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Kumano Sanzan: Visit the Land of Gods on a Journey to Wakayama Prefecture

Kumano Sanzan: Visit the Land of Gods on a Journey to Wakayama Prefecture

Date published: 24 November 2019
Last updated: 21 December 2020

Kumano Sanzan refers to the three grand shrines located on Mt. Sanzan in Wakayama Prefecture: Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine, and Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine. They are the head shrines of the Kumano Shrines of which there are about 4,700 throughout the country.

Today, as in the past, people have been drawn to this sacred land of the gods.

Table of Contents
  1. The majestic appearance of the Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine
  2. The pristine appearance of Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine
  3. Dress in Heian garb and recall the history of the Kumano Kodo
  4. The awe-inspiring appearance of Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine
  5. Powerful Nachi Falls

Since ancient times Kumano has been a place of nature worship. It is a sacred place where the gods of trees, rocks, rivers, and waterfalls have resided deep in the mountains and where they have been worshiped.

From the Nara to the Heian periods the concept of god increasingly became influenced by Buddhism, so that by the end of the Heian period, members of the imperial family and imperial court began to make pilgrimages to Kumano Sanzan which was considered to be the entrance to the Pure Land. Traveling to the Pure Land and returning from the Pure Land symbolized death and rebirth, and as such Kumano Sanzan was revered as a “land of rebirth.”

As the faith in Kumano spread among the imperial and aristocratic families, it then also began to gain a broad following among warriors and common people, all of whom endeavored to make the long journey through the precipitous mountains on pilgrimages to Kumano Sanzan to pray to the gods for happiness in the next life.

The majestic appearance of the Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine

The majestic appearance of the Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine
▲There are 158 stone steps leading up to the Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine

After you arrive at the Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine in Tanabe City, Wakayama Prefecture, pass under the Torii gate and head towards the stone stairs going up to the main shrine.

The center of the path is for use by the gods, so etiquette dictates that you ascend from the right side of the stairs and descend from the left side. Rows of straight-growing trees line the path towards heaven. Dedication banners line both sides of the stairway leading to the shrine.

▲ Goshaden (main building of the shrine)

The gods are enshrined in the Goshaden. The beautiful Kumano-style architecture exudes a solemn atmosphere.

The buildings and the gods worshiped in them are from the front, as shown in the photo, Third Hall: Fusumi no Okami, Second Hall: Hayatama no Okami, First Hall: the main deity Ketsumimiko no Okami, and Fourth Hall: Amaterasu Omikami.
Worship is begun in the order of first visiting the main deity Ketsumimiko no Okami.
Clap your hands and put them together in prayer as have tens of millions of worshipers throughout the centuries before you.

▲ Manzansha enshrines the god of musubi [interconnecting energy of the universe]

After worshiping at the Goshaden, don’t forget to pray at Manzansha located at its side. This small shrine in its verdant setting is where worshipers pray for bonds between people, such as those between parent and child, and also where the Saisei no Tamaishi [sacred stone of regeneration] is enshrined.

▲The black Yatagarasu [a mythical raven who aided Emperor Jimmu on his eastern expedition] post box and postcard tree

The large sacred tree called Tarayo no Ki [a species of holly] has large leaves on which it is possible to scratch letters, and is thus called "the postcard tree" and "letter tree". One theory is that the Japanese word for "postcard", hagagaki, which literally means “writing on a leaf”, is derived from this tree.

Atop the black post box next to the sacred tree is the Yatagarasu. The Yatagarasu, which is also the symbol mark for the Japan Football Association, is a three-legged raven that appears in Japanese mythology. Based on an episode that says it guided the Emperor Jimmu from the country of Kumano to the country of Yamato, at Kumano Sanzan it is worshiped as a sacred guide bird and messenger of the gods.

You can actually post mail in this Yatagarasu post box. If you first go to the shrine office and say that you would like to mail something they will stamp the mail being sent with the phrase, “Sent from Kumano Hongu with sincerity.” Such a stamped letter would make a wonderful gift to a friend or to yourself.

▲Small banners on which requests have been written pepper the main approach. They can be obtained at the shrine office after making a 500-yen offering.
▲The Great Torii of Oyunohara

Oyunohara is said to be where the gods descended and is about a 10-minute walk from Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine. The dignified Torii stands about 35 meters tall and is about 42 meters wide making this Grand Torii the largest in Japan.

After leaving the Grand Torii let’s next proceed to Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine.

The pristine appearance of Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine

The pristine appearance of Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine

After about a 50-minute car ride you will come to the Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine in Shingu City. Once again do the purification ceremony at the Temizusha. The strange creature with the long nose above the Temizusha is a dragon. It is poised as though giving welcome to worshipers.

▲The magnificent shrine will take your break away

The brilliant vermilion‐lacquered shrine is beautiful! Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine is where the gods descended from heaven and are enshrined and where the nature worship of the megalith as a divine body originated. Twelve gods, the main ones being Kumano Hayatama no Okami and Kumano Fusumi no Okami, are enshrined here.

▲Kumano Hayatama no Okami is the miraculous wonder-working main deity

"Japan's First Great Miracle Spot Nemoto Kumano Yuyagon Hall of Worship" is written above the Shimenawa [sacred festoon] of the Hall of Worship. Gongen means a manifestation of Buddha in the form of a Shinto god. The Kumano deities manifest themselves in the form of Buddha for the salvation of mankind. Japan’s First Great Miracle Spot means it was the first to be given the title of Kumano Gongen among the Kumano Sanzan.

Calm your heart and pray that your wishes will be granted.

▲The sacred giant Asian bayberry tree estimated to be 1,000 years old

The sacred giant Asian bayberry tree of Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine is designated as a natural treasure. It stands about 20 meters tall and the circumference of the trunk is about 6 meters. In praying for a safe journey, it is customary for pilgrims to put a leaf of the Asian bayberry in their pockets. I am awed by the mystical power of this tree when I think about how it has taken root here and watched over travelers for about 1,000 years.

Let's first stop by the Daimonzaka Chaya at the entrance to Kumano Kodo Daimonzaka at the base of Mount Nachi where you can wear Heian period clothing before you head to the Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine. It’s like going back in time to the Heian Period.

Dress in Heian garb and recall the history of the Kumano Kodo

After about a 30-minute car ride from Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine you will arrive at the Daimonzaka parking area in Nachikatsuura-cho. You will be able to see the Daimonzaka Chaya paper lantern after walking about 500 meters.

▲ The Daimonzaka Chaya tea house is both an information center and rest area.

Inside the tea house there are many charming costumes from which to choose. Once you decide on the one you would like to wear a staff member will help you dress. (It takes about 15 minutes to put a costume)

Not only are there Heian costumes for women, but also costumes for men and children, so the whole family can enjoy dressing up. We were told that there are quite a few women who ask to wear men’s costumes and they look very cool.

The tube hanging from around the neck is an amulet and the sash worn around the breast is a charm against evil spirits. During the Heian period this is the way imperial family and court nobles dressed when they made pilgrimages to Kumano Sanzan.

▲ Setting out in Heian garb

The two large cedar trees near the Daimonzaka Chaya shown in the photo are called the Meoto Sugi [husband and wife cedars]. Each is estimated to be about 800 years old and the circumference of their trunks is more than 8 meters. Lightly touching the trunks, one can almost feel the energy of life pulsing in them. You get a strong sense of history of the countless number of worshipers who have journeyed through these deep forests.

Wearing a Heian era costume you can better feel the mystical atmosphere of this old road making this a truly memorable experience of your trip.

  • Daimonzaka Chaya
    • Address 392-4 Nachisan, Nachikatsuura-cho, Wakayama Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0735-55-0244
    • Open: 9:00 a.m. ~ 4:00 p.m.
      Closed: always open
      Heian costume rental fee: (reservations required by 3:00 p.m. the same day)
      Model Course (photographing around the Meoto Sugi) 2,000 yen (including tax)
      Full Experience Course (2 hours, walking path of Nachisan in Heian costume) 3,000 yen (including tax)

Let’s next proceed to Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine. From Kumano Kodo Daimonzaka we will continue along the beautiful mossy stone path lined with magnificent cedars. There are 267 steps in the 600-meter long stone stairway.

Once you are at the top of Daimonzaka you have arrived at Mount Nachi. You can also get here by bus or car as there is a bus stop and parking area at Mount Nachi. But you still must climb another stone stairway of 200 steps to reach the Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine.

The awe-inspiring appearance of Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine

The awe-inspiring appearance of Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine
▲Kumano Fusumi no Okami is the main deity enshrined in the Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine.

After climbing a total of 467 stone stairs you will finally arrive at the sacred sanctuary. The Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine sits at an elevation of about 500 meters. It can be a bit of an exhausting hike if you are not physically fit. Catch your breath and say a prayer.

▲Here, too, is the Yatagarasu messenger of the gods.
▲This sacred giant camphor tree is estimated to be 800 years old. There is a large opening at its base.
▲ You can look inside for an offering of 300 yen.

Looking inside is called Tainaikuguri in Japanese, which means “passing under the womb”, and it is said that if you have written a wish on a homa stick, stick on which prayers are written and then ritually burnt, and enter into the opening, your wish will be granted. Doing so can be an exciting experience!

▲ Giant fortune slip 100 yen

After receiving spiritual power from the Tainaikuguri, go back to the front of the Hall of Worship and see what luck a fortune slip portends. This is probably one of the largest fortune slip containers you will ever see! You take the container in both hands and then when you shake it a long fortune stick will come out of a hole in one end which you then take to the office to receive the fortune slip matching the number on the stick.

I gave it a try. Bingo! I got Daikichi which indicates “excellent luck”.I hope that fortune comes true!

Powerful Nachi Falls

Powerful Nachi Falls
▲ Nachi Falls

Nachi Falls, an object of nature worship, is worshiped at Hirōjinja, an auxiliary shine of the Nachi Grand Shrine. It is located about 1 km. (roughly a 15-minute walk) from the Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine.

A little way up the stone stairway, "Waterfall Place of Worship" is written in red lettering, and I recommend visiting here as this is the closest you can get to Nachi Falls.

Very impressive! Enveloped in the mist from the falling water I felt the sacredness of this place. About one ton of water falls down the 133 meters every second making it the most powerful in Japan. It also is the tallest in Japan.

July 9th and December 27th every year a sacred ceremony called Otaki Shimenawa Harikae-shiki is performed during which time shrine staff dressed in white garments and wearing eboshi [a type of headgear worn by court nobles] carry a large Shimenawa 26 meters long and weighing 4 kg. to the top of the waterfall to replace the old one with it while being soaked in cold water. That is really impressive. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

Journey of worship to Kumano Sanzan. This journey will make you feel very insignificant as you feel the history and great natural mysteries of this area. You may be able to know yourself and renew your spirit in this "land of revitalization" and "land of regeneration".

Visit Kumano Sanzan and experience the many soothing powers there.

Text by:Advision

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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