Japanese Bliss: A Day in Kumano

Japanese Bliss: A Day in Kumano

Kumano is a city in Southern Mie prefecture in the Higashi Kishu area that boasts a variety of attractions and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Within minutes, you are able to enjoy historic shrines, ancient pilgrimage routes, picturesque walking trails, and breathtaking views of nature. In this blog, Mie Prefectural Government Intern and Harvard University Student Deni Hoxha writes about his impressions from a day trip to various sites in Kumano including Tenmasou, Hananoiwaya, Onigajo and Maruyama Senmaida.

After a lively one hour drive filled with chatter, laughter and looking out the window at the exquisite scenery of the mountains and rivers on the side of the highway, I arrived in Southern Mie in the morning.

Our final destination was Kumano, however along the way we took a break from the driving at Tenmasou, a house surrounded by colorful flowers and other seasonal greenery located in Owase. The Tenmasou is a traditional Japanese house built in 1925 that today serves as a non-profit organization and local coffee shop. As we walked the steps up to the house, we were greeted by Matsui-san, the manager of the house. We entered and waited in the guest room where we were served fresh amanatsu juice and pound cake. Given that this was my first time trying amanatsu, I asked what it was and Matsui-san quickly went to the kitchen and gifted me two amanatsus grown in the house’s garden. Known as the Japanese summer orange, an amanatsu has an orange-yellow color with a sweet and sour flavor. I felt warmed by her kind hospitality and was grateful for the fruit gifts.

Then we toured the house, starting with the coffee shop and then to all the different rooms. Thanks to a partnership with Mie University, throughout the year, international students come to the Tenmasou in order to learn traditional Japanese cooking and the opportunity to experience living in a Japanese house. The views into the picturesque garden from the rooms in the house were priceless. Each room was covered in tatami flooring and included different elements from sacred corners, to tables to tea-making stations. Matsuyi-san demonstrated how tea was made and I was so impressed by the procedure. After touring all the rooms, it was time to say goodbye and get going for Kumano.

I was surprised that this spot was just meant to be a break from driving for us, because it was so  much more for me. I got a taste of Japanese local fruits in Mie and learned about life in a traditional Japanese house like Tenmasou. I had never experienced the intricate tea-making technique before either. I thanked Matsuyi-san for her warm welcome and took a picture with her. As I was walking down the steps she waved and mentioned to come back to the site and bring family and friends.

We were back on the road and drove about 20 minutes to Onigajo, a World Heritage natural wonder in Kumano. Before embarking on the scenic walking trail, I met with my tour guide, Inoue-san. We chatted a little about Harvard and about my internship with Mie Prefectural Government and then she asked me, “Do you know what Oni means?” Being in Japan for three weeks now, I had still not heard of this word and then she translated-- “it means demon.” Onigajo together means demon’s castle. There are many mysterious stories that explain the meaning of this name. At first, the area was simply known as the demon’s house given that pirates were said to occupy the area and later when the castle was built, the name changed. Another story suggests that the rock wall was not there many years ago however  year after year, it rose up from the ocean against the wild and rough waves. Being a Pirates of the Caribbean-enthusiast, I enjoyed the first explanation better.

We then started the walking trail. While it is impossible to see in the pictures or even through this article, the sounds of the waves crashing into the rock formations were loud yet soothing and the sheer size of the rock formations was majestic and grand.

I was surprised that this site was not overcrowded because the views were some of the most gorgeous I have ever seen, reminiscent of the Calanques in Southern France or the rock formations in Southern Albania. We continued on our walking trail and soon we saw a glimpse of the Shichiri-Mihama Coast, known as one of Japan’s most beautiful beaches. In this hot spring day in Japan, all I wanted to do was jump in the water and go for a swim.

After finishing the trail, I was able to visit the gift shop next to the entrance of the trail. Here you can buy anything from Japanese souvenirs to local foods. I even found some amanatsu oranges here.

Next it was time to go to the Hananoiwaya Shrine. On the way we stopped at Shishiiwa or lion face. This was a neat stop along the way and we enjoyed an even better view of the Shichiri Mihama Coast. This is Japan’s longest sand and  gravel beach and it stretches about 22 kilometers. Inoue-san explained that fishing is very common in the shore however swimming is dangerous given that the water is deep and the waves are wild.

Then we reached Hananoiwaya. In 2004, this site was also registered as a World Heritage site. The tour guide explained that this is considered to be the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan according to the Nihon Shoki, Japan’s oldest history book written in 720.

This shrine was unlike any that I had seen before. Despite its name, the shrine itself is the rock and known as a “power spot” for its energy.  Inoue-san explained that the rock is the mother God and across is the God of Fire. When the mother God gave birth to the god of fire, her son, she was injured because of the fire and was enshrined there. Then her son was later enshrined next to her as well. I felt goosebumps as I heard this chilling story. Given the the mystical energy of the site, I took the opportunity to also pray at this power spot.

In addition to the shrine, the community enjoys a strong connection to this site. Every year on February 2nd and October 2nd, the festival takes place where a rope is tied from the highest point to the Mother God rock to the lower southern point. The rope is 170 meters and said to be the longest in Japan. This is an important ceremony and every part of the rope is held by people given that it is prohibited for it to touch the ground. The rope is left there until it breaks. When I visited, there were two ropes, one from the previous year as well, and this indicates good luck and a good harvesting season.

It was around 2pm and time for our next and final destination--the Maruyama Senmaida, remarkable terraced rice fields full of rich history. Before arriving to Japan, I did not know about this site. Nestled in the mountains, the views here are breathtaking. The rice fields thrived in the Edo period however, a few years ago, the number of rice paddies fell to 530 due to depopulation and aging of farmers. In recent years, the fields have been restored and some are now maintained by the Kumano government, which has led to an increase and a total of 1340 rice paddies.

The road to the Maruyama Senmaida is narrow yet beautiful as trees and rocks surround each side. We arrived at the perfect moment in the afternoon when we could enjoy the reflection of the sun in the water. However this only lasted for a few moments given that it became cloudy. We made numerous stops along the road and enjoyed different angles of the rice fields’ unspoiled views. This was the first time for me seeing rice fields so I was even more impressed.

We then drove closer to the paddies and went on a walk around the fields. Here is where we also met the team leader--the person who oversees the care of all the paddies. His raggedy light-blue shirt clung tight and hung loose at the same time. Despite having worked all day, he was full of energy and ready to tend to the next rice paddy. With a few English words here and there, he genuinely welcomed me to the fields and then Inoue-san began interpreting. I appreciated the time he took to explain the fields and the planting of rice. This was another testament to the fact that the people in Southern Mie and their hospitality are some of the region’s biggest assets. As we were leaving, Inoue-san mentioned that the view is even more impressive in the morning or at sunset therefore I definitely need to go back.

After a long day it was time to say goodbye to Inoue-san, the exceptional tour guide who made the trip entertaining, informative and unforgettable. I drove back to Tsu and reflected about the day.

Kumano and the surrounding Southern Mie area truly holds a special place in my journey in Japan. Each place that we visited was unique, each with its special, ancient history and priceless views. The genuine hospitality was present throughout as local people considered me not as a tourist but as a friend. The rushing sounds of the crashing waves and the quiet pleasure of visiting Hanoniwaya painted on me a feeling of contentment, relaxation and happiness that carried over throughout the week—a notion I have rarely experienced before. The sheer beauty of this region was one-of-a-kind, and the fresh natural air gave it a unique serenity that is hard to find. As President Calvin Coolidge once said, “Remember that nature is your great restorer,” and in Southern Mie I felt content. My brief experience exploring Kumano, surrounded by the quaint prettiness of nature, was a moment of recharge and stepping back from life’s rat race.

Transportation -- How to Get There:

Transportation -- How to Get There:
Although I drove, Kumano is also easily accessible by public transportation. You can take the JR Kisei Line to Owase or Kumanoshi (JR Pass can be used). There are free buses (Mie Kotsu Bus) that will take you to the Maruyama Senmaida as well. You can visit this page to see the route map: https://touristpass.jp/en/common/pdf/ise_english.pdf  Google Maps is also a useful resource for directions.

My Itinerary:

My Itinerary:
Below is the itinerary that I followed. Please feel free to modify this and I also recommend spending more than one day at each site, however this was my trip due to time restraints. Personally, I wish I had spent more time at Onigajo and at the Shichiri-Mihama coast so feel free to customize this to your own needs.

  • 9am - Depart from Tsu towards Kumano area.

  • 10:30am - Arrival at Tenmasou

  • 11:15am - Depart from Tenmasou to Onigajo

  • 11:45am - Arrival at Onigajo, UNESCO World Heritage Site

  • 12:45pm - Depart Onigajo for the Hananoiwaya Shrine

  • 1:00pm - Lunch Break

  • 2:00pm - Arrival at Hananoiwaya Shrine

  • 3:00pm- Depart Hananoiwaya Shrine towards Maruyama Senmaida

  • 3:30pm - Arrival at Maruyama Senmaida

  • 4:30pm - Depart Maruyama Senmaida and return back to Tsu

  • 6:00pm - Arrival at Tsu


Tenmasou (天満荘)
:161 Tenmaura, Owase City, Mie Prefecture

:1835-7 KinomotochoKumano, Mie 519-4323

Hananoiwaya Shrine
:130 Arima-choKumano City, Mie Prefecture

Maruyama Senmaida
:Maruyama, Kiwa-choKumano City, Mie Prefecture

Tourist attractions covered by this article