Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Kumano Kodo Nakahechi - a Journey Through History and Time

--Susan, every other Sunday

Last Saturday night, I returned to Tokyo after a week-long, 100-km hike along one of Japan's oldest and most sacred pilgrim routes.

On the Kumano Kodo

For over 1,000 years, Japanese emperors, nobles, and other Buddhist pilgrims have walked the Kumano Kodo, a series of mountainous trails through the Kii Peninsula, in what is now Wakayama Prefecture.

An ancient teahouse at Tsugizakura Oji

The Nakahechi Route (sometimes called the Imperial Route, because starting in the 10th century, it was the trail favored by retired emperors undertaking this pilgrimage) bisects the peninsula, beginning at the ancient shrine of Takijiri-Oji and carving an arc-shaped trail over mountains and through forested valleys to Kii-Katsuura and Shingu on the eastern coast.

The Nakahechi Route

Along the way, pilgrims reflected upon their past, present and future, with each time period corresponding to one of the three Kumano Grand Shrines: Hongu Taisha (the past), Nachi Taisha (the present) and Hayatama Taisha (the future).

One of many smaller shrines along the route. This one commemorates a 19th century pilgrim who died on the trail.

Each of these Grand Shrines has existed for well over a thousand years (Hongu Taisha is celebrating its 2,050th anniversary this year), and is dedicated to one of the three Kumano deities who descended to earth at Gotobiki Rock, a sacred stone on the grounds of Kamikura Shrine that visitors reach by ascending an ancient flight of 538 stairs.

Gotobiki Rock

After alighting on Gotobiki Rock, the deities split and settled at the three Kumano Grand Shrines.

Kumano Hongu Shrine, dedicated to Kumano Gongen (also known as Ketsumikono-okami) is home to the largest torii--Shinto sacred gate--in Japan. It stands on the original site of the shrine and measures 33 meters high and over 40 meters wide.

The massive Otorii at Kumano Hongu Shrine

Hongu Jinja also serves as the head shrine for all of the 3,000+ subsidiary Kumano shrines across Japan.

Yatagarasu, the sacred three-legged "eight-span" crow.

(As an aside: you can generally tell a Kumano shrine by their numerous images of the three-legged crow, Yatagarasu, the sacred messenger of the gods who led the first emperor of Japan to the mountain where he accepted his destiny and assumed the throne.)

Kumano Hongu Shrine - a welcome sight after days on mountain trails.

Pilgrims walking the Nakahechi typically reached Hongu Shrine on the third or fourth day after leaving Takijiri, about half way along the almost 100-km trail.

Two days later, they would reach the coast and Nachi Shrine, home to Japan's highest free-falling waterfall, Nachi-no-taki (Nachi Falls).

Spectacular Nachi Falls

The free-falling portion is 133 meters high, and the ancient staircase to the bottom of the falls has precisely that many steps, though visitors can also observe the falls from a pagoda on the grounds of Nachi Shrine.

The overland hiking portion of my pilgrimage ended at Nachi Shrine - I spent that night in an onsen (volcanic hot spring) hotel built into an island just off the coast of Kii-Katsuura.

"Pilgrimage" doesn't always require "roughing it" in Japan.

After almost a hundred kilometers on the trail, I was more than ready to experience the natural hot spring caves, with their spectacular views of the Pacific.

The light in the lower right is one of the hot spring caves, with a view of the sea.
I took this photo from my guest room window.

The following morning, I completed my pilgrimage (by train...) with a trip to Shingu and the final Grand Kumano Shrine - Hayatama Taisha.

Hayatama Taisha, the third of the Kumano Grand Shrines

To make up for the train, I also climbed the hundreds of steep stone steps to Gotobiki Rock.

After the climb.

I chose to treat my week on the trail as a real pilgrimage, contemplating life, death, and my past, present, and future. While I hope to share many of my experiences from the trail, I'll be unpacking others, far more personally, for years to come.

I bought a bag of  tea grown on these bushes. The Kumano Kodo is the trail that splits off to the right.

I'd heard it said that walking these ancient trails was like stepping back in time. In addition to being only a third of the story, it's an enormous understatement. I have seldom felt as connected to the past, the present and the future as during my seven long, but irreplaceable, hiking days on the Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep . . .

We seldom take the time to reflect on where we've been, where we are, and where we're going. The needs of the day take precedence.

The future is that way.

But my holiday wish for everyone, this year, is that you take the time to step off the beaten path (into the trees, or into history, if you can) and center yourself in your life and your dreams again.



  1. Japan feels the continuity of time in a way no other culture I know does: moments, precious, last into future.

    1. It sure does. One of so many things I love about it (as I know you do too!)

  2. Dearest, May the contemplation bring you enlightenment and courage and strength and peace and joy. Love you have. In abundance.

    1. Thank you Annamaria :) Sending love, peace, and light to you too.

  3. Really lovely sharing and photos; thank you. I wish you every good benefit possible from your journey in Japan.

  4. You're living the dream, Susan. Keep on dreaming!

    1. And I hope I will never wake from this wonderful dream :)