KUMANO, Wakayama Pref. — Ordinarily, I am not an “expo” kind of person.

This puts me at a disadvantage because Japan is, among other things, the land of never-ending “expos.” World trade, understanding, flowers, fish, sports, automobiles, kites, hot-air balloons, railroads, rain forests, wine, French cuisine, fashion, video games, books, art, computers, all have been the subject of expos.

Such expos where you pay a massive admission fee and then wander around as an observer, with kawaii goods being foisted on you — for free or for a fee — at every turn are not my cup of tea.

Finally, along came an expo that caught my eye.

“Nature itself becomes the expo site. No fences, no gates, free entry. This is the first open-type expo in Japan,” says Hiroyuki Tsui, public relations manager of Nanki-Kumano Exposition, Resortpia Wakayama ’99 (April 29-Sept. 19).

Tsui says that since ancient times, the Nanki-Kumano region has emphasized history and culture. “It’s been known as a place where people could go to heal their minds.”

Visitors to this expo, he says, can sense a “healing” of their minds and bodies as they walk on the historical “Ancient Road to Kumano” and participate in other expo events. Rather than entertainment by the organizer, the expo emphasizes participation in the events, which are aimed at individuals rather than groups.

Tsui is either one of the world’s most subtle public relations practitioners or a magician. Most expo promoters can’t get much of a press turnout just to observe their events; the Wakayama crew got a good number of foreign press members (and their wives) to participate by wearing Heian Period costumes in the procession up the 100 steps of Kumano Hongu Taisha. Townspeople, delighted by the spectacle, rushed to have photos taken of and with the visitors.

The expo was conceived under the strong leadership of Governor of Wakayama Prefecture, Isamu Nishiguchi, without any particular assistance from the central government.

Investment in the expo is estimated around 2.2 billion yen, about one-fifth of the average budget for expos on a similar scale. The small budget was the result partly of efforts to preserve the natural environment by, for example, not allowing construction machines at the sites.

Two million visitors are expected and 1.2 million visitors had been recorded as of July 15, the halfway point.

Since ancient times, the land of Kumano has been the object of countless pilgrimages by people who were attracted by piety, fear and yearning to this isolated, strange world. Full of magical power and mystery, Kumano held a deep influence over the minds of the people.

Kumano is located on the Kii Peninsula, its south tip facing the Kuroshio current of the Pacific Ocean. Though not far from Kyoto, the capital of Japan until the year 1869, Kumano could only be reached by overcoming ranges of steep, rugged mountains. For the people of ancient times, this place was considered this world’s paradise, for while Kumano existed in this world, it also stood apart from it.

Located in Hongu Town, Kumano Hongu Taisha was the shrine where pilgrims visited first during the Kumano pilgrimage. It is said that this shrine was established during the reign of the 10th Emperor Sujin. Its principal god is Ketsumiko-no-kami and the corresponding Buddha is Amida Nyorai.

The “Kojiki” and the “Nihon Shoki,” official chronicles written in the beginning of the 8th century (712 and 720, respectively), provide some insight into a world where gods played a very active role in the lives of people. In these stories gods were generally categorized into two types: those gods who contributed to the establishment of the state, and those gods who ruled and calmed specific areas.

In the past Kumano Taisha was the center of the Kumano Sanzan at Oyunohara, where the Kumano River and two other rivers met. On an approximately 33,000-sq.-meter site, it was surrounded by multiple shrines. However, in the 22nd year of Meiji (1889) the majority of the buildings were lost in flood waters which reached levels of 21 meters. The remaining shrines date from the first year of the Kyowa Era (1801) to the fourth year of the Bunka Era (1807).

The composition of the ocean, the deep green primitive forests and the magnificent landscapes such as Dorokyo Gorge and Nachi Waterfall makes this area intensely attractive and mysterious. The scenery at Nachi Waterfall is among the most spectacular in all Japan.

The heyday of the pilgrimages was the period from the 10th to the 12th century, when the Imperial Family actively participated in them. Thereafter the pilgrimages were also welcomed and supported by the samurai class, and gradually participation spread widely among the common people. This popular enthusiasm was referred to as the “ant pilgrimage” because the road was so busy as to resemble a procession of ants.

In the Edo Period (1603-1867), people’s faith decreased and the numbers traveling to Kumano began to decline, though not without revivals, as in the first year of the Kyoho Era (1776), when 4,776 pilgrims lodged in Tanabe.

Like the rest of Japan, Kumano was swept up in the transformation of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), and the significance of the pilgrimage was transformed from religious purposes to recreational ones.

Kumano has never lost its feeling of freshness and power, and still fascinates people to this day. In recent times the pilgrimage has undergone a renaissance, with sightseeing, meditative walks and hiking being popular. Along part of the Kumano Ancient Road, I ran into hikers of all ranges of ages, seniors investigating historical traces, young office ladies enjoying “forest bathing” and young boys and girls on school excursions.

Kumano has been strengthening its reputation as a place of charm and vivid beauty along with the changing social concept of the importance of spirituality. As the close of the 20th century approaches, there has been an increase in people who are seeking spiritual fulfillment, and a reevaluation of Kumano as a spiritual homeland for the Japanese has begun.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.