About the Kumano Kodo and its shrines
The Kii Peninsula is rich in natural beauty, with mountain ranges, old growth forests, rivers and hot springs.
In the Shinto religion, the original religion of Japan, natural features such as mountains, rocks, trees and rivers are revered as gods. In ancient times the Japanese considered the ruggedly beautiful Kumano area to be a particularly sacred place where gods dwelt in abundance. Throughout the Kumano, sanctuaries with Shinto shrines have long existed. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century, Buddhist traditions were incorporated into the Shinto shrines to create a hybrid religion. Despite an Imperial decree in the 1860s that Buddhism and Shintoism be separated, in the remote Kumano area this fusion of religion, Shugendo, has survived.
Over 1000 years ago it became customary for Japanese emperors and members of the imperial court to make a pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Kumano. Over time, pilgrims included people from all walks of life and the network of spiritual routes they walked is known as the Kumano Kodo.
The focus of pilgrims to Kumano is to worship at the Kumano Sanzen (or Three Grand Shrines of Kumano). The three shrines which make up the Kumano Sanzen are the Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. The main shrine, Kumano Hongu Taisha, is in the mountains of the Kii peninsula and the other two are closer to the Pacific coast. At these grand shrines major gods in the Japanese creationist myths and important Buddhist deities are enshrined in the austere ancient style of Shinto shrines.
There are essentially five different routes that lead to the Kumano and all lead to the main shrine, Kumano Hongu Taisha. From Kyoto, pilgrims walked the Kiiji route to Tanabe, where the route split in two. The Ohechi route continued around the coast and the Nakahechi route crossed the mountains directly to Kumano Hongu Taisha and continued to Kumano Nachi Taisha on the coast. Koyasan is also joined to the Kumano area by the Kohechi route and another important shrine on the Kii Peninsula, Ise-jingu, is joined to the Kumano area by the Iseji route.
Over time most of the original trails, particularly those along the coast, have been absorbed into roads or consumed into urban development. The Nakahechi route however, is well preserved, although for some sections it may be necessary to walk on minor roads. It is the Nakahechi route that we walk on our tours.
In July 2004, three sacred sites in the mountains of the Kii peninsula and the pilgrimage routes that connect them were included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and are known as the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes of the Kii Mountain Range”. The Kumano Sanzen are one of these three sacred sites. The only other pilgrimage route in the world to be so recognized is the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, hence our name: Kumano Camino.
A distinctive characteristic of the Kumano Kodo are “oji”, subsidiary shrines of the Kumano deity. These shrines line the route at fairly regular intervals to protect and guide pilgrims.
Ordinarily, the two Chinese characters for oji, “king” and “child”, mean “prince”. But, in this case, oji refers to the “child deities” of Kumano. Ojis are places where a Japanese god or gods are enshrined and these shrines serve as places of both worship and rest. When pilgrims come to ojis, they often offer a prayer to the gods. Pilgrims expect that the gods will watch over them for a safe journey and answer their prayers. Ojis are thought to have been created by the mountain ascetics, or “Yamabushi”, who historically served as pilgrimage guides.
The oji along the Kumano Kodo are collectively referred to as the “kyujukyu oji”, or “ninety-nine oji”. It is thought that the number ninety-nine was religiously significant; more of an expression alluding to the large number of shrines, and only ninety-seven have been discovered.
There are five oji considered most important along the Kumano Kodo – the Godai-oji – where a multitude of Japanese deities are enshrined. Three of the Godai-oji are before Tanabe. We start our pilgrimage at the fourth Godai-oji, Takijiri-oji, and pass Hosshimon- oji, the final one, two days later as we approach Kumano Hongu Taisha. Although these shrines are now modest, in years past they were magnificent; Hoshinmon-oji for example had tori gates standing to the north, south, east and west and sites where important ceremonies were carried out.
At the beginning of our Kumano Kodo walk, we will give out booklets in which stamps available at ojis along the way can be placed as a record of having walked the Kumano Kodo. The stamped booklet can also serve as evidence of having walked the Kumano Kodo for anyone who wishes to become a “dual pilgrim” i.e. someone who has walked the Camino de Santiago and the Kumano Kodo.