Kumano Pilgrimage History


Kumano has been considered a sacred site associated with nature worship since prehistoric times. When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century this area became a site of ascetic training. As Shinto and Buddhism mixed, the belief of Kumano as a Buddhist Pure Land became prevalent. The 9th and 10th century was the formative period of the sacred sites that we know today.

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Imperial Golden Age

The 11th century was believed to be the start of an era called Mappo, when the Buddha’s powers would decline and hardships would plague society. The first trip by an Emperor took place during this time. During the 11th to 13th centuries pilgrimages to Kumano by the Imperial family were repeated almost 100 times. With the repetitions of these large scale pilgrimages shrine buildings and accommodation facilities were constructed and improved one after another. At this time the basic scale and layout of the major buildings were consolidated. Organizations to support the area were also formed. The large number of pilgrims to Kumano far exceeded other parts of Japan.

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Rise of the Samurai

The end of the 12th century saw the rise of the military families and authority was taken over by a feudal government. 

In the early 13th century Emperor Gotoba failed at his attempt to reclaim the ruling power. This put an end to the imperial pilgrimages but aristocrats and Samurai still came.

From the 14th to the 16th century samurai kept a grip on the ruling authority while on various levels the struggle for power between the Imperial family and aristocrats continued. Because of Kumano’s close relation with the Imperial capital it suffered.

In the 15th to 16th centuries the government weakened and an age of civil war and unrest took place when the feudal lords fought for power. The Shrine’s financial base was substantially taken over by those feudal lords. But because they were still considered very sacred as power changed hands the victor always faithfully made donations.

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Increase in Pilgrims from the General Populace

In the 15th century because of the improved production capability and progress of the monetary economy taking place, rich citizens also began to make pilgrimages. It was also during this era that the custom of carrying out pilgrimages to sacred sites spread from samurai to the general public.

The Kumano Bikuni nuns were very active during the 16th to 18th centuries spreading the Kumano faith all over Japan.

From the 17th to the late 19th century, the powerful Tokugawa feudal government was established in Edo, present day Tokyo. 270 years of peace ensued which was maintained under the dominance of the samurai class. With economic growth and further development of the monetary system there was an increase in urban artisans and merchants with high incomes interested in seeing other places. They also began to make their way to Kumano. At the same time construction and improvement of roads and other pilgrimage infrastructures including lodgings were built. Because of these developments and the safe travel situation that was created under the political stability of the Tokugawa regime, there was an increase in pilgrims.

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Decline & Destruction

In the late 19th century Japan was forcefully opened to the outside world. In 1868 the Meiji Restoration saw the collapse of the feudal system and a dramatic period of change. Japan quickly evolved into a modern state to be competitive with the western countries. 

The new government took strict measures to control the religions in Japan and issued the Shintoism and Buddhism separation Decree. They also prohibited Shinto-Buddhist syncretism and banned Shugendo altogether. Thousands of temples were destroyed and complexes incorporating both Shinto and Buddhist institutions forcibly separated. For example all Buddhist related statues and objects were removed from Kumano Hongu Taisha

The loss of cultural artifacts was enormous, many being lost to countries overseas. In the early 20th century the government started to create cultural preservation laws. There was a dramatic drop in pilgrims leading up to and during World War Two.

After the war the demand for timber during the economic recovery led to vast areas coming under the influence of the forestry industry and replanted with cedar and cypress. Since 1950 the increase in development of transportation infrastructure like roads and railways drastically altered the way of pilgrimage. Large sections of the mountain route became overgrown because of disuse.

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Rediscovery, Revival & Recognition

The late 1990s saw an increase in people walking the old mountain pilgrimage trails. And in 2004, with the registration of the area as UNESCO World Heritage as the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”, the number of visitors increased dramatically. The sacred mountains of Kumano are once again being rediscovered by contemporary Japanese looking for their spiritual roots and the traditional countryside lifestyle that has been lost in modern Japanese cities.

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