The Kumano Kodo Story
The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage exists, simply, because the Kumano mountains are blessed with incredible natural beauty, and the forests, waterfalls and hot springs have been drawing people to the area for thousands of years.
The Japanese propensity to appreciate and worship nature even developed into a religion – Shinto – which remains one of the strongest faiths in Japan to this day.
Shinto doesn’t have a founder or a particular scripture to follow, and the Shinto gods, or ‘kami’ take the form of natural elements such as wind, rain, mountains, trees and rivers.
Over time the three grand Shrines of the Kumano were built to represent these natural spirits, and now they form the centre piece of the Pilgrimage.
The World of Darkness
The Kumano region actually used to be called Yomi-no-kuni, which also comes from Shinto, and translates to the Land of the Dead or The World of Darkness.
Yomi-no-kuni isn’t a fire and brimstone kind of place though, it’s simply an underworld where you go when you die, regardless of how you behaved when you were alive. In other words, it’s a Japanese form of heaven.
In the 6th Century Buddhism arrived in Kumano, and the area became a center of ascetic practices. Eventually the Shinto spirits were believed to be emanations of Buddha, and the three shrines began to be worshipped as one – called the Kumano Sanzo.
This peaceful blending of religions is alive and well today. People happily worship separate deities, or the same ones for different reasons, throughout the region.
Official Kumano pilgrim etiquette even states that you should respect the faith of past and present worshippers, and that you greet others with a smile and a warm heart.
Royalty & Aristocrats
Two centuries later, the next swathe of pilgrims began visiting the region in search of salvation and enlightenment.
The imperial and aristocratic families of the Heian period turned their pilgrim into a reasonably arduous affair, however, crammed with strict spiritual training to purify the mind, body and soul.
Whether they achieved it or not, who knows, but at least they were doing it somewhere beautiful. More and more shrines were built, and accommodation to support the pilgrims began to appear throughout the region.
Between the 11th and 13th Centuries the Japanese Imperial family visited Kumano almost 100 times, however the rise of the Samurai and the warrior class were about to put a stop to that.
Towards the end of the 12th Century, control over the Kumano area was assumed over by a feudal government run by military families. This eventually put an end to the Imperial pilgrimages, but the aristocrats and now an increasing amount of Samurai, began beating a path to the Kumano Sanzo.
By the 15th Century an emerging economy allowed wealthy citizens to become pilgrims, and by the 18th Century even more could afford the trip.
Numbers declined in the late 19th Century, when Japan was forced to open to the outside world and the government clamped down on religious freedoms to a certain extent, however in 1990s saw a resurgence in Kumano Kodo visitors.
In 2004 Kumano was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the natural beauty of the area is being discovered once again by Japanese, and overseas pilgrims alike.