Not so far away from the lively and touristic cities of Osaka and Nara there’s a region that enshrines some of the most important and ancient treasures of Japan: the Kii peninsula.
Recently I’ve found out that nothing less that Lonely Planet has noticed a region in Japan that I’ve visited and enjoyed more than once in the last few years, and they liked it so much that they added it to the “Best in travel 2018” list: the Kii peninsula. Thus, I take the occasion to tell you of my personal traveling experience in this region, showing some unpublished photos from my archives.
First of all, let’s start from the basics: the Kii peninsula (the biggest of Honshu) is part of the Kansai region and is located south of Osaka and Nara. The Wakayama prefecture stretches along its western side, encompassing the southern area as well; the rest of its surface belongs to Mie prefecture and, in minor extent, to Osaka and Nara prefectures. It’s closer than you may think from these two beautiful cities, as well as being quite well connected and this is one of the reasons why it’s becoming more and more sought-after and popular in recent times. But the main reason is that the Kii peninsula is a real treasure chest: almost the whole region is covered with dense forests which unfold over the vast Kii mountain ranges. This green mantle, grown wildly thanks to the favorable sub-tropical humid climate, is as luxuriant as ancient, making this pristine and magnificent environment the cradle of the japanese faiths, Shinto and Shugen-do (one of the japanese buddhist doctrines). Having been there, I don’t find difficult at all to believe that it’s possible to find the spirits within every natural element; when you find yourself in the deep of the forest, all you have to do is to stay still, in silence, feeling its breath and listening to the voices of the trees. It’s something intangible, but it’s there, and I think that it’s for this reason that in the Kii peninsula there’s still a strong presence of religious activities related to nature worshiping.
Winding through the immense forest of the Kii peninsula, there’s the Kumano Sankeimichi pilgrimage path, which connects the three most important temples of the region (Kumano Sanzan): the Kumano Hayatama, the Kumano Hongu Taisha and the Kumano Nachi Taisha. The sacred route was in the past crossed by emperors and their families, as well as aristocrats, to visit and praying to the three kami Shingu, Hongu and Nachi in their respective shrines. These “gods” of nature are probably older than every other faith in this region and the religious form we see they have assumed today is the result of the syncretism with Shinto and Buddhism; nonetheless they have kept all their meaning and their spiritual “strength”, together with many Shugen-do ascetic monks (called yamabushi) practising mountain worship.
The above mentioned shrines, as well as the Kumano Sankeimichi Nakahechi pilgrimage routes play such an important historical and cultural role that have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
The Kii peninsula is also characterised by a beautiful coastline, made of unique cliffs and rocks, shaped by the wind and the sea (that during the typhoons season are frightfully powerful), but also some of the most inviting beaches (if you exclude the ones of Okinawa). Visiting these places is very easy and straighforward because the Kisei Main Line railway runs along the peninsula’s coast from Wakayama city to Kameyama city (Mie prefecture); so doing some hop-on and hop-off to discover the many small towns and their surroundings is a breeze. Venturing in the inland is a different thing, because there aren’t railways that cross the mountain range and the forests but just some curvy roads; thus, if you want to visit the shrines, the pilgrimage routes and the ryokan you’ll need to plan ahead to take the bus or to go by car.
Let’s move on to my “must see” personal list, but take into account that I’ve had very limited time to explore the Kii peninsula; there are so many places to discover that you’ll need at least an entire week to start scratching the surface.
DAIMON-ZAKA and NACHI TAISHA:
The Daimon-zaka is part of the Sankeimichi pilgrimage path in south-eastern area of the Kii peninsula, and it’s easily accessible from the Nachi station of the Keisei Main Line railway. The Daimon-zaka is a monumental staircase made with cobblestones that climbs a slope of about 600 meters to reach the Kumano Nachi Taisha. Despite its considerable size, this stairway is dwarfed by the tall ancient cedar trees which spire along the path; so it’s difficult to realize the sense of scale if not being there in person. The walk through that part of the forest is a beautiful experience: the sound of every step taken along the stairway is muffled by the dense vegetation and the sunlight filtering obliquely creates a sight of the path deepened by infinite layers of trees. The quiet atmosphere and the almost physical sensation of being embraced by the ancient forest establish some sort of spiritual bond with that natural place, arousing a pleasant peaceful feeling.
Once got to the end of the stairway, you enter the Kumano Nachi Taisha grand shrine, one of the Kumano Sanzan pilgrimage destinations. This complex includes the Hiryu shrine, entitled to the kami of the waterfall, Hiryu Gongen; and it’s here that you can realize how magnificent is this natural wonder: the Nachi no Taki is Japan’s tallest single-drop waterfall, something truly imposing.
From an opening between the trees, a small creek passes below a shimenawa (a rope used in the Shinto religion to mark the threshold of a sacred place), then makes a plunge of 133 meters in the air and crashes thundering on a bed of big rocks. The view of the waterfall from its base and the roaring sound of the impact with the rocks makes you feel tiny and reveal the possible presence of the kami within this wondrous manifestation of the power of nature.
One thing that you’ll probably notice during a visit to the Daimon-zaka and the Kumano Nachi Taisha is the possible presence of pilgrims (more realistically tourists who want to live a more intense experience) dressed up in a very traditional way, as in the Heian era. Unlike in Kyoto, where many shops rent every kind of unconvincingly colorful kimono that most of the times have nothing to do with the real ones, in the area of the Nachi Taisha you’ll have many more chances to take a shot (or simply to have a look) of an historically coherent scene of a pilgrim who visits the shrine, in the 10th century fashion.
KUMANO HONGU TAISHA and its surroundings:
Deeper in the inland of the Kii peninsula there is the Kumano Hongu Taisha, maybe the most important of the three Kumano Sanzan shrines. In this sacred site is enshrined the Kumano Gongen deity, who is worshipped in about 3000 other shrines all across Japan. You’ll find also many emblems and statues of a three legged crow, that is a significant japanese mythologic symbol: as the incarnation of the god Kamo Taketsunumi no Mikoto, is believed that the Yatagarasu (the eight-span crow) has led Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, from the region of Kumano to Yamato in order to establish the imperial dynasty in his country. The Yatagarasu is also a symbol of rebirth and renaissance and, for those of you interested in soccer, it’s the emblem of the Japan National Football Team too.
As many other historical structures in Japan, the Hongu Taisha has been faithfully rebuilt (both in materials and in assembly techniques) more than once due to floods and fires, until the 17th century, when the entire complex has been moved a bit from its original ground to better preserve it from the river’s floods. A unique peculiarity of this shrine is the massive Torii, the sacred gate, that’s almost 34 meters tall and weighs 172 tons: it’s the largest in the world. This Otorii stands at the entrance of the Oyunohara sandbank, that is the ground where once the whole complex stood, near the confluence of the Kumano River and the Otonashi river. Now on that strip of ground there are some rice fields: these isolate the torii from the houses in the nearby and it makes it look even taller.
If you are planning a visit to the Hongu Taisha that’s a bit more relaxed than the usual “hop off – have a look – buy a souvenir – hop on for the next attraction”, I suggest you to add to the list a brief hike: from the main Shrine, all you have to do is to head North-West and to follow a small path into the wood which will lead you to the Kumano Kodo Lookout Point. There you’ll have the chance to enjoy a beautiful view on the valley and on the mountain range which stretches as far as the eye can see; from that vantage point it’s clearly visible the massive Otorii, whose size makes it almost out of scale compared to the surrounding landscape. Furthermore, depending on the period of the year, you’ll find pretty unique sights and colours: when I went to visit the Kii peninsula, the late autumn gave me some beautiful chances to capture its vibrant colours, especially the flaming red of Momiji trees and the pale gold of Susuki grass.
Keeping to the topic of an extended trip in the Kii peninsula, an experience not to be missed is definitely a stay in a local ryokan, preferably provided with onsen. In my case, I stayed in a very nice accomodation facility at the Kawayu hot springs site, near the Hongu Taisha area. The unique feature of the Kawayu Onsen is that on the river’s pebbly shore hot termal water springs freely: I obviously didn’t miss the opportunity to benefit of an open air night bath in the river’s pleasantly hot water, enjoying at the same time a wonderful view of the forested mountainside on the opposite side of the Otogawa. If you plan to live this experience, I highly suggest you to prefer the night bath over the daytime one, because the atmosphere is truly amazing; but then don’t sleep until late, because the following early morning waits for you with a magical misty scenery to see (and capture if possible).
Coastal views of the Kii peninsula: SHIRAHAMA ENGETSUTO and KUSHIMOTO HASHIGUI IWA
Among the natural treasures that make the Kii peninsula a unique place, there are some sceneries along its coastline; they worth a visit independently from the other destinations that I’ve shown you in this article. During my days in this region I had the chance to discover the amazing islet of Engetsuto in Shirahama and Hashigui Iwa in Kushimoto.
The Engetsuto is a little island which owes its name to its strange shape: it means “full moon island” because of the round hole in its center, which makes it a very photogenic subject. It lies over the southern head of the Tanabe bay, facing toward west, in the clear water of the Pacific Ocean. It’s often photographed at sunset, when the sun passes in the center of the hole; I opted for a daytime shot, because I didn’t have in schedule a stay in Shirahama… Anyway if you are planning to spend some time in this nice town, note that besides the interesting Engetsuto there’s also the beautiful Shirahama Beach: it’s a little bay made of pure white quartz sand which is touched by crystal clear blue waters. This is your best bet to enjoy a swim in summer like in a tropical resort, in this part of Japan.
Following the coastline you’ll reach the southernmost point of Honshu, where I found the amazing Hashigui Iwa, in Kushimoto. They are a group of spire-like rocks that form a straight line, about 850m long, just in front of the seashore. Their name means “bridge’s pillars islands” and there’s an interesting story behind it; I dedicated an entire article to the Hashigui Iwa in my blog that you can read here: Hashigui Iwa: A unique seascape in Japan
Since the sunset and the sunrise make for a very fascinating and dramatic scenery, the Hashigui Iwa deserve an overnight stay to attend to such a beautiful sight (and capture it as best as you can). Be careful just to avoid the typhoon season, because this part of the Kii peninsula, in the Wakayama prefecture, is the most affected by the fierce winds and rains.
- Since the Kii peninsula is characterised by a very diverse territory, I suggest you to have the most focal length covered you can, from the ultrawide to tele. At the same time, if you plan to walk along some of the ancient pilgrimage paths, you’ll need to travel light, so reducing the weight of your photographic gear bringing just two or three zooms is better than having a bunch of prime lenses that you furthermore have to switch continuously.
- The most useful and lightweight accessory you can bring with you in a trip like this is a circular polariser: this filter will make deeper a more vibrant the color of the foliage of the immense forests which cover the entire region, as well as removing the reflections from the leaves and the water’s surface. As a result, the shots will look less chaotic and more intense.
I hope that you have enjoyed this reading, I’m happy to have been able to share with you my personal experience; if you have any question or curiosity, or if you’d like to share your thoughts (in case you had the chance to visit the Kii peninsula), don’t hesitate to drop a line in the comment section below, I’d really appreciate that.
Please note that these photographs are available for Fine Art prints: to know more about the printing options and the choice of papers and inks, visit the “Buy Fine Art prints and licenses” page. For any enquiry, just get in touch with me through the contact form.
ADDENDUM: For those of you who are interested in knowing the description reported on the commemorative stele of the UNESCO World Heritage of Kumano, I add below the full transcription:
Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range is inscribed on the World Heritage List based on the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in July 2004. The objective of the Convention is to protect and conserve the monuments sites and buildings of outstanding universal value as well as precious natural environments and to transmit them as the world heritage of mankind as a whole to future generations.
The Nakahechi section of the Kumano Pilgrimage routes first started getting used around 1000 years ago by people coming from Kyoto, the capital at that time. Theroute follows the west coast of the Kii peninsula to the city of Tanabe, where it turns East to the heart of the mountains. From Hongu the route continues on to Shingu and Nachi, the sites of the other two shrines in the Kumano Sanzan. Along the way people worshipped at Ojis, places dedicated to child gods of the deity of Kumano. Here at Hosshimon Oji, with Hongu close by, it is a very important place to refresh one’s religious piety. In the vicinity, there used to be facilities to overnight in.
In the solemn embracing surroundings of the nature along the pilgrimage routes where the gods dwell, we can pray and perform our ascetic practices. The foundation of our faith is in this cultural landscape and therefore to preserve it we have created this buffer zone.“