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Exploring the boundless world of Japan's meccas of spirituality

Exploring the boundless world of Japan's meccas of spirituality

Futago-ji Temple

Put on your hiking shoes and ditch the crowds as you go on a spiritual journey from Japan’s main island to Kyushu’s historical and spiritual sites. Follow in the pilgrims’ footsteps along the Kumano Kodo in Mie Prefecture, trek through deep forests of Oita’s Kunisaki peninsula, and explore the home of the Sun Goddess in Miyazaki prefecture — and uncover the country’s rich mythology and history along the way.

Spiritual Trek Along the Kumano Kodo

Day 1

Begin your spiritual trek on the 1,000-year-old imperial pilgrimage of Kumano Kodo. The Nakahechi Route is one of the more accessible Kumano Kodo routes, guiding you through mountains, charming villages, and holy sites across the Wakayama peninsula. Start at Takijiri-oji Shrine, which you can reach by bus from Kii-Tanabe train station, then follow the forest trail 17 kilometers up into the mountains until you reach Tsugizakura-oji Shrine. Restore your strength in one of the area’s quaint accommodations for the night.

The Grand Shrine of Kumano Hongu Taisha

Day 2

If you’re up for the challenge, the hike to Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the Three Grand Shrines of the Kumano, will take you on a 21-kilometer trek past scenic mountain top villages and lookout points before you reach the sacred grounds of the ancient shrine. The dignified presence of the grand, cypress bark roof shrine is surrounded by giant cedar and cypress trees. It also features the biggest torii gate in the country, standing over 33 meters tall.

Yunomine Onsen

Day 3

Finish the previous day with a two-kilometer walk to the 1,800-year-old Yunomine Onsen. This hot spring town will soothe and revitalize your body and mind. Book a room in one of the many traditional ryokan accommodations and treat yourself to a leisurely day soaking in one of the many private and public baths. In the afternoon, hop on the bus back to Kii-Tanabe, before heading back to the city by train. Enjoy an overnight stay at a temple in Mount Koya, a small temple town where you can enjoy a vegetarian meal and get a glimpse into a monk’s lifestyle.

Rokugo Manzan Trek through the Forests of Kunisaki

Day 4

Take an early flight from Kansai Airport or travel by train to Oita and continue into the deep mountains of the Kunisaki peninsula by rental car. Follow the footsteps of monks who practiced a unique form of forest worship called Rokugo Manzan, founded over 1,300 years ago. Start with a hike up the ‘99’ stone steps to Kumano Magaibutsu Stone Buddhas that have been peacefully watching over the region since the late Heian Period. Next, drive past a stretch of pastoral fields to the refined nutmeg wood structure of Fuki-ji Temple, Kyushu’s oldest wooden building.

Futago-ji Temple, a Cliffside Temple, and Cave Hike

Futago-ji Temple, the central place of worship of the Rokugo Manzan religion. Bow to two stone Nio statues, the defenders of Buddha who guard the temple entrance, before making your way up to Gomado Hall, which houses several Rokugo Manzan relics. Trek further under the canopy of trees to Okunoin Hall, a temple built into the side of a cliff. From Futago-ji, continue north to the cliffside temple of Monjusen-ji, perched high on a rocky mountain face among the giant trees. For another hiking challenge, the Ofudo Iwaya Cave offers striking views of the dynamic landscape far below.

The Vermillion Gates of Usa Jingu

Finish your Rokugo Manzan trek at Usa Jingu. This imposing vermillion structure is one of the earliest examples of Shinto-Buddhist unions and considered the oldest shrine dedicated to Hachiman, Japan’s divine protector and god of archery and war. The vibrant vermilion structure of the main halls complements the massive garden complex’s lush greenery. Peacefully wander the expansive grounds before heading to the onsen resort town of Beppu, and regain your strength in one of their steaming baths.

Slip Back into the Edo Period in Usuki

Day 5

Start your day fresh with a leisurely walk through the historic samurai district of Usuki. This coastal town has retained much of its feudal past from the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), with beautifully preserved samurai houses and historic residential areas. Peek into the life of a high-ranking samurai family at the Inaba Family Villa. Nearby is the fortress of Usuki Castle ruins, which offers a 360-degree view of the city from a towering plateau.

Samurai Residential District of Nioza Historical Road

Next, head to the heart of the historic district to Nioza Historical Road. These picturesque, stone-paved streets are where you can see many wonderfully preserved samurai residences and temples. Have lunch in one of many local restaurants along Haccho Oji Shopping Street, and sample some of Usuki’s specialties, such as fugu blowfish and miso. Before you leave the city, drive or take a bus to see the national treasures of Usuki Stone Buddhas. Continue by car or train down to the Miyazaki coastline and spend the night in a hotel in Nobeoka or Hyuga. Their beautiful beaches are famous surfing destinations.

Spiritual Power Spots of Takachiho

Day 6

In the morning, head to the inner sanctity of the Takachiho region, renowned for its abundant nature and mythology centered around Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess. The regal shrine of Amano Iwata Shrine is located near the “Heavenly Rock Cave,” where Amaterasu retreated after becoming enraged by her brother’s intolerable behavior. Next, follow the crystal blue waters of the Iwato River to Amano Yasugawara cave. This cave is allegedly where the gods gathered to plan how they would lure the sun goddess out from hiding. It houses a torii gate, a small shrine, and thousands of stacked stone-piles.

A Traditional Night Kagura Performance at Takachiho Shrine

A short drive away is Takachiho Shrine, the head of the 88 shrines in the area. This wooden shrine blends into its natural surrounding of ancient cedar and cypress trees. A few steps away is the performance hall, where you can take in a night show featuring four episodes from the 33-dance-long Takachiho Yokagura Festival. Replenish your strength with a sumptuous meal at the luxury inn of Takachiho Kamikakure and soak in one of the inn’s private baths.

Dramatic Views of Takachiho Gorge

Day 7

On your last day, wake early and head to the stunning, volcanic basalt columns and turquoise-green waters of Takachiho Gorge. The dramatic angular columns are a result of lava that cooled rapidly and formed the canyon. Peer over the gorge ledge or rent a rowboat to get a closer look at the towering basalt columns and cascading waterfall from below. Finish with a trek in the lush forest, which forms the backdrop of Takachiho, before heading to Fukuoka Airport and on to Tokyo.

Mika Senda

Mika Senda

Mika is a writer for and In 2018, she made her way from her hometown in Canada to the countryside of Oita Prefecture. Since then, she's been exploring the tradition, art and culture of inaka life, and most likely sitting in an onsen right now.


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