Gateway to Kumano

By Alena Eckelmann   Aug 9, 2012 - 3 min read

If you are a serious Aikido buff, you will have heard of Tanabe. This little town on the shores of the Pacific Ocean on the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula is the birthplace of the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba who is also referred to as Ōsensei (“Great Teacher”).

Born in 1883, Ueshiba spent his childhood and teenage years in Tanabe until he and his young wife moved to far away Hokkaido in 1912. Later he lived in Ayabe City in the north of Kyoto Prefecture but in 1924 he moved to Tokyo where he set up his first martial arts dojo. In 1942 he moved to Iwama City in Ibaraki Prefecture. In 1969 Ueshiba died of cancer. His grave is at the Kozan-ji Temple on a small mountain outside the city center of Tanabe.

Tanabe Town can easily be explored on bicycle which you can rent at the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau. Their office is to the right of Kii-Tanabe Station. It is recommended to hire the “Machi-Navi Audio Guide” with explanations about all interesting places in Tanabe.

Actually Tanabe City is an administrative area made up of a number of towns and village. The area includes Tanabe Town, which is right by the ocean, but also Hongu Town, Nakahechi Town as well as Ryujin Village and Oto Village, which are all places located in the mountains.

Coming from elsewhere in Japan, Tanabe might seem small. However, it is the second most populous city in Wakayama Prefecture and it is quite a “center” on the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula. The town hall is just across the street from Tanabe’s very own city beach - Ogigahama, where you can easily spend some relaxing summer afternoon before putting on your hiking boots to explore the Kumano Kodo (“Kumano Old Road”), a network of pilgrimage trails that lead to the Hongu Taisha, one of the three Kumano Grand Shrines.

The three Kumano Grand Shrines and the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”. This world heritage site also includes Koyasan, the Buddhist mountain monastery in the north of Wakayama Prefecture, as well as Yoshino & Omine, two sites sacred to followers of the old tradition of Shugendo.

There are many old and unique onsen located in the Tanabe area. For example, near Hongu Town, the location of the Hongu Taisha, there is an onsen triangular comprised of Yunomine Onsen, Kawayu Onsen and Wataze Onsen. If you prefer a secluded onsen, then Ryujin Onsen in Ryujin Village is for you.

Many great traditional festivals are taking place throughout the year in and around Tanabe. One such festival is the Kumano Hongu Taisha Spring Festival in April and the Yata Fire Festival, also in Hongu, in August.

Tanabe can easily be reached by plane and by train. The city is close to Nanki Shirahama Airport which connects you to Tokyo Haneda Airport. Tanabe can also be reached by taking the Kuroshio Express Train from Osaka or from Wakayama City to JR Kii-Tanabe Station.  If you drive, then take the Hanwa Highway from Osaka. The last exit (no 34) is Tanabe where the highway ends - at least for the time being.

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Alena Eckelmann

Alena Eckelmann @Alena Eckelmann

Celebrating my 10th year anniversary in Japan in May 2018, the country that I call home now. I lived in crazy Tokyo for 6 years and since 2011 I call the Kii Peninsula (Kumano, Koyasan and Yoshinoyama) my home. I have visited all 47 prefectures of Japan and for the last 4 years I have worked as a guide for foreign visitors. My special interest is in Japanese nature and spirituality. I love spending time in the forest and mountains and I love visiting temples and shrines. I am also a licensed guide for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails and for Koyasan, the Buddhist monastery, in addition to being a practitioner and guide for Shinrin Yoku (Forest Therapy).   In recent years I have taken visitors to walk the Kumano Kodo trails, the Nakasendo trail, the 88 temple pilgrimage trail around Shikoku Island and to Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains in Yamagata Prefecture. If you look for nature and spirituality in your trip to Japan, then Wakayama, Nara and Yamagata Prefectures are ideal places to get started!

Join the discussion

Alena Eckelmann Author 2 years ago
Hi Jay, thank you for your message. The Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route is good to walk in all seasons. Both April and May are good. If I had to decide, I would go for May. But not during first week of May because this is a holiday season in Japan and all Japanese will be travelling. Hence, accommodations are booked out and prices go up. Try the second half of May. Access is faster from Kyoto. Take the Kuroshio Express Train from Kyoto Station to Kii-Tanabe Station. The busses that take you to the trailhead leave from outside Kii-Tanabe Station. Don't arrive late in the afternoon as the last bus for Hongu, your destination walking the Nakahechi, leaves at 4.30pm. I hope this helps.
Jay Levine 2 years ago
Which month is better to do the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Route, April or May.
Is it better to come from Kyoto or Tokyo by rail?
Thank you,