UNESCO World Heritage – Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range
As mentioned before in my posting about the Takihara no miya, the Kumano region is among the less known in Japan. That might have something to do with the fact that it a rather a bit off the beaten tracks of average tourists (domestic and from abroad). But maybe also because the region requires a bit more of “getting into things”, if one really wants to enjoy this breathtaking corner of the country. Knowing a bit of basic Japanese history and being aware of the religious background of it, won’t hurt either.
Getting to know about history and religion is probably easiest done by visiting the three main shrines of Kumano. All of them are interconnected by three pilgrimage routes of Kumano (Kumano Kodō / 熊野古道 / くまのこどう) and come along with two Buddhist temples (of which at least one shall also be introduced briefly here). In the old days those three shrines were independend places for worshipping nature – as Japan’s old religion, the Shintō, is based on the appreciation for nature and its divinities. However, in the second half of the first millennium, when Buddhism, first introduced to Japan in the late 6th/early 7th century, took a stronger hold in the country, both religions somehow “merged”. Shintō deities were “transformed” into Japanese manifestation of Buddhist “gods” (and that’s how it basically remained until the Meiji Restoration in the second half of the 19th century, when Shintō was deemed to be put in the foreground, as the religion that is “indigenous” to the Japanese people).
It is also being told, that already in old times Kumano was – different from other cultural and religious centres in the country – the place where sacred sites were open for femals and even non-believers. And everyone, who knows Japan a bit, also in our days enjoys the fact that many Japanese have a rather relaxed way to deal with religions.
The Kumano Sanzan (熊野三山 / くまのさんざん) are located in that part of Kumano, that belongs to the Wakayama Prefecture (和歌山県 / わかやまけん). They are forming the southern part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” that have been registered as World Heritage Sites of the UNESCO since 2004.
Let’s have a look at the three main sites of the Kumano Sanzan:
Kumano Hayatama Taisha (熊野速玉大社)
This great shrine is located at the mouth of the Kumano River at the city of Shingū (新宮 / しんぐう). It is being said that its foundation was requested by the legendary Keikō Tennō (景行天皇 / けいこうてんのう) (60 – 130 A.D.). Until the 14th century this shrine was (not much unlike the great shrines of Ise) renewed on a regular bases. Here, the “sengū” (遷宮 / せんぐう), the transfer of the shrine’s relics or divine spirits into a newly built shrine, was carried out every 33 years.
The buildings we can see today look rather “new” – and that is not only because they have been renovated recently, but also because they were all erected only in 1951.
On the shrine’s grounds you also find an enormous nagi tree – the biggest in Japan. Allegedly it was planted in 1159 A.D. and today impresses us with astonishing dimensions: The trunk has a diameter of 4.5 metres. And the tree itself ist 17.6 metres tall. Needless to say: It also looks rather healthy – for its age.
The highest diety worshipped here is Hayatama no Ōmikami (速玉大神 / はやたまのおおみかみ). If you know about the Japanese legends, you probably know him under the name of Izanagi no Mikoto (伊邪那岐命 / イザナギのみこと) – one of the two creators of the Japanese archipelago, The ancestor of the Japanese Imperial Family, Amaterasu Ōmikami (the one the emperor himself descends from), was born from his left eye. And, just like in the good old days, not only this ancient Japanese god is being deified here, but also the Buddha of medicine, Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来 / やくしにょらい).
However, strictly speaking, more important than the Kumano Hayatama Taisha is the Kamikura Jinja (神倉神社 / かみくらじんじゃ) that is part of it. It is located high above the city of Shingū. This small shrine features a giant rock, called “gotobiki iwa” (ゴトビキ岩 / ごとびきいわ), that forms its foremost sanctuary. The Kamikura Jinja is regarded as one of the oldest (if not the oldest) sacred places of the Kumano region – even older that the three main shrines of the Kumano Sanzan. Legend has it, that it was here that the above-mentioned Hayatama no Ōmikami descended from the heavens, together with Musubi no Ōmikami (that can be compared with the Chinese Yue Lao – the god of marriage and love) and Ketsumi miko no Ōmikami (better know under the name Susanoo no Mikoto (須佐之男命 / すさのおのみこと) – Amaterasu’s “brother”). After the Kumano Hayatama Taisha was built, the spirits of these three deities were “transferred” there.
The shrine can be reached via 538 steps on ancients stone stairs and is also offering the most spectacular view of the city of Shingū.
How to get there:
From Nagoya (名古屋 / なごや) take the JR Kisei line (JR紀勢線 / JRきせいせん) to Shingū (新宮 / しんぐ). The Kumano Hayatama Taisha is only 1.5 kilometres away from the station. The distance to the Kamikura Jinja is about the same – located about 1.5 km south of the Kumano Hayatama Taisha.
Kumano Hongū Taisha (熊野本宮大社)
In the old days this massive shrine was locaed on a sandbank in the Kumano River – just a few hundred metres away from its present location. The old place is called “Ōyunohara” (see below). During a severe flooding in 1889 some of the shrine’s buildings were destroyed or damaged. Those buildings that could be rescued were brought to the new location on top of a hill and re-assembled in 1891.
The architecture of the shrine is a particularly fine example for the construction of Japanese shrines – only natural materials have been used. The single components have been fittet in such a way that not a single nail was necessary.
At the Kumano Hongū Taisha Yatagarasu (八咫烏 / やたがらす), a three-legged crow is being worshipped. These mystical crows are said to have the one or the other significance (depending on the sources you refer to). Most of all they are being praised for their marvellous sense of direction. They are said to have guided the legendary Jinmu Tennō (神武天皇 / じんむ天皇), Japan’s first Tennō Japans (711 to 585 B.C.), when he had lost his way in the forests of Kumano.
For more about the “Yatagarasu” see below.
There are also two divine entities of diverse origin that are being worshipped here. First of all it is the Shintō deity Susanoo no Mikoto (須佐之男命 / すさのおのみこと) (the “brother” of Amaterasu – born from the dirt in the nose of Izanagi (伊邪那岐命 / イザナギのみこと)), but it is also the Buddhist Amida Nyorai (阿弥陀如来 / あみだにょらい) – with other words: what used to be common practise until the Meiji era (1868-1912) is being continued here as well.
By the way: This year (2018) the Kumano Hongū Taisha is celebrating its 2050th anniversary of its foundation. This anniversary is based on the offizial assumption that the shrine was instituted in the year 33 B.C., as requested by the legendary Sujin Tennō (崇神天皇 / すじんてんのう) (148 to 30 B.C. – and why shouldn’t a tennō get that old – a legendary tennō in particular…). Naturally, there is no scientific proof for that; the first official document that mentions the Kumano Hongū Taisha dates back to the year 859 A.D.).
The old location of the Kumano Hongū Taisha may only be a memorial for the previously existing shrines, but the Ōyunohara (大斎原 / おおゆのはら) is actually much more – for many people it is a very special “power spot”.
Ōyunohara is, by all means, an enchanted plot. And it can be spotted from quite a distance, as the entrance to the former shrine’s grounds has been (since the year 2000) marked by the greatest Shintō gate (鳥居 / とりい) in all of Japan. It is mighty 33.9 metres tall, even mightier 42 metres wide, and made of 172 tons of steel.
And, naturally, the Yatagarasu (八咫烏 / やたがらす), the three-legged crows, belong to this mystic spot as well.
How to get there:
From Nagoya (名古屋 / なごや) take the JR Kisei line (JR紀勢線 / JRきせいせん) to Shingū (新宮 / しんぐ) and from the front of the station by busses of Kumano Kōtsū (熊野交通 / くまのこうつう) or Nara Kōtsū (奈良交通 / ならこうつう) to Hongū Taishamae (本宮大社前 / ほんぐうたいしゃまえ) (travel time: about 90 minutes by bus).
Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社)
This gorgeous shine is dedicated to Izanami no Mikoto (伊邪那美命 / いざなみのみこと), the female of the two Shintō dieties that created Japan. And, you won’t be surprised to learn, it is also the thousand-armed Kannon (千手観音 / せんじゅかんのん) that is being worshipped here.
Furthermore, you’ll find the so-called “crow stones” (烏の石 / からすのいし) on the grounds of the shrine. Legend has it, that those rocks are three-legged crows (八咫烏 / やたがらす) turned into stone. You know already that you can find these symbols at the Kumano Hongū Taisha. But you’d be surprised to learn that the “Yatagarasu” are also the emblem of the Japan Football Association and the mascot of the Japanese national soccer team.
Also, the Kumano Nachi Taisha is the head shrine for far more than 3,500 Kumano shrines in Japan. The recently refurbished Kumano Jinja (熊野神社 / くまのじんじゃ) at Shinjuku’s Central Park (新宿中央公園 / しんじゅくちゅうおうこうえん) in Tōkyō might be among those better known ones.
And there is another, rather profane reference to the Kumano Nachi Taisha:
For those cineasts among us, who have seen some more springs come and go, this location may have a very special spot in your hearts, for it was here where James Bond alias Sean Connery “got married” in “007 – You Only Live Twice” (1967).
Right next to the Kumano Nachi Taisha you will finde the Buddhist temple Seiganto-ji (青岸渡寺 / せいがんとじ), which formed one unit with the Kumano Naichi Taisha until the separation of the two religions in the second half of the 19th century. This temple is the first station of the Kansai Pilgrimage of 33 Kannon statues. The “Bodhisatva of mercy”, the Nyoirin Kannon, that is being worshipped here, is said to have appeared in the Nachi Falls right next to the temple.
But the mightiest of all the sanctuaries around here are those Nachi Falls (那智の滝 / なちのたき or 那智の大滝 / なちのおおたき respectively) themselves – and they are also a grand demonstration of nature’s powers. No wonder that all the spots in their vicinity draw their spiritual energy from here. These falls were being worshipped long before shrines and temples were built.
Apart from their mystical atmosphere, the Nachi Falls may also impress by simple facts: with a drop height of 133 metres they are the tallest of Japan with one single uninterrupted drop. They are also about 13 metres wide – making them a spectacle that cannot only be seen from far away, but also heard.
Together with the Kegon Falls (華厳滝 / けごんのたき) above Nikkō and the Fukuroda Falls (袋田の滝 / ふくろだのたき) in Ibaraki, the Nachi Falls belong to the “Three Famous Falls of Japan” (日本三名瀑 / にほんさんめいばく).
The forests that surround the waterall, the temple and the shrine have along history of being sacred places. And the aura they possess is just as quaint. These are the spots you have to “experience” to recognise what they are all about. There is little enlightenment only coming from looking at pictures and reading about them.
How to get there:
From Nagoya (名古屋 / なごや) take the JR Kisei line (JR紀勢線 / JRきせいせん) to Kii Katsuura station (紀伊勝浦駅 / きいかつうらえき) and from there take the busses of Kumano Kōtsū (熊野交通 / くまのこうつう) to the bus stop “Nachisan” (那智山 / なちさん) (travel time: about 90 minutes by bus).