The Many faces of Nara
The Kumano Kodo links the famous Yoshino area in Nara Prefecture with Kumano
via Mount Omine. The 170km trek, which has been used as a training ground for
ascetic monks since the 7th century, is one of the most difficult and dangerous
trails of the Kumano Kodo, but there many less strenuous activities to enjoy.
Yoshino Mountain features more than 30,000 cherry trees which form clouds of
delicate pink blossoms in the spring. The area is also home to the famous Kinpusen-
ji temple and the esoteric monks who train there.
A Walk in the Park
Nara city, originally known as Heijo, was established as Japan’s first permanent
capital in 710.
Nara’s Todaiji temple, constructed in 752, is home to a 15 metre high seated
Buddha whose raised hand is as tall as a human being. As with many of Nara’s
attractions, Todaiji is located in Nara Park, which is also home to over 1200 deer. In Japanese folklore deer were considered to be sacred and they are certainly still
well treated, with many visitors feeding them on specially made rice crackers
called ‘shika senbei’ or deer crackers.
Narazuke and other Culinary Delights
In Nara, it is not only the deer which enjoy the culinary delights on offer.
Visitors to Nara can try Narazuke, a dish made by pickling vegetables or fish in sake lees, a much more sophisticated affair than the vinegary pickles which most Australians have grown up with.
Other local delicacies include Kaki no hazushi or Nara sushi, neat little packages
of rice topped with salmon or mackerel and wrapped in a persimmon leaf. The
antibacterial properties of the leaf were an important preservative in the days
Above: Watch the fascinating sunset of Meoto Iwa
Ise Shrine and Amaterasu Omikami
Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture, one of the most sacred destinations in Japan, is linked with the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano via the Kumano Kodo. Ancient legends state that the Japanese Imperial family is descended from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, who is enshrined in the Inner Shrine or Naiku at Ise. In keeping with traditional beliefs in cycles of death and renewal, the shrine is rebuilt every twenty years, with 2013 marking the occasion when the deities are transferred from their old homes to the new ones.
The Wedded Rocks and other Marvels
The sacred Meoto Iwa or the ‘Wedded Rocks’ on the coast near Futama are said to represent the Japanese creator spirits, Izanami and Izanagi. The rocks are joined by a sacred rope or ‘shimenawa’, examples of which can be seen at many Shinto shrines around Japan.
Iga Ueno, which is midway between Osaka and Nagoya, will satisfy both lovers of military and literary history. In addition to being the birth place of the famous poet, Matsuo Basho, Iga Ueno is home to a castle which boasts the highest stone walls in Japan.
Rice Cakes and Rare Beef
A visit to Mie Prefecture is not complete without trying Akafuku mochi, a pounded rice cake with a wonderfully chewy consistency, which is beautifully complemented by sweet red bean paste.
While this delicacy is readily available throughout the prefecture, a visit to the Oharai Machi shopping precinct near the entrance to the Inner Shrine at Ise is highly recommended.
Mie prefecture is also noted for its Matsuzaka beef, which hails from cattle fattened on beer and massaged to improve the texture of the meat.
Above: See of clouds in Kumano
The Kumano Kodo, an ancient and intricate network of six pilgrimage trails traversing Japan’s mountainous Kii Peninsula, spans three provinces and thousands of years in history. With its spectacular gorges and mysterious shrines and temples, the Kumano Kodo offers modern day pilgrims the opportunity to experience the physical and spiritual landscapes of Japan.
For thousands of years pilgrims ranging from members of the Imperial family to well-heeled commoners have journeyed along the Kumano Kodo to visit the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano.
Historically, the return journey from Kyoto took over a month and consisted of long days spent traversing the mountain paths, interspersed with relaxing baths in the purifying waters of the Kii Peninsula’s many hot springs. Travellers also marvelled at natural wonders such as the Nachi Waterfall and worshipped at the many shrines and temples found along the way.
Although pilgrims were undoubtedly glad to reach their destination, the journey along the weathered stone paths of the Kumano Kodo was an important part of their experience. Fittingly, the pilgrimage trail itself has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with the sacred temple precinct of Mount Koya and the Yoishino Omine area in Nara.
These days, the Kumano Kodo has been made accessible by modern transport and the availability of maps detailing well-defined trails which are suited to all
ages and levels of fitness.
The trail meanders through the three prefectures of the Kii Peninsula: Wakayama extending down the western side to the southern tip, Nara in the north and Mie in the north east, enabling travellers to sample the distinctive culture and cuisine of each region.