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Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range

The sacred site of Kumano Sanzan is located in the southeastern part of the Kii Peninsula, quite remote from Kyoto, the capital of Japan at that time, and was difficult to reach from any other place in Japan. This gave rise to several routes starting from different places, which can be categorized into three sub-routes. The first route running on the west coast of the Kii Peninsula is called "Kiji". This route forks at Kii Tanabe into "Nakahechi", which traverses the Kii Peninsula to the east over the mountain area and "Ohechi", which continues along the seacoast. The second route running on the east coast of the Kii Peninsula is called "Iseji". The third route going through the central part of the Kii Peninsula, connecting Koyasan and Kumano Sanzan, is called "Kohechi".
Pilgrimages to Kumano Sanzan started in the early 10th century and continued with devoted zeal until the 15th century; so many people passed along this route on pilgrimage that the pilgrims themselves often formed long lines which were likened to "ants' processions" The Kumano Sankeimichi had been the active pilgrimage route used for the pilgrimage to Kumano Sanzan from ancient times through the Medieval Period of Japan and continued in the Early Modern Period to be used for the pilgrimage to sacred sites in Saigoku, including Kumano Sanzan.

This pilgrimage route was most used for the pilgrimage from Kyoto or west Japan to Kumano Sanzan. The route from its origin goes down to the south along Osaka Bay and turns at Kii Tanabe to the east, entering the mountain area to approach Kumano Sanzan. The Nakahechi included in the World Heritage Site includes the original pilgrimage route and the Dainichigoe section, which extends from Kumano Hongu Taisha to the Yunomine Onsen, a hot spring used for purification rites. The original route begins at the Takijiri-oji site, which is considered to be the "entrance" (in the broad sense of the word) to the sacred area of Kumano, and leads via Kumano Hongu Taisha, to Kumano Hayatama Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Seiganto-ji. Except for the section between Kumano Hongu Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha, where many took advantage of the Kumano River and chose to proceed by boat, the route is for the most part a tough mountain path. This route is most distinctively characterized by Oji, places dedicated to child gods of the deity of Kumano, that can be found at intervals along the path; at the locations of Oji, when retired emperors and aristocrats visited Kumano on pilgrimage, religious activities such as offerings and sutra reading were carried out under the influences of the Shinto-Buddhist fusion, and at other times dances, sumo wrestling performances and Waka readings (Japanese poetry) were offered. The Nakahechi was also used by those people on the Saigoku pilgrimage, which saw a significant rise in the number of participants in the 15th century and which spread throughout Japan after the 17th century.

This pilgrimage route starts from Kii Tanabe on the west coast of the Kli Peninsula, parting from Nakahechi, and continues along the seacoast to the south until it reaches Kumano Sanzan. Longer than the Nakahechi, the Ohechi was the route for those who undertook mountain ascetic practices called Okugake and the group of religious practitioners who repeated the Saigoku pilgrimage 33 times. However, after the 17th century, there began to appear people who came to visit for the mixed purposes of worship and tourism.
Although not all of this section of the route retains the original condition very well any more, it is still valuable as a pilgrimage route characterized by distinctively beautiful cultural landscapes formed by the combination of the sea and mountains.

Running through the central part of the Kii Peninsula from south to north, this pilgrimage route is the shortest route connecting Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan. This is one of the toughest among the Kumano Sankeimichi, with three peaks exceeding the altitude of 1,000m along the way. This route was mainly used by traveling worshippers and merchants -- used as the road for ordinary people, so to speak -- since the Medieval Period of Japan.

Kumano Hongu Taisha used to be known as Kumano Nimasu-jinja and was situated on the Kumanogawa River's sandbank, known as Oyunohara, running through the basin surrounded by mountains and hills, since the time of its foundation. However, after suffering from river flooding in 1889, the surviving shrine buildings including the three main structures were relocated to the present location and reconstructed in 1891.

In the Sonaezaki Kyozukagun is a group of remains of approximately 40 sutra mounds which date back to the Heian Period through the Kamakura Period. In the 19th century, excavations uncovered the largest earthenware storage container in Japan, on which was engraved the year of production, indicating the year 1121.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha includes the compound of the shrine situated near the river mouth of the Kumanogawa River, as well as Mt "Gongenyama" in the background, where Kamikura-jinja is located, and the ritual sites Mifunejima and Otabisho. Halfway up Mt Gongenyama there is a shrine called Kamikura-jinja, where it is believed that the shrine deity had descended. Around the gigantic rock called Gotobiki-iwa, which has itself been worshiped as a sacred object, many bronze bells of the 3rd century and sutra mounds of around the 12th century have been found.
Annually on the 6th of February the fire festival called Kumano Otomatsuri is held; this festival, which is said to retain its ancient religious traditions, was originally observed on the 6th day of the lunar-calendar New Year.

The ancient Nagi Tree is of the species Podocarpus nagi, a tall evergreen species found in temperate areas. Approximately 5.5m in root circumference, 4.5m in trunk circumference and 17.6m in height, it is a gigantic tree revered as a sacred object.

Halfway up Mt Gongenyama, there is a shrine called Kamikura-jinja, where it is believed that the shrine deity had descended. Around the gigantic rock called Gotobiki-iwa, which has itself been worshiped as a sacred object, many bronze bells of the 3rd century and sutra mounds of around the 12th century have been found.

Kumano Nachi Taisha is a Shinto shrine located halfway up the mountain body of Mt Nachisan, with its religious origins in the ancient nature worship of the large waterfall called Nachi no Otaki. Besides the 12 deities of Kumano which it enshrines, the shrine is dedicated to the deified Nachi no Otaki, called Hiro Gongen . Originally, the shrine was located at the foot of the waterfall; after the shrine was relocated to the present site, the fire festival Ogieshikireisai, also known as Nachi no Himatsuri, has been continuously observed here annually on the 14th of July.

Before the 1868 Shintoism and Buddhism Separation Decree, this temple had been known as Nyoirindo and had developed as integral part of Kumano Nachi Taisha. This is the first sacred place of the West Province Pilgrimage in which undertakers of the practices visit the 33 sacred places associated with Kannon,following the belief that the Kannon bodhisattva heeds people's wishes while transforming into 33 separate appearances.

The largest waterfall in Japan, 133m high and 13m wide, the Nachi no Otaki was the religious origin of Kumano Nachi Taisha and Seiganto-ji and is still is a very important object of worship.

The Takijiri-oji site is considered to be the entrance to the sacred area of Kumano and one of the five major Oji that have received the most attention.

A stone tower about 1.1m high, which is located at Hashioretoge. It dates back to the Muromachi Period and is said to be a sutra mound used by Emperor Kazan. A statue of a child mounting a cow and a horse and that of En no Gyoja, which are installed nearby, are from the Meiji Period.

Located at Nonaka, Nakahechi-cho. It is said that the name of this Oji, literally the "cherry-grafting Oji ", is derived from a legend in which Fujiwara no Hidehira grafted his cherry-branch walking stick to a cypress stump.

Located in Okumotorikoshi. Natural stones on which ancient Bonji characters are engraved, relating legends which tell of the deities of Kumano taking their rest here.

A view of the Kumano Hongu Taisha Kyushachi Oyunohara from the site of Fushiogami-oji. It is said that worshippers in pilgrimage gave prayer to Hongu Taisha at this spot.

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