In this world of seemingly incessant ‘TV War News’, bank failures, virus scares, vaccine panics, and political intrigues there are, thankfully, a few places in this world where one can still find quiet spaces and spiritually inspiring atmospheres where one is drawn to naturally reflect deeply on the meaning of life and death. Once such place is a region in Japan called Kumano and is the place where I presently call home.
Nestled in the mountains on the southern tip of the Kii Hanto peninsula Kumano spreads from Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture to Nagashima in Mie Prefecture to the east, and north to Totsukawa in Nara Prefecture.
Though Kumano was designated a World Heritage Site in 2004, still too few people inside or outside Japan are aware of the natural refuge available to them in the region. Even fewer are aware of the deep mystical past, spiritual energy, and historical significance of the area.
Even the people who live in Kumano are only superficially aware of their rich past and cultural history. This has started to change slowly since the World Heritage designation and now the local residents of Kumano are beginning to take pride in their history and culture once again.
However, there is still a long way to go to awaken both Japanese and non-Japanese to the visible and invisible richness of the area. Perhaps this article will serve as one more beacon of light shining on Kumano that beckons seekers and nature lovers to venture here for reinvigoration and healing.
Personally, Kumano has long held a special attraction that is hard for me to explain in words. Like anything esoteric or mystical, words rarely suffice. In the end, you have to experience it for yourself and see it through your own eyes, understand it with the heart, and feel it with your own skin.
I have traveled extensively in Japan and have visited a lot of wonderful places all with their own unique atmosphere and value and I have many more places I want to visit like Izumo Taisha and northern Japan.
Yet, no matter what beautiful scenery, shrines, temples, and cities I have seen, and no matter how significant the cultural magnificence, I am always anxious to get back to the protective and healing atmosphere of Kumano where I have lived most of the last 22 years after first being drawn here in 1987 to practice Aikido with Hikitsuchi Michio, 10th degree black belt (recently deceased).
Each time, on my way back to Kumano, as I leave the urban world that is gathered along the ‘Shinkansen Strip’, and start to penetrate the mountains of the Kii Peninsula, I always have this feeling that I am entering a different world than the rest of Japan. It is like I am passing through an invisible gate into a world where the invisible powers take hold and don’t let go.
Each time I return to Kumano it feels as if I am coming home and I immediately enter into a completely different state of mind leaving the worries of the material world behind. It is like a returning to the mother’s womb, a place of warmth, protection, and safety where eternity and emptiness co-exist.
Although many parts of Japan are famous for their beauty and cultural treasures, Kumano is really more about the internal, the invisible, and mystical than the visible, worldly, and obviously splendid.
There is no glittering Kinkakuji here and no grand and exquisite carvings of the Buddha like the Daibutsu in Nara. Nor are the temples here perhaps as splendid as those in Kyoto, nor are there any Imperial Palaces.
The shrines and temples here in Kumano are beautiful and peaceful places. However, I see these human artifacts more as ‘add-ons’ decorating a far more stunning natural backdrop that no human hand could imitate.
One of these amazing power spots is Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan at 133 meters.
Since Nachi Falls can been seen far out at sea, it is said that Ragyo Shonin, a Brahman from India, was likely attracted to the falls while passing by on the Black Current and was drawn in to explore the falls where he would eventually establish one of the Three Grand Shines of Kumano, Nachi Taisha, about 1700 years ago.
Certainly, everywhere you go in Kumano you will find pristine waterfalls, soothing hot springs, masculine mountains, lush forests, beautiful waterways, and white sandy beaches along the Pacific Ocean.
However, again, it is not just the breath-taking natural scenery that sets Kumano apart. You can find beautiful natural environments all over Japan once you are off the Shinkansen Line where modern urbanized Japanese have gathered for their convenience.
In Kumano there is something much more intangible that goes beyond the obvious tourist attractions and natural beauties of the region. Unlike, most tourist spots in Japan you will have to look deeper into yourself to find the value here.
They say when the student is ready the teacher will appear. However, your ‘teacher’ in Kumano may not always be a person in visible form. In Kumano, your teacher may be invisible and intangible. Lessons on the meaning of life are everywhere and can be found in a conversation, an experience, an event, a sunrise, or on the Kumano Kodo looking out over a sea of mist covered mountains.
Of course there are many human teachers here too.
I am reminded of one man on a personal mission who, for no fee, takes men and women who are suicidal or depressed all over Kumano with no plan, agenda, or destination. In free style three day sessions he takes them on walks in the mountains and by the sea. He shows them the natural wonders of the area while asking ‘setsumon’ or ‘explanatory questions’.
Far into the wee hours of the morning the dividing, dissecting, and judgmental mind begins to tire as he guides his ‘guests’ through the dark places in their mind until they awaken to see the pure light of their inner child. Around 400 people each year partake in this inner child journey for only the cost of their own food. Most will never think of taking their own life again.
This is just one example of the kind of life changing experience that can happen naturally and spontaneously in Kumano when the student is ready.
Historically, many people were drawn to Kumano in their darkest hour of spiritual or physical sickness. Not surprisingly it is often in these darkest times and hopelessness that the ‘teacher’ in Kumano appears and where the old self dies and a new self born.
To quote from a web site I translated about Kumano:
It is when we are in despair, scared, or deep in sorrow that our thoughts wander to an existence beyond our little selves. In these moments we might try to reach into that unseen world in our silent calling or we might pray to be shown the path which reveals the essence of ourselves in the face of infinite existence. In the midst of the silence lie stone steps and stone walkways covered with moss and lined with statues of Buddhist deities carved in stone. Along these pathways we walk, thinking about the thousands of people who died along the way, having never arrived at their destination. On this ancient path, the path of birth and death, you can feel your past, present, and future as one.
Not all people are ready for the lessons Kumano has to offer. We all have our own timing and when we are ready our ‘teacher’ will appear. In Kumano that teacher may be invisible and intangible but you will know it when it touches you.