A Journey From Kyoto to Kumano

The Heian period (794–1185) was a time of significant advancement for Japan. The arts and literature flourished under the Imperial Court, and Buddhism, Taoism and other influences from China were at their peak.

Spirituality and religion became central to people’s daily lives. Royalty, nobles, warriors and commoners alike made pilgrimages from Kyoto to sacred mountain locations in the Kii Peninsula (Wakayama Prefecture) in search of enlightenment.

The Kii Peninsula remains a popular destination today, attracting travelers in search of natural wonders, peaceful surroundings, 1000-year-old shrines and temples, and often, spiritual awakening. 
· Visit UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites
· Discover the origins of Shingon Buddhism and the importance of the Kumano Shinto faith
· Experience interconnected spiritual traditions, sacred mountains and nature
· Travel with ease between Kyoto, Koyasan, Kumano, and Kansai International Airport

The Ancient City of Kyoto

Heian-kyo, present-day Kyoto, was built in 794 by Emperor Kammu and was considered “a city on the cutting edge.” Toji Temple was one of the first temples to be built after the capital relocated from Nara to Kyoto in 796, standing guard over the city to the east.

Thirty years after it was built, Emperor Saga appointed the Buddhist monk Kukai (774–835), posthumously known as Kobo Daishi, as Toji’s head priest. Kukai had just returned from studying esoteric Buddhism in China and had established a Shingon Buddhist training center on Koyasan.

Toji Temple in Kyoto was the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and a place where followers could learn and practice. At Koyasan, however, devotees could train to become monks.

Toji Temple is easily recognized today by its five-storied pagoda, originally built by Kobo Daishi. You can see it from many vantage points across Kyoto, and it is only a 15-minute walk from Kyoto Station.

Kyoto Infused with Tea

Southern Kyoto is well known for its high-quality green tea and dazzling tea fields that cover the hillsides. The area has been producing three main types of tea—matcha, sencha and gyokuro—for the last 800 years. At Iwashimizu-Hachimangu Shrine in Yawata City, about 30 minutes south of Kyoto, you can experience local tea culture and marvel at the grandeur of Japanese religious architecture.

The shrine is located at the top of Mt. Otokoyama overlooking Kyoto and the Uji River. This sprawling complex is one of four extant shrines built in the Hachiman style, a type of shrine architecture characterized by buildings that appear separate at first glance, but are in fact all connected. A path lined with over 500 lanterns leads to the imposing bright-red main hall. Inside, you can see elaborate wood carvings of birds, monkeys and other animals.

Guides offer tours of the inner sanctum twice a day, a rare occurance at most shrines. If you inquire in advance, a priest may be able to guide you in English.

Iwashimizu-Hachimangu sits among numerous tea plantations. Nearby tea producers have been offering tea to the gods of the shrine for hundreds of years. To this day, it receives about 350 kinds of tea every year. The Otokoyama tea plantation stands within the shrine complex. Its harvest has been dedicated to the Japanese emperor since 2009.

While in the area, pay a visit to nearby Ikkyuji Temple, which was constructed during the Heian period. The temple served as the setting for a Japanese anime about a young monk named Ikkyu.

Travel Tips

Kyoto to Koyasan
From September to late November, a convenient direct bus operates from Kyoto to Koyasan, and an express bus runs from Kansai International Airport (KIX) to Koyasan. At other times, you can take advantage of the vast train network that operates between Kyoto, Osaka and Koyasan.

Koyasan—a Mountain of Temples

Kobo Daishi founded the Koyasan spiritual center 1,200 years ago. It has over 117 Buddhist temples and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

On the mountain, you can stay overnight at a temple, try Buddhist vegetarian food, and practice a method of meditation introduced by Kobo Daishi. Also, be sure to visit Kongobuji Temple, Okunoin Cemetery, and Danjo Garan. Check out our Koyasan itinerary listed below for more details.

The Choishimichi Pilgrimage Route connects Koyasan to Jison-in Temple in the valley below. Kobo Daishi walked this route nine times a month to visit his mother who lived at Jison-in (women were not allowed on Koyasan in those days).

Along this route, you can find a side trail to Niutsuhime Shrine, which enshrines two local Shinto deities who helped lead Kobo Daishi to Koyasan.

Travel Tips

Koyasan to Kumano
For the fit and adventurous, sections of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes lead from Koyasan to the grand shrines of Kumano. If walking all the way seems daunting, make use of the Koyasan-Kumano Discovery Bus, which operates from April to November.

Koyasan to KIX
You can also connect to Kansai International Airport via the KIX-Koyasan express bus.

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes

During the Heian period, members of the Imperial Court made the 30- to 40-day journey to Kumano, sometimes several times a year, worshipping at the many shrines and temples along the way. These included the three main shrines referred to as the “Kumano Sanzan”: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha.

Respect for nature is central to the Kumano Shinto faith, and there is no better way to honor the environment than a pilgrimage through the sacred forests that run along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes.

This region is crisscrossed with walking and hiking paths, ranging from easy to arduous. The most popular route is the Nakahechi, from Tanabe to Kumano Nachi Taisha. Other well-trodden routes include the challenging Kohechi, and moderate hikes along the Iseji Route. See Visit Wakayama’s Kumano itinerary listed below for suggestions on where to go and what to do while in the region.

Choose your own path and experience the thrilling journey from Koyasan to Kumano.