Kumano Old Road from the Wakayama side
Added In: Articles › Travel in Japan
Twenty odd years ago I washed up on these rocky shores, after an extended period enjoying the back-packing lifestyle of South East Asia. Traveling around Japan, one thing immediately struck me as different from the other parts of Asia I had ventured. Virtually no travel information was available in English, nor would anyone try and speak to me in English. This came as a bit of a shock, as in virtually all of the places I had traveled previously, there was always someone who could manage a smattering of English, enough at least to get a bed for a night and a meal. But I guess at that time there were few, if any independent tourists.
Things have changed somewhat now. Yokoso Japan (Welcome to Japan) has been putting a huge effort into attracting tourists to Japan, both of the tour type and the free traveler type. And one area of Japan that has really pulled out all the stops to support the independent English-speaking traveler is Tanabe in Wakayama prefecture.
The Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau has been doing a huge amount of work to ensure that free travelers have access to information that both enables them to get the most out of the area, and puts the locals at ease when dealing with non-Japanese tourists. Everything, from ryokan menus through to signs on the baths, is available in romanji, and often with English explanations. This makes the whole area accessible, not just the main tourist centers, and is an ideal opportunity for those non-Japanese speaking foreigners to get out into the real Japan.
This part of Japan has always been somewhat isolated, hedged between the mountains of the Kii peninsular and the Pacific Ocean. This means it has retained a lot of what other areas of Japan have lost. It is also at the entry to the Kumano Old Road, one of the worlds great pilgrimage routes and a World Heritage Site. While the Ise bay side is perhaps more well known as an entry point, traditionally pilgrims coming from Kyoto and further north would follow the coast down to Tanabe before striking inland onto the Kumano road.
Perhaps somewhat different than your usual World Heritage site, of ruined temples and lost civilizations, The Kumano Old Road is a living site. People still live and work along the route as they have for hundreds of years; it is a region not to be passively observed but actively partaken of.
Tanabe City is about a 2 hour train ride south from Osaka. Its chief claim to fame, as Brad Towle of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau states with a sly grin, is that it has the highest density of drinking establishments by population, of anywhere in Japan. Yes, well, the author could have happily spent the next few days carousing the bars, but no, I will be responsible!
Tanabe’s other claim to fame is that it is a great spot for launching an exploration of the hinterland and the Kumano Old Road.
The Kumano Old Road is a pilgrimage route. From the Heian period (and probably much earlier), this area has seen countless pilgrims and yamabushi (mountain ascetics) launch themselves into the wild mountains, to pray and cleanse their souls. Japan has a long history of syncretism, the merging and blending of faiths. Buddhism arrived here in sometime in the 5th century CE, but there were already ancient animist faiths present. Shinto was not the unified, codified belief system we see today, but rather a wide range of local kami (gods) that were locations, natural features or as pure spiritual forms. Many of these exist today; Ontakekyo is a religion unto itself, where Mt. Ontake in Gifu is revered as a kami. However, what happened over the next 1400 years was a blending and a merging; where Shinto shrines were established, there was often an inclusion of Buddha within the pantheon, and the reverse was true as well.
This lasted until the Meiji Restoration. At that time Shinto was made the state religion, with the Emperor at its head. Following this the state sent out temple inspectors; these inspectors would descend on a local temple/shrine and demand that they locals chose. Is this to be a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine? At the same time shrines were consolidated, in order that they could be more easily controlled. Where the locals refused to choose, often the inspector would declare that one or the other temple or shrine would have to be destroyed. As these shrines and temples usually stood within groves of old-growth forest, the trees were also cut down. During this period many temples and shrines were destroyed throughout Japan.
The area around Tanabe though had an unlikely hero. Minakata Kumagusu was born in Wakayama in the 1860s, and became the archetypical 19th century eccentric naturalist. He studied slime molds, became an esteemed scholar at the British Museum and lived in America and Europe for 14 years. He was also a pioneering environmentalist and also a strong supporter of the local indigineous way of worship and respect for the land, and amassed a large collection of local folklore.
When the inspectors descended on the local area in order to consolidate the temples and shrines under the new State Shinto, Kumagusu used various ploys to mitigate the destruction. He wrote vigorous letters of opposition to newspapers and the authorities, but also used some more subtle (read guerilla) tactics. He is purported to have, on several occasions, taken the inspectors out drinking, to the point that the inspectors had such bad hangovers they could not perform their duties and inspect the assigned shrines and temples! At other times shrines were hidden, or inspectors were deliberately taken on foot along the most arduous and precipitous routes, leading many to give up on their inspections in either exhaustion or fear. Thanks to this, many of the shrines and temples in the area retain their original, syncretic arrangement, along with the old growth trees.
The Kumano Old Road weaves its way through mountains and valleys that have a plethora of these shrines and temples. Along the way there are accommodation facilities for pilgrims and hikers. The original goal of the pilgrimage was to visit the three Grand Shrines; Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. But many people these days hike only a portion of the trail, then come back in following years to do further sections.
Kumano Hongu Taisha is a spectacular temple; spectacular in the workmanship exhibited and the simplicity of the design. I learned here that the roof of shrines and temples, which I had for some reason thought was thatch, is actually layer upon layer of cypress shingles, up to 60cm deep. It is the headquarters for the more than 3800 Kumano temples and shrines around Japan. It is also home to the world’s biggest torii (ceremonial gate), at 33.9 metres and made of steel, it towers over the entranceway to the site of the original Hongu Taisha, destroyed by flooding in 1889. The Kumano river runs from here to the coast; pilgrims often traveled along the river to come out at Kumano Hayatama Taisha on the coast. These days there is a kayaking company running guided tours along the river, anything from a half day through to overnight trips (http://www.kumano-experience.com).
Among the other sights along the way is the workshop and home of the last cypress craftsman of the region. The original pilgrims’ “sanpan” hats (similar to what you would see paddy field workers wearing in Vietnam) are not made from bamboo. They are made from thin splits of cypress, woven together. In the village of Minachi, 87-year-old Yasuo Shiba is the last of these craftsmen. Not so long ago the entire village was involved in the production of cypress crafts, but no more. Shiba san informs us that the cypress hats are ideal for hiking; when they are dry, the cypress shrinks allowing gaps to open up and ventilate, while when wet the cypress expands, closing the gaps and becoming truly waterproof.
This area is also famous for its onsen (hot springs). Nothing better after a hard day’s walking that taking your gear off and having a great hot soak. The Tsubou onsen in Yunomine is purported to be one of the oldest in Japan, with a history stretching back 1800 years. The small river that passes through the center of the town has a small public bath, or there are a number of ryokan that can provide more luxurious surroundings. Or a short drive over to the Oto river, at Kawayu, and over the winter months the locals dig a large hole in the pebbled river where anyone can take a dip in the natural mineral water bubbling up from above. Of course, being next to the river, you can also adapt the temperature to your personal needs by channeling cold river water. Fantastic.
Tanabe city is the home of Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of the martial art of Aikido. Morihei was born in Tanabe and developed the basics of Aikido before moving to Hokkaido, but he frequently returned to the area to train. He is buried at Kozan-ji Temple in Tanabe City. This year the International Aikido Congress will be held in Tanabe, from the 5th of October the 13th. A special Aikido demonstration will take place at Oyunohara, the original site of the Kumano Hongu Taisha.
Wakayama, and the Kii Peninsula in general, has high rainfall over the summer. However, over the autumn and winter rainfall falls off considerably, and it rarely, if ever snows. This makes it the ideal location for a local trip over the colder seasons, and the hiking is spectacular.
The Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau have an extensive English language website available at http://www.tb-kumano.jp/en/index.html, and have English speaking staff on hand should you need support booking accommodation or planning a hiking route. Get down there, it is a great place to visit.