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The Kumano Kodō (熊野古道?) is a series of ancient pilgrimage routes that crisscross the Kii Hantō, the largest Peninsula of Japan. These sacred trails were and are still used for the pilgrimage to the sacred site "Kumano Sanzan" (熊野三山）), or the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongū Taisha (熊野本宮大社), Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社) and Kumano Hayatama Taisha (熊野速玉大社). The Kumano Kodō pilgrimage routes that lead to Kumano can be geographically categorized into three sub-routes: "Kiji", "Kohechi" and "Iseji". The Kumano Kodō and Kumano Sanzan, along with Koyasan and Yoshino and Omine, were registered as UNESCO World Heritage on July 7, 2004 as the "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range".
The "Kiji" route runs along the west coast of the peninsula to the city of Tanabe where it forks into two: "Nakahechi" and "Ohechi". The "Nakahechi" route leads into the rugged interior mountains towards Kumano Hongū Taisha and the "Ohechi" continues south along the coast. The "Nakahechi route" was the most popular route used by pilgrimages from Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. The earliest records of the use of this route dates from the early 10th century. The trail has a long history of use by people with diverse belief backgrounds leading to a variety of mixed religious symbolism overlaid and incorporated into the geographical setting and stages of the pilgrimage itself. The UNESCO World Heritage registered section begins at Takijiri-oji which is considered to be the point of entry to the sacred area of Kumano. From here it is about 40 km of mountainous trial before you reach the mystical Kumano Hongū Taisha. Most pilgrimages break the journey into a two day walk. The Chikatsuyu-oji is about halfway and most pilgrims stay the night here at a local minshuku, or Family Inn.
In Hongū pilgrims often did purification rites in Yunomine Onsen (Yunomine Hotspring). Tsuboyu is a small cabin on the creek that runs through this isolated onsen village. Inside is a small rocky bath that is the only World Heritage hotspring that you can bath in in the world. For 750 yen you can reserve this historic bath for 30 minutes. It was not only used for purification rites but for its legendary healing effects. The Kumano Kodō Dainichi-goe route links Kumano Hongū Taisha with Yunomine. It is 2 km long and is a steep climb, and descends over a small pass.
From Kumano Hongū Taisha most pilgrims went by boat on the Kumano River to Kumano Hayatama Taisha in the coastal town of Shingū. This 40 km section of the Kumano Kodō is also World Heritage and the only river pilgrimage route in the world that is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage. There is also an overland route which links Kumano Hongū Taisha with Kumano Nachi Taisha. Most pilgrims take two days to complete this walk staying in the small town of Koguchi. The section between Hongū and Koguchi is called the Kogumotori-goe and the section between Koguchi and Kumano Nachi Taisha is called Okumotori-goe.
The "Kohechi" route links Koyasan to the Kumano Sanzan. It runs north to south and is 70 km long. It is the shortest route connecting Koyasan to Kumano, but is a tough walk which traverses three passes of over 1,000 meters.
The "Iseji" route links Ise Jingū (Ise Shrine) with the Kumano Sanzan. It was not until the 17th century that this route became used as part of the Saikogu pilgrimage, the first temple being Seiganto-ji, a temple that is closely related with the Kumano Nachi Taisha.
The "Magose Toge" forms the boundary between Miyama-cho and Owase city. A moss covered stone path stretches about 2 km into the beautiful cypress forest covered with ferns. This route leads to Tengura-san with a huge stone at the tip. There is a small tunnel just below the stone where you can enter. From the stone, you can have scenic view of Owase City. Magose-koen Park on the way down the pass is reowned for its cherry blossom.
- UNESCO. "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range". Retrieved 2007-11-30.
- Revival of the Ancient Pilgrimage Road