Japan`s World Heritage Sites: Kumano Pilgrimage Route

The World’s Most Picturesque Pilgrimage

If you take just one pilgrimage – or perhaps just a long hike – in your life, you won’t find a more scenic one than here.

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Though a slight trek off the typical tourist path to Osaka, go just 100 km further south and you’ll reach the area CNN named the top pilgrimage site in the world – even above the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Known as the Kumano Kodo, this ancient trail winds through three prefectures – Wakayama, Nara, and Mie – linking together its three most sacred sites: Yoshino/Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koya-san. In 2004, the trail and sites were registered together as a cultural world heritage site.

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The Nakahechi Route

With dramatic views from 2,000 m high overlooking the Pacific seascape, abundant streams and waterfalls, and gentle sunlight trickling through the towering cedars, it’s no wonder this richly forested mountain range in the Kii Peninsula was worshiped as Japan’s main sacred mountain by the 12th century. Valued for its reflection of the fusion of Buddhism and Shintoism here, a sect known as Shugen also took root here, which holds to strict ascetic training in the severe mountain environment. And though the 1,200 year old shrines and temples here are the divine destinations, the etherial journey along these steep and rugged paths is just as heavenly.

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Nachi Otaki Falls in autumn.

Trekking through all 307.6 km of pilgrimage routes could take weeks. But for those who don’t have a month to spare (nor the agility for 20+ km of steep hiking per day), grab a bamboo staff, and maybe even a Heian era kimono—rentable at one of the local teahouses—and be sure to hit these highlights below.

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Mt. Yoshino – Yoshinoyama

Mountain Yoshino Cherry Blossoms
Mountain Yoshino Cherry Blossoms

One look at these precipitous ridges that peek through the clouds make it clear why En no Gyoza established this area as the home for Shugen’s harsh ascetic practices in the 8th century. Followers of this Buddhist sect seclude themselves here, and by the mid-10th century, this mountain’s renown reached as far as China.

Mountain Yoshino Cherry Blossoms
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But this mysterious highland is equally famed for its cherry blossoms, as it is said “thousands of trees in a single glance” can be gazed upon here.

Mountain Yoshino Cherry Blossoms
Mountain Yoshino Cherry Blossoms 3

Nachi Otaki Falls

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Behold Japan’s highest waterfall, surging from 133 m high. Deemed as divine for its glorious down flow, this cascade as the backdrop to Seigantoji Temple’s three-story pagoda is the most iconic scene from the entire Kii Peninsula. After snapping your selfies, get a cool spray by the base of the falls, as these waters are said to bring long life.

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Nachi Otaki – 1
Nachi Otaki
Nachi Otaki – 2

Koya-san

Koya-San
Koya-San

Amongst the city of over a hundred temples a top Mt. Koya, Kongobuji Temple is its crowned construction, and the head temple of Koyasan Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Along the way here, spend a night at one of the shukubo (temple lodgings) for a real taste of pilgrim life – literally, as many include the traditional vegetarian menu are offered to monks. Not only is it the most authentic way to travel, it’s the easiest on your pocketbook!

Access:

Mt. Yoshino: A 40-min train ride (Kintetsu Line) from Kashiharajingu-mae Station to Yoshino Station.

Nachi Otaki Falls: A 30-min bus ride (Kumano Kotsu Bus) to Jinja-otera-mae car park from Kii-Katsura Station (JR Kisei Honsen).

Kongobuji Temple: A 15-min bus ride to Kongobuji-mae bus stop from Koyasan Station.

 

 

Restaurant Review: Ise Katsura

Divine Dining At The Spiritual Center Of Japan

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Ise Grand Shrine‘s outer shrine (Geku), enshrines Toyouke no Omikami, the goddess of agriculture and industry. She is enshrined here to offer sacred food to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, which is why Toyouke no Omikami is also often referred to as the goddess of food.
Being located on a 5-min walking distance from here, restaurant Ise Katsura, a restaurant of Japanese cuisine especially renowned for its sushi, just has to be divine!

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Its entrance alone already makes it seem like a restaurant for the gods

We ordered a gorgeous seasonal course (a summer course in this case) of 5,000 yen per person that included Japanese classics as sushi, sashimi and tempura of the freshest seasonal ingredients from the region.
For an additional 1,000 yen per person, we savored Ise Ebi, or Japanese Spiny Lobster which was already known as an Ise specialty during the Edo period.
In the old days, it was served either boiled or grilled, but today, a large variety of preparation methods exist.
Our Ise Ebi at Ise Katsura was served as sashimi, yes, raw lobster! It was my first time to eat lobster raw, and it was so fresh from the sea that its legs were still trying to swim on!

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Raw lobster, something you won’t often see outside of Japan!
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Wonderful dishes just came and came
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An assortment of fresh sashimi consisting of tuna, yellowtail, sea bream, octopus and squid
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Tempura of fresh vegetables from the region and chewy shrimp
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These sushi of tuna, conger-eel and flatfish were so delicious they made me detest conveyor belt sushi back in Tokyo which I normally enjoy
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The course ended with a delicate creamy pudding!

In case luxury dining isn’t your thing, Ise Katsura also has a takoyaki stand in front of its restaurant for street food fanatics. Besides from regular flavors, you can also chose for a special Ise Takoyaki sauce only to be found at Ise Katsura!

If you love fresh seafood: ★★★★★
If you are afraid of lobsters that try to swim on table: ★★☆☆☆ (it wasn’t trying that hard)

Restaurant Information

Name: Ise Katsura

Price range: 5,000 – 6,000 yen (dinner)

Location: Honmachi 17-6, Ise, Mie Prefecture

Access: A 3-min walk from Ise Station (JR Sangu Line)

Akafuku, Mochi Heaven

The inside out mochi

It is not exactly known when Akafuku – one of the oldest mochi (Japanese rice cake) brands still going strong today – was founded, but the oldest document referring to its existence dates back to 1707. That alone is already more than 300 years of mochi perfection by this famous Wagashi (Japanese confectionery) brand in Mie Prefecture.

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With its main branch located in Okage-cho near Ise Grand Shrine, Akafuku’s “Akafuku Mochi” is widely renowned as a specialty of the region.
Akafuku Mochi consist of sweet and smooth koshi-an (red bean paste) coated on top of a firm yet soft mochi. The paste is skilfully handpressed on each mochi to create a wavelike shape recalling the ripples on the Isuzu River. This composition is the opposite of your usual Wagashi, which has red bean paste on the inside of the mochi. Therefore, it can be said that Akafuku Mochi is to Wagashi what an inside out roll is to sushi.

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The pattern of three lines (two on the edges, one in the middle) in which the koshi-an is coated, resembles the Isuzu River which streams through Ise, right behind the Akafuku Main Branch.

Although tourists like to purchase Akafuku Mochi as a souvenir,  be sure to give it to your friends quickly as it expires after only two days. Yes, true treats have short lives, and that’s why Akafuku Mochi is best enjoyed at the Akafuku Main Branch itself, where you can sit down and have your mochi with a cup of tea.

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Except from the traditional Akafuku Mochi, you can also order a zenzai (sweet bean soup with a toasted mochi) or a portion of green tea flavor shaved ice with Akafuku mochi hidden under the ice.

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I went for the latter, and immediately found myself in a Japanese sweets paradise, especially once I discovered the mochi on the bottom of my bowl. Cooled down by the shaved ice, the mochi had an extra firmness to it, that satisfied me so much I just couldn’t stop smiling and say to myself: “Yes, this is exactly what a mochi should be”

If you like your mochi very mochi (sticky): ★★★★★

To take home to your friends: ★★☆☆☆ (Makes for a great souvenir, but does not last long enough)

Akafuku Main Branch
Location: Ujinakanokiricho 26, Ise, Mie
Access: 15-min by bus from JR Iseshi Station. A 5-min walk from bus stop Jingukaikan-mae
Price Range at the store: 300 – 600 yen
Souvenir Price Range: 700 – 1500 yen (depending on the amount)

 
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