A Pilgrimage to Kumano

Lightly edited on January 31, 2022.

A stretch of the Kumano pilgrimage trails near Nachi Taisha. Photo by H. McGaughey

Yokohama, Japan At the end of last summer, which ended in late September for me on the Japanese academic calendar, I realized I had not taken advantage of my free time and decided to leave the Tokyo metropolis on a little trip. Photographs by a friend of mine who had been to Kumano earlier in the year had caught my fancy, and combined with the significance of Kumano as a pilgrimage destination in the Japanese middle ages, I thought it a suitable place to go.

I went for a total of two nights, staying at an onsen resort on an off-season, no-meals attached rate. The complex was in a small valley surrounded by greenery, which was a beautiful respite after a hot summer in the city. The day I arrived, the weather was rainy, and the forests and mountains were interwoven with low clouds that snaked through valleys and between trees like dragons. 

Since I was traveling by myself, I shared my experiences in occasional E-mails to my sister. Here is an excerpt from one of them:

After going to bed at about 8 last night, I got up at 6:30 fully rested to take the first of three daily buses out of this valley I’m in. In the nearby city of Shingu, I got another bus to the main shrine an hour twenty minutes away. Although it is a shrine to the creation gods and the sun and ocean gods, it was a bit anticlimactic with all the tour groups coming through. I wished I could have hiked in like the true pilgrims.

The main shrine I spoke of here is Kumano Hongu Taisha. The gods worshiped here are Izanami and Izanagi, the male and female creation gods, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and the sun goddess’ little brother, Susano-o, the storm and ocean god. However, because of all the crowds, I did not stay there long and after paying my respects to the gods and having a bowl of tea with a small sweet at a shop nearby, I returned with the midday bus to my resort.

I caught the midday bus back to the lodge and took a little hike to a truly wonderful waterfall up the river. I had the place all to myself while I was there. I wish I had time to visit all the other falls in the area like the proprietor of the restaurant where I had dinner suggested.

The waterfall I hiked to was reachable by a beautiful, natural trail past agricultural fields and through the woods up the side of the valley (natural besides a part that went around a small electricity station that provides for the small community below). Once at the waterfall, I realized I had come to the place I had sought when I left Tokyo, a place of natural wonder that was (somewhat) removed from the excesses of human activity. The power of the water falling to a pool surrounded by large boulders was absolutely refreshing, even spiritual as staff at the resort commented when I returned in the evening and chatted with them in the lobby. It was there at that small waterfall that I found the goal of my pilgrimage.

What bothered me was that pilgrimage has little meaning if it is done by train and bus instead of by the power of one’s own legs, as this imayō poem suggests:

熊野へ参らむと思へども 徒歩より参れば道遠し すぐれて山きびし 馬にて参れば苦行ならず 空より参らむ 羽賜べ

Kumano e mairan to omoedomo / kachi yori maireba michitōshi / sugurete yama kibishi / uma ni te maireba kugyō narazu / sore yori mairan hane tabe

Should you think of going to Kumano, going by foot makes for a long road ahead and the mountains are steep. Going on horseback is not sufficiently austere. If only I were granted wings to fly there. The young prince.

By the “young prince” (wakaōji) 若王子 Ryorokuhisho 梁鹿秘抄 Vol. 2

I had obviously made my way to Kumano the wrong way, by train and bus, and I had very little time left, since my return trip was fully planned. After my second night at the onsen, I packed my small backpack and headed out in the morning to visit another of the three large shrines before heading back towards Nagoya and then Tokyo.

A view of the Nachi waterfall from the shrine. Photo by H. McGaughey

I visited Nachi Taisha, taking the local train from Shingu City, then switching to a bus to go up to the shrine. My time restraints necessitated compromise, but I got off the bus at the bottom of the mountain on which the shrine sat and climbed the ancient stone steps upwards, racing myself (and the other bus passengers who were climbing at a more leisurely pace) to the top. The view from the shrine of the deep, green valley, open to the sea in the east and with the famous waterfall at its western end was breathtaking. I prayed at both the Shrine and the Buddhist temple for luck in my academic work, and raced back to the bus stop to catch the bus back. My train to Nagoya was at noon.

And yet, as I waited for the local train back to Shingu City, a taxi driver started a conversation with me about Kumano. We had a pleasant conversation. He said he was from abroad like I was and then laughed and said he was from Hokkaido. When I lamented the fact that I had no time to visit the third shrine, he corrected me and said I did. Just as he was looking for a tourist map to give to me, however, an elderly woman climbed into his cab, and off they went.

Kamikura Shrine. Photo by H. McGaughey

Once back in Shingu City, I had a little more than an hour left and shot off on foot in the direction of the hills at the far edge of the small city. Before going to the third shine, Hayatama Taisha, I climbed up a nearby mountain graced with another set of ancient stone stairs to Kamikura Shrine, which has a small wooden structure wedged beneath a large boulder high above the city. On my way down, a local man stopped me and gave me a photograph of a large cherry tree in bloom at the shrine before the tree was destroyed in a storm. [I wonder where that photo went!]

I then raced to the third major shrine in Kumano, Hayatama Taisha, gave my praise to the gods, bought a few amulets, and raced back to the train station just in time to catch my train to Nagoya. It was a successful (though highly abbreviated) pilgrimage. I hope some day to return to visit other sites, including more remote stretches of the Kumano pilgrimage trains through the mountains and the cave Izanami entered when she died giving birth to the fire god.

2 replies on “A Pilgrimage to Kumano”

Well personally, I want to measure up
the notions of circumstance and edit them
to simply devise and orient and calm

I know that probably sounds crazy, but i came about writing this rather coincidentally.

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