Over 2,500 years ago in the misty history of ancient Japan, the Emperor Jimmu sought the perfect place to rule over his country. He and his family encountered many hardships and defeats along the way until the intervention of a three-legged crow called Yatagarasu. This crow had been sent by heaven as a guide for the Emperor and it led him from a region called Kumano and to the promised land of Yamato. Kumano was, and still is, a land of small rugged mountains steeped in a deep spirituality with a profound connection to nature. Here the mountains, streams, waterfalls and even the rocks are objects of worship. This is a land where nature is still placed on the highest pedestal and the care shown to it is without parallel anywhere in the world.
Located in present-day Wakayama Prefecture, Kumano is the name given to the southern part of the Kii Peninsula. Wakayama is located just south of Osaka and the Kansai International Airport is only 20 minutes away, a very convenient gateway to this land of the gods. Crossing the mountains just south of the airport is a transformative experience. Gone is modern and crowded Japan. Gone is the hectic and frenzied pace of life in the big cities. Gone are the lines of modern apartment buildings. This is a Japan from a bygone era, a classical and mystical place where it is hard to draw the line between this realm and the spiritual world.
Most visitors come to this region for the Kumano Kodo, which is a series of ancient pilgrimage trails that cover the southern part of Wakayama Prefecture. These are old routes and hiking them you can still feel the presence of those who came before you over the past thousand years. Naturally there are three main pilgrimage routes and they all radiate out from deep in the mountains. The Kohechi and Iseji routes are the most rugged and least travelled, both offering strenuous trails through thick forests blanketed with ferns and moss. However, it is the Kiji route that attracts pilgrims, hikers and other visitors from around the world.
The Kiji route was registered by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2004. Known as Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, it is indeed a fitting description. These sacred sites are centred on three major shrines and they are the foci of the entire region. These shrines are the religious soul of Japan and they encapsulate thousands of years of culture and history. But these shrines are not relics of a bygone era; they are still active and vibrant places where anybody who wishes can cross the bridge into the spiritual realm. Pilgrims hike the trails, monks ring the bells and Shinto priests show people Yatagarasu, who is now a rock within the Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine. Spirituality is the living, beating heart of the Kumano and it is the natural gods that provide the greatest show.
If there could be one natural spirit that seems to shine more than any other, it would be water. Wakayama is a place where water ties everything together both physically and spiritually. Water is also the most important element in the everyday life of the people. It is the rivers that nourish their spiritual needs up in shrines of the Kumano Kodo. It is the ocean that provides for their physical needs in the form of food. It is the beaches and shore that gives them entertainment and provides the jobs they need to get by in the modern world. It is said that Wakayama is a land of water.
The source of the water is up in the Kii Mountains in the center of Wakayama. It starts as rain from the wet air currents that blow in from the Pacific Ocean. It waters the rich forests and then filters into the earth, only to re-emerge from springs that bubble forth in great profusion. The springs form into streams and then rivers, the water clean and pure. Some of this water comes forth steaming hot and smelling of sulphur from the various onsen, where it blends into the rivers and creates fog in the early morning chill. This world where hot and cold mix and the air changes from clear to fog is where the gods dwell. This intoxicating assault on the senses is where Yatagarasu led the first Emperor and it is along these rivers and waterfalls that the primary shrines and temples lie. The pilgrimage routes often follow the water and these rivers have dominated religious life here for centuries. Sometimes this domination is destructive. Raging typhoons regularly hit this area and deluge the mountains with rain. This leads to massivefloods, which have over the years destroyed the original temples and shaped the Kumano Kodo we see today. No single element, not even man, has had such a profound impact on the religious landscape of Wakayama.