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The Charm of Kumano Kodo Iseji Route, which Connects Japan’s Two Holiest Sites ~Part 1~

The Charm of Kumano Kodo Iseji Route, which Connects Japan’s Two Holiest Sites ~Part 1~ © 三重県

“Seven times to Ise, three times to Kumano

This saying explains how often to visit Ise and Kumano. Since long ago, these words have been used to describe the very faithful or to explain how there are no limits to the depth of faith.

This time, we would like to introduce the history and the charm of the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route, the pilgrimage road connecting these two places which are so holy they appear in the Japanese saying used to exemplify faith.

Invitation to the World Heritage Pilgrimage Route Kumano Kodo Iseji Route

The history and background of Japanese pilgrimage route “Kumano Kodo

Kumano Kodo is the pilgrimage route from various parts of Japan to Kumano Sanzan (the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano- Kumano Hayatama-taisha Shrine, Kumano Nachi-taisha Shrine, and Kumano Hongu-taisha Shrine) in Wakayama Prefecture. Like the world heritage site “Route of Santiago de Compostela” in Spain, Kumano Kodo is a famous pilgrimage route in Japan. In 2004, Kumano Kodo was inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list, and because of this, became known all over the world.

So, what exactly were the people looking for in Kumano? Next we will unravel the history of the special faith that took people there.

Kumano is the name of the southern part of the Kii Peninsula in present day Mie and Wakayama Prefectures. Kumano was thought to be the place where the souls of people who had died gather (“komoru” in Japanese) so it is said that the origin of the name is the word “komoru.”

After Buddhism was introduced to Japan, the Shinto kami (gods) of Kumano Sanzan came to be thought of as Buddhist deities who changed their appearance to save the distant Japanese people. This theory is called "Honji suijaku". This form of belief that identifies Shinto kami and Buddhist deities is unique to Japan and Kumano was one of the places where it was established.

At the end of the Heian period (794-1185), there was social instability around the country and Pure Land Buddhism, which teaches that doing good deeds in life allows people to enter the Pure Land (paradise) after death, became popular. Because of Kumano’s etymology, people thought of it as the place where the souls of people who had died gather, which led to the belief that it communicated with the Pure Land. This made Kumano an important place for retiring emperors and other nobles to visit.

Later, going up the steep pass to visit Kumano Sanzan became popular with people wanting to be near the Pure Land. In this way, innumerable pilgrims shaped the route that has become the current Kumano Kodo.

About Kumano Kodo Iseji Route

Among the routes inscribed on World Heritage List, Iseji Route, connecting Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture to Kumano Sanzan, is the longest one. Next, we would like to introduce the highlights of Iseji Route.

The starting point is Ise Jingu

The journey on Iseji Route begins at the Naiku of Ise Jingu, the most important shrine in Japan. Here, the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami is enshrined.

Worshiping at Ise Jingu became popular with common people during the Edo period (1603-1868) and it was said that at the time, one in six people had been there. Among pilgrims walking along Iseji Route, there were also groups of young people who took the trip as representatives of people from their area who could not go because they were physically unable.

About the pass road

Iseji Route is about 170 km in total and along the way there are many mountain passes. There is also a part of Iseji Route that follows the seaside called Hama-Kaido Route which has a charm not found in other Kumano Kodo routes.

The Stone paved path can be called a symbol of the Kumano Kodo. It is thought that the old ones were laid by hand nearly 400 years ago to keep the road from being blocked by landslides in areas with a lot of rain. The creation of this beautiful stone paved path is deeply connected with the rich lava flows from a volcanic eruption almost 15 million years ago.

The towering cypress trees in the forest have a reputation in Japan as sturdy timber because of narrowing annual rings. With its long tradition, forestry is still practiced around the route and has formed the unique natural environment of the area.

There are Ojizo-sama (guardian statues) enshrined like signposts at each pass. The route is now maintained well, but once it was not well, walking the route was to walk side by side with danger. So these Ojizo-sama, built by someone unknown, encouraged lonely pilgrims there.

Walk along seaside Hama-kaido Route

After crossing Matsumoto-toge, the last pass, there is only a walk along the seaside called the Hama-Kaido Route before reaching Kumano Hayatama-taisha Shrine. On the Hama-Kaido Route, there are many things to see like Oniga-jo, the wind and wave weathered caves said to be inhabited by demons.

And Shishi Iwa (The Lion Rock), which looks like a lion facing the sea and roaring.

In regards to Kumano’s spiritual roots, there are animistic beliefs that holy spirits and gods are present in natural features such as waterfalls and boulders. You can appreciate such spirits at Hana-no-Iwaya-jinja Shrine, a sacred place of natural faith that is a must see.

The goal is Kumano Hayatama-taisha Shrine

From Hama-Kaido Route, after crossing the Kumano-gawa River, we finally reach the goal of Iseji Route, Kumano Hayatama-taisha Shrine.

Here you can get a special charm called Kumano Go-o-fu, which is available only in Kumano Sanzan. The charm from Kumano Hayatama-taisha Shrine is for maintaining health and warding off evil and has the letters used by the three-legged Yatagarasu (crow) which belong to the kami of Kumano Sanzan.

This is the end of the long, long journey on the Iseji Route. Exhaustion of mind and body is healed by the fulfillment of the trip’s goal and from there pilgrims started on another.

Do you think there is something people living in the present can understand from these pilgrims about to start a new journey, full of confidence and a sense of accomplishment after the difficult one they just completed?

Has this sparked your interest in Kumano Kodo Iseji Route?

So far we have introduced the history of Kumano Kodo and the route between Ise Jingu and Kumano Hayatama-taisha Shrine but there are many more fascinating spots along the Iseji Route. For a detailed introduction, please watch these movies made by Mie Prefecture.

A trip through Iseji route Visiting the Gods

The locals who greet the pilgrims Kumano Kodo at Iseji Route

What attracts the People the Pilgrimage

If you think you would like to walk the Kumano Kodo, please see the next special feature, where we will introduce model courses of Magose-toge pass and Matsumoto-toge pass.

For people who want to learn more about Kumano Kodo Iseji Route and Mie Prefecture

Please check the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route official website. You can download pamphlets about Iseji Route in other languages as well as see detailed course guides and information about how to get there.

Kumano Kodo Iseji Route official website

Kumano Kodo Iseji Route Pamphlet Download

Mie Prefecture Tourism Information on Facebook 「Travel Mie Japan」

三重県 東紀州振興課 / Higashi-Kishu Promotion Division, Mie Prefecture

三重県 東紀州振興課 / Higashi-Kishu Promotion Division, Mie Prefecture

We are working to revitalize Mie Prefecture’s Higashi-Kishu region and utilize the World Heritage Kumano Kodo Iseji Route.