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FoodJapan’s Shrine of Spiritual Awakening • Just One Cookbook

Japan’s Shrine of Spiritual Awakening • Just One Cookbook

Discover the rich history and spiritual significance of Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the most revered shrines in Japan. Learn about its ancient rituals and stunning architecture that continues to attract visitors seeking enlightenment.

Wooden ShrineWooden Shrine

Nestled within the serene landscapes of Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, lies the revered Kumano Hongu Taisha (Kumano Grand Shrine). It’s a sacred Shinto shrine steeped in rich history and spiritual significance, and part of the Kumano Sanzan (trio of grand shrines). It is also the head of over 3000 Kumano shrines across Japan. And a focal point for pilgrims journeying along the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes.

Its majestic torii gate (the largest in Japan) captivates travelers and pilgrims who want to embark on a profound journey of self-discovery and spiritual awakening.

In my other post, we explored the first of the three grand shrines, Kumano Nachi Taisha at Nachi Waterfall; you can read here!

With so much history, legends, and mystery to be uncovered, it’s time to get exploring!

What is the Kumano Kodo?

For over 1,000 years, the mountainous region of Kumano has been considered the mythical “land of the gods.” During the Heian Era (794 – 1185), members of the imperial household trekked from the old capital, Kyoto, to this secluded area. The arduous journey took over 30 days, with the hope of discovering heaven on earth. Within the Kumano region, the three grand shrines were established. Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha, forming the name Kumano Sanzan.

Wooden ShrineWooden Shrine

These three shrines combined the Shintoism and Buddhism faiths, known as Shinbutsu-shugo. This stayed until the Meiji government issued a proclamation ordering the separation of the two religions in 1868.

The Kumano Kodo, a network of pilgrimage routes spanning the Kii mountain range and connecting the Kumano Sanzan, is more than a physical journey. It is a path believed to offer a transformative spiritual experience and great merit. This journey has historically been sought after by members of the imperial family, emperors, and now people from all corners of the globe.

Stone stairs lines with treesStone stairs lines with trees

In a testament to their historical and cultural significance, the Kumano Kodo was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage status in July 2004. It is now part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.”

How to Get to Kumano Hongu Taisha

Kumano Hongu Taisha can be accessed by bus from three locations. However, there is limited availability, so please check the bus timetables and plan accordingly.

From Goto Station

If you are exploring around the Nara region, this is the best option. From Goto Station, board the no. 301 bus, which takes you to Hongu Taisha-mae bus stop. The journey takes approximately five hours and costs 3250 yen one way (prices in 2024). You can view the timetable here.

From Shingu Station

From the east coast of Wakayama Prefecture, board no. 51, 53, 90, or 302 bus from Shingu Station to Hongu Taisha-mae bus stop. It takes approximately 70 minutes and costs 1560 yen one way. There are three popular onsen along the way, Kawayu, Wataze, and Yunomine Onsen visitors can stop by. However, not all buses stop there, so please check the timetable to board the correct bus according to your itinerary.

From Kii Tanabe Station

Finally, from the west coast of Wakayama Prefecture, board bus no. 81, 85, 91, or 95 from Kii Tanabe Station. It will take just over two hours to Hongu Taisha-mae bus stop. A one-way trip costs 2100 yen. You can view the full timetable here.

By Car

I always recommend driving in Japan, especially if you are in a group. If you aren’t sure about driving in Japan, check out our Japan Driving Guide. While tolls can be expensive, sharing the cost between 2-4 people can become very cost-efficient. Plus, you can explore wherever and whenever you want. Driving through the mountains of the Kumano region is particularly special, with non-stop breathtaking views along the way.

Mountain rangesMountain ranges

Kumano Hongu Taisha

Hidden among the tall cypress trees, you’ll find the entrance to Kumano Hongu Taisha marked by a large torii gate.

As you step through the torii gateway, you’ll feel the shrine’s immense history with the flutters of flags and towering cedar trees, creating a sense of allure, wonder, and serenity.

Halfway up the 158 stone steps, purify yourself at the Chozuya (water basin) under the watchful eye of Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow. Check out my Japan shrines and temples etiquette guide if you’re unsure of the proper ways to when visiting them.

At the top of the stairs is a Jyuhosho (shrine shop), where you can pick up omamori (amulets), omikuji (fortunes), and various other shrine goods.

To the left is the shrine office, and just in front is the Hiden, where kannushi (Shinto priests) pray to gods on behalf of worshippers. Two Komainu, stone lion-esque statues sit to purge evil spirits from the sanctuary.

Shrine main hallShrine main hall

Passing through the Shinmon (entrance gate) leads to the Honden (main hall), where you can appreciate the stunning architecture and thatched roof made from cypress shingles. The information board next to the Shinmon lists four different praying spots, each in a particular order.

Wooden ShrineWooden Shrine
People praying at a wooden shrinePeople praying at a wooden shrine

Kumano Hongu Taisha enshrines Izanagi-Okami, the deity who gave birth to Japan, and Ketsumimiko-Okami, who strives to help humanity. People visit to pray for harmony in the home, a happy marriage, and a long life.

Spring and Autumn Festivals

Every spring, from April 13th to 15th, you can enjoy the Kumano Hongu Taisha Spring Festival. Fathers and sons purify themselves in the closeby Yunomine Onsen before walking over the Dainichi-goe section of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route to Oyunohara while wearing traditional costumes. The children have the kanji 大, meaning “big,” written on their forehead, and must carried throughout the whole journey without touching the ground.

On April 15th, the festival climaxes with a parade carrying a portable mikoshi shrine invoked with the Kumano Deities. The mikoshi is spun and tossed in the air as it makes its rounds, purifying the village. It ends Oyunohara with various rituals and celebrations, including fire rituals and a mochi rice cake scramble.

Unfortunately, I missed out by a couple of weeks, but I’ll have to make the journey back one day.

Stone monument with engraved birdStone monument with engraved bird

In August, visit the Yata-no-Hi Fire Festival, which started in 1999. Legend states that Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow, showed the way to Emperor Jinmu, who had lost his way in the mountains of Kumano. In honor of this story, a portable shrine made of steel and decorated with a Yatagarasu motif is accompanied by women in traditional costume parades from Kumano Hongu Taisha to Oyunohara. The festival climaxes with a Taiko drum show, dancing, and fireworks!

Kitchen Restaurant きっちん

Throughout the area, you can find various restaurants and cafes. However, I visited on a Monday, a common holiday for shops in Japan, so many were closed.

I decided on Kitchen, a small family-style restaurant, for a bowl of udon and mehairzushi (rice ball wrapped in mustard greens pickled in salt). Overall, it was a standard bowl of udon. Nothing too special but tasty enough to keep me fueled for more exploring!

Oyunohara: The Original Kumano Hongu Taisha

Just behind きっちん is Oyunohara (大斎原), the original site of Kumano Hongu Taisha. It is located on the sandbank at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers. In 1889, a great flood destroyed three of the shrine’s structures before it was decided to move the remaining to its current location.

Its entrance is marked by the largest Torii gate in Japan at a staggering 34 meters! The base is blanketed in a hue of pink during cherry blossom season.

The surrounding scenery allows you to appreciate Wakayama’s mountainous beauty and serenity as you embark on your spiritual adventure.

You’ll find a small stone shrine with even more cherry blossoms inside. Surprisinly, despite being in full bloom, there was next to no one there. Making it a great spot to enjoy hanami (cherry blossom viewing.) There were strong winds during my visit, so I also got to enjoy some sakura fubuki (cherry blossom snowstorm), you can see on the Instagram reel!

That wraps it up for Kumano Hongu Taisha! No matter what season you go, there is breathtaking scenery to be found and endless exploring to discover Kumano’s rich history and traditions.

101 Places to Visit in Tokyo ebook101 Places to Visit in Tokyo ebook


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