Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail in Wakayama
After visiting Koyasan, I decided to visit the Kumano Kodo area for the first time. Koyasan and the Kumano Kodo area are popular as sacred sites that connect the pilgrimage trails in the Kii Mountains in Wakayama Prefecture. The “Kodo” (old trails) developed over 1000 years by drawing pilgrims from Kyoto or Nara to visit sacred areas in the Kii Mountains. Kumano Kodo and Santiago in Spain cooperate in a Dual Pilgrimage program to celebrate people who have walked both the Kumano Kodo and the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago). This might be a good reference to plan for trips to Kumano Kodo.
I didn’t have a chance to make a pilgrimage in Spain and it was the first time for me to visit the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. It was really hard to plan how long and where to stay. The Kumano Kodo area mainly consists of three shrines, Kumano Hongu, Kumano Hayatama and Kumano Nachi, collectively known as Kumano Sanzan. Five Kumano pilgrimage routes still exist and I took the Nakahechi pilgrimage route, the main route from Kyoto to Kumana, along which emperors and nobility made their way through steep treacherous mountains. It seemed difficult to walk along all trails as ancient people did, so I planned to take short trails between three main areas. Some people separate the trail into several parts to revisit along with the Kumano Kodo. Some parts of the runout take about a half day to walk, so some planning is needed. When I took a boat tour, the tour guide suggested to get a guide for a half day or full day to learn the history and walk through some part of the Kumano Kodo.
We arrived at Nanki-Shirahama Airport and headed for the Kumano Hongu Shrine area via the Nakahechi pilgrimage route. The Nakahechi pilgrimage route starts from the western coast of the Kii Peninsula and extends to the east of the Kumano-Nada Sea and has been used since the 10th century.
The Nakahechi pilgrimage route startpoint is Takijiri Oji. Oji are subsidiary Kumano Shrines along the Kumano pilgrimage routes, Oji shrines were built to provide rest and lodging for travelers. People from ancient days prayed for safety at Oji shrines while traveling in the Kumano Kodo area. Takijiri Oji was considered as the entrance to the sacred Kumano mountains.
Our goal was to visit Takahara Kumano Shrine from Takijiri Oji. The beginning of the route was steep and gradually changed into a very gentle slope. I could enter the big hole of a huge stone known as Tainai Kuguri, through the mother’s womb as an experience at religious area. The exit of Tainai Kuguri was so narrow and I needed to push up strongly. The mountain path was well maintained and many tourists went through so the route was easy to find. However, it was helpful for us to gather appropriate information for hiking beforehand. The mountain path gets dark early so a well planned schedule is needed.
On the way to Takahara Kumano Shrine in the Takahara area, the neighborhood is calm and feels very safe. I found a wooden factory and a toy for my kids for which I had been looking for a long time. I had found the similar toy at souvenir shops before, but the touch, feel and design did not match my taste. I used to play with the same type of toy to escape, which was a lion, but I lost it a long time ago. Finally I found a very simple one with a warm design.
The route from Takijiri Oji to Takahara Kumano Shrine was not hard and it took about 2 hours with my kid. You can stay one night at Takahara area or keep walking through to the next Oji, Chikatsuyu Oji and Gyubadoji. From the Takahara area to Gyubadoji, it takes more than 3 hours and there is just one restroom and it’s difficult to find vending machines supplying bottles of water. The Takahara area is about 300m above sea level and you need to climb to 700m above sea level on the mountain path. Good preparation is needed. You can ask questions to a specialist at Kumano Kodo Kan near Takijiri Oji.
Takahara Kumano Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in the Kumano Kodo area. The site of the shrine is small, but we were relieved so much when we finally arrived. It was summer season, but we only met one couple on the way to Takahara Kumano Shrine and we were getting lonely.
Eachi Oji and shrine has its original red ink stamp, so we could collect those stamps in our stamp book. Collecting red ink stamps originated when people dedicated a handwritten copy of sutra to shrines or temples and got the stamp as a certification. In Japan, a so-called Stamp Rally is popular for stamp collectors. Every summer season, each rail company begins a collaborated Stamp Rally campaign featuring anime or manga characters. If you visit Japan in summer, you will see people lining up to get stamps at stations or major Japanese castles. I had never got stamps from any Stamp Rally, but finally I could understand the motivation of stamp collectors. After I got one stamp at Oji in the Kumano Kodo area, I really wanted to collect more.
If you keep walking from Takahara Kumano Shrine to Kumano Hongu Shrine, you can see Tsugizakura Oji and Nonaka’s spring on the way. Nonaka’s spring was full of water and I imagined if people found the water here after walking a long way, they might be quite relieved. The road is so narrow and it is difficult to drive or make a U-turn here. Near Tsugizakura Oji, there are traditional lodgings along the way and you can enjoy an isolated village neighborhood.
It was hard to plan where to stay and to estimate how long it would take to walk through Kumano Kodo. If you have 2 or 3 days, the best way to enjoy the Kumano Kodo area is to focus on visiting Kumano Sanzan, Kumano Hongu, Kumano Hayatama and Kumano Nachi. If you rent a car, which is recommended, a fee-based driver would drive your car to your goal of the Kumano Kodo walk.