Shingu is a small town tucked in the southeastern coast of the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama prefecture. It sits at the mouth of the famed Kumano River, and is surrounded by deep forests and natural beauty all around. Although mostly forgotten by people today, the area has a rich history of important wars, religious pilgrimages and even imperial significance.
While many Japanese people won't know the town name Shingu, they will know one of its claims to fame: the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. The trail is actually a not just one, but a network of many pilgrimage routes that go through Wakayama, Nara and Mie prefectures. All of these trails lead to the Kumano Sanzan—the three grand shrines of Kumano. Although some people attempt to do full pilgrimages to either one or all of the three great shrines, most people are content with hiking just a couple of hours down one part of the trail network. There are many different entrance and exit points, making this a very easy thing to do.
However, if you're not one for hiking, you can avoid it altogether. One of the Kumano Sanzan, the Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, is located in Shingu city—only a 15-minute walk from Shingu station. This shrine is the home of over 12 deities, and has a Nagi tree that is said to be over 1,000 years old. The Nagi tree holds a special significance in the Shinto religion, and as its leaves are hard to break, they are often used in wedding ceremonies. (It's considered a good omen that the leaves are strong—it means the couple won't break up.)
Near to Kumano Hayatama Taisha is Kamikura Shrine, which is located halfway up Gongen Mountain, under a giant monolith named Gotobiki-iwa. This shrine takes a little bit more effort to get to—you have to climb 538 uneven stone steps to reach it! Once you do make the trip, the view of Shingu city and the ocean behind it is well worth the effort. This shrine has a very exciting (and very dangerous!) festival called the Oto festival, held every year on February 6th. Participants of this event are dressed fully in white and are only allowed to eat white foods all day, as it represents purity. But the true action happens as the day turns to night—hundreds of participants light torches from a sacred fire at the shrine and then they all run down the 538 stone steps to the bottom of the mountain. One man holds the record of making it down the steps in 57 seconds! To get some perspective on what an amazing feat that is: it took me over seven minutes to get down, as the stone steps are slippery and uneven. I've never seen this festival in person, but it's on my bucket list for sure!
The Kumano River, which flows out into the ocean right next to Shingu city is also a must-see, and, despite not being a road, is part of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. There are riverboat tours twice daily starting from Hitari and ending at Shingu city—right by Kumano Hayatama Taisha. The tours last for 90 minutes and guides dressed in traditional garb (known as storytellers) will spin tales and tell of legends inspired by the breathtaking natural features as you go down the river. One of my favorites is about Honejima, or "bone island". Legend has it an evil demon was struck down by the gods, and his bones remain. The rock formation does indeed look like a pile of bones, and if you're lucky, the tour will stop for a break there so you can take a closer look yourself.
Last but not least, let's talk about food! As Shingu is located right on the water, it naturally has plenty of great seafood options—tuna sashimi is completely fresh and not frozen, as it's fished locally. If you're not a fish lover, one of the local specialties is both vegan and vegetarian-friendly: it's a rice ball wrapped in pickled leaves, called Meharizushi. Despite being pickled, it's not sour—just very refreshing! The area is also famous for mikan, a kind of mandarin orange, and the jams they make from them are absolutely divine.
I could honestly go on about the various places of natural beauty and spiritual significance in Shingu, but I'll leave the rest to be discovered. Rest assured that this small coastal town has so much more to offer than first meets the eye.