Shingu Guide

Shingu 新宮, 熊野古道

Jake Davies

Shingu is a small coastal city of about 30,000 people situated on the south-east coast of Wakayama, and is home to the Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine, one of the three Kumano Sanzan Shrines connected by the Kumano Kodo.

The Kumano Kodo is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes that connect three major religious sites - known collectively as the Kumano Sanzan - in the Kumano area of southern Wakayama Prefecture.

Shishi Iwa, Lion Rock, Mie Prefecture.
Shishi Iwa, Lion Rock, a rock formation on the rugged coast near Kumano City in Mie, along the Iseji pilgrimage route to and from Hongu
Bridge at the entrance to Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine in Shingu.
Bridge at the entrance to Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine in Shingu

Religious Rites and Ascetic Practises

The Kumano Kodo is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. The other two sites included in the same World Heritage Site are 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.

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 going 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.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine in Shingu.
Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine in Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture
Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine in Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture.
Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine in Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture

Three Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes go to and from Shingu. North along the coast is the Iseji, the road to Ise. Many pilgrims coming to the Kumano Kodo from eastern Japan would first visit the great shrines at Ise before heading to Kumano.

Conversely pilgrims from the west would first visit Kumano before heading further east to Ise. A section of the Nakahechi route heads down the coast to Nachi and Nachi Taisha Shrine, and the main section of the Nakahechi heads inland along the Kumano River to Hongu Taisha Shrine. In earlier times many pilgrims would travel this section from Hongu to Shingu by boat.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine

Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine is the foremost attraction in Shingu, and the place around which the town grew. Shingu literally means "new shrine" and in these terms the old shrine is Kamikura Shrine on the mountainside.

At some point before the 12th century, the gods were transferred from the mountain down into the new shrine building and the town grew up around it. The grounds are spacious and the architecture is grand.

Notable in the grounds is Nagi no Ki, a tree believed to be 800 years old. Over the centuries pilgrims including Emperors and Shoguns have left many offerings at the shrine and the most important are on display in the shrine's Treasure House. Many are registered as National Treasures. On October 16th during the Mifune Matsuri, nine boats race up the river starting from in front of the shrine.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine
1 Shingu, Shingu-shi, Wakayama 647-0081
Tel: 0735 22 2533

The shrine is free but the Treasure Hall is 500 yen for adults.

Kamikura Shrine in Shingu at sunrise.
Kamikura Shrine in Shingu at sunrise

Kamikura Shrine

On the mountainside overlooking Shingu, a large outcropping of bare rock named Kotobiki-Iwa is, according to the ancient myth, the place where the three gods of the Kumano shrines, Kumano Hayatama no Omikami, Kumano Musubi no Omikami and Ketsumi Miko Omikami, originally descended to the land.

From here they were later transferred to the new shrine down below. Just in front of the rock itself is the small Kamikura Shrine, kamikura translating as "seat of the gods", and the giant rock itself is wrapped with a large shimenawa (sacred rope).

After passing through a couple of torii (Shinto gates) down at street level the way up the mountainside to Kamikura Shrine starts with a winding rough stone stairway of almost 538 steps. Expansive views over the town below and to the sea beyond await those willing to make the effort. Kamikura Shrine's most important festival is the Oto Matsuri on February 6th. After a day of purification and consumption of liberal amounts of sake, men dressed all in white, with a sacred rope around their waist, carry torches on a visit to several shrines in the town before heading up the mountainside to the Kamikura Shrine. When everybody is ready the torches are lit from a single fire and en masse they race down the hillside making it appear like a huge fiery serpent is descending the mountain.

Kamikura Shrine
Kamikura, Shingu-shi
Wakayama 647-0044

Stone stairway leading up to the Kamikura Shrine in Shingu.
Stone stairway leading up to the Kamikura Shrine in Shingu

Jofuku Park

Xu Fu, was an ancient Chinese shaman and sorcerer in the service of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the late 3rd century BCE.

Ordered by the emperor to find the key to immortality - the elixir of life - believed to be at a holy mountain called Mount Penglai somewhere in the seas east of China, in 219 Xu Fu set out but returned unsuccessful from his quest.

Chinese style gate marks the entrance to Jofuku Park in Shingu.
Chinese style gate marks the entrance to Jofuku Park in Shingu

In 210 Xu Fu tried again, this time with a fleet of 60 ships, a crew of thousands and 3,000 children. He was never heard from again. In Japan it is widely believed that Mount Penglai was somewhere in Japan, with Mount Fuji being a favorite choice, and many places around the country claim to be where Xu Fu and his thousands settled, one of which is here in Shingu.

Jofuku Park, with its ornate and colorful Chinese gate is a memorial to Xu Fu, Jofuku in Japanese. Within the small park is a tombstone to Xu Fu erected by Tokugawa Yorinobu in the 17th century, a modern statue of him, and a small pond. You can dress up in Chinese costume and or buy a medicinal tea, Tendaiuyaku, brewed from the leaves of a local tree believed to be the elixir of life sought by Xu Fu.

Jofuku Park
1-4-24 Jofuku, Shingu-shi, Wakayama 647 0020
Tel: 0735 21 7672

Kamikura Shrine in front of the sacred Gotobiki Rock on Mount Kamikura in Shingu.
Kamikura Shrine in front of the sacred Gotobiki Rock on Mount Kamikura in Shingu

Dorokyo Gorge Boat Tours

A very popular activity for both Japanese and foreign visitors to Shingu is to take a boat trip down the Kumano River. Running twice a day, the 90 minute ride in small, wooden boats as would have been used by pilgrims in times past, passes through the dramatic Dorokyo Gorge as well as numerous waterfalls.

The knowledgeable guides, most of whom speak English, will regale you with stories of the river, point out the creatures you see, and also play local folk songs on their flute. The boats do not run during the winter and getting to the embarkation point involves catching a bus.

Kumano River Cruise
Tel: 0735 44 0987
kawabune.info

Shingu City Tourist Information Center is located in the JR Train Station and is open 365 days a year from 9am to 5.30pm. English language assistance is available as is free wi-fi.

Shingu City Tourist Information Center
2-1-1 Johoku, Shingu, Wakayama 647 0020
Tel: 0735 22 2840
info[at]shinguu.jp

Shingu has numerous reasonably priced hotels as well as traditional ryokan and minshuku. Some recommended places to stay include Shingu Sunshine Hotel, Shingu UI Hotel and Hase Ryokan.

View over Shingu from Mount Kamikura.
View over Shingu from Mount Kamikura, Wakayama Prefecture

Access - Getting to Shingu

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.

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. Hongu Taisha is accessed by an 80 minute to two hour bus journey depending on the route.

Kumano Kodo Video


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