A sacred centre on a centuries old pilgrimage route, where Buddhism and Shinto are revered
As I walk up a stone path flanked by ancient cedar trees; the mist only adds to a feeling that the kami (spirits in Japan’s indigenous religion Shinto), are ever present.
Mount Nachi, Wakayama prefecture is home to forests, thundering waterfalls, a World Heritage Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine. It is also a place of pilgrimage. For over 1000 years, the Kumano Kodo (熊野古道), a series of ancient pilgrimage routes, has linked the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Nachisan’s Kumano Nachi Taisha with each other. Today I visit Nachi’s shrine and temple and one of the most photographed pagodas and waterfalls in Japan.
Behind the vermillion three story pagoda of Seigantoji Temple is Nachi Falls (那智の瀧). The roar of the water is a reminder that it is one of the three great waterfalls in Japan. At 133m high it is the highest single straight waterfall in the archipelago. It is so revered that every morning, a Shinto priest worships the deity of the waterfall in a ritual.
Every morning, a Shinto priest worships the deity of the waterfall in a ritual
Passing tourists dressed as Heian period pilgrims, I make my way to the nearby Shrine and temple complex.
Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社) shrine originated with the ancient worship of the waterfall. Thirteen gods are enshrined in the cinnabar coloured main shrine – the primary deity being Kumano Fusumi no Okami. Legend says that the Sun Goddess Amaterasu’s great-great-great-grandson, Jimmu (711-585 BCE), landed at Kumano, from where, guided by the Yatagarasu (a three-legged crow), entered the Yamato plain and became the first emperor of Japan.
A few steps away from the shrine is Seigantoji Temple (青岸渡寺) harmoniously joined to Nachi Taisha. A large censer guarded by a lion greets visitors as they come to pray and pay respects. Throughout most of Japan’s history, Buddhism and Shinto co-existed. However, during the Meiji era in the 19th century there was a strong separation of the two. That now seems like a memory on Nachi San. It is said that the Indian monk Ragyo-Shonin founded the temple. Now, part of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The journey to Nachi Falls is not only for pilgrims. This once well-kept secret is becoming more popular with domestic and international tourists. But on this rainy April day, with few people present, the atmosphere is contemplative and serene. Watching every step on the glistening stone path in the rain, I descend the mountain. The rain intensifies and I thank the three-legged crow for a safe passage home.