The Kii peninsula is a region of dense, dark forests and rugged, misty mountains. It’s the birthplace of ancient religions and natural deity worship — a headland that serves as Japan’s gateway to mysticism and spiritualism, and a lifetime away from the high-rise, neon-clad urban jungle of Tokyo.
The region is often described as the cradle of Japanese Buddhism. Favored in Korea and China, Buddhism was slowly introduced to Kyoto’s Imperial court during the Heian period (794-1180). The Emperor’s priests advocated asceticism in mountainous regions, and worshippers flocked to the Kii peninsula. Many claimed supernatural powers following periods of isolation. Their ancient Shinto beliefs — in nature and sacred entities — fused with the new Buddhist ideas, creating a unique religious mix.
Physical exertion was soon added to the practice of intense mental discipline, as a way to literally walk the path to enlightenment and paradise. And so the Kumano Kodo began. Literally meaning ‘old roads’, Japan’s Kumano Kodo is an archaic network of pilgrimage trails. The walk itself was an integral part of the crusade, incorporating constant rites of purification and prayers. The pilgrims’ goal: to visit Kumano’s three sacred shrines. Collectively known as the Kumano Sanzan, these include Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
The Kumano Kodo was registered as part of UNESCO World Heritage in 2004. Modern transportation facilitates easy and rapid access to its treasures, yet hiking its trails is still the best way to fully experience the Kumano Kodo’s magic. My husband and I decided to follow in the footsteps of the Imperial family and chose the Nakahechi path. In existence as early as the 10th century, this route began in Kyoto and took around two months to complete. With less time to spare, we started our trek in October 2014 in Takijiri-oji. We enjoyed five days of — often rigorous — walking, averaging between four and seven hours per day. Nights were spent on tatami mats in traditional, family-run guest houses — all complete with hot onsen and serving delicious, home-cooked food.
The Kumano Kodo showed us a side of Japan we had never seen before. A tranquil, spiritual essence that captured our imagination and left us searching for deities among the trees and shrines.