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Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (November 16, 2004)

Visitors travel along an ancient path. (Jiji)
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.

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 past.

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 mountains.

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.

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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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