August 27, 2021

The Kumano Sanzan

The sacred and antediluvian Kumano Sanzan trio is comprised of Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

Seiganto-ji and Nachi Falls at Kumano Nachi Taisha in Wakayama Prefecture

Ever since I started producing travel content in 2016 (and indeed even before that), I have wanted to check out Wakayama Prefecture’s three ancient Kumano shrines. Allegedly dating back to before the founding of the Yamato polity and the imperial line, this trifecta is collectively known as the Kumano Sanzan in Japanese. While they are some of the most impressive spots that I’ve had the pleasure of exploring in Japan, the Kumano Sanzan are not easy to reach despite being listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Luckily for you, the reader, this guide will provide you with all you need to know to visit this wonderful part of Wakayama.

Before we get into the Kumano Sanzan though, let me first take a moment to discuss the ever-important Kumano Kodo. Literally meaning “the Old Way of Kumano” if directly translated into English, this extensive network of pilgrimage routes developed as a way for people to move between the many consecrated areas of Wakayama’s Kii Peninsula. Extremely mountainous at its core, this southernmost part of the prefecture juts far out into the Pacific Ocean. Because of the Kii Peninsula’s hilly geography, most of the key locales of interest require some sort of passageway to access. Over time, this ultimately resulted in the Kumano Kodo.

All in all, there are five distinct branches of the Kumano Kodo. These interlink the Kii Peninsula’s various sacred sites with one another. The routes are as follows…

  • Nakahechi
    Originating near the beachside resort of Shirahama and cutting through the mountainous interior, the Nakahechi links the eastern and western sides of the Kii Peninsula. Even today, many sections of the Nakahechi are well preserved and relatively trivial to walk. Along the way, you’ll pass through hilly but forested landscapes as well as the occasional village.
  • Ohechi
    Unlike the Nakahechi which goes through the center, this route follows the Kii Peninsula’s coast. It links Shirahama with Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of the shrines that comprise the Kumano Sanzan.
  • Iseji
    Originating at Kumano Hayatama Taisha, the easternmost Kumano Sanzan shrine, this important pass connected the tip of the Kii Peninsula with the venerable Ise Jingu over in neighboring Mie Prefecture.
  • Kohechi
    Considered to be one of the hardest of the five routes to trek, the Kohechi links the central areas of the Kii Peninsula with the Buddhist bastion on Mt. Koya. The Kohechi is long and challenging and therefore should only be attempted after making careful preparations.
  • Omine Okugake
    This part of the Kumano Kodo is the one that appeals to me most. In typical Donny fashion, it is both long and dangerous. Connecting the Kii Peninsula with Mt. Omine in Nara Prefecture, this trail was extensively used by Yamabushi mountain ascetics who practice the religion of Shugendo.

While the Kumano Sanzan collective has existed for longer than we have written records, it was during the latter years of Japan’s Heian period (794–1185) that the area started to become popular with pilgrims. Over time, the Kumano Kodo evolved to be more than just a network of highways that connected the Kii Peninsula’s shrines and temples. Instead, the trails became religious experiences unto themselves and were allegedly designed to test the resolve of those who walked them. Today, the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route shares a sibling relationship with Spain’s Camino de Santiago.

If you’re interested in walking sections of the Kumano Kodo, I highly suggest that you give it a go. Alas, doing so requires a lot of planning and prep work so it’s not for the faint of heart. Thankfully, companies like Oku Japan have done a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to the logistics. Given that these helpful resources already exist (and the fact that I’ve yet to do much of the Kumano Kodo on foot myself), I am going to opt to focus only on the Kumano Sanzan. Though best explored as part of a pilgrimage, the trio of shrines can also be reached via public as I’ll soon explain.

By the way, if you need any more reason to visit this neck of the woods, know that the region around the Kumano Kodo has long been referred to as “the land of the Dead.” The reason for this is that the early adherents of Shinto believed that spirits and family ancestors came here to dwell on the Kii Peninsula after they passed on from the world of the living. Keep this fact in mind as you visit the Kumano Sanzan as it only adds to the area’s sanctity!

Getting to the Kumano Sanzan

A Kuroshio Limited Express train bound for Kii-Katsuura Station where the Kumano Sanzan are located

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise but getting to the Kumano Sanzan isn’t exactly easy. While their inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites did indeed do a lot to improve the infrastructure (especially in regards to English language signage), this bucolic part of Japan is about as remote as they come. While there are many possible routes that one could take, all means of reaching the southern portions of the Kii Peninsula share one common facet: bad logistics. Because of this, I only suggest the Kumano Sanzan for hardcore fans of Japan who don’t mind making the addition effort.

By far, the easiest way of reaching this part of Wakayama Prefecture is to take a quick flight to Nanki-Shirahama Airport from a major city like Tokyo or Osaka. From there, the rest of the journey will depend on which of the three Kumano Sanzan you’re planning on visiting (but will likely involve taking a combination of trains and buses). Alternatively, if you rather milk your JR Rail Pass for all it’s worth, know that this section of Wakayama can also be visited via trains as well. Just be sure to refer to Hyperdia or a similar service as the most expedient route to the Kii Peninsula largely depends on which side of the prefecture you’re approaching from.

During my most recent visit to Kumano Nachi Taisha, I began the long journey already in Osaka after an extremely botched attempt to make it up to Amanohashidate in Kyoto. My plans embarrassingly befuddled by the torrential rains, I instead opted to head down to the Kii Peninsula via the Kuroshio Limited Express. This train leaves from Shin-Osaka and will take you all the way down to the Kumano Kodo area.. While indeed quite convenient, the only drawback to this option is that it’s also painfully slow. In total, I think I was on the Kuroshio Limited Express for nearly four hours when I visited Kumano Nachi Taisha.

Kumano Hongu Taisha

The massive torii gate at Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the three Kumano Sanzan shrines in Wakayama Prefecture

To begin with, know that Wakayama Prefecture’s Kumano Hongu Taisha is one of the three Kumano Sanzan shrines and is considered to be the “head shrine” of the trio. In addition to enshrining the deities honored at the other two Kumano sepulchers, Kumano Hongu Taisha also pays homage to the all-important sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. Moreover, Kumano Hongu Taisha is also considered to be the head shrine of all of the other Kumano sub-shrines across Japan. In short, it’s about as influential as they come!

Now, the earliest records of Kumano Hongu Taisha date only from the 9th century but this shrine’s presence in the area is said to predate this by many eons. Located at the center of the Kumano Kodo network of pilgrimage routes, Kumano Hongu Taisha has long been an important religious center in the area. At least insomuch as Japan’s mythohistory is concerned, the shrine’s legacy actually dates all the way back to the time when Japan’s first emperor came to the region en route to present-day Nara. Following the official imperial family chronology, this would make Kumano Hongu Taisha well over 2,000 years old!

Unfortunately, a lot of Kumano Hongu Taisha’s original architecture was lost to massive flooding in the late 1800s. Following this disaster, the shrine’s precincts were moved around a kilometer away from their previous locale. Known as Oyu-no-Hara, this sacred site sits at the confluence of three rivers. While much of the original Kumano Hongu Taisha was destroyed by the floods, the 33 meter-tall torii archway still remains. This structure is the biggest torii ever made and is so massive that it dwarfs anyone who dares to walk near it.

If you’re interested in visiting the head establishment of the Kumano Sanzan shrines, know that you’ll likely need to take a bus unless you have your own set of wheels. If you’re coming from the seaside hot spring town of Shirahama, you’ll be able to reach the shrine via a bus that departs every two hours or so from Shirahama Station. Alternatively, if you find yourself on the eastern side of the Kii Peninsula, know that there are hourly departures to Kumano Hongu Taisha from Shingu Station. In either case, you’re looking at well over an hour of travel time on the bus.

Kumano Nachi Taisha

The main hall of Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of the three Kumano Sanzan shrines in Wakayama Prefecture

Of the three Kumano Sanzan shrines, Kumano Nachi Taisha is by far the most photogenic. Located right near the picturesque Nachi Falls, this sprawling complex is often depicted on many of Japan’s inbound tourism posters and pamphlets. Despite the fact that the iconic shot that opened this article has been used time and time again though, few travelers actually ever make it down to Kumano Nachi Taisha. The reason for this is simple: it’s a loooong ride down to Kii-Katsuura Station! Moreover, since the shrine is also a few kilometers in from the coast, you’ll also have to hop on a bus for another forty minutes or so after the lengthy train ride to Kii-Katsuura Station.

Those who do actually manage to make the insane journey down to this portion of the Kii Peninsula have the adventure of a lifetime waiting for them. While you can ride the bus all the way to Kumano Nachi Taisha, I instead suggest that you get off at Daimon-zaka. This 600 meter-long stretch is paved with stone and lined on either side by towering evergreens. Officially part of the Kumano Kodo, you can get a taste of what it would have been like to be a pilgrim during the days of yore by approaching Kumano Nachi Taisha via the Daimon-zaka. Just be sure to snag yourself a walking stick from the bus stop as the footing is quite slippery, especially if it recently rained.

Unfortunately, Kumano Nachi Taisha’s main infrastructure is located quite a bit higher into the mountains than where the Daimon-zaka ends. To reach this elevated bluff, you’ll need to haul your behind up a grueling set of stairs. Thankfully though, the spectacle that awaits you at the top is more than worth the effort. While exploring, be sure to pay attention to the details. All throughout the Kumano Nachi Taisha compound, you’ll encounter example after example of the former fusion between Buddhism and Shinto. Known as Shinbutsu Shugo in Japanese, this syncretic legacy is quite apparent all over the Kii Peninsula.

Directly adjacent to Kumano Nachi Taisha’s main hall is a Buddhist complex called Seiganto-ji. For much of its existence, this temple and Kumano Nachi Taisha functioned as one cohesive religious institution. Sadly, an imperial decree from Emperor Meiji in the late 19th century officially forced the two entities to divorce from one another. While the pair of establishments may no longer share a syncretic union, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Seiganto-ji’s influence on one another is apparent even to the untrained eye. In fact, it’s quite difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Those who continue on past Seiganto-ji will soon be greeted with the majestic sight of the temple’s Instagramable pagoda. This spectacular scene is set against the backdrop of the mighty Nachi Falls. Said to be Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi Falls gushes out a tremendous amount of liquid every minute. Standing at a towering 133 meters-tall, Nachi Falls was originally the principle object of worship here at Kumano Nachi Taisha during the early mists of time. Over the centuries, the rest of the complex grew up around the waterfall and eventually culminated in what you see today.

As impressive as the view of Seiganto-ji’s pagoda and Nachi Falls is, I am of the mind that the mighty waterfall is best appreciated from close up. Easily accessed via an ancient stone stairway, visitors to Kumano Nachi Taisha are highly encouraged to view the falls from as close as possible. Here at the base of Nachi Falls, you’ll find Hiro Shrine (which is a subsidiary of Kumano Nachi Taisha). Honestly, I’d wager that a shrine of some sort has been sitting here since the dawn of time itself. If you make it down to Hiro Shine, be sure to drop the 300 yen required to go all the way up to the observation deck so that you can feel the full force of the waterfall.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha

The main shrine halls of Kumano Hayatama Taisha, one of the three Kumano Sanzan shrines in Wakayama Prefecture

Alright folks… I am going to come clean and say that I have yet to actually visit the third Kumano Sanzan shrine as of this writing (Aug 2021). Hopefully, I’ll be able to make the trip sometime within the year and when I do, I’ll rectify any inaccuracies in the following paragraphs. Seeing as it is the most easily accessible of the three shrines, I don’t foresee any factual fallacies arising from referencing other sources. Still, if you, the reader, have visited Kumano Hayatama Taisha before and think that something is misrepresented, don’t hesitate to let me know.

Anyway, know that this last Kumano Sanzan shrine is conveniently located on the southeastern side of Wakayama’s Kii Peninsula in Shingu City. While the current iteration of the shrine’s infrastructure is quite modern, some sort of sanctuary has resided here on the riverbank since as far back as the 12th century. Like with the other two Kumano Sanzan locations though, historical evidence shows that the area around Kumano Hayatama Taisha has been a site of worship for far longer. Moreover, a spot in the nearby vicinity is even referenced in a Shinto creation myth. Basically, it’s a critically important site!

If you do end up visiting Kumano Hayatama Taisha, be sure not to miss out on the shrine’s treasure hall. Inside this tiny facility, you’ll find over a dozen artifacts that are considered to be national treasures by the Japanese government. Many of these are offerings brought by erudite pilgrims who were traveling on the Kumano Kodo. While rather modest, the collection housed within this museum is quite impressive. Frankly speaking, the treasure hall at Kumano Hayatama Taisha has more historical valuables than even most major museums so be sure to check it out!

Assuming that you’re already down on the Kii Peninsula, reaching Kumano Hayatama Taisha is far simpler than the aforementioned two Kumano Sanzan shrines. All you need to do is head on over to Shingu Station. From there, Kumano Hayatama Taisha can be reached on foot in just around 15 minutes or so. While I cannot yet comment on whether or not there’s a bus for those who don’t like hoofing it, I’ll be sure to look into it when I finally do complete the Kumano Sanzan!

Attractions Near the Kumano Sanzan

The seaside hot spring town of Shirahama on Wakayama Prefecture’s Kii Peninsula

Wakayama Prefecture has a ton of other allures to check out. Most noticeably of these is of course the aforementioned Mt. Koya. Found in the northern portions of the Kii Peninsula, this Shingon Buddhist sanctum will redefine what the word spiritual means to you. If you plan on visiting, I highly recommend you overnight on the mountain. To learn more about this special attraction, be sure to check out my standalone guide to Mt. Koya for more information. Though a bit of a mainstream destination, Mt. Koya (and specifically the Oku-no-In cemetery) rank among my favorites.

If you’re looking for something a little closer to the Kumano Sanzan, consider also hitting up one of the many onsen towns in this neck of the woods. Personally, I’d suggest you stay at Katsuura if you’d prefer to be close to Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha or at Shirahama (pictured above) if you’d rather somewhere a little bit more built up. In either case, you really can’t go wrong with these options. Just don’t make the mistake of not confirming your ryokan reservation via email like I did!

Until next time travelers…