Commonly referred to as the Kumano Sanzan, the three Grand Shinto Shrines of Kumano are the ultimate destinations of worshippers on the ancient Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trail. Located on the south eastern tip of the Kii mountain range in Wakayama prefecture, these head shrines, or Sōhonsha, are considered the most important of the Kumano faith, a unique sect of nature worship that combines Shintoism and Buddhism. There are over 3000 Kumano shrines found throughout Japan.
The three Kumano Sanzan shrines are Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha. Together with the network of Kumano Kodō trails, all three are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites as part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes of the Kii Mountains”.
Kumano Hongū Taisha and Oyunohara
The largest and most important of the three sacred shrines, Kumano Hongū Taisha (熊野本宮大社) is the main shrine of the Kumano faith. Situated at the top of a long stone staircase on sacred ground surrounded by giant cedar and cypress trees, this was often the first of the Sanzan shrines reached by pilgrims after a long and arduous journey through the mountains.
Originally located one kilometer away at Oyunohara, a sandbank at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers, the Hongū Taisha shrine was moved to its current location after devastating floods in 1889. A giant torii shrine gate, the worlds tallest at 33.9 meters, towers over visitors and marks the entrance to this sacred area.
Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kamikura-jinja
Kumano Hayatama Taisha (熊野速玉大社) is located in Shingu City, where the waters of Kumano-gawa river empties into the Pacific Ocean. While the vermillion lacquered buildings have recently been rebuilt, the location of the shrine has remained the same at least the 12th century. On the shrine grounds is a museum that houses a large number of artifacts designated as National Treasures.
A few hundred meters from Hayatama Taisha is Kamikura-jinja, a small shrine half way up Mount Gongen dedicated to a giant rock, the Gotobiki-iwa. A Shinto creation myth holds that three dieties (kami) first descended to earth at this very spot. To reach this primitive shrine (and a great view of Shingu City), worshippers must first climb an ancient staircase of 538 steps up the mountainside.
Daimon-zaka and Kumano Nachi Taisha
The traditional approach to the third shrine of the Kumano Sanzan is the Daimon-zaka, a 600 meter cobblestone-lined slope flanked with centuries old Japanese cedars, camphor trees, and bamboo groves. The Daimon-zaka is part of Nakahechi route and the network of Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trails – climbing these ancient steps to the heights of Nachi let’s you experience the special atmosphere and beauty of this unique area. At the top of the trail, another 473 stone steps lead to the gates of the Nachi Taisha shrine.
Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社) is the third Kumano Grand Shrine, located near the coastal onsen resort town of Kii-Katsuura and half way up Nachi Mountain. Its religious origin is the worship of Nachi-no-Otaki, a 133-meter cascade that is Japan’s tallest waterfall. The bright orange colours of the shrine buildings are a perfect complement to the natural beauty of the surrounding mountainside. Directly adjacent to Nachi Taisha shrine is Nachi Seiganto-ji, a Buddhist temple purported to be the oldest structure in the area, and an example of the harmonious co-existence of Shinto and Buddhist religions that is central to the Kumano faith.
The vermillion Three-Storied Pagoda at Kumano Nachi Taisha is a popular spot with visitors and photographers, and it easy to see why. With lush forest and the Nachi-no-Taki waterfall as backdrop, this is one of Japan’s most breathtaking views. Following a stone footpath from the pagoda leads to the base of the thunderous falls. One can imagine what it must be like to embark on a long and arduous pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodō and finally reach this magical place.