This world heritage site incorporates three sacred sites across Nara, Wakayama and Mie prefectures: "Yoshino/Omine", "Kumano Sanzan", "Koya-san" and the pilgrimage routes that connect them.
Yoshino and Omine, situated at the northernmost part of the Kii Mountains, developed as a sacred place for Shugendo, a religion established by combining the original mountain worship of Japan, Tantric Buddhism, and Taoism around the 12th century. The followers seclude themselves in the mountains and perform ascetic practices. Yoshino is famous as a mountain cherry blossom beauty area, and it is said that the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) who boasted overwhelming power at that time held a luxurious cherry blossom viewing party here in 1594. In Kinpusen-ji Temple, the central temple of Shugendo, a large meeting is held for people to confess their sins, and an offering of cherry blossoms is given in April every year.
Kumano Sanzan is the name for a set of three Grand Shrines situated in the southeastern part of the Kii Peninsula: Kumano Hongu-taisha Shrine, Kumano Nachi-taisha Shrine and Kumano Hayatama-taisha Shrine. An afternoon will suffice to see all three shrines by car, but, if you would like to fully enjoy the scenery, it is recommended that you stay at the Katsuura Onsen or Hongu Onsen Hot Spring and have a more leisurely visit. Nachi Falls, which is itself considered a god, is 13m wide and 133m high, and is known as one of the highest waterfalls in Japan. Because it is believed that touching the splash of the falls ensures long life, many visitors gather around the waterfall basin.
Koya-san is an unprecedented religious city on a mountain top where more than 100 temples are clustered. The most famous among them is the Kongobu-ji Temple constructed by a monk named Kukai (774-835, founder of the Shingon Buddhist School) in 816. You can see rooms decorated with beautiful sliding screens created by a painter who left his mark on history, and the room where Toyotomi Hideyoshi's nephew Hidetsugu (1568-1595) committed hara-kiri when cornered here by Hideyoshi. Koyasan is also known for its many temples where you are welcome to stay. In the Shukubo or temple lodging, you come in contact with true traditional Japanese culture that you cannot experience at any ordinary inn, such as participating in copying of the sutra and in religious services or eating the traditional vegetarian food of Buddhist monks. It is a fascinating way to experience Japanese culture first-hand.
The ancient pilgrimage routes connecting these sites are locally called the Kumano Kodo and one of only two UNESCO World Heritage registered pilgrimage routes in the world, the only other being the Santiago e Compostela in Spain. The main five routes are Nakahechi, Kohechi, Iseji, Omine Okugakemichi and Koyasan Choishimichi. Although many of them have steep stone steps or arduous passes, it is well worth walking these old routes for the opportunity to appreciate the deeply mysterious historical remains amid the rich natural scenery.
Access: From Kansai Airport - 32mins to Tengachaya Station by Nankai "Rap:t" (limited-stop express), and 35mins from Tengachaya to Gokurakubashi Station by Nankai Line "Koya" (limited-stop express).
From Tokyo Station - 2hrs 30mins by JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line to Shin-Osaka Station.
From Shin-Osaka Station - take subway to Nanba Station, 15 mins. From Namba Station, 1hr 45mins by Nankai Tetsudo Line Express to Gokuraku-bashi Station. From Gokuraku-bashi, take Koya-san Cable to Koya-san, 5 minutes.
JNTO Travel Tips –
Shirahama, Koya-san, Kumano Kodo & Wakayama Prefecture (PDF)
Koya-san Golden Route
Wakayama Prefecture Official Guide
Mie Tourism Guide
Nara Prefecture Tourist Information
Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau