While the news from the US indicates declining freedoms, we’ve been enjoying ours.
From Kansai International, a very well-organized affair, we whipped through an endless series of tunnels, the construction of which probably fed the local politicians and Yakuza for decades, and arrived in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, the Kii Peninsula, a steep mountainous volcanic area loosely known as Kumano, even though Kumano is only one of its towns, and not even a major one at that. I call it the Land of the Rising Stairs, for all the flights I’ve climbed recently.
Before the tunnels were built, before the airport was convenient, Kumano was very hard to reach. Its hot springs were reputed to cure all ailments, and a steady stream of pilgrims braved four major routes to here, from Osaka, Yoshino, Nara, and Ise. At one point there were so many pilgrims traveling so frequently, they were compared to ants. The well-marked trails are still there, and see quite a bit of traffic even today, contemporary pilgrims outfitted at North Face and Reebok, with telescoping metal walking poles and nylon straps everywhere. Think of it as the Santiago de Compostela of the East, or perhaps the Disneyland of its age: mild inane fun for all ages. Instead of the film legends of Mickey and Scrooge, Kumano has Kabuki lore about Oguri and Princess Kiyo, mostly in a minor key concerning frustrated amours and dragons. You can drive to some of the sites but to reach most of them, you walk over the steep hills what looks like a boy scout trail through the National Park among the cedars and ginkos.
The innkeepers were waiting for the pilgrims, in fact, praying for them. There were hot springs galore, difficult mountain trails with 99 tiny shrines along the way leading to one of three grand shrines at the top, tiny poetic inns with elaborate Buddhist vegetarian meals, and fish and meats like wild boar for the less religious. History doesn’t record whether the pilgrims were actually cured of anything—certainly not alcoholism—but they were certainly relieved of their loose funds. Here’s a “chaya” or coffeehouse next to one of the shrines with some antique agricultural implements in front and a thatched roof on top.
We steeped in the thousand year-old Tsuboyu, a World Heritage site. Almost in the river at Yunomine, next to the pool where visitors may simmer bamboo shoots and eggs in the hot mineral bath to give them an interesting flavor, a wood shack surrounds a stone pool into which the hot spring is piped. Each group gets a half hour by reservation, and then can go to the regular hot tub for as long as they like. The strong waters didn’t do anything for my fresh air poisoning, though, so I was forced to forego the nearby pub and take a little nap at the inn.
Yunomine’s meaningless name puzzled us so we looked it up. It turns out that the calcium-rich waters leave deposits that eventually turn into stone. The temple in the center of town contains a sculpture made from such stone. At one point, an ingenious monk figured out how to get hot milky onsen water to come from a hole in the idol’s chest. Now a chest is a “mune” and hot water from it would be “yu-no-mune,” but this was eventually Bowdlerized into the current Yunomine.
The next day, our first stop was Kumano Hongu, the largest shrine in the area. The shrine originally sported this enormous torii as an entrance but floods were so severe that the entire shrine was moved about 50 years ago to its current location up a huge flight of stairs. The original location by the river was much nicer, if you ask me, but it must’ve been a nuisance to rebuild the place every hundred years or so after the next flood.
I got interested in the old guy planting his rice shoots by hand in front of the torii; those are his footprints in the mud of the paddy.
We returned to the trail and passed by some of the wayside shrines. Here is a tea field that belongs to a chaya next to one of the shrines. You’re supposed to wash your hands before praying, and here’s the bronze dragon to make sure you do a good job of it.
We drove up the incredibly steep 1,100 meter high Tamaki mountain to see the shrine on top. Don’t kid yourself, man, these hills are really steep and the driving is only possible because the civil engineering is fantastic. Nobody knows when the first shrine up this hill was established but a funny round stone remains up in the cloudy peak that must date over 1,000 years ago. A really impressive old structure greeted us near the top. What is an animist but a person who collects tree and stones? Here is an unusual twisted tree and here is a 3,000 year old cedar between two shrines.
We then proceeded to climb about a thousand steps up to two enormous enshrined boulders that Shinto animists have worshiped for over a thousand years. After that, we drove to another shrine that had this statue of a healing saint sitting in a chair. The shrinekeeper told us that some people prayed for various infirmities and others prayed for I thought about praying for 8-dan but kept to my rule about never bothering the gods lest they bother me. We then passed by a 133 meter high waterfall and on to the next shrine.
The next shrine really put it all together for me, in the form of this diagram painting. Notice the Nachi Waterfall top right. Here you can see the pilgrims visiting one shrine after another. You can see fancy dudes being entertained at the major shrines and various intellectuals and such studying at the lesser ones. At the very bottom you can see a funeral procession for three tiny figures preparing to set out to sea in a 12 foot boat. Here is a replica of the boats used, and a detail of the inside. Typically, people went one at a time rather than three in one boat.
This is a funerary boat for a monk at his life’s end, his enlightenment achieved, hurrying to get to the next world, the heck with the rest of us. Twenty four lucky enlightened souls actually made this journey during the couple of hundred years during the Edo period. The twenty-fifth made an interesting story. A general who lost his war boarded such a funerary boat and hastily paddled it to an island not all that far away, where he hid from the conquerors. His name is entered among the list of the dead, but his is known to have survived.