The Kumano Kodō mountain paths in Japan have been trodden for over 1000 years, and are one of only two pilgrimage routes worldwide that have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Today, the mountain trails are helping to sustain and renew communities that have been clinging on to survival for the last few decades. By Jeremy Torr.
Kamitonda, Japan. Sept 15 2019. Over 1,000 years ago, the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano - Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha were linked by a series of high-mountain pilgrimage routes. Situated about halfway down Japan, just over 150km due south of Osaka on the Kii Peninsula, these ancient paths drew pilgrims from all across Japan; think Santiago de Campostela, Japanese style, in the woods.
Historically, Kumano has been a sacred site since prehistoric animist times, but when Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century the area became a site of purification and religious training for its monks. As such, the walk has long been an integral part of both Shinto and Buddhism religions as pilgrims visited the temples and sacred sites dotted about the hills, in search of purification, holy blessings and good karma. From the 9th and 10th centuries, walking the Kumano Kodo was seen as a must-do for anybody of status. In the 12th century, the Japanese imperial family alone did the trails some 100 times.
But the area has seen mixed fortunes. Although in its early days it attracted emperors and wealthy merchants by the mule train-load, accompanied by all the wealth and trickle-down benefits we assume such wealthy visitors could generate, the area has, in recent years, seen some very tough times.
As Japan was forcibly opened up in the 19th century, Japan saw the collapse of its established feudal system, resulting in rapid industrialisation and the destruction of thousands of temples – and pilgrim routes. And as World War Two loomed, pilgrims stopped arriving and many sections of the route became overgrown through disuse. Worse, post-war demand for reconstruction timber led to vast areas around the Kii coming under the influence of the forestry industry, with its accompanying disregard for ancient routes and shrines. Local villages that had served pilgrims for hundreds of years shrivelled and disappeared, people migrated en masse to major cities, and the whole population became hollowed out. The region was left with just a handful of very old people, desperately trying to keep local knowledge and traditions alive.
Then, salvation - in the form of city-dwellers desperate to find a deeper spirituality than Walkmans, salary-man girlie bars and widescreen TVs could offer. Accordingly, there was a significant increase in visitors searching for the old mountain pilgrimage paths in the late 1990s. And in 2004, the region was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The number of visitors increased dramatically up to some up to 15 million visitors a year today. But there was still the danger that the old ways, the old knowledge would be lost. The region was still bleeding young people to the major cities. “Population in rural Japan is (still) on a downward trend. Old industries like fishing and forestry can’t sustain the new generation of younger people who have moved to live in the cities,” says Yoshifumi Yano, operator of the Yunominesou guesthouse in Hongu, in the heart of Kumano country.
However, recent years have seen a glimmer of hope for the population in visitor-driven regions like Kumano. Some young people are even moving back to the region, it seems, driven by the appeal of the tourism industry. “If there is tourism, that can provide a living for young people – in the countryside. So as a workplace (the country) is becoming more appealing to young people; the population isn’t declining around here,” adds Yano. “Young people, even if just a little bit, are moving back in.”
As he says, even if only half of them stay for several years, and can make a life for themselves here as rural people, that makes locals happy. “That leads to new ideas, and the town changes with more young people in it.”
Of course, the accompanying worry is that the new blood will simply replace the old, with an accompanying loss of traditional values and ways of doing things. But as Hiroshi Kawaguchi, from local tour company OKU Japan says, young people bring new perspectives that help preserve the traditions, not sweep them away.
“There is a more diverse mix of people living here now and a new economy can be created; but it’s happening slowly, not dramatically,” he explains. “We have small suppliers, local suppliers, that are helping us with family accommodation and with local culture and artisans,” he says. He is confident the arrival of new young people has had a very positive effect on the community. Not least of which is a new perspective for existing residents who have, like their ancestors, lived in the Kumano area for generations.
Instead of seeing it as recent history paints it – a blighted, recession-hit wilderness that has treated them cruelly while the cities thrived – local elders are waking up to the richness that such a culturally rich region offers, agrees Yae Maeda from the Akatsuki Inn, Wakayama.
“The local people have become exposed to the perspectives of people from outside the region,” says Maeda. “This makes them think : I didn’t realise the place we lived was so wonderful. Then they look around at the community and rediscover all the good parts,” she smiles. Yano agrees. With the arrival of new young people, drawn by the prospects of a new and expanding tourism industry, confidence builds along with pride in the region’s history - and sustains its past too.
“The town’s way of thinking changes. If we get more young people things may change and the elder generation will maybe start to feel young again – another benefit,” he smiles.