THEMES

World Heritage: The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes

Kumano, the spiritual heartland of Japan has stood the test of time. The Kumano Kodo is one of only two pilgrimage World Heritage Sites globally. Its history stretches back over a thousand years.

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The History

For millennia the mountainous region of Kumano has been thought to be the mythical “holy ground where gods dwell.” During the Heian period (794 - 1185), the Imperial household and court made the 30 to 40 day arduous journey from the ancient capital of Kyoto to this remote area, in search of heaven on earth. It is here that Kumano Sanzan, the three grand shrines and Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple, were established.

The History

For millennia the mountainous region of Kumano has been thought to be the mythical “holy ground where gods dwell.” During the Heian period (794 - 1185), the Imperial household and court made the 30 to 40 day arduous journey from the ancient capital of Kyoto to this remote area, in search of heaven on earth. It is here that Kumano Sanzan, the three grand shrines and Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple, were established.

From Japan’s Emperors to The World

During the early days of the Heian period, the Kumano faith would filter down from the imperial family and aristocracy, spreading to the samurai warrior class, and beyond. So many people came, that the pilgrimage came to be known as the “march of the ants to Kumano.” The Kumano faith was unique in Japan because it was open to everyone regardless of class or sex, also welcoming the disabled. Today, there are about 3,000 Kumano Shrines in Japan.

From Japan’s Emperors to The World

During the early days of the Heian period, the Kumano faith would filter down from the imperial family and aristocracy, spreading to the samurai warrior class, and beyond. So many people came, that the pilgrimage came to be known as the “march of the ants to Kumano.” The Kumano faith was unique in Japan because it was open to everyone regardless of class or sex, also welcoming the disabled. Today, there are about 3,000 Kumano Shrines in Japan.

Kumano Sanzan

The sacred sites collectively known as Kumano Sanzan, are Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine (Shingu), Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine and neighboring Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple (Nachi-Katsuura), and Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine (Tanabe). The region’s landscape and sacred sites, are often described as possessing mysterious auras. These characteristics are said to have been influenced by their differing origins, and worship practices around the natural world. Despite these differences, that also manifest architecturally, resolutely they continue to exist harmoniously with their environments, and leave visitors markedly impressed.

Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine

Kumano Sanzan

The sacred sites collectively known as Kumano Sanzan, are Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine (Shingu), Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine and neighboring Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple (Nachi-Katsuura), and Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine (Tanabe). The region’s landscape and sacred sites, are often described as possessing mysterious auras. These characteristics are said to have been influenced by their differing origins, and worship practices around the natural world. Despite these differences, that also manifest architecturally, resolutely they continue to exist harmoniously with their environments, and leave visitors markedly impressed.

Shinbutsu-shugo

Kumano Sanzan combined the Shinto and Buddhist faiths into one, known as Shinbutsu-shugo (literally the convergence of Buddhism and Shinto). The notion that deities (kami) are present in all things on the earth is deeply embedded into Japanese culture from ancient times. White paper folded into the shape of lightning and hung at shrines delineate areas where kami are believed to preside. When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, Shinto deities were identified with the different forms of the Buddha, to create Shinbutsu-shugo.

Shinbutsu-shugo

Kumano Sanzan combined the Shinto and Buddhist faiths into one, known as Shinbutsu-shugo (literally the convergence of Buddhism and Shinto). The notion that deities (kami) are present in all things on the earth is deeply embedded into Japanese culture from ancient times. White paper folded into the shape of lightning and hung at shrines delineate areas where kami are believed to preside. When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, Shinto deities were identified with the different forms of the Buddha, to create Shinbutsu-shugo.

The Pilgrimage Routes

Over the past ten centuries, people from all levels of society have journeyed to the tranquil Kii Mountains, following many pilgrimage routes to the revered Kumano Sanzan Shrines. The various paths are known collectively as the Kumano Kodo. The seven routes are the Nakahechi (the main route), Ohechi, Kohechi, Iseji, the Choishi-michi Route which links the sacred Shingon Buddhist Koyasan to the Kumano Shrines, and the Yoshino & Omine route, an isolated treacherous mountain trail reserved for ascetic practices by the Shugendo sect, and one recommended only for expert hikers. In 2004, the majority of these routes – excluding a modern route called the Kiiji – were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Pilgrimage Routes

Over the past ten centuries, people from all levels of society have journeyed to the tranquil Kii Mountains, following many pilgrimage routes to the revered Kumano Sanzan Shrines. The various paths are known collectively as the Kumano Kodo. The seven routes are the Nakahechi (the main route), Ohechi, Kohechi, Iseji, the Choishi-michi Route which links the sacred Shingon Buddhist Koyasan to the Kumano Shrines, and the Yoshino & Omine route, an isolated treacherous mountain trail reserved for ascetic practices by the Shugendo sect, and one recommended only for expert hikers. In 2004, the majority of these routes – excluding a modern route called the Kiiji – were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

World Heritage

On July 7, 2004, the three sacred shrine sites, Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple, and the arterial pilgrimage routes, were designated as World Heritage Sites as the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.” The site includes the Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture, and Yoshino & Omine in Nara Prefecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Site designation states that these sites form a cultural landscape that reflect the fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism, and a persistent and well-documented tradition of sacred mountains maintained over 1200 years.

World Heritage

On July 7, 2004, the three sacred shrine sites, Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple, and the arterial pilgrimage routes, were designated as World Heritage Sites as the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.” The site includes the Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture, and Yoshino & Omine in Nara Prefecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Site designation states that these sites form a cultural landscape that reflect the fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism, and a persistent and well-documented tradition of sacred mountains maintained over 1200 years.

Kumano Kodo and the Way of St. James (Spain)

Kumano Kodo and The Way of St. James are the only two World Heritage UNESCO-listed pilgrimage routes. As sister pilgrimages, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan and Galicia Province, Spain have officially twinned to develop friendly relations between regions and countries, and contribute to world peace and development. Though Kumano Kodo is located in the East, while the Way of St. James that leads to Galicia’s Santiago de Compostela Cathedral – one of the three holiest sites of Catholicism – is located in the West, both ancient roads testify to a parallel history of faith, originating in the early 10th century.

Kumano Kodo and the Way of St. James (Spain)

Kumano Kodo and The Way of St. James are the only two World Heritage UNESCO-listed pilgrimage routes. As sister pilgrimages, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan and Galicia Province, Spain have officially twinned to develop friendly relations between regions and countries, and contribute to world peace and development. Though Kumano Kodo is located in the East, while the Way of St. James that leads to Galicia’s Santiago de Compostela Cathedral – one of the three holiest sites of Catholicism – is located in the West, both ancient roads testify to a parallel history of faith, originating in the early 10th century.

Kumano Highlights

Hikers and pilgrims alike, can send their luggage ahead whilst traversing between the Kumano Sanzan shrines along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes. A handy service particularly for international visitors travelling with suitcases.

The weather in southern Wakayama is generally quite mild all year round, with very little snow. January is the coldest month of the year when average temperatures hover between 3°C ~ 7°C. Humid and hot, temperatures peak in August, whereas May, June, September and October are the most temperate months of the year. Rainfall is highest during these months, particularly from May to August.

Tanabe City, the second largest city in the prefecture, is the most convenient access point to the Kumano Kodo. The Tanabe Tourism office has an online booking service to help you plan your trip, from making reservations to booking guides.

The trails rise from 100 m to 600 m, and therefore comfortable walking clothing, hiking shoes, breathable rain-gear, an adequate water-supply, a hat and towel are recommended. Walking sticks also help to take the pressure off knees, and are available at most trailheads.

Kumano Kodo and The Way of St. James have a joint program called the “Dual Pilgrim”. It celebrates, honors, and shares the stories of those who have completed both of these UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage routes. Register at the Kumano Hongu Heritage Center or the Tanabe Tourist Information Center.

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