Nachi Falls – The Ants Go Marching One by One
Nachi Falls is a sight of natural and architectural beauty. Located on the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture, it is the tallest waterfall in Japan, and it is located on the Kumano Kodo, which is an ancient pilgrim road that runs between several significant religious sites in the area. One of three ancient shrines that compose the Kumano Sanzan (which translates to the three mountains of Kumano), Nachi has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries and has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This long history, natural beauty, and religious significance provide ample reason to make the journey to the falls as so many pilgrims have done before.
Nachi Falls makes for an impressive view with its single drop of 133 meters (436 ft), which makes it the tallest single drop waterfall in Japan. Drawn to this natural wonder, people have held the location in religious awe going back to prehistory, and the area is one of the oldest sites of continual worship in Japan. Initially this religion was naturalistic in nature, but that changed with the introduction of Buddhism into Japan in the 6th century CE. The Buddhists viewed the natural deity worshipped at Nachi Falls as manifestation of Senju Kannon, a thousand-armed buddha, and the two religions joined together. By the end of the Heian Era (794-1185), this merger had been completed and pilgrimages by aristocrats and other elites had become common.
One of these pilgrims was the famous monk Mongaku. Born Endo Morito in Kyoto in 1139 to a courtier, at the age of eighteen he fell in love with a beautiful woman named Kesa Gozen, who was happily married. He pursued her regardless of this, and she feared she would be unable to turn away his advances indefinitely. Kesa decided she had to protect her honor, so she told Morito he could have her, but only if he killed her husband first. They agreed Morito would sneak into Kesa’s house and cut her husband’s head off while he slept. On the appointed night, Kesa arranged for her husband to be out of the house, cut off her long hair, and took her husband’s place. Morito snuck into the house and, not realizing what had happened in the darkened room, struck off the Kesa’s head only to discover his mistake when he triumphantly carried the head into the moonlight to gaze upon it. He was horrified by his mistake, and he fled Kyoto terribly burdened by guilt. He made his way to Nachi Falls where he swore to stand beneath the massive stream of water reciting Buddhist sutras, which he is said to have done without pause for 37 days. When he emerged, he was purified of his past sins, and he took the name Mongaku to signify this change.
As the Heian era gave way to the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1337-1573) eras, Nachi Falls became increasingly famous throughout Japan as a spot for physical and spiritual healing. This popularity was spread by ascetics who were drawn to the mountains around the waterfall to worship for a time before departing to far flung areas. Eventually more than 3,000 Kumano Shrines, which are extensions of all three of the Kumano Sanzan, including Nachi Falls, were established throughout Japan. As the number of these shrines increased, the majority of the pilgrims to Nachi Falls shifted from being aristocrats to commoners. The number of pilgrims became so great that it was said that it looked like a procession of ants was wending through the valleys when viewed from the high mountain passes. The pilgrims thus became known as the Ants of Kumano. The number of pilgrims declined sharply after the Meiji era (1868-1912), however, and many stretches of the pilgrim road fell into disrepair.
Despite the decline in numbers from the heyday, modern day pilgrims will still be greeted by much the same scene that those that went before them saw hundreds of years ago. Though large portions of the Kumano Kodo have been abandoned or converted into paved road, the stretch leading up to Nachi Falls, called Daimon-zaka, has been preserved in its original state and is still hikeable today. The trek takes about a half an hour, and there is a parking lot at the beginning as well as regular buses that stop near the entrance. The path consists of large stones that have been cobbled together into steps, and it cuts through a forest of ancient trees, two of which are joined in marriage by a rope. This path spills out into the town below Nachi Taisha, which is the main shrine on the mountain. The narrow road through the town is paved and lined on either side by shops that sell a variety of souvenirs, many of which are made from a hard black clay that is found in the area. Goods such as inkstones, chess pieces, and statues make excellent and long lasting souvenirs.
The path through the city leads to another set of stairs, along which hydrangea bloom in June in a variety of pinks, purples, and blues. Continuing up the stairs leads to Nachi Taisha and the neighboring Seiganto-ji Temple. At the edge of this temple is a promontory with a magnificent view of the waterfall. It is a majestic spot with a pagoda in the foreground to the left with the waterfall cascading over a cliff in the background to the right. To actually reach the waterfall requires descending from where the shrine and temple are located, walking past the pagoda, and climbing down another set of preserved cobblestone stairs. A small shrine is located at the end of the steps, and the deep sound of the crushing water can be nearly felt. A viewing platform near the waterfall’s basin provides an up close look at the spot where Mongaku performed his miraculous feat, which is hard to fathom when confronted with the sheer volume of water thundering down from high above.
The path away from the waterfall is easier than the way in as a wide, paved road loops easily down to the parking lot near the entrance to Daimon-zaka. The entire journey takes anywhere from two to four hours depending on walking speed and how much time is spent taking photos of this fairytale location. The column of the Ants of Kumano stretches back centuries and will continue to grow until the water runs dry, and this short investment of time is all that is required to claim a spot in this long procession.