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Learning the Way of the Monks in Wakayama Prefecture

Even if you’re not the spiritual type, hiking the Kumano Kodo and staying with the monks of Mount Koya is a fulfilling experience.

By 9 min read

I’m not a spiritual person. As someone who grew up in America’s “Bible Belt”, I’ve always been put off by the idea of touring religion. Still, I was genuinely excited to explore the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes and sacred Koyasan (Mount Koya) in Wakayama Prefecture.

The monks of Mount Koya.

Wakayama is one of the most revered places in Japan. It’s a mountainous and forested region on the southernmost point of the Kii Peninsula in the Kansai region. Japan’s earliest text refers to it as the “land of the dead,” where the spirits would ascend after death.

Looking at its landscape—pristine coasts, winding rural roads overlooking vast forests, and rivers with transparent waters—you can see how it earned its reputation.

The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes

You’re on sacred ground now.

During the Heian period, three grand shrines in Wakayama’s Kumano region were the most revered: Kumano Hayatama Taisha, Kumano Hongu Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha. These shrines became known as the Kumano Sanzan, and routes were established to connect them from as far away as Kyoto.

My mother can’t get me in a church on Easter Sunday and even I felt like I was walking on sacred ground. Which was also slippery ground.

People from all over Japan, regardless of their class—imperial and noble families, samurai and commoners—made the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. They could purify their past at Hayatama Taisha, reflect on the present at Nachi Taisha, and pray for the future at Hongu Taisha.

Following my monk guide on the Kumano Kodo.

While not as perilous as it used to be, the Kumano Kodo can be quite challenging. The four main routes vary in length and difficulty, but each one offers a different glimpse of the pilgrimage. It’s just a matter of how much you are willing to walk.

Appreciating the present

Beautiful evergreen trees planted hundreds of years ago towered over the Daimon-zaka Slope leading to Nachi Taisha as we approached the cobblestone stairway.

Nachi Taisha (below) and Nachi Falls (above).

Just when I was starting to doubt my Adidas, the reward for walking up 267 stairs was a view of the valley below and the Kii Mountains. Monks from nearby Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple greeted me warmly and allowed me to gleefully ring the largest gong in Japan a good seven times before my handlers ushered me away.

Nestled in the green mountains is a bright red, three-storied pagoda with roaring Nachi Falls as its backdrop. I found it arguably one of the most picturesque landscapes in Japan.

Watch your step.

This was one of the original three sites of worship in Kumano, and the waterfall itself is a deity. As I made my way to the viewing platform for a closer look at the falls, I could only imagine pilgrims seeing it for the first time. My mother can’t get me in a church on Easter Sunday and even I felt like I was walking on sacred ground. Which was also slippery ground.

After snapping a few selfies and returning back, I discovered skate shoes aren’t built for pilgrimages and fell down about five flights of stairs. I pondered the present as I tumbled and hit my head on the way down.

Looking towards the future

After recuperating with black sugar ice cream, I made my way to Kumano Hongu Taisha to find my future. Although in hindsight, I now realize I made my stops in the wrong order. But maybe I hadn’t.

One may assume that time goes in a straight line but, just like finding enlightenment, you’ll find it’s more of a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey wimey stuff. At least that’s what my doctor tells me.

Hongu Taisha.

Nachi Taisha was usually the last stop for travelers on the Kumano Kodo. After days of rough hiking, scaling mountains, and fighting off the occasional bear, they would make their final prayers and return home.

I won’t walk to the nearest 7-Eleven on a chilly day. After all this, I guess my goal for the future is not to be so damn lazy.

A monk by the name of Katsu (yes like the Japanese pork cutlet), led the way onwards to Hongu Taisha. This time we took the Nakahechi route, the most accessible of the Kumano Kodo trails which was once favored by emperors and nobles.

Katsu is one badass monk. He even runs his own cafe!

These ascetic mountain monks, called yamabushi, have guided pilgrims safely through the wilderness for centuries. Katsu also owns a nearby cafe and makes a mean latte.

We started from Route 311 near the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Roadside Station and climbed to the Hashiori-toge Pass. Here, you can find the Gyuba-doji statue depicting Emperor Kazan, who ruled Japan from 984 to 986, riding a horse and a cow. Next to that is another ancient statue depicting En no Gyoja, the founder of Shugendo.

Purifying the past

We eventually reached Fushiogami-oji, where pilgrims could see Kumano Hongu Taisha for the first time. In those days, the Hongu Taisha grounds were so massive it might as well have been a town. After a flood in 1889, it was salvaged and moved to its current location. Today, the tallest torii gate in the world, Otorii, stands at the original site.

Photo:
The biggest torii gate in the world.

Hayatama Taisha is where pilgrims believed you could purify the sins of your past. The shrine itself is beautiful and blends flawlessly with nature. One unique aspect is that despite being a Shinto shrine, there are spaces under the verandas built for Buddhist practices from a time before the Meiji Restoration when the religions were paired.

Temple stay on Koyasan

After seeing all three of the Kumano Sanzan, I felt more exhausted than enlightened. It was time to find a place to crash for the night. In the past, pilgrims would stay at shukubo, lodges on temple grounds. Not only would I follow suit, but I would stay on Koyasan, one of the most sacred sanctuaries of Japanese Buddhism.

Inside the shukubo lodge where we ate completely Buddhist vegan meals.

Koyasan was founded in 816 by the monk Kukai, known later as Kobo-Daishi. He traveled to China to study Buddhism and absolutely killed it, becoming a master in less than a year. The legend goes that before he returned to Japan, he threw a three-pronged vajra (Buddhist instrument) into the sky and it landed here, on Koyasan. He must have had one hell of an arm.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the monks on Koyasan strolling around with iPhones! Is that allowed, I wondered.

Today, Koyasan and the surrounding town is home to more than 117 temples and more than 3,000 residents, half of which are monks. Imagine my surprise when I saw the monks on Koyasan strolling around with iPhones! Is that allowed, I wondered.

Staying in Koyasan was like stepping back in time while dragging a convenience store with you. It has shops, trendy cafes, and all the comforts you could ask for while still feeling like a hidden mountain village.

The streets of Koyasan.

When I reached Fukuchi-in Temple, where I would be staying, I was surprised to learn I’d be left to my own devices. I walked on tippy-toes in fear of disturbing someone who had to wake up at 5 a.m. to repeat mantras and resisted the urge to touch the walls in fear of disrupting some sacred treasure.

Exploring Japan’s largest cemetery… at night

After dinner, I explored Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan, where there are more than 200,000 tombstones surrounded by a sea of cedar trees. At night, the pagoda-shaped tombstones created somber shadows against the moonlight.

Okunoin at night… kind of scary.

My guide, Kugen, explained the religious details of the cemetery, such as how the tombstone shapes represent earth, wind, water, fire, and ether, and how Koya’s founder, Kukai, isn’t really dead. Followers of Shingon Buddhism believe that when Kukai entered his mausoleum, he was in deep meditation and remains as such today. There’s even a kitchen near the mausoleum where they prepare his meal every morning.

Kugen also shared a couple of Okunoin’s myths. If you trip on the first bridge, you’ll die. If you trip on the second bridge, you’ll also die. The third bridge? Don’t sweat it, just don’t look down the well. If you look down the well and fail to see your reflection, you’ll die within three years. As it was pitch-black at night, Kugen didn’t recommend that I try it.

I didn’t find religion, but I wasn’t looking to begin with. What I did find was a new love for Wakayama and rural Japan amongst immaculate landscapes

Kugen also told me the teachings of Buddhism are for everyone, and that everything in the universe is equal. When we die, we return to everything. By helping each other, we make the best of the lives we have. He said it with such sincerity and conviction, that it made me smile. The world can’t be too bad with people like Kugen out there, even if they are hidden on Koyasan.

Wake up, grab a brush and do a little mantra

Early the following day, I attended morning prayers. It was an opportunity to see Japanese culture like I never have, and perhaps discover something about myself that I never knew possible. On the other hand, waking up at 5 a.m. is hard.

Join the ritual.

The prayer room was filled with slabs that held the remains of monks from centuries ago. Another monk chanted mantras for an hour, only pausing occasionally to ring a bell. His discipline was powerful and permeated through the room.

I was groggy and fighting bad posture, and I realized that I probably complain too much in life. If this guy can wake up before dawn every day and recite mantras for an hour, then I can at least handle the morning commute in Tokyo without telling everyone about how much it sucks.

After prayers, I took one final stroll through Okunoin and returned down the mountain for my trip back home. I didn’t find religion, but I wasn’t looking to begin with. What I did find was a new love for Wakayama and rural Japan amongst immaculate landscapes that will stay with me for a lifetime.

I’m not spiritual, but on a misty mountain in Japan, monks chipped away a bit of my cynicism and tried to scare me with a cursed well. If that’s not a religious experience, then what is?

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