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Wakayama – A Soul-Defining Pilgrimage

Wakayama prefecture covers a large part of the Kii peninsula, in the central area of Japan. While being a part of Honshu, Japan’s main island, this peninsula is often called “an island on land” because of its peculiar geography. In fact, being surrounded by impervious mountains and intricate forests, the southern region of Wakayama, called Kumano, was long seen as an inaccessible area. With plenty of sacred sites, this region has always been considered one of the most spiritual in Japan and for centuries it has been one of the most common destinations for pilgrims around the country. Nowadays, the Kumano region continues to be Japan’s spiritual core, where impressive natural sights meet ancient legends.


Kumano Hongu Taisha

Visit Komano Hongu Taisha, one of the three main shrines of the Kumano faith, a branch of Shintoism that has its roots in the southern part of Wakayama prefecture. Meet the 16th generation main priest of this shrine for an exclusive visit to this sacred place, including a purification ritual performed with an oonusa (a wooden wand decorated with paper streamers called shide) and a special tour of the inner area of the shrine, generally closed to the public. Also visit Oyunohara, the old location of the Taisha before it was relocated following the devastating floods towards the end of the 19th Century. Here, a surprisingly large torii gate has recently been built as a symbol of hope and peace. A very impressive man-made structure set within the intricate local nature creating a very spiritual atmosphere. Being the original location of the Kumano Hongu Taisha, this used to be the pilgrimage destination of thousands and thousands of people throughout the centuries, from the most humble people up until many emperors.

Culinary blessings of Kumano

Make sure that visiting Kumano brings both blessings to the soul as well as to the palate! Meet a local chef at his restaurant located near Kumano Hongu Taisha for a special meal including venison -typical of this wild region covered in forests- as well as locally grown vegetables coming from the restaurant’s garden. A zero-kilometre, healthy and super local Wakayama food experience.

Sail on traditional boats along Kumano River

Sail through the valley formed by the Kumano River on a traditional wooden flat-bottom boat. The Kumano River used to be a fundamental accessway to this region for many centuries as it allowed people to travel long distances without the need to walk through dense forests and rough mountains. It is also seen as the source of life for the surrounding nature and therefore it is a very sacred object of worship itself. Beyond listening to the enchanting sounds of nature all around, you will also be able to witness a traditional bamboo flute performance by one of the boat sailors.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha

Visit Kumano Hayatama Taisha, one of the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano and a place of great spiritual energy. The deities enshrined here are Japan’s first married couple, Izanagi and Izanami, who may be loosely compared to Adam and Eve in the Judeo-Christian theology. It is, therefore, no surprise that this shrine is associated with successful matchmaking and marital happiness. During your visit, you will receive a talisman called Kumano-goou-houin, which used to be handed out to pilgrims visiting this place throughout centuries. Depending on the day, you will also be able to meet the shrine’s head priest and receive insights into the legends linked to this holy place.

Relax on Nakanoshima Island in style

Our recommended place to stay in Kumano is located just in front of its shores, on Nakanoshima island, accessible by a short five-minute ferry ride. Unwind by enjoying your welcome drink at this elegant property, where all rooms are decorated in a tasteful modern Japanese style. After a long day spent walking through holy places and wild nature, enjoy a generous kaiseki style dinner skillfully combining the best seafood from the coastal areas with meat products from the mountainous areas of Kumano. The property’s large ocean-view onsen hot springs are the real gem of this stay: with both indoor and outdoor bathing facilities, these soothing waters are the best way to reach a deep level of relaxation after a tiring day spent outdoors.

Early morning tour to Japan’s largest tuna auction site

An early morning start to visit Katsuura Port, one of the most prolific tuna fishing sites in Japan. Every morning an impressive quantity of top-quality tuna reaches this port through a vast number of fishing vessels and tunas of all sizes are lined up in the auction area where buyers for the top restaurants around the country scramble to make offers for the best catch. With tuna overfishing and climate change pushing this business towards the verge of a crisis, this port has adopted strict guidelines to make this industry more sustainable, such as setting seasonal catching limits and only catching fully-grown fish. Auctioneers and buyers negotiate in loud voices and using lingo that is mysterious yet fascinating to watch for visitors.

Exclusive kagura performance at Nachi Taisha

Take part in a Shinto ritual at Nachi Taisha, a splendid vermilion-lacquered building at the top of Mt Nachi. The ritual begins with the sound of drums summoning the deity. A purification ritual performed by the priest follows, as well as a kagura performance, a mesmerizing sacred dance performed by a miko shrine maiden. Offerings of sakaki branches are also made to the deity towards the end of the ceremony. Later, the priest will join you to provide insights about the ritual and take you on a tour of this sacred place combining many faiths: Shintoism, Buddhism and the syncretic Shugendo. After learning about this place, move towards its most impressive side: Nachi Waterfalls cascades, a 133 m tall natural waterfall making one of the most breathtaking and powerful natural views in Japan and considered sacred since ancient times.

Cross the sea to Mt.Fudarakusan-ji - a place of unique religious beliefs

Visit Fudarakusan-ji, a temple of a unique kind. In addition to the Kumano pilgrimages, other faiths brought pilgrims to the region. One of these is Fudaraku Shinko. This particular branch of Buddhism worships Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, often portrayed in statues and paintings as a merciful female divinity. Said to have been founded by Ragyo Shonin, who arrived in Japan from India in the 4th century, this temple attracted believers who thought that Nirvana was located beyond the sea and that Kannon would help worshippers reach this paradise of eternal salvation. It is said that in the 9th century AD a resident monk of this temple set to sea on a small vessel with a hut built inside and only 30 days’ worth of provisions. He never returned, but by making this one-way journey of self-sacrifice, faithful worshipers believed he would help the whole of humanity in their struggle to reach salvation. In the following centuries, a total number of 25 monks sacrificed themselves on similar boat journeys leaving the temple, the last one in the 18th century. In addition to a stone monument remembering the names of these 25 monks, a replica of the small boats used for this ritual sacrifice is on show within the temple.

Bikuni nuns’ storyteller at Fudarakusan-ji temple

Get to know the fascinating stories of the Bikuni nuns, who wandered throughout Japan between the 15th and 18th centuries carrying mandala paintings and collecting donations for the Kumano Sanzan temples. Their mandalas are highly symbolic depictions of the religious places in Kumano as well as the human journey through life until salvation in the afterlife. Be guided throughout this tour by a Bikuni guide and listen to many impressive stories of pilgrimages to these holy lands.

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