Kumano Hongu Taisha is one of the Kumano region’s three famous shrines. As well as enshrining its own deity, Hongu Taisha also enshrines the deities of the other two Kumano shrines, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha, and the sun goddess Amaterasu. It serves as the head shrine of over 3000 Kumano shrines across Japan. Reference to Hongu Taisha was first documented in the 9th century, which the establishment of the shrine must have preceded substantially. Due to floods in 1889, the shrine was moved from its original location at Oyu no Hara to its present site one kilometer away. In front of Oyu no Hara stands the biggest torii gate in the world, which, at 33 meters tall, dwarfs visitors passing under it.
Hongu Taisha is located at the center of the Kumano Kodo network of pilgrimage routes. An enjoyable walk for visitors who wish to experience a pilgrimage trail but are pressed by time, is the final section of the Nakahechi route between Hosshinmon Oji and Hongu. It is seven kilometers long, takes about two hours and finishes at the shrine. Hosshinmon Oji is accessible by bus.
There are three onsen near Kumano Hongu Taisha, Yunomine, Kawayu and Wataze. The first two are small onsen towns, while Wataze Onsen consists of only a single hotel complex, Watarase Onsen, which is known for having the largest outdoor bath in western Japan.
Address: 1110 Hongucho Hongu, Tanabe, Wakayama 647-1731, Japan
Opening Hours: 08:00 – 17:00
Kumano Hongu Taisha was originally located at Oyunohara, a sandbank at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers. Legend has it that the Kumano deities, in the form of three moons, descended into the branches of a giant oak tree in this clearing. All of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes lead to this sacred site. In 1889 a severe flood destroyed many of the shrine buildings. The salvaged remains of the pavilions were rebuilt at their present site. You can still see the expansive, raised earthen platform where the pavilions once stood. Of the original five main pavilions only three were rebuilt. Four deities were moved there and the other eight are still enshrined here in two stone monuments.
The entrance to Oyunohara is marked by the largest Torii shrine gate in the world (33.9 meters tall and 42 meters wide). It’s a formalized gateway that designates the entrance to a sacred area. It signifies the division of the secular and the spiritual worlds. This Torii is called Otorii, O means “big”. It was erected in the year 2000 and is made of steel. The Otorii weighs 172 tons and took about 6 months to make and 6 months to assemble. It is lit up during special occasions and festivals, such as during the Kumano Hongu Taisha Spring Festival, the Yata-no-Hi Matsuri Fire Festival, and during the New Year holiday.
Kumano Hongu Taisha Spring Festival
The annual spring festival held April 13th to 15th every year is not only a quintessential festival of Kumano but also intimately associated with the pilgrimage to Kumano and the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route.
On April 13th, fathers and their young sons purify themselves in the sacred waters of Yunomine Onsen before walking over the Dainichi-goe section of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route to Oyunohara wearing traditional costumes. The young boys have the character for big on their forehead and are forbidden to touch the ground.
On April 15th, the Kumano Deities are invoked to temporarily take up residence in a portable mikoshi shrine and returned to their original site of descend, Oyunohara. The atmosphere is serene, traditional, authentic and inspiring. Yamabushi mountain ascetics also perform a fire ritual.
Yata-no-Hi Matsuri Fire Festival
Yata-no-Hi Matsuri Fire Festival taking place on the last Saturday of August, in Oyunohara (Hongu-cho), in honor of the Yatagarasu crow. This fire festival includes the parading of a fire mikoshi, a Taiko drum show, dancing, and fireworks.
History of the Kumano Sanzan
The Kumano Sanzan shrine complexes were likely constructed between the sixth and ninth centuries as places of nature worship. Though their locations have remained roughly intact since then, remodeling and reconstruction have been necessary over the years.
In the 11th century, the Kumano Sanzan became a pilgrimage destination for the Imperial family. By the late 15th century, however, the majority of pilgrims to Kumano were civilians—monks traveling for religious purposes, artists looking for inspiration, and other common folk. The pilgrimage was so popular people began to refer to the long processions as the “Kumano ant pilgrimage.”