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World Heritage / Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range

Criteria: (ii) (iii) (iv) (vi) | Date of Inscription: 2004 | Location: Mie, Nara and Wakayama Prefectures | Justification for Inscription


Things to see

Pilgrimage Routes

Omine Okugakemichi
Omine Okugakemichi
Kumano River
Kumano River
Koyasan Choishimichi
Koyasan Choishimichi
Three sacred sites in the Kii Mountain Range were the nation's primary sacred sites by the 11th and 12th centuries, attracting over time numerous pilgrims from all over the country. As these pilgrimages increased in importance three types of route, each leading to the three sacred sites and connected with each other were founded. The routes themselves pass through some of Japan's most naturally unspoilt areas and are often deliberately placed in steep, hard to reach locales requiring pilgrims to walk for themselves rather than be carried as was often the way for the higher classes in centuries gone by.
Most of the routes are themselves narrow, often but 1m in width and are sometimes paved and stepped but at other times feature rough and overgrown stretches.
Of the three, "Omine Okugakemichi" is a path that runs up and over some nearby 1000m mountains, "Kumano Sankeimichi" features various departure points when pilgrimages are at their most popular and "Koyasan Choishimichi," founded by Kukai and used by most to visit Kongobu-ji still retains stone signposts every 'cho' (approximately 109 meters in today's terms).
Omine Okugakemichi
Omine Okugakemichi is an 80km route from Yoshino/Omine to Kumano Sanzan and runs from Yoshino to Ominesen-ji temple to Tamaki Jinja Shrine to Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine. Most parts of the route are atop the steep ridge of the local 1000m plus mountain range and according to legend the founder of Shugendo En-no-Gyoja established this route in the 8th century. Okugake is the most significant ascetic practice and means walking along pilgrimage routes. Pilgrims were compelled to complete the Okugake and the number of times they did so was also of importance to the souls taking part.
Natural forests like the Bukkyogadake Primeval Forest and the places where oyamarenge can be seen growing naturally remain on Mt. Bukkyogatake and are interesting to behold for passers by.
Kumano Sankeimichi
The sacred site of Kumano Sanzan is located in the southeastern part of the Kii Peninsula and is the most difficult place to access from Kyoto and other regions of the country bar for via pilgrimage routes. These routes are today categorized into 3 forms.
The first route is the "Kiro" that runs along the west coast of the peninsula. This route forks into two with one 'prong' being the "Nakhechi," and traversing the Kii Peninsula mountain areas, and the other the "Ohechi," which continues along the coast. The second route is called "Iseji" and runs along the east coast of the peninsula. The third route is the "Kohechi" and passes through the central part of the peninsula from Koyasan to Kumano Sanzan. Pilgrimages to Kumano Sanzan began about the middle of the Heian Period (8th-12th centuries) and continued until the 16th century. As the walkers continued much like ants in a line, it was often called a "procession of ants." In later times the Kumano Sankeimichi was frequently used by pilgrims visiting the sacred sites of the Saigoku (western provinces) during the 17th century and is still well-known among folk who regularly visit shrines and temples for sightseeing purposes.

The Nakahechi was the most popular route for people to visit the Kumano Sanzan if coming from the Kyoto area or the western part of the country. Running south along Osaka Bay and turning eastward from Kiitanabe, it reaches the Kumano Sanzan via the mountaintops. Travelers used boats to cover the distance along the Kumano River from Kumano Hongu Taisha to Kumano Hayatama Taisha but had to tackle the steep mountain roads on foot. Yunomine Onsen is a hot spring located in the mountains about 2km southwest of Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine and was once used for purification rites. The Kumano River emerges from the northern part of the Kii Mountain Range and runs south to the Kumanonada covering an area of 2360 sq. m while being an impressive 183km in length. When people visited Kumano Sanzan via the Kumano Sankeimichi Nakahechi they usually did so by boat which in turn made the Kumano River another valuable pilgrimage route.

The Ohechi is a 20km long road starting at Tanabe on the west coast of the Kii Peninsula and running south to the Kumano Sanzan after parting ways with the Nakhechi. Compared to the Nakhechi, the Ohechi is longer and was only used by ascetics and religious experts who performed the Saigokujunrei pilgrimage 33 times, facts recorded in the seventeenth century by pilgrims taking the route. That said, although unchanged portions of the pilgrimage route are few and far between the journey is taken along a road filled with beautiful landscapes and views of the surrounding mountains and sea.

The Iseji is a 160km road connecting Ise Jingu Shrine with Kumano Sanzan. Ise Jingu is located at the center of the eastern coast of the Kii Peninsula and has been worshiped as a shrine enshrining Amaterasu Omikami since ancient times. According to the journals of some pilgrims the route was established by the late 10th century and increased in popularity during and after the 17th century when many people visited Ise Jingu and the Saigokujunrei pilgrimage region. The Iseji starts at Tamaru, a connecting point to the Ise Honkaido (another pilgrimage route to Ise Jingu), and forks at Hana no Iwaya into both the "Shichirimihamamichi," a path leading to Kumano Hayatam Jinja via Shichirimihama on the coast and also the "Hongudo" that runs inland to Kumano Hongu Taisha. The 34km stone-paved length of the route that passes through enormous forests retains its condition despite the passing of literally millions of feet and their owners over the years.
The Shichirimihama was also used as a part of the pilgrimage route and its long arcing, 22km long, has meant it has long been the most popular place on the Iseji.
Hana no Iwaya is said to be the grave site of Izanami no Mikoto, the deity who created Japan in mythical times and has been worshiped ever since. The shintai (object of worship) in the area is a 45-m high rock.
Kumano no Oniga-jo includes the Shishiiwa; a distinctive natural landscape whose rock walls have been eroded by eons of wind and wave. Being more precise, the Oniga-jo is the terrace cave formation and the Shishiiwa is the lion shaped rock.

The Kohechi is the shortest route between Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan and runs through the central part of the peninsula from north to south. Crossing three ridges, each over 1000m in altitude, this 70km route, despite its limited length is indeed one of the most challenging but has been used by pilgrims and merchants since the Middle Ages.
Koyasan Choishimichi
There are various routes leading to Kongobu-ji temple but the main route is the Koyasan Choishimichi, established by Kukai and has been the most commonly taken route since. Choishi, or stone signposts, can be seen every 1 'cho' (about 109 meters) to guide walkers and prevent them from getting too lost.
Shown on the choishi is the distance from Danjogaran, the center of Kongobu-ji, the Sanskrit names of 36 Buddhas of Kongokai (the Diamond Realm doctrine of esoteric Buddhism) and 180 Buddhas of Taizokai (the Womb Realm doctrine of esoteric Buddhism), the donor's name and the date and purpose of the construction. 179 choishi of the 220 are original and show scenes of pilgrims climbing the mountains while worshiping at each choishi on their journey.
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