MT. KOYA, YOSHINO AND THE KUMANO TRAIL

KII PENINSULA


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Kii Peninsula with
the Kumano Trail
Kii Peninsula embraces Wakayama, Mie, and much of Nara prefectures. It is the home of Mt. Koya, Yoshino, the Kuramo pilgrimage trail, Ise shrine and the hot springs of central Wakayama.

Mt.Koya

Mt. Koya (two hours from Osaka by train) is an important religious center located on a 3,000-foot-high tableland. Surrounded by thick forests and peaks, it contains more than 2,000 temples, shrines, towers, stupas and assembly buildings, 117 major temples, and 53 monasteries which offer lodging and vegetarian meals at a reasonable price to visitors.

Mt. Koya is regarded as one of three holiest mountains in Japan along with Mt. Osorezan. It is also home to some of Japan’s greatest works of Buddhist art. No other place in Japan has such a large number of well-preserved religious buildings clustered in such a small area. Although development, vehicles and tourism has infiltrated the community it still manages to retain an atmosphere of tranquility and piety.

Koyasan was given a three star rating in Michelin’s Green Greed Guide to Japan in 2009. After that the number European visitors jumped from around 5,000 a years to 25,000, with roughly half of them from France, with some coming to Japan mainly to see it, . The guidebook recommended Koysan because of mysteriousness and isolation from daily life, praising the “harmonious area’s people , religion and atmosphere.”

Mt. Koya is divided into two parts: Garan (Sacred Precinct) in the west and Okuno-in Temple and its massive cemetery in the east. Essentially one main road runs through the town with the temples and monasteries located off of it. The Koya-san Tourist Association office offers maps and information. At the end of the funicular that brings visitors to Mt. Koya there is an office where visitors can book temple lodging. About half of Koyasan’s 117 temples offer shukubo lodging.

null Of the 1.2 million visitors to the mountain about 40,000 are foreign, mostly Western, visitors. Henjoson lodging temple is particularly popular with Westerners because the staff speaks English and Buddhist lectures are delivered in English. The temple routine involves a vegetarian dinner at night and an early wake up call the next morning for a lecture, Buddhist ceremony, chanting sessions and light vegetarian meal.

Websites:Mt. Koya official site shukubo.jp ; Koyasan Shingon Buddhism koyasan.or.jp ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; JNTO PDF file JNTO ; Wikitarvel Wikitravel Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO ; Mt. Koya official site shukubo.jp UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Temple Loding Websites: Mt. Koya official site shukubo.jp ; Japanican Online Booking japanican.com Hotel Web Sites: JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Mt. Koya is accessible by by train and cable cat from Osaka, Wakayama, Kyoto, Nara and and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

History of Mt. Koya: The original Mt. Koya monastery was founded in 816 by Kobo-Daishi, the great sage and exponent of the Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism. Kobo-Daishi traveled in China until 805 and reportedly spent 30 years in meditation at the present site of Okunoin. Many of the Japanese pilgrims that visit Mt. Koya each year believe Kobo-Daishi, also known as Kukai, is just resting in his tomb here and waiting to be reborn.

Koyasan is located in an alpine basin that is 800 meter high and measures six kilometers from east to west and three kilometers north to south. One Koysan-based monk told the Daily Yomiuri, “Kobo Daishi selected Koyasan as the [ultimate] ashram for his mediation because it was a place where he could feel the connection between the sky and the earth...The basin is surrounded by two circles of mountains, and the inner and outer circles have eight peaks each. The area resembles a lotus flower---an important Buddhist symbol.

At the height of its power in the 15th century, Mt. Koya contained 1,500 monasteries and thousands of monks. In the 16th century, shoguns, who felt threatened by the monks, ordered the slaughter of large numbers of monks. In the 17th century, the economic power of the monasteries was broken. Many temples were destroyed and religious leaders were banished. In the Edo period much of the land belonging to the monasteries was confiscated.

Women were prohibited from entering Mt. Koya until 1872. But not long after that monks were allowed to wed. In 2004, Koya was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Temples and Sights at Mt. Koya

Okunoin Temple (Mt. Koya) is where the body of Kobo Daishi is enshrined. Around the temple are thousands of tombs filled with ashes of the dead (or their hair) ready to be brought back to life when Kobo Daishi is reborn.

The Lantern Hall is the main hall. It contains thousands of burning lamps, including two lamps that are said to have been burning for 900 years. Behind the hall is the closed mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, where it said the sage achieved enlightenment. Nearby at the Mimyo-no-hashi bridge you can see people ladling water over the Jizo statues as an offering to the dead.


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Cemetery Around Okunoin Temple is one of Mt. Koya's greatest attractions. It embraces beautiful shrines and temples and 300,000 tombs are found. Some of the tombs are quite grand and impressive-looking. belonging to important samurai, noblemen, shogun, poets and religious leaders. Some date back to the 12th and 13th century. The historical figures Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) are buried here.

A two kilometer path winds through the cemetery which is shaded by massive, old cedars and umbrella pines and lit at night by stone lanterns. Near the large parking lot there is a space-ship-shipped tomb dedicated to the employees of a an aerospace company. According to Lonely Plant. there is also a monument dedicated to a white ant produced by a pesticide company to assuage its guilt for killing millions of insects.

Reiho-kan (Treasure) Museum houses old implements, paintings, scrolls, mandalas and statues. Particularly noteworthy are the scroll Reclining Image of Sakyamuni Buddha on His Last day and The Eight Guardian Deities and the wonderfully expressive wooden sculptures by Unkei and Kaikei, both of whom worked in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Kongobuji Temple is the head temple for the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It contains one room with lovely screen paintings of willows and another room where Toyotomi Hideoyishi committed seppeku (ritual suicide). The temple owns the oldest colored mandala in Japan: an 850-year-old mandala known as the Chi Mandala, which is comprised of two works. The Realm of Kongokai and The Realm of Taizokoai. Each is made of seven pieces of silk and measures 4.27 by 3.94 meters. The mandalas are very fragile and rarely shown. They were recently recreated using high computers, fluorescent X-ray imaging and ultraviolet beams and other high tech methods.

Other Sights at Mt. Koya include the colorful two-story Konpon Daito tower. Among the oldest building are the two-story Hato tower in the Kongo-sanmai-in Temple, dated to the 13th century, and Fudo-d- Shrine at Garan, built in 1198.

Yoshino

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Yoshino (one hour from Osaka by train) is the Kansai area's most famous cherry blossom viewing area and one of the region’s prime hiking areas. Believed to be a homeland for kami (spirit gods), it is also a center of ascetic religious practices associated with mountains. In the old days Mt. Yoshino was a retreat for ascetic Buddhists and has temples associated with Emperor Gadiago and Yoshitsune Minamoto.

There are some 20,000 cherry trees spread across five miles of ridges on northern end of the Omine Mountain Range. The blossom’s gradual change from the bottom to the top of the slopes of the mountainous is known as Shimo Senbon and Naka Senbon . It has been said people have been coming here since the Heian Period to view cherry Blossoms. In most years the prime cherry blossom-viewing season is in early April.

In 2004, the Yoshino Omine area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mountains in the Yoshino area have rugged peaks and spectacular cliffs. The scenery around Miyataki, where a 7th century imperial palace once stood, and Lake Tsuburoko is stunning.

The main tourist sights in Yoshino are Kinpusenji Temple and Yoshimizu Shrine. Kinpusenji Temple, which according to legend was built during the Asuka period as a training center for the Shugendo school by Enonogyoja, a legendary ascetic. Zaodo, the main hall at Kinpusenji Temple, is the largest wooden structure in Japan after the Daibutsuden at Todaiji Temple.

Yoshimizu Shrine was the temporary palace of the Emperor Godiago and a hideout for Yoshitsune, a tragic hero for the Genji family who hid himself from his brother Yoritomo.

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Websites:Nara Prefecture site pref.nara.jp ; Japan Guide japan-guide.com Getting There: Yoshino is accessible by train from Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Yoshino-Kumano National Park (southeast of Nara) embraces the two mountainous districts of Yoshino and Kumano, both of which are rich in gorges, picturesque mountains, seascapes, and ancient temples and shrines.

The main draws to this area include the forest region around Kawakami Village, Kitayama-kyo Gorge and Mt. Odaigaharayama, whose top is occupied by a moss- and bamboo-covered plateau. The plateau received 500 centimeters of rain a year. When the clouds clear there are wonderful views of Ushiishigahara, Masakigahara, and Daijagura.

The summit of Odaigahara and 1,695-meter-high Hidegadake, are good place to see autumn leaves. Most years the leaves begin changing around October 10 to 15. Warm weather in recent years has delayed the season by around 10 days. Websites: Japan National Parks env.go.jp ; Kansai Window kippo.or.jp ; Nara Prefecture site pref.nara.jp

Kumano Trail

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The Kumano Trail (southeast of Nara) is route that was used by pilgrims traveling from Kyoto and Ise to the famous shrines on the Kii Peninsula. The mountains and the forest of this region were traditionally the stomping ground of yamabushi, mountain ascetics who are members of Esoteric Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism.

The trails are known for its giant cryptomeria and fir forests, mossy earth, odds-shaped rocks, jagged peaks, and temples associated with nature spirits. There isn't much wildlife along the route. Occasionally hikers see monkeys. The destinations of Kumano Trail are three major shrines of Kumano Sect in the southern Kii peninsula: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. The Kumano sect emphasize nature worship and worships 12 primary god. At Kumano Nachi Taisha, an additional god associated with a nearby waterfall is worshiped. The Kumano area is believed to be the place where the Izanami, the creator of the Japanese islands, entered the World of Death and was reborn.

Pilgrimages to the Kumano shrines became very popular in the 10th century among the aristocracy, with members of Imperial family sometimes taking part. One emperor made the trek 33 times, each time accompanied by an entourage of 1,000 retainers. In the 14th and 15th centuries the routes became popular with ordinary people. At one time so many participated on the journey it was called the "pilgrimage of ants."

Many embarked on the a visit to the shrines in the belief that miraculous powers attributed to the Kumano sect would be passed on to them. The 370-kilometer route from Kyoto to Kumano Hongu Taisha was the most popular route. It took about a month to traverse. Reaching the other two shrines took longer.

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Most of the trails pass through remote wilderness area far from roads. Huts, where people can sleep using their own sleeping bags, are spaced at regular intervals. Periodically the trail passes through towns, villages and settlement, where food can purchased and guesthouses welcome hikers. Be prepared for wet weather. The mountains through which the trails pass receive a lot of rain.

The original route traveled from Kyoto to Osaka, where there 99 important small shrines were located, and then continued eastward to the Kumano region. In 2004, the Kumano Sanzen area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Typhoon No. 12 in September 2011 damaged some of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. Huge landslides occurred on the Kumano Kodo, and there was also damage to the Kumano Sanzan shrines. It may take several years to restore the areas to their original state. According to the Wakayama Prefecture Board of Education, nearly 100 meters of the Kumano Kodo collapsed about one kilometer east of Mikoshi Pass in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture.

The Kumano Trail is actually a spiderweb of trails and routes through Nara, Wakayama and Mie Prefectures. Three pilgrimage routes: 1) Omine Okugakemichi to Yoshino-Omine, which splits into three narrower paths, the Kohechi, Nakahechi and Ohechi trails; 2) Kumano Sankeimichi to Kumano Sanzan---a holy place with three shrines: Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine and Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine; and 3) Koyasan Choishimichi to Koyasan---and sacred sites found along them in the Kii Peninsula were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2004.

Among the other routes There is also 4) the Iseji Route routes between Ise and Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine; 5) the Hongodo route to Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine; 6) the Obechi route along the coastline to the Nachi Districti in Nachikatsuuracho via the Kii Peninsula; and 7) the Nakahechi route between Tanabe and Nachikatsiuracho. Websites: Japan Guide japan-guide.com ; Kumano Kodo tb-kumano.jp ; JNTO PDF file JNTO ; Hongu Kumano Kodo hongu.jp ; Kumano Kodo Ise Route kumadoco.ne ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website

Mt. Omine and the Kumano Trail Near Yoshino

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Some sections of the route are a little scary. The trail over 1,780-meter-high Daifugen-dake utilizes ladders and bridges to skirt cliffs and bypass rock outcroppings. The route along 1546-meter-high Gyoja-gaeri-dake has excellent views when the weather is clear. Women are prohibited from entering some places.

On top of 1850-meter Mt. Misen, the second highest mountain in the area, is a cluster of huts where hikers can sleep. Near the hut at the Misen River there is a good swimming hole. From here there are two trails to the pleasant town of Kawai. Don't take the ones that goes by the river. Another trail leads to the hot spring and shrine at Tenkawa. There is bus between Kawai and Shimoichi station. Website: Nara Prefecture site pref.nara.jp

Mt. Omine (Kumano Trail near Yoshino, accessible from the town of Dorokawa) is sacred peak where it is said the diamond and womb mandalas become one. At the top of the mountain is a temple used for Shugendo Buddhist sect. The temple consists of five large buildings and several smaller buildings. It has nine mountain huts, where visitors cans sleep.

Mt. Omine is 5,640 feet high. Pilgrims have been climbing the mountain since the 9th century under the belief that it brings them close to the world of spirits above, There is a cleft in the rocks used to simulate a passage through the womb. Nearby people are hung off cliffs head first. See Yamabushi Rituals; History, Religion... Zen and Other Buddhist Sects

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Women are not allowed on Mt. Omine. They banned from passing within three kilometers of the temple or joining the Omine branch of Shuegndo. Some say that reason for the prohibition dates back to old days when some cultures viewed women as unclean because they menstruated. Other say it is based on the belief that women and sex would be a distraction to men aspiring to be ascetics.

The no-women rule has been in place for 1,300 years and has persisted despite an 1872 ruling that banned such prohibitions. Mt. Fuji used to have similar ban on women but it and other places that banned women honored the 1872 ruling. The priests on Mt. Omine have been able to ignore the ruling with the support of local officials.

There is small marker that reads “Off Limits to Women” at a gate that marks the entrance to the mountain. During the main hiking season white-robed yamabushi patrol the trails to make sure no women approach the temple. One priest told the Los Angeles Times that Muslims, Jews, homosexuals and even female dogs are allowed on the mountain but not women. Websites: Nara Prefecture site pref.nara.jp ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Buddhist Channel buddhistchannel.tv ; JNTO article JNTO

Kumano Trail in Wakayama

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Kumano Trail in Wakayama begins in Nakaheji which can be reached by bus from the train station in the Wakayama coastal town of Tanabe. The route connects three Shinto shrines: Kumano Hongi Taisha in Hongocho, Kumano Hayatama Taisha in Shingu and Kumano Nachi Taisha in Nachikatsuuracho and two associated Buddhist temples’seigantoji and Fudarakusanji. A Canadian employee for the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau has helped make inns, restaurant hotels, towns and villages in the area accommodating to foreign tourists.

From Nakaheji it is about a three day walk to Kumano Hongu Taisha in the town of Hongu. The trail passes through some forests with tall cedar trees and other forests with groves harvested by timber companies. From Hongu the trail heads east to Kumano Naichi Taisha near the Pacific Ocean.

The route between Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine in Tanabe and Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine in Shingu can be traversed in a 90-minute ride in a motorized wooden boat on a route through an area with cliffs and steep forested slopes. The area is often shrouded in mist. Website: Wakayama Prefecture site pref.wakayama.lg.jp

Hongu (four hours from Nara by bus) is the home of Kumano Hongu Taisha, which is reached by climbing a series of stone steps. The shrine was once located on island but after being swept away in a flood it was placed in it present located on the hill. The shrine’s torii gate, built in 2000, is the largest torii gate in Japan. It is situated in the place where the original shrine stood. The towns is nothing special. White water trips are done here on the Kumano River outside of the town. Website: Hongu Kumano Kodo hongu.jp

Yunomine Onsen (near Hongu) is a charming village with a number of hot springs along the river. Visitors can bath in hot-spring-fed baths inside the hotels, ryokan and minshinku that line the river or bath for free in hot springs set beside the river. One hot spring offers eggs cooked in hot spring water. The water in the river is shallow cool and clear and offers some swimming and cooling off opportunities.

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Hongo Temple
Nearby Kawayu features hot springs that drain into the river. Baths are free and situated in the river. Bathers can go back and forth between the hot and cold water. In the winter an onsen is created in the river that can accommodate 1,000 people. Watarase is another onsen in the area. It is geared for bus tours. Website: Kumano Kodo site tb-kumano.jp

Doro-kyo Gorge (near Yumomine Onsen) is the site of a popular dramatic two-hour boat trip. The trip is done on glass roofed boats and cost about ¥3,300. Many people consider Doro-kyo Gorge to be one of the most beautiful gorges in Japan. Whitewater trips are done from Kamikitayama-mura to Dor-hatch via the Doro-kyo Gorge on unusual rafts on which riders stand up single file. Website: Totsukawa site totsukawa-h.ed.jp

Totsukawa Onsen (about 20 miles north of Hongu) is another hot spring resort area. The are many baths. Many people say the best is Kamiya, a rustic natural bath near a mountain stream. Many of the guesthouses and hotels use hot spring water for their baths.

For the a thrill you can pull yourself across a river in basket suspended from the cables of Totsukawa ya-en bridge about a mile outside the village of Totsukawa. About 16 miles north of Totsukawa Onsen is the Tanise no Tsurubashi bridge. The foot bridge is 297 meters long and is 54 meters above the Totsukawa River. Many long distance buses traveling through the area stop here for a break and give passengers enough time to cross the bridge, which is free, and come back. Website: Totsukawa site totsukawa-h.ed.jp

Kumano Nachi Taisha Ara

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Shingu (on the Pacific Ocean in eastern Wakayama) is the home of Kumano Hayatama Taisha. The bright red and white buildings here houses more treasures than the other major Kumano shrines. Shingu can be reached by train and is a major transportation hub for eastern Kii Peninsula.

Kumano Nachi Taisha (near Shingu) is the most visited and picturesque of the three Kumano shrines. It is located next to 133-meter-high Nacho waterfall, the highest waterfall in Japan. Displayed around the main shrine are offerings--- such as paintings, golden swords, tortoise shell combs, statues and bronze mirrors---brought to the shrine during the last 600 years.

The main temple is kind of cheesy and crowded with tourists. Some of the building have spectacular views of the waterfall. Hiking trails lead to other waterfalls in the area. In mid July there is a fire festival here in which participants carry flaming, 50-kilogram torches up a steep series of stone steps from the base of the waterfall to one of the shrine buildings. In late October priests perform a ritual in which they walk across the water just above the falls.

For a small donation you can get one of the shrine's vestal virgins to perform a sacred dance called the kagura. The virgin, dressed in a red kimono decorated with golden herons and carrying a baton with bells, performs the slow hypnotic dance to the music of flutes and drums. Website: Japan Guide japan-guide.com ; Photos taleofgenji.org

Wakayama Beaches, Diving Spots and Whaling Towns

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Taiji (near Shingu) is a former whaling town with a Whale Museum, Whale Museum, Whalers Museum, Marine Aquarium and Tropical Botanical Garden. Website: Wikipedia Wikipedia

Sabiura (near the southern point of Wakayama Prefecture) is the home of the northernmost colony of table coral. It is nourished by warm waters carried north from the Kurshiro Current.

Kushimoto Marine Park contains 120 species of coral and a great variety of fish normally associated with more southern seas. These can be observed with scuba diving gear in the marine park or through a window of an observation area 6.3 meters below the surface and a 140 meters out at sea.

In seas off Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, scuba divers flock to see fluorescent seas anemone in water 40 meter below the surface that at their most intense when waters are fairly clear in the winter time. The sea anemones belong to a new species discovered in 2004.

Shirahama (2¼ hours by train from Osaka) is a developed hot spring, beach resort on the west coast of Wakayama and the Kii Peninsula. The white sand beach, with sand brought in from Australia, draws huge crowds in the summer. The other main attraction is Sakino-yu hot springs, with bath built in some rocks on a point, offering great views of the sea.

Adventure World is a safari park with lions, tigers, and other animals, an amusement park with rollercoasters and a Ferris wheel, golf courses, cabarets and an oceanside park with views of crashing surf and rocks. Tsubaki Monkey Park is home to about 250 monkeys who live in forests near seaside cliffs. Nearby there is a one miles hiking trail with 33 thousand-year-old Buddha statues.

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Websites:JNTO PDF file JNTO ; Wikitravel Wikitravel Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Web Sites: JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Shirahama is accessible by train from Wakayama, Osaka , Kobe, Kyoto and Nara. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Image Sources: 1) 8) Kumano Kodo site 2) 5) JNTO 3) 4) Wikipedia 6) 7) 9) 15) Wakayama Prefecture site 8) Kumano Kodo 10) 11) 12) Hongu Kumnao site 14) Wikitravel

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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