One of the three grand shrines that make up Kumano Sanzan, Kumano Hongu Taisha sits deep in the Kii mountain range. Its mighty wooden frame has long been a sight for sore eyes as travel-weary pilgrims clamber up the final stone staircase to the sanctuary, knowing the rigors of their Kumano Kodo journey have reached their conclusion.
Home to the Kumano Shinto faith, the shrine is constructed entirely of natural materials, representing the core belief in the sacred and restorative power of nature.
Traditionally reached via an arduous pilgrimage through the mountain, today Kumano Hongu is easily accessible by bus.
Take the bus from Shingu (one hour 20 minutes), Kii-Tanabe, or Shirahama stations (around two hours). Get off at Hongu-Taisha-Mae for the closest access to the shrine or Hosshinmon Oji for a beautiful two-hour hike along the historical approach.
The largest torii gate in the world now stands at the original location of the shrine in Oyunohara
Entry to the temple grounds is free, but there is a 300-yen charge to enter the treasure room
Hongu Taisha is at the center of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route
You might think the shrine looks relatively youthful for its 900-odd years, and you would be right. In 1889, a great flood swept through the shrine at its original home of Oyunohara. What remained was transported and meticulously rebuilt in its current home in Tanabe.
The original site is a quick walk from the current shrine grounds, easily marked by the massive torii gate built in 2000 to commemorate the former location.
All the pilgrimage routes on the historic Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail eventually come to the stone steps leading up to the grand shrine of Kumano Hongu Taisha. However, not all visitors have endured the arduous weeks of walking through rugged mountain terrain that the ancient pilgrims undertook. Today, the shrine is very popular with casual day visitors and is particularly crowded during the New Year period.
In contrast to the vivid reds of Hayatama and Nachi Taisha, Kumano Hongu Taisha strikes a more subdued figure as its wooden façade blends into its natural background. No less impressive than its Kumano Sanzan cousins, however, its sweeping cypress bark roof is a beautiful piece of shrine architecture that feels ancient as you look at it.
Every spring, the shrine plays host to the Kumano Hongu Taisha Spring Festival. On April 13th, fathers and sons immerse themselves into the sacred waters of the nearby Yunomine Onsen in an act of purification, then trek part of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route in traditional costume. The fathers need to be strong, as their sons are forbidden from touching the ground.
On April 15th, the Kumano deities take up residence in their portable shrines and are transported to the original site of the shrine in Oyunohara. Later, in August, is the Yata-no-Hi Fire Festival, which takes place at the shrine's original site of Oyunohara and includes a flaming mikoshi shrine and fireworks.