Following in the ancient footsteps of Kumano pilgrims

For many, the Nanki area, in the southern part of the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture, is the seat of the Kumano Shinto sect. It is home to the sect's three major shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. Countless followers, from Kyoto nobles to ordinary citizens, have for centuries made the pilgrimage to the region to seek relief from their hectic daily lives.

The Kumano sect is built around worshiping nature, and each shrine encompasses 12 gods, except for Kumano Nachi Taisha, which has one additional god, a nearby waterfall called Nachi no Taki.

The pilgrimages to the Kumano shrines began to enjoy great popularity in the 10th century, with visits by members of the Imperial family--including retired emperors, some of whom became Buddhist priests. Many of these nobles made frequent visits during their lives, hoping to benefit from the miraculous powers the Kumano sect was believed to possess. Such strong dedication helped the trend spread to the citizenry.

The area's remoteness apparently added to its appeal as a center of spiritual training. The Kumano Kodo, or ancient roads of Kumano, the network of routes that for centuries led pilgrims to the shrines, still wind through the peninsula. One of the main routes stretches from Kyoto to Kumano Hongu Taisha, extending down the west coast of the peninsula before turning into the mountains at what is now Tanabe.

Because it took one month to walk the entire route, Kumano Hongu Taisha was the preferred destination for most pilgrims. The two other shrines are on the opposite side of the peninsula.

On the east side is a town called Nachi Katsuuracho, which serves as a ferry stop between Tokyo and Kochi, though ferry service is slated to end in September. This was the gateway of my trip to the Nanki area. From the ferry terminal, I drove my car to Kumano Hayatama Taisha before heading inland to Kumano Hongu Taisha.

Travel by car and bus is relatively quick and convenient, but such modes of transportation make it even more difficult to imagine how the ancient pilgrims must have felt when they finally saw the cinnabar color of the shrines after enduring days of hardship on their journeys.

"Have you taken photos here?" asked Hiromichi Omiya, one of the priests at Kumano Hongu Taisha, as I wandered through the grounds.

When I asked if taking photos was prohibited, he said, "No, no. Of course, you can. I was just curious because you have the same type of a camera as me."

Omiya, 36, took up photography as a hobby after beginning his service at the shrine 13 years ago. "I took one of my best photos of this shrine with a tripod I set up after a rainy morning following overnight duty," he said. "Are you jealous?" he laughed.

Omiya, who was raised in Hiroshima, comes from a family whose men had traditionally become Shinto priests. His father, however, was a salaried worker, and Omiya had hoped to become one, too.

"But when I was studying hard for (university) entrance exams, my father suddenly demanded that I become a Shinto priest," Omiya said. "But I was very reluctant to do so, so I once ran away from home."

He eventually relented and came to Kumano Hongu Taisha right after graduating from a priest training course at a university in Ise, Mie Prefecture.

"People often tell me that I don't look like a Shinto priest, that I'm more suited to a construction worker's uniform because of my heavyset body," he said. "Priests are no different from ordinary people."

Changes through times

Kumano Hongu Taisha is surrounded by several hot spring resorts, including Yunomine Onsen, which pilgrims bathed in to purify themselves before praying at the shrine.

Just off a small river that runs through the resort is a tiny spring that produces 90 C water. Visitors can cook eggs at the pool by suspending them in nets. The nearby souvenir shops sell the eggs, which in about 15 minutes come out looking like regular hard-boiled eggs but with a softer texture and delicate flavor.

Locals use the pool as a sort of natural kitchen. I saw one elderly woman cooking spinach there, soaking the leaves in the water for about five minutes to soften them. "Well, I have bad teeth," she explained.

While Yunomine and the area's other major onsen resorts are located south of the shrine, Koshichi Okamoto has operated his minshuku inn in the north side of the shrine for the past decade.

"I never really considered running a minshuku," the 78-year-old Osaka native said. He originally moved to Hongucho, where Kumano Hongu Taisha is located, because of its proximity to a hospital where he was receiving treatment for a stroke that affected the left side of his body. "But the town government asked me to, because there were no accommodations along this part of the Kumano Kodo at that time," he said.

His minshuku will accept up to eight people per day and welcomes lone travelers. Although Okamoto has never advertised, the inn has become popular mainly for its splendid dinner, which consists of about 15 dishes per guest, and for Okamoto's gregarious character.

Now that Hongucho is his home, Okamoto is concerned about the changes he has witnessed over the past 20 years. "There is nothing natural here," he lamented.

He said the surrounding mountains are spoiled due to lack of concern for the forests, which are dominated by cedar trees that were planted after World War II, while a dam on the Kumano river has reduced the amount of available fresh water.

"It is still delicious to visitors," Okamoto said of the water served at the inn. "But 20 years ago--it's hard to describe in words how delicious it was. If water today could be described as glass, the water back then was like diamonds."

Okamoto is critical about the way most worshipers come to the area now. "Just visiting one shrine after another is not true training," he said. "True training refers to a process of walking up to the shrines. Otherwise, there is no meaning."

The following morning, at Okamoto's suggestion, I went for a walk on an unpaved section of the Kumano Kodo near the inn, taking in the dense trees that must have inspired pilgrims centuries ago. My first trip to the Nanki area made me realize how difficult it is for modern people to appreciate what experiences ancient travelers must have had.

Nonetheless, it was invigorating to walk alone through the trees, the air cold and damp following a spring rain. As I began my hike, my mind was occupied with concerns about my daily life. But as I concentrated on walking, my mind eventually cleared. It was then that I realized this was probably what the pilgrims must have been seeking when they traveled to the shrines all those centuries ago.