Travel

Two millennia of heritage along Wakayama’s Kumano Kodo trail

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

The Kii Peninsula is a land of ancient spiritual paths and holy mountains. Until the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the peninsula was the site of the Kii Province. Now, a part of Wakayama Prefecture, the area is famous for onsen (hot springs), fish and produce like mikan (mandarin oranges) and ume (plums), and is home to temperate rainforests, mountains and a beautiful coastline. The prefecture is known as a place of rich cultural heritage, in part because of its connection to the Kii Province and the Kumano Kodo trail, but also because of the many traditional arts that are practiced there, including aikido, which was founded by Morihei Ueshiba in Wakayama.

For thousands of years, the Kii Peninsula was a site of worship for both Buddhism and Shintoism, thanks to shinbutsu shūgō, the pre-Meiji Era syncretic practice of the two beliefs. Though Shintoism and Buddhism are now separated into their present-day, distinct forms, the peninsula is considered to be holy by members of both religions.

In 2004, UNESCO recognized this history — along with the peninsula’s natural beauty — and, in doing so, conferred World Heritage status to the sacred sites and pilgrimage routes found in the Kii Mountain Range. These sites include Mount Koya, the home of Shingon Buddhism, Mount Yoshino and Mount Omine, as well as the three shrines of Kumano. A total of 242 separate locations, natural and man-made, were part of the designation, including many locations along the Kumano Kodo — an ancient pilgrimage route linking Mount Koya to Nachi Falls, near the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula.

I begin my journey by taking the shinkansen to Nagoya, which follows the same Tokaido route that those coming from Edo (now Tokyo) would have taken hundreds of years ago. The trip starts auspiciously with a beautiful view of snow-capped Mount Fuji — the first of many holy mountains on this trip — radiant in the morning sun.

I transfer to the JR Nanki Limited Express, which departs from Nagoya and journeys southwest along the coast of the Kii Peninsula to Kii-Katsuura Station. Katsuura, most of the way down the eastern shore of the peninsula, was established as a town for pilgrims to stop at night before traveling to the holy Nachi Falls, which are slightly inland from Katsuura. These days, thanks to its hot springs and location on the edge of Katsuura Bay, the town is famed for onsen hotels, beautiful views and fresh seafood. Though I plan to stay the night here, I quickly make my way to the bus terminal at the station and, just like the pilgrims before me, head toward the falls — though the pilgrims’ journey on foot would have been much more arduous than mine by bus.

A Shinto priest walks in the rain at Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine
A Shinto priest walks in the rain at Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine’s Heiden hall, Wakayama Prefecture. | GETTY IMAGES

Nachi Falls, atop Mount Nachi, is considered holy in both Buddhism and Shintoism, and thus there is a Tendai Buddhist temple as well as Shinto shrine nearby. In fact, the area is one of the few places where you can still experience the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, which was typical in premodern Japan. From the falls, I wander down the mountain on the beautiful stone path and through the primeval forest that surrounds that part of the pilgrimage. As I wander through the forest I feel my mind drift, thoughts slipping away to be replaced by a more primeval connection to the trees around me. It is not busy, and the walk is conducive to a peaceful separation from the everyday.

I spend the night on the coast enjoying the famed Katsuura onsen water: The rotenburo (outdoor bath) at my hotel is perched atop a cliff, and from the bath I watch the waves crash angrily against the rocks below. For dinner, I enjoy melt-in-the-mouth-fresh tuna sashimi, caught that day in the bay.

Sunrise across Katsuura Bay, Wakayama Prefecture.
Sunrise across Katsuura Bay, Wakayama Prefecture. | KATHERINE WHATLEY

I wake early the next morning to watch the sun rise from beyond the horizon and over the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The spectacle is magnificent, and the bay’s dramatic coastline is lit resplendently by the early morning sun. Still early, I take a bus from Kii-Katsuura Station to Kumano Hongu Taisha, the main shrine on the Kumano Kodo trail.

This year is the shrine’s 2050th anniversary, and many local people are here to pray at the shrine. Families with their young children stand in line with couples waiting to pray and a group of residents from the local old people’s home chat away amicably in the cool morning air.

In the inner courtyard, it is sunny and the gold decorations on the shrine glint, made more brilliant by their juxtaposition with the shrine’s dark, wooden beams. After praying — two bows, claps and another bow — I drink the blessed amazake, sweet sake given to me by the miko shrine maidens, and then wander the forest along the pilgrimage path.

Later in the day, sated by the shrine’s majesty, I make my way to Kawayu Onsen where, in the winter, you can soak in the outdoor onsen known as sennin buro, literally the thousand-person bath. The bath is positioned on the banks of the Oto River, which runs through the village. The mountains that make up the Kii Peninsula are abundant with thermal waters, and onsen villages dot the countryside. After bathing, bed calls, and I spend the night in a deep sleep, underscored by the gentle flow of the river and the sound of birdsong in the far distance.

The next morning, from Kawayu, I walk along the river to get to the bus stop in the small village of Ukegawa. The light rain that had started to fall as I left Kawayu toting a bag of mikan and sweets given to me as omiyage by the grandma running the minshuku hostel, becomes a downpour by the time I reach Ukegawa. To escape the rain, and pick up some supplies, I stop in at a little shop that is advertising bento boxes, hoping to find something for lunch.

To my great surprise, I hear a booming voice in English come from within the shop: “Hello!”

It is local resident Eva Kritska, who tells me: “Aikido brought me here, from Bulgaria.” While I wait for my bus, I ask her about her impressions of Wakayama: “I think this is a very special spot, with powerful energy. That energy is reflected in the philosophy of aikido, which tries to show there is a higher level of existence, and brightness within everyone. Extraordinary things happen here every day.”

Extraordinary. The word is an accurate choice and I reflect on the unlikely combination of circumstances that have brought the two of us together in a bento shop in the remote mountains of Wakayama during a torrential downpour.

Before parting ways with Eva, I buy a homemade bento from the old man who sits patiently watching us from behind the checkout. And later, as I sit on the bus, I happily eat the fried chicken, rice with nori, and potato croquettes. It tastes like my childhood — of visiting Japanese friends’ houses and eating food their mothers had prepared for us. It reminds me of being ravenous after playing outside all day and, as I watch the trees, rain and fog flash by outside, I feel a sense of calm and happiness.

A couple of hours later, I arrive in Tanabe, and board the JR Kuroshio Limited Express bound for the city of Wakayama. By the time I get off the train, the rain has stopped, the sun has set, and there is just enough time to drop off my bags and head to an izakaya tavern for the evening. As I sit there drinking atsukan (hot sake) from the local brewery, after a rainy day, and eating grilled fish, I feel warmer than I have in a long time.

Tomorrow, I’ll head from the coastal city back inland to the holy mountain of Mount Koya for more spiritual adventures. But for tonight, there is a sense of return from what feels like a long voyage to somewhere very far away.


Wakayama access

From Nagoya:

To reach the Wakayama coast, take the JR Nanki Limited Express service from Nagoya Station.

From Osaka:

Take the JR Kuroshio Limited Express from Osaka Station. For those who want to travel the entirety of the coast by train, a transfer from the Kuroshio Line to the Nanki Line is possible at Shingu Station.

Around Wakayama:

Travel inland is made possible via bus or car. For those traveling to Wakayama between April and November, consider the Mount Koya and Kumano Access Bus, which provides access between Mount Koya and Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine for tourists and pilgrims during the high season.

Timetables:

For bus timetables in both English and Japanese, visit the city of Tanabe’s Tourist Bureau site at www.tb-kumano.jp/en/transport/bus.

For more information on visiting Wakayama, including model itineraries, visit Wakayama Prefecture’s official travel website at en.visitwakayama.jp.