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Journey to the Spiritual Roots of Japan

By Brad Towle

Have you ever wondered about the other side of Japan? What is it like in the places that don't appear in the news every day like Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto-the countryside, the real Japan, the areas on the map that seem to have nothing but a road and a set of train tracks along the coast?.

When I travel, I always try to find a place that holds the essence of its people, somewhere that embodies the spirit of its inhabitants. I read up on a couple of the sacred sites of the Kii Mountain Range: the mountaintop Buddhist complex of Koyasan and the Kumano Kodo, a network of ancient pilgrimage routes. I knew that it was a place I had to explore-and besides, there didn't seem to be anything there on the map!

Koyasan (Wakayama Prefecture)

Koyasan is a Buddhist community situated in an alpine basin poetically described as a lotus flower, with the surrounding peaks likened to petals and the main temple as its center. It is surrounded by forest and has an air of mystery. With 117 temples scattered about the plateau, it is one of the most important religious communities in Japan. Koyasan was founded in the year 816 by the holy priest Kukai, who used the site for ascetic practices. Koyasan is overflowing with attractive architecture and elaborate Buddhist art, and is a feast for the senses.

I was especially impressed with my temple stay experience in Koyasan. There are over fifty temples that you can stay at. In addition to serving traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine, there is a morning ceremony that you can take part in. At the ceremony that I attended the hall was dark and filled with elaborate ritual decorations that glittered in the candlelight. I closed my eyes and the enchanting rhythm of the monks'prayers made me feel like I was floating in a mandala surrounded by the serene faces of Buddhas—paradise on earth.

The Kumano Kodo (Pass through, Mie Prefecture, Wakayama Prefecture, Nara Prefecture, Osaka Prefecture)

Further to the south of Koyasan is the Kumano region, a sacred site with ancient roots. Kumano is referred to as the abode of the gods and the land of the dead in Japanese mythology. The focus of worship is the three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha. Each grand shrine has its origins in nature worship, an excellent example being the awe-inspiring Nachi Waterfall. At 133 meters high, it is the tallest waterfall in Japan. It is considered a deity in itself and is marked with a sacred rope where the water rushes over the cliff. Looking up at the divine cascade, it appears as if it is gracefully linking this world and the next.

A highlight of the Kumano region is the network of Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes that lead to and connect the Grand Shrines. It is only one of two pilgrimage route networks registered as UNESCO World Heritage, the other being the famous Way of St. James in Spain. Walking these historic trails, one can experience the spiritual landscape of Japan's sacred mountains.

I didn't have time for a multi-day walk, so I chose a seven-kilometer section from the Hosshinmon-oji Shrine to the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine in the Hongu area. It was an excellent walk through a variety of forest trails and traditional ridge-top villages. I really enjoyed getting a glimpse into the traditional mountain culture along the trail.

During my peaceful walk, I ran into a professional photographer from Tokyo who was on assignment in the area. I was very interested to learn about his motivations for visiting this unique, off-the-beaten-track destination. When I asked him what Kumano meant to him, he said, "Kumano is a place to delve deep into the spiritual roots of Japan. The people in Kumano are so friendly, it is like coming home—my secret getaway from the hassle of the modern world. It is a great place, not just for first-time visitors, but for revisiting many times over."

Close to the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine is a set of hot springs, including Yunomine Onsen, one of Japan's oldest hot springs, and Kawayu Onsen, where hot mineral waters bubble to the surface of the river. I decided to spend the night here to soak in the baths and relax. The soothing waters seemed to calm my thoughts as I tried to understand the symbolism and meaning of these beautiful sacred mountains and what I had experienced during my journey. That is when I realized, in a flash of enlightenment, that I had found what was on this blank spot on the map, the reason why it has been a pilgrimage destination for over 1000 years…but this is not for me to say, it is for you to discover for yourself!