Alongside Kumano Kodo, there are three main shrines; Kumano Hongu, Kumano Hayatama and Kumano Nachi and our goal was to visit all three of them this time. After visiting Kumano Hongu Shrine, our second destination was the Kumano Shingu Hayatama area. There is so much to do and see in this beautiful pilgrimage route, so here are some of the best things to do when visiting Kumano Hayatama area.
1. Encounter Old Nature Worship
Before visiting Kumano Hayatama Shrine in Kumano Shingu Hayatama area, I firstly visited Hana-no-Iwaya’s old nature worship site, right in front of the Kumano-Nada Sea. Hana-no-Iwaya is located in Mie Prefecture and it required making a detour to Kumano Hayatama Shrine, but we wanted to see the sea after long hiking in the mountains. Hana-no-Iwaya was reputed to be the origin of gods who were listed in Nihon shoki, one of the oldest Japanese legendary history books from the 8th century.Geologically, Kii Peninsula in Wakayama and Mie Prefectures had huge stones and people enshrined huge rocks in the mountains or in front of the sea. Japanese native Shinto has an animistic belief system that sees godliness in trees, rocks and animals. Buddhism arrived via China in the 7th century and both of them have long been coexisting.The Kii Mountains are believed to be a special region inhabited by the gods. After the importation of Buddhism from China, the influence of Buddhism and its teachings spread all over Japan. The Kumano Kodo area gradually became a sacred place reflecting the reconciling of Shinto and Buddhism.
2. View from the Kumano-Nada Sea
Hana-no-Iwaya rock is a symbol of nature worship. You can feel how big it is by looking back from the Kumano-Nada Sea. The old Japanese respected nature and wondered how such a huge rock could be located in front of the sea. Then, they started to believe that gods were there. When ancient Japanese went fishing to the sea, they might pray to Hana-no-Iwaya rock to save and protect them. It is reasonable that people who were surrounded by nature prayed to natural objects in order to protect themselves from natural disasters. I only go hiking or fishing in the nature during weekends, so I wasn’t sure why ancient Japanese had religious faith in nature. However, when I saw Hana-no-Iwaya rock, finally I could understand nature worship a little bit more.
3. Walk on the Shichirimihama Beach
I visited Shichirimihama Beach near Hana-no-Iwaya rock. At that time, the waves were very high and swimming was forbidden. I knew the waves were high, but I didn’t understand how it was dangerous. My son and I went closer to the waves and threw a huge piece of driftwood into the sea. When I went to get something from my car, I left my kid on the beach. Suddenly, a local ambulance car parked near me and warned not to leave a child alone at the beach. I regretted it so much and swore I would never leave my children in the front of the big waves again.
4. Climb the Kamikura Shrine
After visiting Hana-no-Iwaya, we went to Kamikura Shrine, where the first god was said to have descended to Earth. Kamikura Shrine was dedicated to Kumano Hayatama Shrine. It was located 100m above sea level and had 538 steep steps. If you want to see Kamikura shrine, you need to climb steep staircases. There was a warning to visitors to make sure of their physical condition. When I checked the website and read leaflets to collect information, each of them said you would be surprised by the steepness of the stairs at Kamikura Shrine.A tour guide of a river boat tour mentioned that some people turned back before going up the stairs due to the extreme steepness. I thought it was a little bit of over exaggeration, but it was really steep and each step was high like rock climbing. I felt I was tested by nature. However, my son and I love climbing so we climbed cheerfully and the view from the top of Kamikura shrine was so astonishing.
5. Take a photo with a gigantic Gotobiki-iwa rock
After climbing about half way, the terrain was getting less steep. Kamikura Shrine is dedicated to a gigantic rock as a sacred object called Gotobiki-iwa. Kamikura shrine is said to be where the Kumano gods descended from the heavens. People wish descendant prosperity to Gotobiki-iwa. This rock is for the prosperity of descendants and I took a photo with my son. On February 6th every year, the Otou Festival, or courageous fire festival, is held. About 2,000 males carry torches which are lit from a sacred fire in front of Gotobiki-iwa and climb down from the top.
6. Eat shaved ice at Naka Gori shop
After climbing Kamikura Shrine, we went to a Naka Gori shaved ice shop. It was too hot to walk without cold drinks. We ordered shaved ice and also Watermelon by shaved ice. The shaved ice was fluffy which is impossible to produce by a shaved ice machine at home. The syrup was handmade and the density and sweetness go perfectly with the shaved ice. Naka Gori shaved ice shop serves many kinds of flavored syrups on shaved ice. Wakayama Prefecture is famous for various types of citrus and Naka Gori shops make original citrus syrups too.
7. Witness the old Nagi Tree at Kumano Hayatama Shrine
Shingu city is a good size to walk around. We parked near Kamikura Shrine and went to Kumano Hayatama Shrine on foot. It took about 15 minutes. To promote the Kumano religion, Kumano nuns travel all over Japan with a Mandala to explain how to make a pilgrimage to Kumano Hayatama Shrine. In the Mandala, we can see the same old Nagi tree, Podocarpus nagi, that is over 1000 years old. Since the 8th century, emperors and nobility have been visiting the Kumano area and gradually people of other status have started to do the same.
8. Take the Kumano River Boat Tour
From the 8th century to the 12th century, emperors and nobility took the river pilgrimage route to visit Kumano Hayatama Shrine from Kumano Hongu Shrine. We could have the same experience in the 21st century with the Kumano River Boat tour. Kumano River is 183 km long and flows from its origin in the northern Kii Mountains to the Kumano-Nada Sea. I usually join a tour once during a week-long trip to learn about the history and how it relates to the current situation of the area. I prefer to do solo travel, but sometimes stories told by professionals are more interesting than checking through travel websites or guidebooks.
The tour guide played a Japanese bamboo flute on the tour boat. It was very entertaining to listen to live music while floating on Kumano River. It takes an hour and a half. The tour boat is available once in the morning and again in the afternoon. The boat boarding place was near the Kumano Shingu Hayatama area and we disembarked at the estuary of the Kumano River near Kumano Hayatama Shrine. It was convenient to see around the Shingu area.While emperors were taking boats, their servants had to follow a path along the cliffs. You can still see dangerous old pilgrimage mountain trails alongside Kumano River. Some slender paths are still partly visible and they are really narrow. It is hard to imagine how people could have walked on those paths. People risked their lives to visit Kumano Shrines. Some people lost their lives and therefore the path was improved to the modern road, so I felt I should express gratitude.
9. Visit Kawaraya shops
People used to cut down trees from the Kii Mountains and send them to the Pacific Ocean on the Kumano River. Shops known as Kawaraya shops opened to sell daily products to people who transported cut trees to the estuary of the Kumano River. They didn’t use nails. When the Kumano River flooded, they just abandoned their shops and ran away. Each house seems very small and narrow, but the structure is efficient and I liked the idea that people could carry it when the river overflowed.
How to get there
When visiting Kumano Kodo, rent-a-car is the best way to see around. The road is well maintained and locals drive very politely. We arrived at Nanki-Shirahama Airport located in the western part of Kii Peninsula and drove the Prefecture Routes to the Kumano Shingu Hayatama area located in the eastern part of Kii Peninsula. The Prefecture Route was easy to drive, but crossing the Kii Peninsula took a long time.