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Kumano Taisha

A shrine to life, and to the mountains


The Kumano Taisha shrine of Nanyo is one of those rare, cultural treasures of historical value that appears in an off-the-beaten-track place no one would expect it (or at least, rare by Western standards. In Japan, this is arguably the norm). The closest train station to Kumano Taisha is the Akayu station in Nanyo, from which it is only about a 15 minute drive - or, another 15 minutes on the local Flower Line train, which stops at a small local station only about another fifteen minutes walk from the shrine. I have been to the Kumano Taisha shrine many times, so, it wouldn't make sense to talk about it in the sense of a single visit. Rather, I would prefer to talk about the features and history of this shrine, and explain some of the impressions I've had during my many visits, and the things I've loved.


For one, even before you enter the shrine there is much to appreciate at the roadside and parking lot near the front stairway. Three fantastic sweet shops stand here - Gen En, a gelato shop serving the extremely Japanese sweet potato ice cream; a donut and coffee stall, where you can buy fresh Japanese-style deep fried donuts; and a sweet little cafe directly at the shrine's entrance with a wooden aesthetic and glass-walls on all sides, so that you can enjoy lunch, dessert, or a good coffee while feeling surrounded by the sacred shrine grounds all around you.


Another unique thing that all three of these establishments share in common is their dedication to rabbit-themed sweets, decorations and gift apparel. It is by virtue of this rabbit-theme that you know, in fact, that they consider themselves patrons of the Kumano Taisha shrine, since rabbits are a major theme of the shrine.


To enter the shrine, you come first to a massive Genko tree at the base of the shrine (and directly in front of the cafe). The Genko tree is a historical monument in itself, and one of the oldest of its kind in the area. Next to it is the only purification basin or Temizuya on the premises, so it's a good idea to take this chance to purify yourself before your visit to the shrine. The standard ritual for purification is to use the right hand to gribe the bamboo ladle and pour some water onto the right hand, then the left hand to pour water onto the right, then once again pour some water onto the left hand using the right. Cup that water in your left hand and use it to rinse your mouth. Then, you can return the ladle to its resting position - or optionally, let some wander run down the ladle to cleanse it as well before returning it.


After purifying using the Temizuya, a couple steps further brings you to the foot of a large stairway. Flanking it on either side are stone guardians of the shrine in the shape of fearsome lions. There are also some smaller shrines along the incline next to the stairway - some of the thirty shrines (dedicated to thirty kami) located on the shrine premises.


At the top of the stairway one steps out on to a clearing in which the main shrine building is immediately and prominently visible, with its layered bark roof and wooden walls. The structure is massive, by shinto shrine standards, much more reminscent of the average Buddhist temple in size. But the Kumano Taisha is fully and truly a Shinto shrine, not a Buddhist one - not a single sliver of Buddhist iconography is to be found on the entire grounds.





The shrine building stands about 50 meters back from the stairway. To the left is a building for purchasing talismans, charms and Gashuin stamps - a standard feature of most shrines, and the only place you are likely to run into the local priests and priestesses - as well as a large metal bell. It is a testament to the importance of this shrine that during World War 2, when most similar such bells across the country were melted down for metal to be used for the war effort, that this bell was specifically pardoned from smelting by an imperial decree. To the right of the shrine is a small bamboo grove and beyond it, at the edge of the clearing, a wall of sorts made out of numerous smaller shrines to the kami of the shrine.



Kumano Taisha charms and talisman shop
Kumano Taisha charms and talisman shop


Kumano Taisha bell
Kumano Taisha bell

Depending on what season one is visiting, I have seen other features at the shrine as well. In winter there was a large hoop made of straw constructed in front of the shrine, with a sign explaining that if you circled in and out of the hoop a specific number of times in a specific order it would bring good luck. Kids seemed to especially like this game, and I saw more than a few families circling in and out of the hoop. In spring, during one visit I saw the corridor behind the shrine - which seperates the large building from the smaller but historically older and more significant shrine behind it - filled with little blue windmills. I have no idea what the significance of these latter were - perhaps some sort of token to celebrate the spring winds.





Kumano Taisha windmills
Kumano Taisha windmills


In winter, of course, the entire shrine is covered in a layer of frost and snow that lends it a magical, pristine feeling. In spring and summer, the forest grows thick with leaves and you can hear birdsong echo all around the temple grounds. Behind the main shrine building is a natural corridor of sorts which, in addition to housing several more shrines, holds several shelves dedicated to nothing but rabbit figurines. In cherry-blossom (sakura) season, I paid a visit and saw that the shrine custodians had lovingly placed a single petal on every bunnies head.



Kumano Taisha in winter
Kumano Taisha in winter


snow and ice covering the shrines Kumano Taisha
snow and ice covering the shrines

snow and ice coating the rice-paper lanterns Kumano Taisha
snow and ice coating the rice-paper lanterns

Kumano Taisha lucky fortune rabbits
Kumano Taisha lucky fortune rabbits

pink and white rabbits with sakura petals
pink and white rabbits with sakura petals

white rabbits with sakura petals
white rabbits with sakura petals


At the end of this corridor is an Inari shrine, characterized by red gates (Tori) leading to a shrine with fox sculptures at the end. Branching off from the Tori gates is the backside of the older shrine - or the main shrine, as it is referred to on the temple signposts, somewhat confusingly since it is by far much smaller and more hidden than the other building. This main shrine is entirely circled by a wooden fence to keep outsiders out, the only entrance usually manned by a security guard to enforce that purpose. I have seen the security guard sometimes let Japanese worshippers through, but have never been granted the privelage myself. It is clear that the main shrine represents a level of historical and religious significance that makes letting in non-believers feel abhorrent, to the local guardians of the shrine.


On this back wall are a number of inscriptions in Japanese, with translations in English. They explain that in Japanese mythology, it is said that the first marriage to ever take place in Japan occurred here on this shrine premise, between two of the founding Kami of the nation. Another message explains that there is a chinese pheonix carving on the back of the main shrine that dates back to the 1400s - indeed, the entire main shrine dates back to this time period, making the many intricate carvings along its surface a rare record of the art style from that period. The third and final shrine explains the fixation on rabbits at this shrine - there are, it explains, three rabbits secretly carved into the back of the main shrine. Anyone who can find all three is said to be guaranteed good luck.


It is not uncommon to see groups of visitors, Japanese and foreign, crowding around the back of the shrine, staring at it intensely for any hint of the rabbits. In spit of my best efforts, I myself have only ever been able to uncover one rabbit - and even this was only with the help of the temple itself, who revealed its location in a brochure one day. The location of the other two remains entirely a mystery to me.


Returning to the larger building, one can see from the front altar that there is a large wooden worship-area inside. It is also a dance hall, where the sacred Taidai Kagura dance is performed. This temple is one of only two places in the entire country where the dance is performed, the other being the Grand Ise shrine, Shinto's most holy sanctuary. Why this shrine is granted such a lofty honor I don't exactly know. Nevertheless, the dance is open for outsiders, so anyone who can should certainly make an effort to witness the dance for themselves.


There are also only three Kumano Taisha shrines in the country, if the signs at the shrine are to be believed. What makes these shrines distinctive is that the contain shrines dedicated to the Kami or spirits of the three holy mountains of Yamagata, the Dewa Sanzen - Haguro-san, Yudono-san, and Gas-san. These three holy mountains are especially sacred to the Yamabushi, a pre-Shinto sect that reveres the mountains as holy spirits and peforms annual pilgrimages and spiritual retreats there.


According to the shrine's own main website, however, the true God of the Kumano Taisha is Musu (or Musuhi), the God of life. There is a force latent in nature that causes life to grow out of nothing, that makes, as they say, pebbles grow into boulders and then moss to sprout on those boulders. These pure life force which causes life to erupt all around us is Musu. To the preists, preistesses and worshippers who frequent the Kumano Taisha, that life force is a sacred thing.




End.


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