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  • Writer's pictureRobin Yong

Kumano Kodō 熊野古道

Updated: Jan 14

The Kumano Kodō (熊野古道) is a series of ancient pilgrimage routes that crisscross the Kii Hantō, the largest peninsula of Japan. The Kodo ("old ways") are a key part of the region's World Heritage designation and have been in use for more than 1000 years.

Even before organised religion existed in Japan, locals worshipped nature in the Kii Peninsula's mystical landscape. Towering trees, the nation's tallest waterfall, and the mountains in between were themselves considered kami (gods), and a walk among them a sacred act. Emperors and samurai from Kyoto kept detailed diaries of their pilgrimages here.

The term Shinto is often translated into English as "the way of the kami", and Shintoism is Japan's largest religion, the second being Buddhism. Most of the country's population takes part in both Shinto and Buddhist activities, especially festivals, reflecting a common view in Japanese culture that the beliefs and practices of different religions need not be exclusive.

I picked the Nakahechi section of the trail to reach the Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社). Kumano Nachi Taisha is a Shinto shrine and part of the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range of Japan. Kumano Nachi Taisha is an example of Buddhist and Shinto syncretism (Shinbutsu shūgō) nestled in the Kii Mountains, near Kii Katsuura, Japan. Cedar forests surround the site. I was told many of the cedar trees here are more than 800 years old.

At the base of the trail, there is a shop renting out traditional Hei-An clothing from the Edo Period. The hike up the trail is not easy, but they have bamboo poles laid out in buckets at various intervals where one can borrow to make the hike easier. I was panting thru'out much of the hike so I chanted Buddhist scriptures as I walk, hoping the spirits and deities would make my hike a little easier, and praying for a safe journey. I lamented there was no one in traditional Shinto pilgrimage costume that day cos it's apparently low travel season and Japan has only officially opened up to foreign tourist a week ago. I suppose the Gods here are truly powerful. We met two young Japanese ladies at the top of the trail, they just appeared behind us. I kept looking back down when I was hiking up the trail and I was sure there wasn't anyone thru'out my hike up. If I have seen the ladies walking up from behind, I would have rushed down to ask them for a photo because the trail mid-way up the mountains is most picturesque with its tall cedar trees. I was so sure that the costume rental shop was empty when we passed by it as well. It all seems so strange the girls could have walked up so fast and didn't seem tired at all. I asked my Japanese guide to ask them if I could take a few photos of them and the ladies gladly obliged. On our way down the mountain, we never saw the ladies again. Hmmm...strange and beautiful encounters...

Later on when we have returned to our hotel, I read on the news that an earthquake has actually occured during our hike, but of course we felt nothing. The spirits and deities must have been looking after us. The shrine up at the mountains is known to be extremely powerful. We saw the jerseys of Japan's world cup soccer players being blessed here. Look how well Japan has done so far with this year's World Cup.

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