The Camino de Santiago in Europe’s far West and the Kumano Kodo in the Far East

Map of Kumano Kodo

English: Kumano-Hayatama-shrine in Shingu, Wak...
English: Kumano-Hayatama-shrine in Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. 日本語: 熊野速玉大社, 和歌山県新宮市 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the rising sun in the East (The Kumano Kodo) to the setting sun in the West (The Camino de Santiago) these two pilgrimages are linked because they are the only two pilgrimage routes registered on the current UNESCO World Heritage list.

In 2008 Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau and Turismo de Santiago de Compostela signed a Protocol of Intention for Joint Promotion…and marking the 10th anniversary of official relations between Wakayama Prefecture (Japan) and Galicia (Spain) for the purpose of promoting and preserving the unique spiritual cultures of Asia’s far east with Europe’s far west – the pilgrimages of the rising and setting sun:  The photos on this internet site of the Kumano Kodo are exquisite and enticing!

The Protocol of Intention stated:

Both networks of routes originated in the 10th centuries and have been walked by millions of pilgrims over the centuries.  Although Kumano is located in the far east of Asia and Santiago is situated in the far west of Europe, both of our ancient roads share a common history of faith.  They have developed simultaneously as pilgrimage routes and have become beloved by our citizens as important parts of our historical, cultural and spiritual heritage.

What is pilgrimage? In the writer’s text The guide for the SPANISH CAMINO – Walking the Camino Francés as a 21st century pilgrim (ISBN 978-0646-51466-) the classic definition has three parts:

  1. A journey to a place
  2. The journey, the destination and the arriving are equally important
  3. A spiritual/religious significance for the traveler.

Pilgrimage is universal and practised by the majority of human beings.  There is NO religion on earth which does not practice pilgrimage.

Authors and Hispanic scholars and pilgrimage academics David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson wrote the following:

Anthropologists have defined Homo sapiens variously as the animal who laughs, or who makes tools or who is capable of self-definition.  Humans might also be characterized as the animal who goes on pilgrimage, for travel to holy places is a near universal phenomenon among our species.

The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1993 and nine years later in 2004 the Kumano Kodo in Japan.

What is Kumano?
It is an isolated and sacred site of healing and redemption.  It embodies the very spiritual origins of Japan and has been a pilgrimage destination for many centuries.  Kumano, just like the Camino de Santiago in Spain, is endowed with a rich cultural and natural heritage, and exactly like their Spanish counterparts, locals who live along the pilgrimage routes, assist and support the authentic pilgrim. Both the locals and the pilgrims passing through have a mutual respect and the latter are always warmly welcomed.

The geography of the Kumano Kodo

The Kumano Kodo is located on Honshu, the main island of Japan and is in Wakayama Prefecture.  The nearest main city is Osaka to the north, but it is the small city of Tanabe, which is the closest agglomeration to the head of the track, just like Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees for getting onto the Camino de Santiago.  The pilgrimage area is on the East coast and for over 1000 years (the Camino de Santiago is a little older – early 9th Century) people from all levels of society, including former and retired emperors and members of the ruling elite, have undertaken this pilgrimage to Kumano.  Japanese pilgrims past used a network of different routes called the Kumano Kodo (just like in Spain and France there are different routes to get to the endpoint in north-west Spain: Santiago de Compostela) stretching across the incredibly rugged and beautiful mountainous Kii Peninsula.

Kumano Kodo’s genesis

Set in the dense forests of the Kii Mountains, and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, three sacred sites – Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan – linked by pilgrimage routes to the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto, show the fusion of Shinto, rooted in the ancient tradition of nature worship in Japan, and Buddhism, which was introduced from China and the Korean Peninsula. The sites (495.3 ha) and their surrounding forest landscape reflect a persistent and extraordinarily well-documented tradition of sacred mountains over 1,200 years. The area, with its abundance of streams, rivers and waterfalls, is still part of the living culture of Japan and is much visited for ritual purposes and walking, with up to 15 million visitors annually. Each of the three sites has shrines, some of which were founded as early as the 9th century and incredibly similar time frame when the purported relics of St James were rediscovered after being lost for over 700 years.
Just like walking along the Camino de Santiago routes, there was and there continues to be an infrastructure supporting pilgrims and walkers to do it independently.

Accommodation: traditional, low-key and low impact on the natural environment: but quite different from pilgrim hostels (albergues and refugios) in Spain and the gîtes d’étapes in France.   Along the various routes in the Kumano Kodo, accommodation is dominated by Japanese Ryokan (traditional inns) and family run guesthouses.

Pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo can invariably look forward at the end of a day’s walking to the fabulously enticing onsen – hot springs, which are scattered throughout the mountainous areas and along the pilgrimage routes.

How long are the walking pilgrimage trails in the Kumano Kodo?  There are three main walking trails and routes:

1 Takijiri-oji to Chikatsuyu-oji        “Takijiri-oji marks the spiritual entrance into the sacred mountain.  From this shrine the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route climbs steeply to the community of Kakahara, which offers panoramic views.  From Takahara, the trail runs through the mountains before descending into the village of Chikatsuyu, a quiet and relaxing place to stay overnight.”

  • walking distance: 13 km
  • Walking time: approximately 4 hours
  • Walking time with breaks: 6 hours

2 Chikatsuyu-oji to Hosshinmon-oji   “From Chikatsuyu-oji the pilgrimage route follows the old highway past Tsugizakura-oji with its impressive 800 year  old giant trees called Nanaka-n0-Ipposugi.  Accommodation is available in the nearby village of Hongu and at surrounding hot springs, so pilgrims and walkers can then continue onto the Kumano Hongu Taisha the next day.”

  • Walking distance: 18 km
  • Walking time: approximately 5 hours
  • Walking time with breaks: 7 hours

3 Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha “The Kumano Kodo route from Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha is lined with history and culture.  This section follows a number of mountain trails and roads through isolated ridge-top communities before descending to the Grand Shrine.”

  • Walking distance: 7 km
  • Walking time: approximately 2 hours
  • Walking time with breaks: 3 hours

The Camino de Santiago (the Camino Francés) is a multi-day pilgrimage lasting at least 30 to 35 days, if commenced on the French side of the Pyrenees and is 800 km long if you continue to Land’s End (Finisterre) after reaching Santiago de Compostela.  The Kumano Kodo is much shorter and does not involve very long daily walking distances.  On the Camino de Santiago it is not unusual to hit more than 30 to 35 km per day, once you reach track fitness after 10 days of walking.

Cuisine – the Kumano Kudo is blessed with an abundance of nature.  Fresh ingredients from the ocean, mountains and rivers are used, with traditional Japanese refined skills to create mouthwatering, authentic cuisine of the region.  For example: Umeboshi – pickled ume, an apricot-like fruit and a local specialty; Meharizushi – rice wrapped in pickled takana mustard leaves, which is great for lunch in the mountains; Shirasu (whitebait), a local delicacy, sometimes caught off Tanabe’s coastline; Oranges – Tanabe is an orange lover’s paradise.  70 varieties of oranges are produced all year round.  And in the great Japanese lunch tradition: walkers can buy along the trail, homemade Kodo bento lunch boxes which invariably feature foods which are locally harvested or caught.

Maybe, in the near future, Australian and New Zealand pilgrims traveling to Western Europe for their grand pilgrimages in France and Spain, will seriously consider a brief one week stop over in the Far East in order to undertake the short, but no less exciting and captivating Kumano Kodo.On the Camino de Santiago in April, 2007. Photo: Y. A. E. Grossman

Satellite view of Japan with the Kii Peninsula...

Satellite view of Japan with the Kii Peninsula marked. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: