The location I chose to focus on for this assignment is the Kumano region where many monks would go on pilgrimages. It is not exactly a precise location per se, but the notoriety of this region throughout literary works puts it as an important source of inspiration and transformations for many travelers as revealed through the journeys and adventures on their pilgrimages. As mentioned in Skord’s (1991) notes in her Dōjōji translation (p.96), Kumano in the Kii peninsula is known today as the Wakayama Prefecture.


The Kumano pilgrimage is mentioned multiple times within Tales of Times Now Past: Sixty-Two Stories from a Medieval Japanese Collection (Ury, 1979), in The Tale of Dōjōji (Skord, 1991) and also in a poem attributed to Izumi Shikibu in the Fūga Wakashū (Kimbrough, 2001) among others.

The following are some excerpts from The Tale of Dōjōji.

“This in is replaced by solemn sermons, then a travelogue recounting origins and anecdotes about the places through which Anchin passes. Anchin’s is the standard route taken by Kumano-bound pilgrims from the Kyoto area; all the place names and associations mentioned would have been familiar to the audience from personal experience or hearsay.” (Skord, p.130)

“At the Kurama Temple, in the Otagi District of Yamashiro Province, lived a monk names Anchin who maintained a strong desire for salvation and a steadfast belief in the power of the Kumano deities. One day, he suddenly made up his mind to undertake the arduous pilgrimage to Kumano. ” (Skord, p.131)

“Now far removed from the moon-bathes capital, he arrived at the Yodo River crossing. As the ferry crossed the face of the waters, droplets from the poles wet his sleeves, drenching his traveling robes. ” (Skord, p.135)

It might not seem clear at first because of the differences in the names, but with some research it is possible to trace back the monk Anchin’s journey as he left Kyoto and headed to Kumano through Osaka (Skord, 1991, p.153) and across Wakayama to the Muro district (Skord, p.140), today known as Kannokura (Shirane, 2007, p.897), which is closer to Kumano city. In other words, even if Anchin’s timing may not be entirely realistic, the accounts of his Kumano pilgrimage reveal the beauty, the hardships and also the supernatural encounters on his journey (i.e. the snake lady).

Below are some excerpts from Tales of Times Now Past.

“3. How A Monk Of The Dōjōji In The Province Of Kii Copied The Lotus Sutra And Brought Salvation To Serpents
At a time now past, there were two monks on pilgrimage to Kumano. One was well along in years; the other was young and extraordinarily good-looking. When they came to Muro District, the two of them rented lodgings and settled down for the night.
I have a long-standing vow; in accordance with it, in recent days I have purified myself in mind and in body and set out on the distant journey to present myself before the deity of Kumano. Should I carelessly break my vow here, the consequences would be dreadful for both of us.” (Ury, 1979, p.93)

This version of the Dōjōji acts more as a sermon for Buddhist monks regarding some of the core values of Buddhism vis-à-vis women especially, but the fact that the events occur on a pilgrimage in the Kumano area also put importance on the life lessons of Buddhism. In fact, even Ury’s notes highlight how the aged monk achieved a form of enlightenment, not only through his devotion, but also through his complete detachment of the physical world (gave up his last earthly possessions) (Ury, 1979, p.96). On top of that, it is interesting to note that the powers associated to Buddhism are being experienced in an area (the Kumano Mountains) which is considered to be highly emblematic and where it is said that the deity Izanagi (one of the creators of the island of Japan) is buried (Rodriguez, 2007, p.75). The Kumano pilgrimage is also considered one of the most traditional journey of its kind with its multiple stations or stages through which one is supposed to better understand and “grasp the meaning of imprisonment in the karmic cycle…and thus to attain the true meaning of detachment ” (Rodriguez, 2007, p.6).


The following passage is from Fūga Wakashū:

“When Izumi Shikibu visited the Kumano (Shrine), she was unable to present her offering to the deity because of her (monthly) obstruction. She recited a poem:

mo no ukigumo no
tsuki no sawari to
naru zo kanashiki

The sad, drifting clouds
of my body
trail the sky, unlifting,
now obstructing the moon.
How sad!

It is said that in her dream that night, (the Kumano Deity) recited this poem in reply:

moto yori mo
chiri ni majiwaru
kami nareba
tsuki no sawari mo
nani ga kurushiki

By my nature
I am god
who mingles with the dust.
What could bother me about
the monthly obstruction?

The “sad, drifting clouds” of her femininity gather densely every month, becoming her monthly obstruction and blocking the light of the moon, a traditional metaphor for Buddhist Truth. Because it prevents her from visiting Kumano Shrine, Izumi Shikibu’s monthly obstruction is a true moon obstruction, darkening her way on the Path of the Buddha.” (Kimbrough, 2001, p.71-72)

In this excerpt the location is more precise and it clearly mentions the Kumano Shrine. It also reveals additional aspects of the Buddhism fate towards women particularly. The rest of Kimbrough’s book also mentions the history of the Kumano bikuni (nuns) who would disseminate stories of women such as Izumi Shikibu’s and in their own way challenge and overcome the proscriptions set by Buddhist men throughout pilgrimages (Kimbrough, 2001, p.60). In other words, the whole area of Kumano, including its people, becomes a catalyst, an epicentre of lessons and transformations within the world of Buddhism. Thus, a rich culture and such diverse stories also position the area of Kumano and its pilgrimages as an important source of inspirations for multiple literary genres.

Did You Know?
Although the routes might differ from the ones the monks would use in Ancient Japan, the Kumano Kodo is a registered pilgrim route (similar to the Santiago one) which amateurs of nature and history can have a taste of today. The main walking routes have different stations with traditional Japanese inns and public baths to allow one to rest in between each points of a trail.

For more information, you can visit this website:


As of 2004, the Kumano Kodō and its sacred sites and pilgrimage routes in the Kii Mountain Range were registered in the UNESCO as important cultural and historical items of the world heritage.

You can read about it here:


Works Cited

Kimbrough, R. Keller. “Voices from the Feminine Margin: Izumi Shikibu and the Nuns of Kumano and Seiganji.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 12.1 (2001): 59-78. Web.

Ury, Marian. Tales of Times Now Past: Sixty-Two Stories from a Medieval Japanese Collection. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1979.

Rodriguez del Alisal, Maria, Dolores Martinez and Peter Ackermann. Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan. New York: Routledge, 2007. Web.

Shirane, Haruo, and Sonja Arntzen. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Web.

Skord, Virginia S. Tales of Tears and Laughter: Short Fiction of Medieval Japan : The Tale of Dōjōji. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.

Featured image’s source:


Contributor: Jolianne Loignon-Beaudoin
(Edited by Elle Marsh)