, Kawayu, and Wataze Onsen stops. Alight at Gongen-mae, the stop before Shingu Station, and ride the 10:04 a.m. bus to Nachi Station. From there, connect to the 10:33 a.m. service bound for Nachisan. Alight at Daimonzaka Chushajo-mae.

Taxi tours to Nachisan from either Shingu or Katsuura are also available. These can be arranged at Shingu Station with the Shingu City Tourist Information Center . Tours start from around ¥10,000 and take anywhere from 90 minutes to 2 hours.

7 Daimon-zaka Slope

Part of the Kumano Kodo trail, this atmospheric approach to Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine is a picturesque 600 m cobblestone stretch, and is an attraction in its own right. Make the experience even more unique by stopping in at the Daimonzaka-jaya teahouse near the start of the cobbled path. There, you can try the Heian Period Clothing Experience.

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8 Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine

Refuel with something light to eat at one of the restaurants at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the shrine. With batteries recharged, climb the steps and immerse yourself in the mystic atmosphere of the shrine. As you ascend, don't forget to turn around for some gorgeous mountain scenery.

9 Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple

Located adjacent to Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple is the place to get picture-postcard shots of Nachi Waterfall. With the temple's iconic three-tiered pagoda in the foreground and the falls in the background, everything is set up for a snap straight out of a travel guide.

10 Nachi Waterfall

Stand in awe of Japan's tallest cascading waterfall, believed to be home to Hiryu Gongen—one of the three deities of the Kumano Sanzan shrines. This particular deity is said to have charge over past lifes, making the falls the ideal setting to contemplate your previous incarnations. Nachi Waterfall is nationally renowned as a power spot; soak up the area's energy and leave feeling powered up.

Buses from Nachisan run approximately once every hour until dusk. After taking in the falls, catch one of the afternoon buses into Katsuura from the Nachi-no-Taki-mae stop. The last bus leaves at 5:41 p.m.

11 Katsuura Onsen

What better way to end a day's sightseeing than a soothing hot spring bath before dinner? Luckily, Katsuura is another Wakayama coastal resort offering that option. In contrast to Shirahama, Katsuura has a slightly more rural, retro vibe. Take your pick from a selection of hot spring hotels in the area.

Complete your Kumano Sanzan pilgrimage with a visit to Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine and its predecessor, Kamikura-jinja Shrine. Buses run roughly every 30 minutes between Katsuura and Shingu train stations. If taking the bus, alight at the Gongen-mae stop—a short walk from Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine. Alternatively, take the train to Shingu Station and either walk or take a taxi.

12 Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine

Visit the third and final shrine of the Sanzan trio to complete your Kumano pilgrimage. The first thing you will notice is how strikingly the vermilion buildings stand out against the natural backdrop. The second is likely the huge conifer tree that stands in the shrine grounds. This tree is estimated to be 800 years old, and is a revered sacred tree. Offering a prayer at the sacred ground of Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine is said to bring fortune in this life.

13 Kamikura-jinja Shrine

A relatively short walk from Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, this shrine marks the grand shrine's former site. The climb up the 538 very steep steps leading up to Kamikura-jinja Shrine rewards visitors with a view of Gotobiki-iwa—a sacred boulder perching precariously on the side of Mt. Kamikurayama. Legend has it that this rock is where three deities pivotal in Japan's Shinto creation myth descended to earth from the heavens. Kamikura-jinja Shrine is also the main stage of Shingu's famed fire festival, Oto-matsuri. As you make your descent, envision nearly 2,000 men charging down the steps carrying flaming torches.

After ticking the Kumano Sanzan off your list, you may wish to continue on sightseeing elsewhere. For onward travel to Wakayama City and Osaka, take the Kuroshio express from Shingu Station; for Tokyo, a time-saving alternative to rail travel is a flight from Nanki Shirahama Airport; to travel to Nagoya or Ise, take the Wideview Nanki express.

Able to spend more time in the area? Consider the following:

13a Tour

Overnight stay in Shingu followed by a trip to Doro-kyo Gorge for an inland cruise. Alternatively, take a coastal cruise around the crop of Ki-no-Matsushima rocks and islets in Katsuura Bay. You can also book whale-watching trips rom late March to September.

13b Rafting

Stay overnight in Kumano City and spend the next day rafting on the Kitayamagawa river.