Kinki Region: Kii Peninsula
The Kii Peninsula stretches from Wakayama in the west to Aichi Prefecture in the east and includes many important shrines and temples, pearl farms and several famous onsen (hot spring) resorts. The Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix is held every year at the Suzuka Circuit in the former castle town of the same name on the east coast of Ise Bay. Tsu is the capital city of Mie Prefecture and has the important Senjuji temple, while the city of Matsuzaka is famous for its beef.
The 'wedded' rocks of Futamigaura beach at sunrise
This peninsula, which is designated as the Ise-Shima National Park, is one of the longest-settled areas in Japan. The two main cities are Ise and Toba. Ise is home to the Ise Jingu shrine, one of the most important of Japan's Shinto shrines. The shrine consists of the Naiku (Inner Shrine) and the Geku (Outer Shrine), which are actually a few kilometers apart. The Naiku is said to date from the 3rd century and to enshrine Amaterasu Omikami, the sun-goddess. According to mythology, she was the ancestor of the Imperial family and therefore the entire Japanese race. Hence the name Nihon, or 'origin of the sun'. In fact, this mythology was accepted and taught in schools as fact until after World War II, when the Emperor renounced his divinity. The shrine is still heavily steeped in ancient tradition: it is said to house the original yata no kagami (sacred mirror) which is one of the three sanshu no jingi (Imperial regalia), the Japanese equivalent of the crown jewels; the buildings are torn down and rebuilt every 20 years (over 60 times so far - the last time was in the early 90's) in a ceremony called shikinen sengu; the buildings are in an architectural style known as shimmei zukkuri, which is only allowed to be used for this shrine; fire for cooking offatory food is still made by rubbing sticks together; pottery is made in a special kiln and destroyed after one use; the Kannamesai rite in October dedicates the new rice crop in the presence of Imperial representatives. Pilgrimages to Ise have been popular for centuries and seven visits was said to ensure salvation. The Geku is said to date from 478 (although it also is regularly razed and rebuilt) and to enshrine Toyuke no Okami, the god of food, clothing and housing. Even in the secular Japan of today, Ise holds a place equivalent to Mecca or Jerusalem for many Japanese.
A short distance from Ise is the beach of Futamigaura, famous for its Meiotoiwa or 'husband and wife rocks'. The sacred nature of the rocks is indicated by the ropes connecting them and the torii gate on top of the largest rock. Torii, both big and small, are a feature of every Shinto shrine and a quintessential Japanese symbol. Shimenawa (sacred ropes made from rice straw) are used to mark places, such as old trees or rocks as well as worship halls or altars, considered to be sacred or shintai, dwelling places of the gods.
Further east along the coast is the port city ofToba, once the landing point for pilgrims visiting Ise. It was the home of Mikimoto Kokichi, the first person to produce perfect cultured pearls, in 1905, and whose name has become synonymous with high-quality pearls. Ama, women divers who work for the pearl industry but more often gather shellfish and seaweed using methods over 1,600 years old, are a major tourist attraction in Toba Bay. Demonstrations can be seen as part of the mini tourism industry that has grown on Tatokushima, also known, surprise surprise, as Pearl Island. The city also has one of Japan's best aquariums. The nearby scenic Matoya and Ago Bays are also centers of the pearl industry.
One of the treasure houses at the Naiku, Ise Shrine (above). The Great Central Pagoda in the morning mists on Mt. Koya (right)
Wakayama Prefecture is mostly mountainous and was for many centuries largely cut off. The castle town of Wakayama was formerly home to a branch of the Tokugawa family, whose shogunate dominated politics during the entire Edo Period (1600~1868). The nearby Wakanoura coastal area has long been renowned for its scenic beauty and popular with tourists. Inland, at the summit of Mt. Koya is the monastery complex of Kongobuji, the most important of over 100 temples on the mountain. Founded in 816 by the great Buddhist priest and scholar Kukai, it remains a major center for Buddhism. It is considered one of the most sacred places in Japan and is visited by over a million pilgrims annually. 50km south of Wakayama lie the sandy beaches of Shirahama, which is also a famous onsen (hot spring) resort. A further 40km south, the port of Kushimoto boasts the scenic attractions of Hashikui-iwa, a dramatic rock formation and Shionomisaki cape as well as a marine park with abundant coral and tropical fish.
On the east coast of the southern Kii Peninsula, the rugged coastal scenery around the onsen resort of Nachi-Katsuura, especially the cliffs of Osenkorogashi, attracts many tourists from the Kansai region to the north. It also has a 300-year old morning market. The neighboring Kumano area, including the towns of Hongu and Shingu, has been important in the Shinto religion for many centuries and was believed to be the home of the kami (gods). Kumano Sanzan is the collective name for three important Shinto shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha (dedicated to Susanoo no Mikoto, brother of Amaterasu - see above), the colorful Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha, founded in the 4th century. The latter conains the 133m-high sacred Nachi Falls, one of the biggest in Japan. On the upper reaches of the Kumano River is the 24km-long Dorokyo Gorge, with its emerald green water, rapids, falls and towering cliffs. Osugi Gorge, north of the town of Owase, is considered one of the most beautiful valleys in Japan. This whole area is ideal for serious hikers or day-trippers.
- See our page on the government's official websites for each prefecture and major city: Guide to Japan's Regions and Cities