Kumano Sanzan: Japan’s Sacred Trail of Shrines

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  • Kumano Sanzan consists of 3 grand shrines in Kumano area. It is one of the most popular spiritual areas in Japan, located in the southern part of Kii Peninsula, Wakayama Prefecture, about 100 km south of Osaka. The three grand shrines were the final destination of Kumano Kodo, an ancient pilgrimage route used for over 1000 years. In 2004, this route was granted the UNESCO World Heritage title, “The Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”.

    Kumano Sanzan’s three shrines are: Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine, Kumano Hatayama Grand Shrine, and Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine.

    Kumano Nachi Taisha

    Kumano shrine-temple

    Author’s photo

    Kumano Nachi Taisha begins with Daimon-zaka, an ancient walking trail. This trail is about 600 meters long. As you climb its 267 stairs, it brings you through centuries-old giant cedar trees, leading from the valley to the base of Nachi Taisha complex.

    Kumano trees

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    Kumano Nachi Taisha is a Shinto grand shrine located halfway up Nachi mountain, surrounded by a cedar forest. The shrine is one of the examples of syncretism (or unification) of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan. You can see that next to the Nachi Taisha shrine is Seiganto-ji, a Buddhist temple.

    Continuing on the journey of these three shrines, next, visitors can see some of the most famous scenery of Japan – a three-story pagoda with a waterfall in the background. We probably see a lot of postcards using this type of landscape, but have you ever visited?

    Kumano pagoda

    Author’s photo

    That waterfall in the background is Nachi-no-Otaki and it is the tallest waterfall in Japan with a single drop. It’s 133 meters tall and 13 meters wide. Since ancient times, people used to worship Nachi no Otaki, and it was the original religious site of this area.

    Kumano falls

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    Kumano Hatayama Taisha

    Kumano colorful shrine

    Author’s photo

    Kumano Hatayama Taisha was the easiest to access of Kumano Sanzan. You can find it in the small town of Shingu, at the shores of Kumano-gawa, a river where the water from the sacred Kii Mountains flows into the Pacific Ocean.

    Still in Shingu city, not too far from Kumano Hatayama Taisha, is Gotobiki-iwa, a gigantic rock located halfway up Gongen mountain. This giant rock is believed to be a place where Shinto deities descended to earth. At the base of the rock, there is a small shrine called Kamikura Jinja.

    Kumano gotobiki iwa

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    Climb up here and you can see the whole city of Shingu and straight out to the Pacific Ocean on the horizon.

    Kumano city ocean view

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    Kumano Hongu Taisha

    Kumano natural shrine

    Author’s photo

    Kumano Hongu Taisha was the head shrine of more than 3000 Kumano shrines throughout Japan. This shrine is in the deep of rugged mountains of the Kii Peninsula. It has authentic Japanese shrine architecture, different from the other two which are decorated with a bright red color. Kumano Hongu Taisha keeps its wooden exterior exposed. Gold as its accent color, make it look quite elegant.

    The shrine was originally located at Oyunohara, on the sandbank of the river, but after some parts of the buildings were destroyed by a flood, the remaining moved to higher land (present location). It has since been renovated to look like its original form. Later on, a large torii (gate) was built at the sandbank. This is the largest torii in the world, standing 33.9 meters tall and 42 meters wide, made from 172 tons of steel.

    Kumano torii

    Author’s photo

    If you are looking for a spiritual and places to visit that is not crowded with tourists, try Kumano Sanzan and experience holy ground where the Gods dwell.


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