The remote and mountainous Kii Peninsula (紀伊半島, Kii-hantō) is a far cry from central Kansai's bustling urban sprawl. There are two top attractions here that make the area a worthy stop in your itinerary: the mountaintop temple complex of Kōya-san, one of Japan's most important Buddhist centres, and, further south, the ancient pilgrimage trails, sacred shrines and rustic onsen of the Kumano Kodō. With more time, you can explore the rocky southern coast, which makes up the Nanki Kumano Geopark and has some interesting geological formations.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kii Peninsula.
Oku-no-in, whose name means 'inner sanctuary', is perhaps the most intensely spiritual place in Japan. At its farthest reaches is the Gobyō, the crypt that Shingon Buddhism founder Kōbō Daishi entered to began his eternal meditation. Spread out before it are some 200,000 tombs, creating Japan's largest cemetery, built during various historical eras by people, prominent and otherwise, who wanted their remains (or at least a lock of hair) interred close to the legendary monk.
The name of this temple, which is sometimes called Danjo Garan or Dai Garan, derives from the Sanskrit saṅghārāma, which means monastery. With eight principal buildings (temples, pagodas), the complex was the original centre for teaching established by Kōbō Daishi in the 9th century. It's still a teaching centre today, and you might see groups of saffron-robed novices making the rounds. The buildings have burned several times in the intermediate centuries and what you see today are almost entirely modern-day reconstructions.
The most interesting structure at the Garan is the Konpon Daitō, a 50m-tall, bright-vermilion pagoda seated at what is considered to be the centre of the lotus-flower mandala formed by Kōya-san's eight mountains. The main object of worship is Dainichi-nyōrai (Cosmic Buddha), surrounded by four attendant Buddhas and, painted on pillars, 16 bodhisattva, which together compose a three-dimensional mandala of the Shingon Buddhist cosmos.
At 133m, Nachi-no-taki is Japan's highest waterfall. It's the first of many still deeper in the Nachi mountains and has long been used in ascetic training.
Kumano Hongū Taisha is one of the Kumano Sanzan (three great shrines of Kumano) and if you're following the traditional pilgrim route, it's the first one you'll encounter. Though the shrine has been rebuilt many times over the years, it remains an excellent example of Japanese shrine architecture, made of unpainted wood using traditional carpentry techniques and with the signature chigi (cross-hatched beams) on the roof.
The wooden, thatched roof gate here is as far as you can go in Oku-no-in. Beyond it lies the crypt Kōbō Daishi entered in 835, never to leave. Pilgrims in a constant stream pause here to light incense and candles and chant sutras.
This is the headquarters of the Shingon sect and the residence of Kōya-san's abbot. The main gate is the temple's oldest structure (1593); the present main hall dates from the 19th century. It's free to enter the grounds, but costs ¥500 to enter the main hall, which has several fusuma (opaque paper sliding doors) adorned with landscape paintings by famed 17th-century artists, including those of the Kanō school. Many of the temple's statues and ritual implements are displayed at the Reihōkan.
Built on the side of a mountain, facing the waterfall Nachi-no-taki, this shrine is one of Kii's most spiritual places, a site of ancient nature worship and one of the Kumano Sanzan (three great shrines of Kumano). The deity worshipped here is the waterfall itself, believed to be a kami. After visiting the shrine, walk down to the falls.
Located at the mouth of the Kumano-gawa, Kumano Hayatama Taisha is one of the Kumano Sanzan (three sacred shrines of Kumano), enshrining Hayatama-no-Okami, the god said to rule the workings of nature and, by extension, all life. Though ancient in origin, the current building is a 1951 reconstruction, painted a vibrant shade of vermilion. Look out for the impressively thick shimenawa (sacred rope) and what's said to be Japan's oldest conifer.