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Three-Legged Crows

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Japan In-depth

Three-Legged CrowsThe World Heritage site of Kumano, land of life

South of Kyoto lies Nara, and south of Nara, among the craggy mountains of the Kii Peninsula, lies Kumano. Beyond that is the sea, the Pacific Ocean where the warm Kuroshio Current flows. Kyoto was once called Heiankyo and Nara was Heijokyo. Today's Kyoto is of course still a city that breathes the refined elegance of traditional culture. Nara was modeled on the city of Chang'an, the 8th century capital of the Sui dynasty in China. But Kumano is even older, and makes you feel the respiration of an almost primordial land of life. The Kumano area is a rugged region between the mountains and the sea, where a warm and abundant precipitation makes for a luxuriant growth of camphor trees and other plants.

The ancient pilgrimage roads of Kumano are now registered as a World Heritage site. Japan is home to a unique mountain religion called Shugendo. Its origins are old and obscure, but it includes elements of Japanese Shinto, Chinese Taoism and Buddhism, and continues to this day. For practitioners of Shugendo, the mountains are their mother, and they go deep into the mountains and endure harsh ascetic training in order to be reborn.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrimages to the sacred lands of Kumano were very popular both among the aristocracy and the common people. The main destination was “Kumano Sanzan," the collective appellation of the three Grand Shrines in the area: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hatayama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
In particular the last one features a sight you mustn't miss: the 133-meter-high Nachi-no-Otaki, the tallest waterfall in Japan. Indeed, it is the waterfall itself that is the deity worshipped here. A visit to Kumano is a way of experiencing the very deepest roots of Japan.

Kumano figures in Japanese mythology as well. When Jimmu, Japan's legendary first emperor, tried to attack Naniwa (present-day Osaka) from Osaka Bay he met with strong resistance and had to sail south to Kumano. There he encountered a three-legged crow named Yatagarasu, who guided him across the steep mountains. In times of old, Yatagarasu was believed to be a messenger of the gods, or an incarnation of the sun. In ancient China and Korea too the number 3 stood for the sun.

These days, Yatagarasu is famous as the symbol of the Japan Football Association, a bird with the power of the sun that leads the national team to victory. This symbol was chosen in homage of the father of modern Japanese football, Kakunosuke Nakamura, who was born in Kumano.


Related Information

Kumano Hongu Taisha

1110 Hongu, Hongu Town, Tanabe City, Wakayama Prefecture


Kumano Hatayama Taisha

1 Shingu, Shingu City, Wakayama Prefecture


Kumano Nachi Taisha

1 Nachisan, Nachi-Katsuura Town, Higashimuro District, Wakayama Prefecture


Japan Football Association