Hongu Guide

Hongu 本宮, 熊野古道

Jake Davies

Hongu, a very small town of less than 4,000 people is located among the mountains in the interior of the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka in the middle of the Kumano Kodo network of pilgrimage routes that link the shrines throughout the peninsula.

The World Heritage Center at Hongu, Wakayama.
The World Heritage Center at Hongu, Wakayama, dedicated to the Kumano Kodo and the World Heritage Sacred Sites & Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range
Permanent exhibition at the World Heritage Center in Hongu.
Permanent exhibition at the World Heritage Center in Hongu

Pilgrimage Routes

In 2005 Hongu merged with and became a part of Tanabe City. From Hongu, pilgrimage trails radiate out in all directions. Running west towards the coast and Tanabe is the Nakahechi Route, sometimes called the Imperial Route as this was the route taken by elite pilgrims from the capital area. This is by far the most popular and well travelled route and for many is synonymous with the name Kumano Kodo.

Running south and east the next leg of the Nakahechi Route heads over the mountains and down to Nachi Taisha and Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan. This has some of the steepest and most dramatic sections of the trail.

Running east from Hongu. the Nakahechi follows the river down to the coast at Shingu and the Hayatama Taisha. In the old days pilgrims would often do this part of the pilgrimage by boat. There is a branch that cuts north instead of going all the way to Shingu and connects with the Iseji Route further north along the coast.

There are two routes heading north out of Hongu. The Kohechi heads north and east to connect with the massive temple complex of Koyasan. This three day hike is becoming increasingly popular with walkers who want a longer, quieter hike. The trail to the Omine mountains and on to Yoshino heads northwest out of Hongu. This is by far the most difficult and remote route and has the least support infrastructure. This was the route taken by Yamabushi as part of their strict ascetic training.

The main gate to Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine.
The main gate to Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine, Wakayama Prefecture
The main buildings of Hongu Taisha, Wakayama Prefecture.
The main buildings of Hongu Taisha, Wakayama Prefecture

World Heritage Center

The first stop upon reaching Hongu should be the brand new World Heritage Center. Strikingly modern but made out of local timber, the information center here can supply you with all the information you need, pamphlets, maps, timetables etc as well as assist with booking rooms.

Service is available in several languages, and there is also free wi-fi. They also offer a bicycle rental service. The exhibition section has a permanent set of displays on the Kumano Kodo and Hongu Taisha including various movie and video presentations. Throughout the year there are also temporary exhibitions.

World Heritage Center
100-1 Hongucho Hongu, Tanabe, Wakayama 647-1731
Tel: 0735 42 0735

Open 9am to 5pm every day of the year. Entrance is free.

Banner in front of Hingu Taisha depicting Yatagarsu, a mythical three-legged crow from Japanese legend.
Banner in front of Hongu Taisha depicting Yatagarasu, a mythical three-legged crow from Japanese legend

Kumano Hongu Taisha

Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the three Kumano Sanzan major shrines, is the shrine around which the town of Hongu grew up. For most of its history the shrine-temple complex was located nearby on a sandbank of the river called Oyunohara.

In 1889 a severe flood seriously damaged or destroyed much of the shrine and so it was relocated to its present site on the hilltop. A long flight of stairs leads up from below to the main gate. Inside the main compound the shrine buildings are lined up beyond a large area of white gravel.

What is noticeable here, compared to the other two Kumano Shrines at Shingu and Nachi where much of the architecture is vermilion, is the dark, almost sombre use of natural dark wood, allowing the shrine to blend in with the forest surrounding it.

One symbol you will see around the shrine is a three legged crow. This is Yatagarasu, an ancient symbol first seen in China 5,000 years ago. In the founding myths of Japan Yatagarasu appeared to the mythical first emperor Jimmu in the Kumano area and led him to what is now Nara where he established the Japanese state. There is no entry fee to the shrine, but the Treasure Hall, which displays various artifacts, paintings and masks etc, is open from 9am to 4pm has an entry of 300 yen for adults.

Kumano Hongu Taisha
1110 Hongucho, Hongu, Tanabe, Wakayama 647-1731
Tel: 0735 42 0009

Dressing up in the costume of elite Heian Period Pilgrims is popular at several sites including Hongu Taisha.
Dressing up in the costume of elite Heian Period pilgrims is popular at several sites including Hongu Taisha

Heian Period Cosplay

Dressing up in Heian Period costumes, for men and women, is a popular activity at several places along the Kumano Kodo. At Hongu the shop is at the Karasuya Restaurant near the entrance of Hongu Taisha. It takes about 15 minutes to change and the cost is 3,000 yen per hour for men and 4,000 yen for women. Currently only operating on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Reservations can be made on 090 3285 9046.

The biggest Torii in the world marks the original site of Hongu Taisha.
The biggest Torii in the world marks the original site of Hongu Taisha

Oyunohara

Oyunohara, the site of the original Kumano Hongu Shrine, is a short walk from the Heritage Center. Passing through rice paddies you approach a truly massive torii, the iconic Japanese "gate" that demarcates sacred space.

This one is actually the biggest in the world, is made of steel and weighs 172 tons. It was erected in 2000 and is almost 40 meters tall. During festivals it is illuminated at night. After passing through the torii the path, lined with tall, ancient trees, continues on to the site of the original shrine. Not all of the gods were moved to the new site and some remain at the original site enshrined in stone.

Hosshinmom-Oji, the destination of a popular shorter walk along the Kumano Kodo.
Hosshinmon-Oji, the destination of a popular shorter walk along the Kumano Kodo

Oji

A word you will see on maps and signposts in the Hongu area as well as all along the Kumano Kodo is "Oji" which refers to one of the many small shrines located along the pilgrimage routes.

In olden times pilgrims would stop at each one and pray and sometimes stay for refreshments or an overnight stay. Many were destroyed in the early twentieth century and only markers remain, but many have been rebuilt by local people. A popular one near Hongu is called Hosshinmon Oji and is often visited by people wanting a short sample of the pilgrimage rather than walking a multi-day trek. Only a two hour walk from Hongu Taisha, another trail leads there from Yunomine Onsen, and so makes a pleasant one day loop excursion. Buses head to Hosshinmon Oji so an even shorter walk can be had by taking a bus there and walking back.

Accommodation Near Hongu

There is very little accommodation right in Hongu itself, most visitors staying at one of the nearby hot spring resorts, the largest and most famous being Yunomine Onsen.

One of a few onsens in Japan with claims to being the "oldest" hot spring in the country, Yunomine became particularly famous because of its location on the Kumano Kodo. Located in a narrow mountain valley alongside the banks of a small mountain stream, Yunomine is only 3.4 kilometers from Hongu Taisha along a mountain trail.

Another trail leads from Yunomine to the Nakahechi Route coming in from Tanabe to the east and is therefore a very popular walkway for pilgrims coming that way. All the guest houses in the village have their own hots springs, and there are also several public baths. Unique to Yunomine is Tsuboyu, a tiny cabin built along the river bank with a bath just big enough for one or two people. It is rented by the half hour.

Nearby is Kawayu Onsen, also with various accommodation choices. The feature of this hot spring village is making your own bath in the gravel of the riverside. Most guesthouses will lend you a shovel! By digging out a hollow in the gravel you soon reach the piping hot water. By channelling in cold water from the river you can make your bath the temperature you want. Or you can just use one of the baths dug before. During the coldest winter months a massive bath called Sennin-Buro ("a thousand people bath") is dug out of the gravel and is free to use.

Another nearby accommodation choice is Wataze Onsen, which consists of just one large hotel famous for having the biggest rotemburo, outdoor bath, in western Japan. The facility also has numerous smaller rotemburo for individuals, couples, or families.

Some recommended hotels and ryokan and minshuku include:

Ashita no Mori is a classic-looking, wooden A-frame guest house overlooking the river (with its warm bathing holes) and with its own hot spring bath inside. The proprietors are very hospitable and freely share their knowledge of the area. Comfortable, spacious, alpine-cabin-type rooms, all in wood, spic-and-span interior, good food. Great value.

Watarase Onsen Hotel Himeyuri is a gracious, beautifully laid-out hotel in landscaped grounds with lily ponds and pools and a variety of big onsen hot pools, both public and for guests' use only. Spotlessly clean and very comfortable, with warm and helpful staff.

Yunominesou is a spacious ryokan inn with delightful onsen hot spa facilities, including open air baths and reservable private baths. Traditional rooms are tatami floored, with sliding paper doors, for unhurried, carefree Japanese-style comfort. Excellent cuisine if you choose the meal option. Only 10 minutes' walk from the Ise-ji Route of the Kumano Kodo.

Hongu Taisha is just a bus ride away from these inns.

Hongu Festivals

There are numerous small festivals throughout the year in the area, but the two major festivals that take place in Hongu are the Annual Festival held from April 13th to 15th, and the Yata Fire Festival held on the last Saturday in August. Both comprise of many ceremonies, parades, costumed participants, and music and the Yata Fire Festival finishes with fireworks.

Religious Rites and Ascetic Practises

The Kumano Kodo means "roads to Kumano", and refers to a series of ancient pilgrimage routes that connects with three major religious sites in the Kumano area of southern Wakayama Prefecture known collectively as the Kumano Sanzan.

Along with the great temple complex of Koyasan, home of Shingon Buddhism and founded by Kobo Daishi in what is now southern Osaka, and the Yoshino/Omine area of southern Nara, once an important religious enter of mountain worship and nowadays known more for its mountainsides covered in cherry blossoms, the Kumano Kodo is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.

Since ancient times many sites within these mysterious mountains became the focus of religious rites and ascetic practises. The original pilgrimage routes would have been travelled by monks and nuns to and from the different centers of worship which, after the introduction of Buddhism, grew into a syncretic mix of Buddhism and more indigenous religions, Taoism and what is now called Shinto.

From the 11th century on, Emperors began Imperial Pilgrimages to these holy places and in the ensuing centuries there were hundreds of pilgrimages by assorted members of the royal family and other high ranking members of the Kyoto court.

During this period the routes would have become more established with accommodations being built along the way and the patronage of the wealthy enabling the construction of much bigger shrine-temples complexes.

The Edo Period (1603-1868) was a golden age of pilgrimage in Japan. Forbidden to travel except for pilgrimage, literally millions of commoners undertook pilgrimages and pretty much instituted mass tourism in Japan. Descriptions of thousands of pilgrims snaking along the mountain trails to Kumano "like lines of ants" appeared, and the economic boom led to big towns growing up around the expanding shrine-temple complexes.

View of the forest along the Kumano Kodo.
View of the forest along the Kumano Kodo, Wakayama Prefecture

Access - Getting to Hongu

The Kumano Kodo is located south of both Osaka and Kyoto, in a rural area easily accessible by train and bus from those two cities as well as Kobe and Nagoya. From Nagoya Station it is 3 hours, 30 minutes on a Limited Express Wide View Nanki to Shingu Station. The Japan Rail Pass is valid on this route.

There are regular flights to Osaka from both Beijing and Shanghai.

There is no train access to Hongu, only bus. The most frequent buses run from Shingu Station on the JR West Kisei Line. The journey takes about 80 -120 minutes depending on the bus route. From Kii Tanabe Station on the same train line but located on the opposite coast of the peninsula frequent buses take 2 hours. There are also a couple of buses a day from the nearby Shirahama Airport that take 2 and a half hours.

Shingu is a JR railway station on the Kisei Line. Tokyo is five hours away, and Osaka a little over fours hours. Access to Nachi Taisha is the same train line and takes 20 minutes.

Kumano Kodo Video


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