Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range
Sacred Sites And Pilgrimage Routes In The Kii Mountain Range
Cultural Japan Asia And The Pacific Mie, Nara And Wakayama Prefectures

The Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that form the cultural landscape of the Kii Mountains are a unique fusion between Shintoism and Buddhism illustrating the interchange and development of religious cultures in East Asia. They have become the setting for the creation of unique forms of shrine and temple buildings that have had a profound influence on the building of temples and shrines elsewhere in Japan.

The site consists of three sacred sites in the heavily forested Kii Mountains, a peninsula jutting into the Pacific, and a complex pattern of tracks and paths that link the sites together and to the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto to the north, which flourished from the 6th century to 1868. The steep, rugged mountains of the Kii Peninsula rise to 1,000-2,000 m and are heavily wooded. The natural beauty of the area, and its harsh but serene mountain environment, has probably been revered since prehistoric times. The three specific sites had become established as major sacred sites as early as the 11th or 12th centuries, attracting a great number of worshippers. The area is still part of the living culture of Japan and the sites are heavily visited and used for ritual purposes and for hiking. The pilgrim routes are not all contiguous as there are sections excluded where they have been influenced by modern development. The forested mountains underpin the significance of the whole site, for it is the beauty and drama of the mountains and their contrast with the seascape to the south which has attracted people for at least 2,000 years.

Each of the three shrines contains both buildings and objects, such as temples, shrines, statues and stupas, as well as revered natural elements such as trees, waterfalls, rocks, etc. The built structures are almost all of wood, constructed in a post and pillar construction similar to Japanese houses. Many have been successively rebuilt.

Yoshino and Omine: this is the northern-most site near to Nara. The Yoshino or northern part of the site was by the mid-10th century known as the most important sacred mountain in Japan and its reputation had reached China. It was the object of mountain worship, Shinto, in the 7th and 8th centuries and later in the 8th century became one of the prime sacred places for the Shugen sect of ascetic Buddhism. Omine, the southern part, was also associated with the Shugen sect and, in particular, with ascetic practices connected to the harsh mountain environment. This site consists of groups of buildings in what is said to be a unique architectural style constructed as an embodiment of Shinto-Buddhist religious fusion.

Kumano Sanzan: This site is the furthest south. The shrine buildings are said to show outstanding wooden architectural styles that have no comparators. Within the site are three main shrines, and two temples, connected by a pilgrims' route. They reflect Shinto and the Shugen sect of Shinto-Buddhism, and were also closely associated with the search for the pure Buddhist land in the southern sea

Koyasan: This site south of Nara is partly in an alpine basin at an altitude of 800 m and partly at the foot of the mountains. It is actively used for annual festivals and rituals dedicated to the deity of the land and the rites of the Buddhist Shingon sect.

Pilgrim routes: As the sacred sites became established and well visited in the 11th or 12th centuries, a series of pilgrim routes were developed linking the sites to Kyoto and to other places throughout Japan - some based on earlier tracks. The routes in the mountains were designed to be arduous and the journey over them part of the religious experience, rather than a means to an end. Most of the routes are no more than 1m wide and of earth;in a few places stone steps or stone pavements were constructed, such as the 34 km stretch of stone paving through the forest, part of the Kumano Sankeimichi route between Kumano Sanzen and Ise Jungu.