The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails are a series of trails that criss-cross the Kii Peninsula, the largest peninsula in Japan, and have been registered as a World Heritage Site since 2007. The routes were first developed over 1,000 years ago for pilgrims to make their way between the sacred sites in the area. Over time, the paths became religious experiences in and of themselves, as the mountainous terrain could be difficult, sometimes even dangerous.
In modern Japan, most of the trails have disappeared, but a few remain along the coast and in the mountains. The region’s 3 most famous shrines are all accessible. Located at the centre of the pilgrimage routes, Kumano Hongu Taisha dates from the 800s, and is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Hateyama Taisha plays an important role in Japanese mythology, as it is believed that three Shinto gods (kami) descended to earth on a rock close to the shrine. There is also a sacred tree believed to be over 800 years old on the grounds. Finally, Kumano Nachi Taisha is a large complex of shrines and temples. The shrine was here long before Buddhism was introduced to Japan, but provides a perfect example of how the two religions – Shinto and Buddhism – fused and mixed over time. From Nachi Taisha, you can also see Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi no Taki, which is 133 metres tall.
Located in the heart of the Kumano Kodo is Kawayu Onsen, a small riverside hot springs town that is definitely worth an overnight stop if you’re in the area.