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.

nakahechi route
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
Mountain Yoshino Cherry Blossoms 2

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.

Nachi Otaki
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.

 

 

World Heritage (8): Monuments of Ancient Nara

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Yakushiji Temple

Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital from 710-784. And though just for a brief 74 years – compared to Kyoto’s 1,000 year rule – its great prosperity is reflected in each of its marvelous temples and shrines.

In 1998, eight locations were immortalized as cultural heritage sites: Gangoji Temple, Kofukuji Temple, Todaiji Temple, Toshodaiji Temple, Yakushiji Temple, Kasugaya Taisha Shrine, Kasuga-yama Forest, and Heijo-kyo Palace ruins.

This cluster of Buddhist and Shinto temples reflects Nara’s role in the first efforts in Japan to reconcile Shinto and Buddhism.

Here is a highlight of some of Nara’s world heritage treasures:

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Todaiji Temple

If you think the world-famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue here is massive – which it is, at 15 m tall with a middle finger of 1.3 m length – you’ll be equally impressed by the Daibutsuden main temple which enshrines it: the largest wooden building in the world! Here in 752, an Indian priest consecrated the colossal copper and bronze statue of the Vairocana Buddha, painting in its eyes with a large brush. While gazing upon this mysterious monument, just imagine that the current building, reconstructed in 1692, is only two-thirds the size of the original!

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Todaiji Temple Access: A 20-min walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.

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Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Kasuga-yama Forest

Walk down the path lined with 2,000 stone lanterns leading to this vermillion-lacquered shrine, and you’ll be following the footsteps of the emperor himself who used to worship here. Built in 768 by Lord Fujiwara and dedicated to the gods of the Fujiwara clan, this shrine and its surrounding primeval forest are both registered as World Heritage. Kasuga-yama Forest, the only spot of nature included in this UNESCO site, has been nearly untouched as hunting and tree-felling have been prohibited since 841.

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Kasuga Taisha Shrine Access: A 10-15 min. bus ride from JR Nara Station (Yamatoji Line) or Kintetsu Nara Station (Nara Line). Get off at the Kasuga Taisha Honden bus stop.

Suzakumon Gate, the main entrance to the palace grounds, on the southern end of Suzaku Avenue.

Heijo-kyo Palace (Remains of the Ancient Capital)

While none of the original buildings remain, recent reconstructions, such as the Former Audience Hall (2010), and numerous excavations make it easy to picture the capital city’s grand layout, modeled after Chang’an, China’s most prosperous city at the time. Don’t miss the Suzakumon Gate and East Palace Garden (Toin Teien) either, both rebuilt to full-scale size.

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Heijo-kyo Access: An 8-min bus ride (Nara Kotsu Bus) from Yamato-Saidaiji Station (Kintetsu Nara Line). Get off at the Heijokyo-ato bus stop.

Japan`s World Heritage Sites: Monuments of Ancient Kyoto

Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto: A treasury of temples and shrines

With so many gems gathered here, the sightseer’s dilemma is knowing where to start! So for the time-strapped tourist, here are the top three “must see” spots.

1. Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Much like its elevated position above the city, Kiyomizu-dera Temple stands at the top as Kyoto’s most popular temple. Named after the “pure water” (kiyomizu) from nearby Otowa-no-taki falls, this 1,200-year-old temple draws massive crowds for its wonderful panoramic view from the Kiyomizu Platform.

Kiyamizu-dera Temple in Autumn Season Light-up Event
Kiyamizu-dera Temple in Autumn Season Light-up Event

Getting to this wooden platform suspended 12 m high over the cliff is well worth the climb, especially when these hills are set aflame with autumn colors. Besides, as the most visited temple, you might even spot some geisha on the way up!

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Kiyamizu-dera Autumn Season – 1
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Kiyamizu-dera Autumn Season – 2
Kiyamizu-dera Spring Season
Kiyamizu-dera Spring Season

Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Access: From Kyoto Station take the City Bus (Route 206) and get off at the Gojozaka bus stop. A 10-min walk.

2. Kinkakuji Temple

Known formally as Rokuonji Temple, behold the gold standard for temple artistry. Reflected like a mirror on Kyoko-chi pond, each of its three tiers embodies a different form of temple architecture: shin-den, buke, and Zen-sect.

Kinkakuji (Golden) Temple
Kinkakuji (Golden) Temple

With its gold leaf embossing, this glittering masterpiece can be intoxicating. So much so, a monk who found it to be too beautiful to bear, burned it down in 1950, as told in Yukio Mishima’s famous book, “Kinkakuji”. Fortunately, the temple has been restored to its original glory and can be enjoyed in the lush surrounding of its stunning chisen-kaiyu style garden in all seasons.

Kinkakuji Temple in Early Autumn Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Early Autumn Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Winter Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Winter Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Autumn Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Autumn Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Spring Season
Kinkakuji Temple in Spring Season

Kinkakuji Temple
Access: From Kyoto Station take the City Bus (Route 101) and get off at the Kinkakuji-michi bus stop. A 3-min walk.

3. Ryoanji Temple

As even Queen Elizabeth affirmed with her applauses on a trip here, this temple’s garden rocks.

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Though at first glance the simple 10 by 30 m rectangular-shaped gravel garden may not catch your eye, the 15 stones floating amidst this white sand sea is the essence of Zen. Yet the design is also quite puzzle-like, as one stone is always hidden, no matter your viewpoint. The 7-5-3 arrangement of stones have even earned it the name, “Tiger Cubs Crossing Garden”, as though small cubs are following their mother through the water.

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Head to the north part of this garden of the Hojo Residence, and you’ll find this washbasin, engraved with the Zen teaching that can be translated, “to be at peace with oneself, and abandon craving.”

Such words couldn’t be better advice for the frustrated Kyoto temple traveler – when unable to see all 18 UNESCO gems, let these three be enough to give you peace.

Ryoanji Temple
Access: From Kyoto Station take the city bus (Route 50) and get off at the Ritsumeikan daigaku-mae bus stop. A 7-min walk.

The Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Temple

The Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Temple, which can also be found on the back of every 10 yen coin!
The Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Temple, which can also be found on the back of every 10 yen coin!

Nishi-Honganji Temple

The ornately decorated Tang Gate of Nishi-Honganji Temple
The ornately decorated Tang Gate of Nishi-Honganji Temple

Japan`s World Heritage Site: Buddhist Monuments in Horyuji


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Horyuji Temple: The World’s Oldest Wooden Building

While Kyoto may be home to many of Japan’s most famous and photographed temples, it was nearby Nara Prefecture’s Horyuji Temple that captured UNESCO’s attention to become Japan’s first World Heritage Site in 1993.

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Situated unassumingly amidst the peaceful pine trees and hills of Ikaruga for the past over 1,400 years, Horyuji Temple is the world’s oldest wooden structure and a repository of ancient treasures, dating back to 607 when Nara was the capital of Japan. It was founded by Prince Shotoku, who is said to be one of the first to promote Buddhism in Japan.

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The Hall of Visions (Yumedono), built in 739.

The temple’s vast 187,000 square meter grounds (or around 35 American football fields) comprise a western precinct and eastern pricint with a Gallery of Temple Treasures between them. The 5-story Pagoda and Main Hall (Kondo) in the western precinct, and the octoganal Hall of Visions (Yumedono) – a five-minute’s walk away – in the eastern precinct are its most majestic buildings.

Yumedono is dedicated to Prince Shotoku and houses a life-sized statue of the prince surrounded by statues of Buddha and various monks.

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The Gallery of Temple Treasures was built in 1998 to exhibit a part of the temple’s huge art collection. Various statues of Buddha as well as Buddhist relics, artwork and paintings from the Heian era are on display inside. The entrance to the treasure hall is located towards the back of the complex near the Eastern Precinct.

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In particular, the Five-Story Pagoda (Goju-no-tou) is a work of construction genius. While its beauty is evident in its progressively steepening roofs and expansive bas reliefs, its central column (shinbashira) and intricate bracketing system have helped this 31.5 m tower to withstand the weight of over 1,400 years of history.

The Shaka sanzon-zo, (“Three Buddhist Images”) housed in the Main Hall.

From the 7th century on, illustrious buildings from every era have been established here, filled with National Treasures like the “Shaka sanzon-zo”. This makes a walk through these grounds like a tour through the centuries, with the perfect blending of cultures revealed through every time-worn earthen figure.

So when looking for a starting place to visit Japan’s wondrous temples, begin where UNESCO did, here in Japan’s cradle of Buddhism.

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Access: A 20-min walk from JR Horyuji Station.