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Martial Arts: History and Historical Figures

Exploring the "old way" of Kumano

By Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Part 1 - Nachi

I have been fortunate that from early on in my practice I have been able to visit Japan to train.  Early on, I was content to pursue both training and academic interests, in particular dance and kabuki, as well as travel to the usual tourist venues.  In the past 10 years, however, I have been able to go to Japan nine times, and for most of those visits I have been able to combine training activities with explorations of samurai culture in the Edo period.  My travels have included more obvious places, such as still-existing battle castles, and more tangential places, such as the Nakasendo, the "Central Mountain Road" that helped link parts of the country together during the Edo Period (1602-1868).

For the past few years, I have taken to writing down some of my travel experiences, attempting to place them in some context of both my budo practice and Samurai culture, which flourished from the 17th through the mid-19th centuries.  This essay is yet another installment in the series.

Traveling alone in a foreign country can be a challenge, even in one as pulled-together as Japan.  Though it is relatively safe, and bus and train schedules are readily available, when venturing outside a metropolitan area, one had better be able read at the level of a 3rd grader and have passable speaking skills.  Though my Japanese language ability is perpetually rusty, I enjoy making my way through some of the more obscure areas of the country. 

However, Kumano, on the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka, was a bigger challenge than I expected.  Even though the area has been designated a UN World Heritage Site, Kumano, which spans portions of Mie, Wakayama, and Nara prefectures, not only does not have a well-defined border, but there is only one train line that zigs along the coast.  The interior has only a few, narrow roads that link the handful of small towns.  The rest is a vast, mountainous carpet of forest.

The spectacular mountains of Kumano.

Except for Golden Week (April 29, May 3-5), when every hotel and resort in the coastal area sells out (and in which case it hardly pays to go there), the travel schedule must be planned very carefully or a journey that can take up to four hours can easily take twice as long.  Buses don't offer much more help - those narrow, winding roads take hours to traverse.  Moreover, miss one bus and an unlucky traveler may have to stay where she is until the next day!

This entire area, which now seems so remote, was once crisscrossed by a network of paths that linked three great Shinto shrines to each other and the coast.  The paths formed a pilgrimage route that is honored by pilgrims to this day.  Though different sections have different names, the paths are collectively referred to as the "Kumano Kodo" - The "Old Way of Kumano."  Since the scenery is so spectacular, casual hikers join ill-equipped tourists and serious pilgrims (who now often come at least part way by tour bus) on the dirt paths through the woods.  In spite of the potential crowd, it is definitely possible to feel a sense of solitude that in Japan, as everywhere else, is increasingly difficult to find.

In my wanderings around Japan looking for shadow remnants of samurai culture, I have not dealt much with the spiritual side, in part because it is so difficult to define.  There is a great deal of misinformation regarding the spiritual beliefs of the samurai.  There is much we simply do not know - even the nature of the beliefs that may have been held have gone through enormous transition.  In my semi-scholarly study of the subject, I can only confirm that (1) samurai did not, as a group study Zen, and (2) the form of Buddhism practiced by much of the population was heavily blended with indigenous Shinto belief until the beginning of the Meiji Period.  In short, any writer who proclaims "The samurai typically followed X set of religious beliefs" is wrong. 

Shrine pilgrimage to this area has existed since at least the 10th century.  In particular, the shrines became a site of major pilgrimage by a series of politically powerful ex-emperors for approximately 100 years, from 1090 to 1220 (Moerman 1997, 347).  We do not know specifically why these powerful men chose to honor the shrines of Kumano.  It is possible that they were using their influence to quiet the head priests, who controlled large numbers of sohei (“warrior monks” – actually mercenaries employed by the shrines).  The priests and their local government counterparts would send their heavily armed men to the capital whenever they disagreed with government policies, terrifying civilians and bringing ordinary life to a standstill until their demands were met.  After the ex-emperors began their pilgrimages (and granted titles and land to the local officials), the area became less volatile (Moerman 1997, 352-354).

Pilgrimage to Kumano is nowadays less politically fraught.  Folk beliefs, Shinto and Buddhism all seem to play a role in convincing modern pilgrims of the efficacy of visiting the great shrines.  Pilgrimage is commonly defined as making a (frequently long) journey to a sacred site.  While modern transportation has made such journeying less difficult, the diversity of the landscape of Japan makes it easy to feel as if one is in a different country altogether.  Therefore, a sense of novelty comes to play a role as well in the fascination with pilgrimage here.

I got to to the Kii Peninsula by the most circuitous possible route.  After a few days in Koyasan, a friend kindly researched the route to Kii-Katsuura, where I would stay.  I was obliged to take a series of small "one man" trains to Wakayama, then more locals to my destination.  The trip would take all day, starting very early in the morning. 

Local trains in Japan are not just local in the sense that they stop everywhere.  They are also local in the sense that everyone seems to know everyone.  For those familiar with the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, Osaka, and even modern Kyoto, a local train is a revelation.  On the route from Hashinomoto to Wakayama, we passed through vast fields of stubby, flowering trees.  The doors between the cars and most of the windows were open, and we were treated to a heavy, Jasmine-like scent for much of the journey.  Of course, the locals on the train took it all in stride.  I was the object of their curiosity.  Being stared at is one of the things a rural traveler gets used to, since, in Japan, it is difficult to simply "fit in," even in a relatively large town.

From such a bustling town, Wakayama, I was to take yet another local train to a place called Gobo.  While waiting on the local platform, I met a curious little boy who asked where I was going.  (Even though I was obviously not from there, it never occurred to him that I did not speak the same language.  Happily, he looked to be about in the 3rd grade, so we were more or less on the same level).

To Gobo, I said.

He looked at my wheeled suitcase and said:

Not just Gobo.  Where?

Nachikatsuura, I said, using the name of the train station.

Take the other train, he said, gesturing to the opposite platform, it's faster!

But it's an all-reserved train, I said, and I don't have a reservation.

He viewed me with distain, and walked off.  I didn't need to speak Japanese to know what he was thinking: Dummy.

On the way to Gobo, however, in a pokey local that pulled over to a side track for every non-local train, I had plenty of time to think.  I realized that the kid was right.  My friend's research of the route seemed only to encompass local trains.  Yet all of these faster trains were zinging past us, going in the same direction.

So, when I finally reached Gobo, I asked a station worker about the next train to Kii Katsuura. 

The jukkyu (semi-express) at 11:45, he said.

Do I need a reservation?

No.  Take car 2 or 3. 

Saved!  Within a few minutes, I had a seat, a rest room(!), food and a beer.  Even though there was still a long way to go, I shaved nearly two-and-a-half hours off the trip, arriving around 4:30pm instead of closer to 7:00.  The scenery was spectacular, and looked even better for my not feeling hungry or - let's say - frustrated.

The ocean seen from the train window.

A view from the train as it raced along the coast, at last.

The Web has become indispensible to the small-route traveler.  No matter how remote, it seems that everyone with a bed to let in any country of the world can find a way to advertise it.  Between my own research and the recommendation of the Japan Travel Bureau, I was able to identify Kii-Katsuura as a centrally-located place to stay for my day hikes around the peninsula.  And THE place to stay in Kii-Katsuura was the Hotel Urashima. 

The top of the Urashima complex can be seen in this photo, in the center.

The Urashima!  What a place!  An emporium of onsen (hot spring baths), food, gifts, clothes, beer - you name it, they have it, and a good thing too - the place was only accessible by boat from a quay a few blocks from the train station. 

One of the boats to the Urashima.

Once there, I was really there.  When I checked in, the desk clerk furnished me with a map of the sprawling complex of baths, shops, restaurants, bars and guest rooms, along with tickets for my meals and directions to the restaurant where I was to appear for dinner and breakfast.

The Hotel Urashima entrance.

The Urashima was a real mix of the mundane and the exotic.  The restaurant where I took a number of meals was huge and noisy as a college cafeteria.  The onsen baths varied from hokey to spa-like in the Western (European, not US) sense.  And the place was packed on a Sunday night, mostly with business groups who had arranged outings for their employees. 

I happen to love onsen, as many of my friends know, and I always try to book a brief stay at an onsen hotel on my trips to the Old Country.  Combining day hikes with soaks in steaming hot pools of mineral water was, if I dare say so, inspired.  But one must always be prepared for the fact that onsen waters vary considerably.  In this area, the water was sulfurous - it was a good thing that I didn't mind the vaguely rotten-egg smell.  Having said that, the options at the Urashima included bath carved out from a cavern at the water's edge (shielded from prying eyes by rocks and the fact that the Urashima owned all the land around it) and spa-type facilities on the top floor (actually at the top of a rocky crag) that allowed one to look out to sea. 

According to what I was able to find out about the grand shrines of Kumano, one should go to Hongu first, then Nachi, then Shingu.  The traditional approach seemed to be to start at the coastal town of Kii Tanabe, then go through the interior to Hongu.  A hike would have been several days, and even the bus took hours to get anywhere close.  Given the amount of time I had available (four days) it seemed almost impossible, so I started at centrally-located Kii-Katsuura, and the next day, went to the most accessible pilgrimage site: Nachi.

I got out very early the next morning and took a local bus toward Nachi, getting out at a place called Daimonzaka.  The word means, literally, "big gate at the hill," and that's just what it was: a stone path leading up the side of the mountain through the very tall trees on the way to Nachi Taisha, the first of the great shrines I visited. 

The marker for Daimonzaka.

The weather was not too hot, but a little sticky.  The woods were damp from the heavy rain overnight.  The trees were gorgeous, even though I had to dodge a busload of old lady tourists/pilgrims almost the whole way (and a few old men, too). 

As it turned out, however, the aged tourists were good to have around.  At Daimonzaka, there are two 800-year-old trees that have grown together over time.  While most American tourists, or perhaps younger people generally, would have made note of the fact and moved on (as I did initially), the old people treated them with great affection, hugging them or touching them with their hands and faces, paying respect.  Very moved by the sight, I did likewise.

The 800-year old tree.

Most people know Shinto in Japan by the elegant buildings that house various kami (gods) of a given town or region.  However, scholars think that the very first "shrines" were simply outdoor spaces that somehow became associated with the divine.  Daimonzaka has such an old shrine – The Tafuke-Oji, consisting of an arrangement of rocks found under the tall trees on the way up the mountainside.  According to signs about the place, this site might be one of the very first places pilgrims visited in the Kumano area, though no one seems to know for sure.  The three large shrines were not mentioned much in print before the 17th century, even though sources I have consulted suggest people were coming here well before then.  If so, it is possible that a rough path leading up a mountain to this desolate set of rocks may have been the object of their visit.

The Tafuke-Oji.

The way from Daimonzaka to Nachi Taisha started out gently enough, but soon turned very steep - mostly steps of uneven stones (though absolutely none of them were loose).  All day I watched old people carefully negotiate these steps (often without handrails) and not one lost her balance, though some used walking sticks. 

The beginning of the way from Daimonzaka.

Every time I find myself in these situations I am struck by a large cultural difference - the lack of litigation mentality.  A place like Daimonzaka could not exist in the US - it would have to be paved and leveled, with handrails and guardrails everywhere. 

The tourist-pilgrims (another subspecies not found in the US) were merry and conversational.  One lady offered me her stick, which I declined, but, after several offers, I finally took one, as it turned out that the walking sticks were free to borrow for the ascent/descent.  One group I encountered walking down the path to Daimonzaka was pretty drunk and singing; even though it was 10:30 in the morning - but what the hell - a day off is a day off.

The steps to Nachi Taisha.

Torii at the entrance to Nachi Taisha.

The shrine was beautiful and impressive, flanked by the usual "treasure house" of dusty properties.  Like everyone else, I decided not to pay the admission price to view them, though treasure houses, when they are well-done, can be fascinating.  Throughout Japan's long history, visitors to shrines and temples have left gifts that have material and/or historical significance.  Kimono, swords and other weapons were not unusual offerings.  Unfortunately few major shrines present these centuries-worth of gifts in any meaningful way, let alone give real thought to preserving them. 

A part of the Nachi Taisha complex.

The shrine building was not terribly old, though the design was.  Shrine buildings in Japan are frequently rebuilt, since wood ages (and from time to time, burns, especially as a result of lighting strikes).  A Buddhist temple, the Nachi San Seigantoji, also stood nearby - not unusual for a major pilgrimage area, dating from the time when people's religious faiths were more syncretized.  It was very old, and very beautiful, the unpainted wood seeming to have more dignity than the vermillion-painted shrine (a practice that was not traditional, but has been widely adopted). 

Two views of the Nachi San Seigantoji.

Nearby, a colorful pagoda attached to the temple offered a great viewpoint for taking pictures of Nachi no Taki (Nachi Falls).

The Pagoda of Nachi San Seigantoji, with the waterfall in the background.

Outside of being spectacular scenery, the falls also have religious significance, fronted by a large and beautiful torii standing among the trees. 

Nachi no Taki.

The falls are 133 meters high (436 feet), the water dropping straight down to a pool below.  A video given to me by the Urashima showed a group of priests holding a ceremony at the top of the falls, standing knee-deep in the rushing water at the very edge.  A priest at Nachi Taisha is a brave man indeed.  That was the first (but would not be the last) time I would contemplate mortality on this trip.  Happily it was vicarious this time. 

After my return from Nachi, I wandered around Kii-Katsuura, a place that is definitely more lively at night than in the daytime, when it was practically a tomb.  There were restaurants and nightclubs - all closed late on a sunny afternoon. 

Tuna processing area by the quay.

Kii-Katsuura is a major tuna fishing port, small as it is.  In honor of this point, we had maguro sashimi and sushi every night at the Urashima.  As spectacular as the place was in many respects, menu variety was not one of them, and as much as I like maguro, I actually got a little bored with it.

Tired, sweaty and somewhat at peace, I boarded the noisy little boat at the quay and went back to the hotel for my caff-meal and a really good soak.  The next day I would set out for Hongu.

Bell hanging from the Pagoda of Seigantoji

Text and photos © 2012 Deborah Klens-Bigman and FightingArts.com.  All rights reserved.

Works consulted and cited

Moerman, David
1997            “The Ideology of Landscape and the Theater of State: Insei Pilgrimage to Kumano (1090-1220)” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies Vol. 24, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 1997).

Reader, Ian
2005            Making Pilgrimages: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press.

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About The Author:

Deborah Klens-Bigman is a teacher of iaido in New York City. She has also studied, to varying extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo), and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in the summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman. For FightingArts.com she is Associate Editor for Japanese Culture/Sword Arts and is a frequent contributor of articles on iaido and other topics.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Shinto, Kumano, Kumano Kodo, Kii Peninsula, Nachi Taisha, The Pagoda of Nachi San Seigantoji, Nachi no Taki, Pagoda of Seigantoji


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