Kumano Kodo 2 (The Waterfall Shrine on Kumano Kodo's Ancient Pilgrimage) 0
Kumano Kodo is one of only two pilgrimage routes in the world designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. For over 1,000 years, Japanese people have been traveling these hiking trails to the three grand shrines of the Kii Penninsula Mountains. They are collectively known as Kumano Sanzan.
Of the many popular day hikes along Kumano Kodo, the trip to Nachi Waterfall and the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine is, perhaps, the most stunning. The climactic view of a pagoda poised against a natural waterfall—one of the tallest in Japan—has for centuries left pilgrims breathless.
For many, the hike to Nachi Waterfall begins with Daimon-zaka. A gorgeous 600m (2,000 ft) long cobblestone staircase, the route was constructed when the Kumano pilgrimage was at its peak popularity hundreds of years ago. The route begins at the “Husband and Wife Cedar Trees,” 800-year-old cedars that tower above the first steps of the staircase. Standing on either side of the path, legend says their roots are entwined underneath as if they’re holding holds. From there, Daimon-zaka becomes a steady climb through a forest of ancient cedars, camphor trees and bamboo. As you ascend the beautiful cobblestones covered in dark green moss, the forest creates a barrier between pilgrims and the surrounding area.
Although these solitary moments on the trail provide an immersive experience in nature, you’re likely to pass many other pilgrims during your hike. Some may smile or greet with you with konnichiwa (good afternoon). Return the favor! Bringing hospitability and kindness to the trail is one of the few official rules of the Kumano Kodo. Daimon-zaka promises a serene, if tiring, experience. You’ll notice along the trail, free bamboo walking sticks provided by the shrine. I say they’re worth a go. Even if you make it easily up Daimon-zaka’s 267 steps, there’s still more to climb.
At the top of Daimon-zaka the route continues to the entrance of the Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine. While a second staircase may seem daunting at first, the payoff at the top is worth it. You’ll find a beautiful red-lacquer shrine and views of a luscious green valley and the Pacific Ocean in the distance.
Along the mountain ledge behind the shrine is Seiganto-ji Temple, a temple devoted to Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. In contrast to the shiny finish of its neighboring shrine, the wood of this 5th century temple hall is bare and beautifully worn. After a stop at the souvenir shop for a refreshing cone of black sesame or umeboshi (pickled plum) soft cream, the route continues back down the mountain. On this route, visitors will come across Seiganto-ji Temple’s iconic pagoda set against the backdrop of Nachi Waterfall. For a small 300 yen fee, you can even enter the pagoda and climb onto its third story deck.
From Seiganto-ji Temple, the descent—much faster than the ascent—continues to the base of Nachi Waterfall. Here the ascetic Shinto priests of Kumano Kodo erected Hiro Shrine. Unlike the conventional Shinto shrine, Hiro doesn’t have a honden (main hall) in which to worship. Instead, the waterfall itself is considered the shrine’s place of worship and home to kami (gods). It is quite a spectacular experience to stand below one of Japan’s tallest waterfalls and pray at a shrine made by nature.
The trip to Daimon-zaka itself is easiest by bus. The Kumano Kotsu Bus will take you from Kii Katsuura Station to the Daiomzaka Chushajo Mae bus stop in under an hour. From there, pick up a walking stick and start up the trail. There is another Kumano Kotsu Bus stop at Hiro Shrine to take you back to Kii Katsuura.
I’m an American journalist and editor based in Tokyo. After nearly 20 years living in Japan, I’m still discovering new and exciting places in Japan outside of Tokyo and off the beaten path, such as the ancient “Kumano Kodo" pilgrimage trails and the charming seaside fishing village, Kada.