Nestled high up on Mt. Nachi, the brilliant orange and white Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine enshrines the god that dwells in the thundering Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan.
One of the designated Three Grand Kumano Sanzan Shrines, it is one of the ultimate destinations for pilgrims trekking the historic Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route.
Nachi Taisha can be reached via a bus from Kii-Katsuura or Nachi Station.
Get the bus from Kii-Katsuura Station and ride 30 minutes to the Nachi-san stop. The stop before is Nachi-no-Taki-mae, the stop for Nachi Falls. Alternatively, take the bus from Shingu Station for about 15 minutes and get off at Jinja Otera-mae.
While it is free to enter the temple grounds, entry into the shrine's treasure room costs 300 yen
Nachi Taisha and nearby Seiganto-ji comprise one of the country's few remaining shrine-temple complexes
If you want to see the shrine as pilgrims would have approached it, get off the bus at Daimonzaka instead of Nachi-san. The stone staircase still feels ancient and leads you up to the entrance of the shrine. Taking 267 steps to climb, this path offers you the opportunity to step into the pilgrims' shoes, quite literally. You can rent 9th-century Heian-period costumes from the nearby Daimonzaka Chaya and climb the ancient staircase to arrive at the Grand Shrine in historic style.
As you enter the complex, you'll notice a large camphor tree whose boughs beautifully spread over the shrine's roofs, and encircled with a sacred rope. Nearly a millennium old, it enshrines a deity within, and a natural hollow in the trunk lets you actually squeeze through inside to listen to its ancient secrets. There is a small altar where offerings can be made.
Camphor trees are revered in Japan because of their longevity, giving them an eternal, spiritual presence. One famous example of this is in the film My Neighbor Totoro, where a large camphor tree serves as the home to the titular forest spirit.
In a symbiotic religious relationship, Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine and the neighboring Seiganto Temple were once joined together, offering a place of worship to followers of Japan's native Shintoism joined with imported Buddhism. For a long time, the buildings operated as a single entity, but in the 19th-century the Meiji government forced the two religions to be separated.
Here, the two spiritual structures remain connected and represent harmony in the presence of nature, both dedicated to the powerful and striking wonder of the area that inspired people long before either were built.
The highlight of the shrine's festival calendar is the Nachi Fire Festival held every July 14. In an ancient purification ritual, torches and portable shrines fashioned into the shape of the nearby Nachi Falls are set ablaze. During this time, the stone staircase leading from the shrine to the falls is packed with torch-wielders dressed in white in a truly dazzling display.