On the Road in Kansai
Ancient Capitals, Ise Shrine, and Beyond / March 17-28, 2004
Updated: July 22, 2010
At the center of Japan's main island of Honshu is the region of Kansai, known for its ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara and the modern metropolises of Osaka and Kobe. But beyond these cities, Kansai offers the visitor areas of scenic wonders and cultural sites.
I wanted to visit places off-the-beaten path, particularly sacred sites associated with Shinto, Japan's still-active native religion, and its nature and ancestral deities called kami.
The best way to get to these places, it seemed, was by car. Friends warned me about the challenges of driving in Japan – e.g., you drive on the left, signs are often only in kanji characters, city streets are a maze, and city parking is diffcult to find; but the Lonely Planet guidebook assured me that "Driving in Japan is quite feasible, even for the just mildly adventurous."
I chose two routes, one that went east from Nara to Ise, the shrine of the sun kami Amaterasu, then south to Kumano San Zan, the three Great Mountain Shrines of Kumano, a destination of pilgrimages since the tenth century. After visiting the three shrines on the southeast side of the Kii Peninsula, we drove back to Nara through the central mountains.
The other route went north from Kyoto to the Tango Peninsula at the east end fo San-in Coast National Park and Amanohashidate, considered one of the three most scenic spots in Japan; then east to Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake, and back to Kyoto.
Between the two driving tours, we stayed in Nara and Kyoto to visit the famous sites in and around those cities, where getting around on public transportation is more convenient than driving.
Map by Honolulu Advetiser. Click on the image for a Google Map.
I wanted to avoid driving in the complex expressways and streets around the airport and Osaka, so we caught a bus from Kansai International Airport to Nara.
We spent a morning walking around Nara's Deer Park and Todaiji, a temple consecrated in A.D. 752, a couple of hundred years after Buddhism was introduced from China via Korea. Todaiji ("Eastern Big Temple") served as the headquarters of a complex of provincial temples built throughout Japan in order to pray for the protection of the nation against epidemics, famines, and natural disasters.
Todaiji is the world's largest wooden building, housing the world's largest bronze Buddha, fifty-three feet high.
Nearby, Kasuga Grand Shrine, also dating from the eighth century, was under renovation. Noted for its three thousand stone lanterns, the shrine is dedicated to Futsunushi, an ancestral deity of the Fujiwara clan and a kami of swords who played a role in founding the nation.
That afternoon, we rented a car and drove to Ise, the location of Shinto's most sacred site: Jingu ("Kami Palace"). The shrine was established 2,000 years ago for Amaterasu Omikami, the sun kami, from whom the Imperial family traces its genealogy. The ceremonies for Amaterasu (twenty major ones per year) mirror the seasonal cycle of planting and harvesting rice. The ceremonies are conducted to ensure good weather and a bountiful harvest.
To avoid crowds, early the next morning, as the sun rose above the low hills, we drove to the shrine and entered through its large torii and across the Uji bridge over the Isuzu River.
On the pathway to the shrine was a temizuya, a water-basin where visitors wash their hands and rinse their mouths. There is also a place for ritual purification on the banks of the Isuzu River. Cleanliness and purity, inner and outer, are at the heart of Shinto.
The immaculately-kept gravel pathways shaded by hinoki (Japanese cypress) led to wooden buildings associated with keeping Amaterasu happy and content a house for food preparation and a house of sacred music and dance. Other structures enshrine deities associated with her, such as the kami of wind and weather.
Amaterasu lives in a house which can be approached, but not entered, by ordinary visitors. Worshippers stop at a gate to pay their respects to the kami or offer prayers. The entrance had a white cloth hanging in front of it. The morning breeze lifted the cloth to reveal another gate. The high roof of one of the shrine buildings is visible above a side fence.
Built on pillars of hinoki and thatched with kaya grass, the unpainted dwelling looks like a well-kept cottage rather than a palace. To keep it fresh, the shrine is rebuilt every 20 years in its original form on an adjacent lot; after the kami is moved into her new house, the old house is taken apart, and the beams reused at Ise and other shrines.
Ise Shrine, © 1910. New York Public Library
When we got back to the parking lot, visitors were arriving by the busload. We stopped for lunch at Oharai-machi, a reconstructed Edo-era street lined with shops and restaurants just outside of the main torii gate. The lobster udon was excellent. From one of the shops, we bought a bottle of saké made with the water of the Isuzu River.
Before leaving the Ise area, we took a short drive to Futami to see Meoto Iwa ("Wedded Rocks"), two rocks separated by water at high tide, but joined by a thick rope braided from rice stalks. The rocks are named Izanagi and Izanami after the brother and sister who descended from Heaven and gave birth to the islands of Japan. The rocks are just offshore from a frog shrine dedicated to a kami of food.
South to Kii
From Ise, we headed ninety miles south to the city of Shingu, the location of one of the three sacred shrines of Kumano.
From ancient times, three pilgrimage routes went south to Kumano's three shrines. The one from Ise, on the east side of the Kii Peninsula, was used by commoners. The second route, from Yoshino through the rugged central mountains, was used by mountain ascetics seeking enlightenment and supernatural powers through the practice of Shugendo ("way of discipline and training," a syncretic sect combining elements of Shinto, Buddhism, and Taoism). The third route, used by the Imperial court, went from Kyoto along the west side of the peninsula through Wakayama. Sections of the stone-paved pilgrimage trails still remain.
The watershed of the Kumano is within the Yoshino-Kumano National Park, a region of mountains, rivers, waterfalls, gorges, and hot springs.
An ancient tradtion connects the region with the Taoist search for the elixir of eternal life. In the third century BCE, fearing death, Qin Shi Huang, who unified China and built the first Great Wall, sent Jofuku (Xi Fu) to find this elixir, rumored to be in the Land of Happy Immortals in mountains in the eastern sea.
Jofuku crossed the Sea of Japan with five hundred ships. One version says the ships were destroyed by a typhoon, and only Jofuku survived to reach Kumano; another version is that he arrived with 3000 men, women, and children. Kumano was paradise for Jofuku. He believed that the elixir would be found among the abundant herbs growing in the verdant mountains, and he spent the rest of his life there searching for it.
Although he ever found the elixir, a medicinal plant he discovered called “Tendai Uyaku” is used to treat kidney disease and rheumatism. The plant is made into both a tea and a wine. Jofuku is remembered for introducing Chinese farming, fishing, and papermaking techniques to the area. A park and a gravesite in Shingu are dedicated to him. (Other traditions say Jofuku landed on Kyushu or Okinawa.)
We took Route 42 from Ise to Shingu. The road winds through mountainous terrain down to the sea, then straightens out for twelve miles along pebbly Shichirimihama ("Long Beach"), the longest beach in Japan. The beach is a breeding ground for loggerhead sea turtles. The eggs laying and hatching season extends from May to September.
At the north end of Shichirimihama is Onigajyo, or Ogre's Castle, an eroded volcanic headland full of caves and crevices, with a cliff trail along its ocean front.
Just south of Onigajyo, on the beach, is Shishi Iwa, a large rock shaped like a crouching lion.
Just past Shishi Iwa near the side of the road is Hana no Iwaya, a 150-foot-high monolith. This rock is said to be the rock that Izanagi used to block the exit of the Underworld to prevent his sister from pursuing him into this world and killing him. She was angry that he had seen her as a decaying corpse.
At the base of the rock is an altar. Rice-straw ropes suspended from the top of the rock are used in rites to honor Izanami. One website notes that “Hana no Iwaya no Otsunakakeshinji is still observed in February and October in relation to the Hana no Iwaya, as a festival retaining the content of ancient rites described in the myth of Japan.” The festival is described in the eight-century account of the gods and early emperors Nihon shoki ("Chronicles of Japan"):
When Izanami no Mikoto gave birth to the Fire-God, she was burnt, and died. She was, therefore, buried at the village of Arima in Kumano, in the province of Kii. In the time of flowers, the inhabitants worship the spirit of this goddess by offerings of flowers. They also worship her with drum, flutes, flags, singing and dancing.
In Shingu City, in a grove of trees along the Kumano river, is one of the three Kumano shrines. Called Shingu ("New Shrine") or Hayatama Shrine, it's dedicated to Hayatama-no-okami, the first kami to be born from Izanagi’s spittle after Izanagi returned from his Underworld visit to his sister Izanami. In the tradition of Shinto-Buddhist syncretism, Hayatama-no-okami is identified with Yakushi, the Buddha of medicine and healing. The shrine is also dedicated to Izanagi.
Nearby, on a cliff of Mt. Gongen is a shrine called Kamikura, associated with Hatayama Shrine. At the top of a steep stone stairway, the small shrine has been built to worship a large spherical rock called Gotobiki.
Locals climb the stairs for exercise and prayer in the morning. The shrine offers a view of Shingu City below.
We spent three days touring the Kumano area. Up a mountain road a few miles south of Shingu is Nachi Taisha, another of the Kumano San Zan shrines, founded in the fourth century and dedicated to Fusumi no okami, who is an avatar of the Buddhist goddess of mercy Kannon and also identified with Izanami. A hollow camphor tree at the shrine has an altar inside of it where visitors can place ofuda (small wooden plaques) on which they write their prayers.
Behind Nachi Shrine is a section of the old Kumano pilgrimage trail.
Near Nachi Shrine is the tallest waterfall in Japan – the 400-foot high Nachi no Taki. The waterfall is worshipped as a kami called Hiro, whose shrine is situated in front of the falls. He is an embodiment of its life-giving waters, said to confer longevity if you drink it.
The waterfall was a site for one of the famous austerities practiced in the tradition of Shugendo. In the winter of 1160, the wandering monk Mongaku vowed to remain standing under the waterfall for twenty-one days while reciting three hundred thousand invocations to his god Fudo-myo-o:
It was past the Tenth day of the Twelfth Moon [around January]. The snow was deep, the ice was thick, the valley streams had fallen silent, a freezing gale blew from the peaks, icicles had formed in the waterfall, and all the surroundings were perfectly white, even to the branches of the trees. Mongaku entered the pool below the torrent, submerged himself to the neck, and set about reciting a fixed number of invocations to Fudo. (The Tale of the Heike)
Fudo is a fierce guardian who converts anger into salvation, subdues demons and frightens unbelievers into accepting Buddhist law.
Mongaku endured the icy water below the falls for several days before losing his footing and floating downstream, where a young man pulled him to shore. After regaining consciousness, he was angry at having failed and returned to the waterfall to continue his recitation. On the second day, two divine messenger of Fudo floated down from the top of the waterfall to warm him and give him strength, and he was able to fulfill his vows.
At an izakaya (saké and food bar) in Shingu, a friendly patron recommended we go south to Kushimoto, describing the drive as "Sugoi!"("Awesome!"). We took his advice and went there the next day. On the way, we passed Hashigui Iwa ("Bridge Post Rocks"), an row of rock columns jutting up near shore like the remnants of a giant bridge.
Just south of Kushimoto is Shiono Cape, the southernmost point of Honshu, with a view up the east and west coasts of the Kii Peninsula and ships entering and exiting Osaka Bay. At this relatively warm southern site, the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom.
Kawayu: Steaming River
The next day, we left Shingu on Route 168 to see the third Kumano shrine, Hongu ("Original Shrine") and to stay overnight at Kawayu ("Hot-water River"), a nearby hot spring village.
On the way, we stopped at Shiko and rode a jet boat up Doro Gorge, cut into forested slate and sandstone hills by a tributary of the Kumano River. The long, narrow flat-bottom boat skimmed up gentle rapids in the shallow, meandering riverbed to a scenic spot in the gorge. Cranes, cormorants and hawks fishing along the river.
West of Doro Gorge, approached by a long tree-lined pathway is Hongu, dedicated to Ketsumiko no mikoto, a kami considered to be a manisfestation of Amida Buddha and also identified with Amaterasu’s brother Susano-o .
The storm god Susano-o, like Amaterasu, was born from the washings of Izanagi's body as he purified himself in a river to remove the pollution caused by being near his sister's corpse in the Underworld. Amaterasu is said to have been born from the washing of Izanagi's left eye and Susano-o from the washing of his nose. A third sibling, the moon kami Tsukiyomi, came from the washing of his right eye.
Unpainted and roofed with cedar bark, Hongu is the most traditionally constructed of the three Kumano shrines. It embodies the simplicity, purity and natural harmony of the original Shinto architecture before continental influences introduced images and bright red paint.
We arrived at Kawayu on a chilly afternoon, ideal for soaking in the naturally-heated pools dug into the stone-and-pebble river bank. The rising steam gave the village a feeling of mystery as evening fell.
Like the mineral waters of the numerous other hot springs in the mountains and along the coasts of the Kii Peninsula, Kawayu is said to have medicinal qualities, in particular, curative of nervous disorders and internal diseases.
The next morning, we continued on to Nara via Routes 168 and 24. On the map, Route 168 looks like a squiggly line drawn by a child. It has countless curves, twisting along deep river valleys and through one-lane mountain villages.
Construction work to protect the road from falling rocks and to widen and straighten it with tunnels and bridges created delays. It was slow going at times, but the scenery was grand: green rivers reflecting mountain forests, and ridges fading one behind another in the misty spring rain.
From Nara we took a train to Kyoto and spent a couple of nights at a hotel near the station. We visited the tomb of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose from a farming family to become regent and chancellor of Japan in the sixteenth century. He died at the age of 63 in 1598 at Fushimi Castle and was buried, by his request, in a tomb at the top of a Amidagamine hill. The current tomb, up a flight of 500 stairs, was extensively reconstruction in 1898 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of his death. Walking distance away are Kiyomizu Temple, Chion Temple, and Yasaka Shrine.
North to Tango
The next day we rented a car and drove seventy miles north via routes 9 and 176 to Amanohashidate ("Standing Bridge of Heaven"). This two-mile-long sand spit lined with pine trees stretches across Miyazu Bay at the eastern base of the Tango Peninsula.
The sand spit is said to be the remnant of Ama-no-uki-date (“Floating Bridge of Heaven”), where Izanagi and Izanami stood and stirred the brine of the empty sea with the tip of a spear. The brine dripping from the spear-tip formed the island Ono-goro (“Self-Condensed”). The two gods descended to this island and while living on it, procreated Oho-ya-shima-kuni (“Land-of-the-Eight-Great-Islands”), known today as Japan.
You can walk or bicycle across the spit. On the sunny but chilly day when we were there, the path was deserted, though I read the area can get very crowded in the peak summer months. The best view of the spit is via chair lift or cable car to an amusement park at the top of a hill. From there, if you bend over and look between your legs, the sand spit appears to be afloating in the sky.
The fifty-mile drive around the Tango Peninsula runs along the coast past islands and offshore rocks and fishing villages.
At Kyoga Cape – the northernmost point of Kyoto prefecture – a forty-minute hike up to and down from the lighthouse was a welcome stop along the winding road. Wild monkeys were foraging on the road to the parking lot. The view of the coast from the lighthouse was breathtaking.
The town of Ine was particularly picturesque, with boats parked beneath the shoreline houses.
That night we stayed at Refre Kayanosato, a small hotel with modest rooms and a herb garden, a healing herb spa, a good restaurant and a gift shop selling herbs and herbal teas.
Across the street was an arts and crafts colony. The rice-farming town is also known for its dyed silk.
Near the hotel was the reconstructed site of an ancient burial mound, or kofun, dating from 1,600 years ago. These tumuli built for local and regional chieftains were originally encircled with clay cylinders called haniwa. A well-kept museum displays the haniwa and burial goods found at the site.
Returning to Kyoto, we took routes 178 and 27 east to Kaminaka, 303 through the mountains, then 161 along the western shore of Lake Biwa. These routes are used by big, slow-moving trucks and go through some not particularly attractive small cities and towns. To take a break from the traffic, when we got to Lake Biwa, we stopped at Shirahige Shrine, which features an offshore torii.
We could see across the glassy lake until it grew misty and the distant shore disappeared.
Lake Biwa is famous in poetry and art, for example, as the subject of Hiroshige's Eight Views of Omi (the old name of the province of Shiga prefecture), which included a print of geese descending above boats at Katata on the western shore of the lake:
Thirty-six miles long, the lake was formed almost four million years ago. The lake provides drinking water for the surrounding region. It has over four hundred in-flowing streams. The main outlet, at southern end of the Lake, is the Seta (or Uji) River, which flows southwest into the Yodo River, which empties into Osaka Bay. The lake is home to fifty-eight endemic species of plants and animals (more than any other lake in Japan), including fifteen unique species of fish (catfish, chub, carp, salmon, sweetfish, trout); but non-native black bass and bluegill, introduced for sport-fishing, have multiplied so abundantly, they are reducing the biodiversity of the lake.
Back in Kyoto, we returned the car and took the local buses and trains to day destinations in the city and nearby. One day we caught a train to Osaka to visit its castle and its aquarium, next to which is a giant ferris wheel. Both ferris wheel and castle offered views of Japan's second largest city, after Tokyo.
The sakura bloom we saw beginning at Cape Shiono was coming into fullness at Osaka Castle:
The next day we went south by train to Fushimi to visit the Gekkeikan saké brewery and museum. The town also has a shopping arcade and a canal offering boat rides.
With an all-day bus pass we continued to visit the famous sites of Kyoto (counterclockwise from top left): Ginkakuji, the Philosopher's Walk, the rock garden at Ryoanji, and Kinkakuji.
The sakura bloom at Osaka Castle was a highlight of our spring journey; but the sacred rocks of Kumano were just as impressive.
Cherry blossoms and rocks figure into one of Shinto's central myths:
When Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu, descended to earth and proposed marriage to Kono-hana saku-ya-hime (“Princess who blossoms like the flowers of the trees”), her father, O-yama-tsu-mi no Kami (“Great-mountain-possessor kami”), agreed to the marriage, but also sent his older daughter, Iha-naga-hime (“Rock-long-princess”). Ninigi married the beautiful flower princess, but sent back the ugly older sister. O-yama was shamed. He told Ninigi that thereafter, Ninigi’s offspring, instead of living as long as rocks, would have frail, short lives, like blossoms.
It was Ninigi's mistake not to marry both. In reality, the Japanese revere blossoms and rocks: sakura remind us of the transiency of our lives; iwa of the enduring spirit of the land.