KUMANO RIVER SANDANBO CRUISE AND MANDALA – SECRETS OF PILGRIMAGE - Follow an Ancient Pilgrimage Route on a Traditional Three-sail Boat and Visit a Sacred Shrine

KUMANO RIVER SANDANBO CRUISE AND MANDALA – SECRETS OF PILGRIMAGE -  Follow an Ancient Pilgrimage Route on a Traditional Three-sail Boat and Visit a Sacred Shrine

The Kumano Kodo are a vast network of pilgrimage trails where visitors can travel on ancient routes that have been in use by Japanese travelers for over 1,000 years. On the Kii Peninsula between Kiho City in Mie Prefecture and Shingu City in Wakayama Prefecture is the beautiful Kumano River and one of the most sacred sections of the Kumano Kodo that is best experienced on a three-sail riverboat (“sandanbo” in Japanese).

On the Kumano River Cruise and Mandala Lecture/Learn the Secrets of Pilgrimage tour, participants will travel down the river by boat, meet the boat maker, learn about the Shinto religion and visit the striking Kumano Hayatama Taisha shrine. This experience is available March to May and August to November and the cost is ¥8,000. You will board the sandanbo at 1:00 PM on the banks of the Kumano River and finish the experience at around 4:00 PM when your guided shrine tour ends.

Written by Vern Begg
About the Author:

I believe travel is an opportunity to feed your soul and I will never stop exploring our amazing planet. Originally from Canada, I now live in Osaka with my family and have learned that Japan is an incredible place for discovering new experiences. The history of this country runs deep and when I can find opportunities to experience traditional activities, I always jump at the chance.

I was intrigued by the opportunity to travel down the Kumano River in a three-sail riverboat in the same way the pilgrims of the past had made the journey between sacred stopping points. I was also looking forward to learning more about the historical significance of the route from the English-speaking guide who would be accompanying me on the tour.

When I arrived at the meeting point near Udono Station, my guide for the river journey and visit to Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine greeted me. She introduced herself as Kyoko and said I should call her Kyoko-san during the tour. Her personality was bubbly and friendly and she spoke English very well. We had a nice chat as we walked to the riverbank to board the traditional three-sail boat.

Caption: Kyoko-san, Tanigami-san and I before our river cruise.

The captain of our boat was waiting for us when we arrived at the river. His name was Yoshikazu Tanigami and he told me it would fine to call him Tanigami-san. He spoke a little English and Kyoko-san helped to translate when needed. I soon learned that our captain was a skilled carpenter and that he had built the riverboat we would be riding in. Kyoko-san also explained that he was the last three-sail bamboo riverboat craftsman still practicing his trade in the Kumano River basin.

Caption:Tanigami-san was both the captain and the builder of the boat.

With the introductions completed, it was time to get in the boat. Once on the boat, Kyoko-san handed me a life jacket and a traditional straw hat to protect me during our ride down the river. It was a wonderfully mild day when I was taking the river cruise, but I was glad to have some protection from the sun on the 30-minute journey each way.

Caption: The hat did a great job of keeping me cool.

The point where we started our cruise wasn’t far from where the Kumano River drains into the Pacific Ocean and Kyoko-san started our tour with some information about the role the river had played in the lives of traders and suppliers over the past 1,000 years. She also explained that the area was home to the three sacred sites of the Kumano Sanzan, one of the most important pilgrimage locations in ancient Japan.

Caption:The views of life along the river were relaxing.

Because the motor was needed for the journey upriver, we mostly just relaxed and appreciated the scenery of the river basin. The water was smooth and clear as Tanigami-san expertly navigated the boat along the winding Kumano River. Alongside the river, the small tree-covered mountains rose above us as they had above the pilgrims using this route for generations.

Caption: We docked at the rock beach near Tanigami-san’s workshop and home.

Our destination on the first leg of the journey was Tanigami-san’s workshop. He docked the boat on a rock beach and we climbed out to make the short walk up the hill to where he builds the boats by hand in the workshop next to his house. This was also the point in the tour when Kyoko-san would be doing a presentation using an intricate mandala depicting traditional Shinto beliefs and their connection to the sacred sites of the Kumano Sanzan.

Caption: Kyoko-san gave an entertaining presentation about traditional Shinto beliefs.

Kyoko-san started her presentation with a quick disclaimer that some of the ancient beliefs may seem incongruous with modern ideas and culture. I assured her that this was fine and she gave me a big smile as she jumped right into her engaging and informative presentation. The mandala was a gorgeous piece of art that Kyoko-san explained in great detail and with real panache.

Caption: The mandala was an impressivepiece of art.

After the presentation, Tanigami-san shared some details and stories about three-sail boats and how the Kumano River had been used in life over the past 1,000 years. He had some amazing old photos and explained how loggers would use the river to move timber before the era of trucks and roads took over. His passion for the three-sailed riverboats was clearly evident during his talk.

Caption: Tanigami-san shared some history of the three-sail riverboats.

Before it was time to head back onto the river, I took a look around Tanigami-san’s workshop and was amazed by how clean and organized everything was. I was also glad to hear that he had some apprentices who he would train to carry on the important tradition of boat building into the future. It was then time to head back to the riverbank and cruise back to Shingu City.

Caption: The riverboat workshop was anamazing place.

On the return journey, Kyoko-san went into full tour guide mode and told many interesting stories about the river, such as how the royal family used to travel between the shrines. As we neared a large curve in the river, Tanigami-san cut the engine and let the current move us along next to the rock face at the base of a mountain. 

Caption: Kyoko-san had many interesting stories about the history of the Kumano River.

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