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.

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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.

 

 

Picturesque Japan: Engetsu Island

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Japan’s most magical sunset display at Nanki Shirahama

Engetsu Island is a small rock island just off Nanki Shirahama’s coast in Wakayama Prefecture, and it’s almost as if it was created for postcard-perfect photos.

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Nanki Shirahama is a seaside resort with hot springs that look out at white sandy beaches and probably the clearest sea of Japan’s main island. These hot springs are said to be one of Japan’s three oldest hot springs together with Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture and Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture.

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The rock island’s formal name is Takashima, but it is widely known as Engetsuto, which can be literally translated as “round moon island”. This is due to the round-shaped hole in the middle of the island.

To me, Doughnut Island also comes to mind as a valid name, but thankfully it was Japanese politician Masaomi Tsuda’s poem penned in 1887 – in which the island was coined as Engetsu Island – from which the island got its current name, as this is the kind of romantic name it deserves.

With rays of sunlight piercing through the hole, Engetsu Island makes for an incredible sunset display, but here is an impressive collage to convince you that the island looks stunning at any time of the day. Sunset is around 6:30pm in the summer and 4:30pm in the winter.

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Please note that even when the tide is low, walking to the island – which can just about fit into a football pitch – is forbidden because the island is not very stable and sea urchins are lying on the sea-bottom. You might see fishermen at the shore as octopus, squid, crab, sweepers and other fish can be caught.

Since the island’s sandstone rocks have become less stable throughout the years, the island was artificially repaired in 2011 to make it earthquake proof, so hopefully we will be able to enjoy this breathtaking sight for many years to come!

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Tottori Sand Dunes

Spot information:

Name: Nanki Shirahama

Location: Shirahama-cho, Nishimuro-gun, Wakayama
Access: From Tokyo take the Shinkansen and get off at Shirahama Station (around 6 hours from Tokyo, or 2 hours from Shin-Osaka), or take a 1hr 15min plane ride from Haneda Airport to Nanki Shirahama Airport.