Kumano : The Japanese Compostela
In the south of Kansai, the mountainous Kii Peninsula has been traveled by pilgrims since the twelfth century. A sacred, Unesco listed region, which offers hiking and hot springs.
Kumano is a sacred region, a region of myths and legends, where for more than 1 500 years pilgrims have been heading into the forest trails and climbing the peaks. The particularity of the Kii Mountains is that they embody Japanese syncretism, the coming together and mixture of the two main religions of the country: Shinto, the first religion, and Buddhism, which arrived from China via Korea in the sixth century.
The mountains and the beach
A syncretism that gave birth to the three great shrines of the region, the Kumano Sanzan ("The three summits of Kumano" Hongu, Hayatama and Nachi) and famous pilgrimage trails, five trails that connect the shrines of Kumano to the sacred mountain of Shingon Buddhism, Mount Koya. In 2004, they were all listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The west coast of the Kii Peninsula, which opens onto the southeast of Shikoku, seems to be more for tourists than for pilgrims, who travel by train from Osaka to Tanabe. This lovely seaside resort, which is a gateway to the sacred summits, offers the best tourism office in the region: very knowledgeable, multi-lingual, and involving residents in the development of local tourism. Then, the bus or train will take you south,to Shirahama, famous for its long white-sand beach, and to Saki no Yu, reputed to be one of the oldest hot spring establishments in the country.
Paved paths and hot springs
A local bus network connects Tanabe and Shirahama to the East Coast sites, including the three must-visit sanctuaries. The Kumano Nachi Taisha is accessible from the city of Kii-Katsuura, a syncretic place of worship perched in the mountains, sometimes lost in the mist, and which is home to the Seiganto-ji Buddhist temple, the Nachi Shinto shrine, and the waterfall with the same name (Nachi no Taki).
Traveling north, since the twelfth century, the Kumano Taisha Hayatama is located close to the center of Shingu and the banks of the Kumano-gawa. Do not miss the museum, which preserves religious objects that belonged to the pilgrims.
Then, you will need to head into the cedar forest, climb the paved Kumano Trails, or travel between 1 and 2 hours by coach (from Tanabe, Shirahama or Shingu) to reach Kumano Hongu Taisha, located at the heart of the network of pilgrimage trails, not far from Mount Koya. In this sanctuary, the most prestigious of the three, the faithful honor the spirit of Amaterasu, the goddess of light.
And finally, the repleted pilgrim can relax in one of the many onsen in the area: Kawayu, where you can swim in the Oto riverbed; Yunomine, a source that is several-hundred-years old; or Totsukawa and Ryūjin.