A NEW WORLD HERITAGE SITE
Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (November 16, 2004)
Dressed in white, a mountain priest chants a spell as he walks
through the steep Kii Mountain Range. This is a scene that has changed little
over the past 1,000 years, and the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii
Mountain Range have just been designated Japan's twelfth World Heritage Site.
The area has a growing reputation as a sightseeing route along which visitors
can enjoy the natural and historical splendor of ancient Japan.
|Visitors travel along an ancient path. (Jiji)
Stepping Back in Time
The designated area includes the heartland of Shugendo (a unique Japanese religion
that is a blend of Buddhism, Shinto, and the worship of certain mountains): Yoshino,
Omine, and Kumano Sanzan, which has long been famous as a destination visited
by people of deep religious conviction. Also included is Koyasan (Mt. Koya), the
home of Kongobu-ji, the main temple of Shingon Buddhism, which was built on the
mountain in 816 by Kukai. All of these places are worshipped as sacred ground.
What is interesting about this new World Heritage Site is that what was selected
was sacred ground traveled by pilgrims. This is only the second time that such
a route has been recognized in this way, the other being Santiago de Compostela,
a pilgrimage route between Spain and France. By setting foot in the Kii Mountain
Range, visitors can feel as though they have stepped back into Japan's ancient
Characteristics of Japanese religion include worship of nature and a fusion of
Buddhism with native Shinto. In the past, people held nature in reverence and
made things like the sun, volcanoes, boulders, and old trees the objects of their
beliefs. Within this worship of nature, the worship of mountains as holy places
took root as well. The priests who walk the mountains dressed in white belong
to the religious order Shugendo. They light holy fires, chant spells, hold prayers,
and seek to acquire special powers by conducting ascetic practices deep in the
A Course for Tourists
Prior to the Meiji era (1868-1912), this religious fusion of Buddhism and Shinto
was widespread. Many people thought that these religions were indeed the same
and that the Buddha would appear in the form of Shinto gods. Therefore, the gods
that were worshipped at Kumano Sanzan were taken to be Buddha as well, and the
whole of Kumano was viewed as holy ground for Buddhism, as a result of which
it attracted many people.
Additionally, Koyasan is holy ground for the Shingon Buddhist sect. As a destination
for pilgrims known as "Ohenro," known for their connections to the priest
Kukai, the Kii Mountain Range is truly the spiritual center of Japan.
Whereas it used to take months to walk around to each of the sites, it is now
possible to visit Kumano Sanzan in one day by car. As the area has now been designated
a World Heritage Site, travel agencies are preparing a variety of tour options.
One such route at Koyasan takes visitors around Kongobu-ji and Okuno-in sando,
the approach to Okuno-in where the mausoleum of Kukai is located. Visitors stay
one night and enjoy vegetarian cuisine at a temple lodging. There is also a route
that takes visitors by bus on a three-day visit close to Kumano and Kii-Katsuura,
spending the nights at a hotel or hot-spring resort. There are many attractive
tourist spots, such as the waterfall at Nachi, which is said to bestow long life
on people who are sprayed by the water. Visitors can also enjoy a walking trip
to the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine with a guide well-versed in history.
If the pilgrims of 1,000 years ago were to see the tourists of today, they might
think the journey had lost its meaning by virtue of being so easy, but, thanks
to its designation as a World Heritage Site, the area seems likely to attract
greater numbers of people seeking to know more about Japan's origins.
Related Web Sites
Kii Mountain Range
Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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