Whether it is azure waters of the Pacific Ocean, thickly forested mountains, healing thermal waters or the centuries-old historic landmarks, Southern Wakayama has plenty to offer. Most importantly, it is a land of nature worship and home to the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route that leads to Kumano Sanzan, a grouping of three prominent ancient shrines – Kumano Hongu Taisha (believed to provide salvation in people’s afterlives), Kumano Hayatama Taisha (believed to cleanse people of their sins in previous lives) and Kumano Nachi Taisha (believed to connect ties in these lives), which I visited.
Kumano, at the southern end of the Kii mountains, has been known as the land of Gods and attracted emperors and nobility of the Heian Period who tracked in search of heaven on earth. By the Edo Period this practice spread to commoners and Kumano Kodo became one of the major pilgrimage routes.
The pilgrimage departs from Kyoto and follows a path through Fujishiro, Kainan, to Tanabe, where the road divides. From there, you can take one of three routes: the Nakahechi (the main and the most vigorous route) that goes eastward into the mountains, the Ohechi that follows the coast southward and the Kohechi that heads south from Koyasan to Kumano Hongu and Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrines. Oji, the small shrines found along the pilgrimage route – including those in Koyasan – were built to provide rest and lodging for travelers on pilgrimage to Kumano Sanzan.
As you can see, there is a lot to explore, admire and take in. However, if you’re like me and have only a day or two to explore the region, I recommend making Koyasan and Nachi Taisha your primary destinations.
Nachi Taisha is reputed to be 1,400 years old and besides astounding history offers breathtaking views by overlooking Nachi-no-taki, the highest waterfall in Japan and is revered as a sacred site whose water grants longevity.
Getting to Nachi Taisha is quite easy. If you are traveling from Koya-san, like me, you’ll have to make your way to Wakayama city first, and then catch a direct Limited Express Kuroshio train to Kii-Katsuura Station from there (5,800 YEN one way, train runs every two hours, and takes 3 hours). You can catch the same express train from Shin-Osaka Train Station in Osaka. Check with Hyperdia app for exact train schedules.
A regular bus departs from Kii-Katsuura Station to the waterfall and Nachi Taisha Shrine. Depending oon your availability and fitness level, there are multiple ways to sightsee the expansive sacred grounds of Nachi Katsuura. You can either get off at the bottom of the mountain, at Kumano Kodo Daimon-zaka Teahouse, and hike your way up to the waterfall and then the shrine; or continue the ride all the way to the top of the mountain to Nachi Taisha and then make your way down to the waterfall. I was too excited to see the waterfall, so I got off in the middle – at the Nachi Waterfall Bus Stop first, and then hiked to the main shrine and pagoda.
It was a hot summer day, but the experience was unforgettable nevertheless. At the bus stop near the falls, a large torii gate marks the start of the path that leads to the foot of the waterfall. The waterfall drops 430 feet into rocky river that flows down to the lush ravine.
Another 20-minute hike along the lichen-covered cobblestone staircase through the deep mossy green of the forest will lead you to the grand shrine itself. Nestled in the Mt. Nachi, Nachi Taisha was built in 317 and celebrated the 1700th anniversary in 2017. You’ll find the Karasu-ishi (crow stone) in the inner courtyard. According to the legend, a three-legged crow called Yatagarasu – a messenger of the deities enshrined at Nachi Taisha – was transformed into this stone. A 850-year Sacred Camphor Tree adorns the courtyard as well, covered in a gorgeous thick carpet of moss. Shimenawa (the straw rope) and paper flags around it, as well as the small stone torii in the front indicate that it has been sanctified as a kami (deity). The most amazing thing about it that it is hollow inside and you can enter it! There is a small altar to make a wish, and it is believed that you actually hear the beating of its 850-year-old heart!
Nachi Taisha links to a Buddhist Seiganto-ji Temple which was built in 1590. A calligrapher monk inside will write a fortune in your notebook or special washi paper, with stamps of the shrine.
Perhaps the most iconic view of the entire trail is a vermilion 3-storied pagoda in front of the waterfall and surrounding mountains.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, I couldn’t believe I was seeing it all with my own eyes – it’s always such a gratifying moment when you finally come up close and personal to an image that you had pinned on the Pinterest board years before, isn’t it?
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