Sunday, September 28, 2008


basic information
Umikongo Coast

Kushimoto is located on the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula. The small town and its surroundings feature nice coastal scenery and several mildly interesting museums.

Cape Shionomisaki, just south of Kushimoto's town center, is the southernmost point of Japan's main island Honshu. A shrine and Shionomisaki Lighthouse stand nearby. The lighthouse contains a small museum with exhibits about the building and local history. It is also possible to climb to the top of the lighthouse.

Shionomisaki Lighthouse and the Turkish Museum

Not far from Cape Shionomisaki and connected with the mainland by a large modern bridge lies Oshima Island. The island is home to two small museums of foreign background and more coastal scenery.

The Turkish Memorial Museum is dedicated to an accident at sea in 1890, when a Turkish ship crashed on Oshima's shores. Survivors from the ship were cared for by townspeople until they could be safely sent back to Turkey. The incident marks the beginning of a deep friendship between Japan and Turkey.

Turkish memorial and the Japan-US Friendship Museum

Oshima's second foreign inspired museum is the Japan-US Friendship Museum, which commemorates the arrival of two American tradeships to Oshima in 1791. The event is said to be the first occurrence of a "friendly" relationship between the two countries. Walking trails connect the museum with a nearby observation point with views over the spectacular Umikongo Coast, named after Mount Kongo in Korea.

On the mainland, a series of rocks dot the coastline leading out towards Oshima Island. A legend claims that these rocks, called Hashigui-iwa, (meaning "bridge pillar rocks") were created by the famous monk Kobo Daishi. He formed the rocks after being challenged by a monster to build a bridge across the sea. Kobo Daishi nearly succeeded, and the remains of his efforts still stand.


Kumano City

Kumano City
basic information
Matsumoto Pass

Kumano City is located in Mie Prefecture, about 20 kilometers from the Wakayama border. Though it shares its name with the greater Kumano region, with a population of only 20,000 it is by no means the principal center of activity. It is still of considerable interest to travelers for its trails, rock formations and shrine.

Kumano City is located along the former Iseji pilgrimage route, which connected the Kumano shrines with Ise. Only isolated sections of the route have been preserved to this date. Among them is the Matsumoto Pass trail in Kumano City. The preserved section of the trail is one kilometer long and reaches an elevation of about 100m when traversing the Matsumoto Pass.

Magose Pass

A further 30 kilometers north of Kumano City, in Owase City, the Magose Pass trail is considered the most picturesque hike along the Iseji by many. The majority of the trail leads through the forest, and hikers will reach an elevation of over 300m when crossing the Magose Pass. The preserved section stretches for over two kilometers.

Like the other cities in the area, Kumano City is known for some of the unique rock formations on its coastline. The Onigajo Rocks were believed to be the dwellings of demons, while the Shishi Rock resembles a lion looking out to sea. Both rock formations take their names from their assumed attributes.

Onigajo Rocks
Shishi Rock

About a kilometer south of Kumano's city center stands Hana no Iwaya Shrine. According to legend, this ancient shrine is the location of the grave of Izanami, the deity who created the earth together with her husband Izanagi. The shrine is believed to be so old that its foundation even precedes the three Kumano shrines.

On the shrine grounds there is a massive, sacred rock that stands 45 meters high. Like the giant waterfall of Nachi Taisha, the rock is believed to have been revered by the pre-historic Japanese. In a unique festival, a giant rope is pulled from the shrine grounds to the nearby beach every year on February 2 and October 2.

Hana no Iwaya Shrine

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Kumano Nachi Taisha

Kumano Nachi Taisha
basic information

Kumano Nachi Taisha is one of the three Kumano shrines, situated a few kilometers inland from the coastal hot spring resort of Katsuura. The shrine is part of a large complex of neighboring religious sites that exemplify the fusion of Buddhist and Shinto influences that is particular to the Kumano region. The site also boasts the tallest waterfall in Japan.

The veneration of the Kumano shrines as holy sites of Shintoism predates Buddhism's introduction to Japan in the mid 6th century. Once Buddhism arrived in Kumano it took root quickly, and rather than competing with the indigenous religion for religious authority, it began a long process of harmonious mixing.

A product of this congenial relationship can be seen at Nachi Taisha. Directly beside the eminent shrine is the Buddhist temple Seigantoji. In fact, for most of their history the buildings were not even under separate control and functioned as one religious institution. The buildings of both the shrine and the temple are impressive, and among the buildings of Seigantoji there is a three-story pagoda.

The pagoda of Seigantoji and Nachi no Taki waterfall

Like Hongu Taisha and Hayatama Taisha, Nachi Taisha was one of the main destinations of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes. For travelers who want to experience the trails but are impeded by time constraints, a hike up the Daimon-zaka is a good option. The route, paved with stone and lined with massive evergreens, leads 600 meters up to the the gates of Nachi Taisha.

A short distance from Seigantoji and Nachi Taisha is the 133 meter waterfall Nachi no Taki. The tallest waterfall in Japan, it was the original religious site in the area. Before the development of organized religious doctrine, Nachi no Taki was venerated by the earliest Japanese people. Even today, visitors will be impressed by the natural power and beauty of the falls.

Nachi no Taki seen from its base

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hongu Taisha

Hongu Taisha
basic information

Kumano Hongu Taisha is one of the Kumano region's three famous shrines. As well as enshrining its own deity, Hongu Taisha also enshrines the deities of the other two Kumano shrines, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha, and the sun goddess Amaterasu. It serves as the head shrine of over 3000 Kumano shrines across Japan.

Reference to Hongu Taisha was first documented in the 9th century, which the establishment of the shrine must have preceded substantially. Due to floods in 1889, the shrine was moved from its original location at Oyu no Hara to its present site one kilometer away. In front of Oyu no Hara stands the biggest torii gate in the world, which, at 33 meters tall, dwarfs visitors passing under it.

Between Hosshinmon Oji and Hongu

Hongu Taisha is located at the center of the Kumano Kodo network of pilgrimage routes. An enjoyable walk for visitors who wish to experience a pilgrimage trail but are pressed by time, is the final section of the Nakahechi route between Hosshinmon Oji and Hongu. It is seven kilometers long, takes about two hours and finishes at the shrine. Hosshinmon Oji is accessible by bus.

There are three onsen (hot springs) near Hongu: Yunomine, Kawayu and Wataze. The first two are small onsen towns, while Wataze Onsen consists of only a single hotel complex, Watarase Onsen, which is known for having the largest outdoor bath in western Japan. The bath is also open to non staying guests.

Steam rises up from the rock riverbank of Kawayu
Tsuboyu in Yunomine Onsen

Kawayu Onsen is a unique hot spring town located along a river. To use the onsen, bathers dig a hole in the gravel riverbank into which hot spring water then flows. Cool river water is mixed with the hot onsen water to bring the water to a temperature particular to the bather's desire. In the winter, a giant rotenburo called the Sennin Bath is dug in the same manner, and is available for free public use.

Yunomine Onsen has such a long history that one of its baths, Tsuboyu, is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pilgrims would perform purification rituals in the hot spring water as part of the religious process of their pilgrimage. Tsuboyu is one of two public bathhouses in Yunomine. The other is the nearby Yunomine Public Bathhouse, in which there are two separate bath areas.

The giant torii gate of Oyu no Hara

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Kumano Travel Guide

Kumano Travel Guide
basic information
The massive torii in Hongu

The Kumano area is located around the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, about 100 kilometers south of Osaka. It spans Wakayama and Mie Prefectures, though most of the attractions and religious sites are in Wakayama.

Kumano is centered around three shrines, Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha, collectively known as the Kumano Sanzan. Pilgrims have traveled to the Kumano Sanzan via walking trails, called Kumano Kodo, for over 1000 years. The shrines are even older, with mention in Japan's founding mythology.

The region is infused with religious and historical value that emanates from the three shrines. The Shinto sun goddess' great grandson, Jimmu, came to Kumano to unify the country as Japan's first Emperor. To further add to the area's sanctity, Kumano is often called "The Land of the Dead", in reference to the belief that Shinto spirits and family ancestors dwell here after they die.

Towns and cities dot the Kii coastline, combining Kumano's ancient history with day to day living. Some offer hot springs, such as Shirahama and Katsuura, while others feature coastal scenery, such as Kumano City and Kushimoto.

In 2004, Kumano's religious treasures and pilgrimage routes were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Named "The Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes of Kii Mountain Range", the designation also includes neighboring Koyasan, Yoshino and Ominesan.


Basic Information

Japan's main island Honshu is covered by a network of high speed train lines that connect Tokyo with most of the island's major cities and Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. Japan's high speed trains (bullet trains) are called shinkansen and are operated by the JR (Japan Railways).

Read more on how to ride the shinkansen.

Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen

The Tokaido Shinkansen, connecting Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka, was inaugurated in the year 1964 as the first shinkansen line and the world's first high speed train. In 1964 the trains already run with speeds of about 200 km/h. Nowadays they reach speeds of over 300 km/h.

The extension of the Tokaido Shinkansen, the Sanyo Shinkansen to Hakata Station in Fukuoka was completed by 1975.

The trains operating on the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen are of the following three categories:

  • Nozomi: Nozomi trains stop only at the most important stations, and reach Osaka from Tokyo in about two and a half hours. The nozomi is one of the very few trains on the JR network that cannot be used with the Japan Rail Pass.
  • Hikari: Hikari trains stop a little bit more frequently than nozomi trains, and need roughly three hours to reach Osaka from Tokyo. On the Sanyo Shinkansen, the Hikari trains are known as "Hikari Railstar".
  • Kodama: The slowest category. Kodama trains stop at all stations.
Kyushu Shinkansen

The southern half of the Kyushu Shinkansen, connecting Yatsushiro with Kagoshima, was inaugurated in March 2004. The northern half from Yatsushiro to Hakata is scheduled to be completed by 2010. The trains operating on the Kyushu Shinkansen are called Tsubame.

Northern Shinkansen

In 1982, the first north bound lines, the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka and the Joetsu Shinkansen to Niigata, were completed.

Since then, the following further lines have been taken into service: the Yamagata Shinkansen from Fukushima to Shinjo, the Akita Shinkansen from Morioka to Akita, the Nagano Shinkansen from Takasaki to Nagano and the extension of the Tohoku Shinkansen from Morioka to Hachinohe.

Currently under construction are the further extension of the Tohoku Shinkansen to Aomori and the extension of the Nagano Shinkansen to Kanazawa.

The trains operating on the north bound lines are of the following categories:

  • Hayate (Tohoku Shinkansen): The fastest train category on the Tohoku Shinkansen. Hayate run all the way from Tokyo to Hachinohe and stop only at major stations. All seats are reserved. Between Tokyo and Morioka, Hayate trains are coupled with a Komachi train.
  • Yamabiko (Tohoku Shinkansen): The second fastest train category on the Tohoku Shinkansen, running as far as Morioka. Yamabiko trains stop more frequently than Hayate trains.
  • Nasuno (Tohoku Shinkansen): The slowest train category on the Tohoku Shinkansen. Nasuno trains run only as far as Koriyama (one stop before Fukushima) and stop at all stations.
  • Komachi (Akita Shinkansen): This is the only train category on the Akita Shinkansen. Komachi run between Tokyo and Akita. All seats are reserved. Between Tokyo and Morioka, Komachi trains are coupled with a Hayate train.
  • Tsubasa (Yamagata Shinkansen): This is the only train category on the Yamagata Shinkansen. Tsubasa run between Tokyo, Yamagata and Shinjo. Between Tokyo and Fukushima, some Tsubasa trains are coupled with a Yamabiko train.
    • Toki (Joetsu Shinkansen): This is the faster of two categories on the Joetsu Shinkansen, running all the way from Tokyo to Niigata.
    • Tanigawa (Joetsu Shinkansen): This is the slower of two categories on the Joetsu Shinkansen. Tanigawa run only as far as Echigo-Yuzawa and stop more frequently than the Toki trains.
    • Asama (Nagano Shinkansen): This is the only train category on the Nagano Shinkansen. Asama run between Tokyo and Nagano.

    Tuesday, September 16, 2008

    Sumiyoshi Taisha

    Sumiyoshi Taisha
    basic information

    Osaka's Sumiyoshi Taisha is one of Japan's oldest shrines. Founded in the 3rd century, before the influx of Buddhist architecture from the Asian mainland started, Sumiyoshi Taisha is one of the few shrines displaying a purely Japanese shrine architecture prototype (sumiyoshi-zukuri).

    Osaka's Sumiyoshi Taisha is the most famous of over two thousand Sumiyoshi shrines in Japan. Enshrining kami (Shinto gods) believed to protect travelers, fishermen and sailors on the sea, Sumiyoshi shrines are usually found close to harbors.

    Monday, September 15, 2008

    Osaka Castle

    Osaka Castle
    basic information

    Construction on Osaka Castle (Osakajo) started in 1583 on the former site of the Ishiyama Honganji Temple, which had been destroyed by Oda Nobunaga thirteen years earlier. Toyotomi Hideyoshi intended the castle to become the center of a new, unified Japan under Toyotomi rule.

    However, a few years after Hideyoshi's death, Tokugawa troops attacked and destroyed the castle and terminated the Toyotomi lineage in 1615. Osaka Castle was rebuilt by Tokugawa Hidetada in the 1620s, but its main castle tower was struck by lightening in 1665 and burnt down.

    It was not until 1931 that the present ferro-concrete reconstruction of the castle was built. Major repair works gave the castle new glamor in 1997.

    Inside the castle is a museum that documents Toyotomi Hideyoshi's life and the history of the castle.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    National Bunraku Theater

    National Bunraku Theater
    basic information
    Osaka has been the capital for bunraku, traditional Japanese puppet theater, for many centuries.

    The popularity of the theater form had grown in the city during the Edo Period when bunraku (like kabuki) was a rare kind of art entertainment for the common public rather than the nobility.

    The National Bunraku Theater in Osaka is one of the few places to view the fascinating art form today. English programs and earphones are available. Performances are usually held in three week runs in January, April, June, July/August and November.

    Kita (Umeda)

    Kita (Umeda)
    basic information

    The Kita ("North") district, also known as Umeda, is one of Osaka's two main city centers. It is located around the large station complex that comprises Osaka and Umeda Stations. Kita's counterpart is Minami ("South") around Namba Station.

    Besides being Osaka's busiest transportation hub and a bustling business district, Kita also offers an abundance of shopping, dining, lodging and entertainment, including several department stores and a large underground shopping mall.

    Most of the action in the Kita district is currently concentrated to the south of Osaka Station, while an expansive freight railyard used to occupy the northern side of the station. However, in a major redevelopment project, the railway yard will be transformed into new commercial and residential areas over the coming years.

    In a first stage, a spectacular new North Building is now being constructed over Osaka Station, to be completed in 2011.

    Umeda Sky Building
    North of Osaka Station is Shin Umeda City, a building complex centering around the Umeda Sky Building, a spectacular 173 meter tall skyscraper with the Floating Garden Observatory on its roof. The skyscraper next to the Umeda Sky Building houses the Westin Osaka.
    The Floating Garden is open 10:00 to 22:30. Admission: 700 yen.

    Department Stores
    There are a number of major department stores in the Kita area including Hankyu, Hanshin and Daimaru. Many of the stores share their names with the local train companies as the trains and department stores are owned by the same corporations.
    Typical business hours are daily from 10:00 to 20:00.

    HEP (Hankyu Entertainment Park)
    HEP is a large shopping and entertainment complex consisting of the HEP FIVE and HEP Navio buildings, east of the Hankyu department store. HEP FIVE features a red ferris wheel emerging from its roof, while the entire complex houses over 300 shops and restaurants.
    Shops are open daily from 11:00 to 21:00. The ferris wheel and restaurants until 23:00.

    Yodobashi Camera Umeda
    This gigantic branch of the Tokyo based electronics retailer stocks almost every current item by the major camera manufacturers. Besides cameras you can find almost anything electronic, while the top floor offers restaurants with nice views of the city.
    Open daily 9:30 to 21:00.

    Kitashinchi is an entertainment district, located south of and within walking distance of Osaka Station. Here you will find hundreds of restaurants, bars and night clubs to suit almost any taste.
    Kitashinchi comes to life after 18:00.

    Osaka Aquarium

    Osaka Aquarium
    basic information

    Osaka Aquarium, also known as Kaiyukan, is one of Japan's most spectacular aquaria. It introduces various forms of life inhabiting the Pacific Rim in a well organized and impressive way.

    Marine life is displayed in 15 tanks, each representing a specific region of the Pacific Rim. The central tank, representing the Pacifc Ocean, is nine meters deep and home to a whale shark, the aquarium's main attraction.

    Visitors start their tour of the aquarium on the 8th floor and slowly spiral down floor by floor around the central tank. Some of the tanks stretch over several floors, making it possible to observe the animals from different depths and perspectives.

    Osaka Aquarium is located in the Tempozan Harbor Village of Osaka's Port area. The admission fee is a proud 2000 Yen per adult.