Integrating religious and traditional stewardship in the management of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range World Heritage, Japan

Fumihiko Ito
Published: 04 October 2020
Last edited: 05 May 2021
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The Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes of the Kii Mountain Range in Japan were inscribed as a cultural landscape in the World Heritage List in 2004, under criteria (ii), (iii), (iv) and (vi). The inscribed property includes parts of the Yoshino-Kumano National Park, IUCN Protected Area Category II and core of the Mount Odaigahara, Mount Omine and Osugidani UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and places of scenic beauty, historic sites, national treasures and natural monuments which are protected under the Japanese Law for the Protection of Cultural Property. It is composed of the cores of three of the most significant religions in Japan: Shintoism in Kumano-Sanzan, Shingon Buddhism in Koyasan and Shugendo in Yoshino and Omine, and the pilgrimage routes connecting them. The management of such a complex property where natural and cultural values and protection systems interrelate relies on its sacred value and the continuous stewardship of the religious and local communities present in the area.


East Asia
Scale of implementation
Buildings and facilities
Forest ecosystems
Freshwater ecosystems
Pool, lake, pond
River, stream
Temperate deciduous forest
Temperate evergreen forest
Urban ecosystem and build environment
Forest Management
Local actors
Protected and conserved areas governance
Traditional knowledge
World Heritage
Land and Forest degradation
Changes in socio-cultural context
Sustainable development goals
SDG 11 – Sustainable cities and communities
SDG 15 – Life on land
Aichi targets
Target 18: Traditional knowledge


Mie, Japan | Nara Prefecture and Wakayama Prefecture


The conservation of the Kii Mountains’ cultural landscape presents a management challenge due to the complexity of the property: Being located across three adjacent prefectures and containing several layers of protection for the diverse natural and cultural resources, it requires the coordination of a variety of stakeholders. 


This property contains 3 sacred mountains representative of the 3 major religions of Japan. The coordination of the different religion bodies is a key challenge.


Each of the religious bodies are in charge of primary forests and other forests within their area. These need to be maintained and managed on an ongoing basis. The maintenance of the secondary forests surrounding primary forests, religious sanctuaries and pilgrimage routes is equally important.


The pilgrimage routes which are not under the control of these religious groups, can quickly become overgrown with weeds and fallen trees if left unattended, making them inaccessible for pilgrims and tourists.


Local communities,  worshipers of each religion, pilgrims, visitors

How do the building blocks interact?

The establishment of a transboundary governing structure for the World Heritage Property (BB1) enabled the cooperation between the different religious bodies, which remain autonomous in the management of their sacred places (BB2). The forests and temples in charge of the religious bodies are connected by the pilgrimage routes, that are both conserved by the government and by the local communities, because there is a large variability on their ownership. The maintenance of all these natural and cultural elements of the property is based on their spiritual value, not only for the religious institutions in charge, but also for the local communities inhabiting these areas. Both the tradition of maintaining the pilgrimage routes (BB4) and the community-based conservation of the secondary forests (BB3) connect with the Japanese cultural traditional of stewardship of nature.


1. Environmental impacts:

  • Effective and continuous conservation of primeval forests. For example, the Nachi Primeval Forest is one of the most representative laurel forest of this region, covering an area of 32 hectares. It is a valuable forest not only because of the dense layer of tall trees such as Japanese cypress (hinoki-Chamaecyparis obtusa), Japanese chinquapin (tsuburaji-Castanopsis cuspidata), and Japanese oak blue (urajirogashi- Arhopala japonica or Quercus salicina), but also because of the abundance of forest floor plants such as ferns and vines. Another example is the Bukkyogatake Primeval Forest, one of the highest peak of the Omine Mountains, covering an area of 9 hectares, which is composed of evergreen coniferous trees such as Veitch forest of subalpine origin. 

2. Economical and environmental impacts:

  • Sustainable use of secondary forests
  • Sustainable tourism development

3. Social impacts:

  • Community cohesion
  • Traditional knowledge safeguarded
  • Local and traditional cultural and religious practices safeguarded


Mie Prefecture

As a prefectural officer, I am involved in the preservation of this World Heritage site. One of the most unforgettable moments in my career is the disaster of the 2011 typhoon.

On September 4, a typhoon struck the area: Railroads were destroyed, national roads were cut off, and landslides occurred in many parts of the Kii Mountains. Particularly serious was the damage to the pilgrimage routes.

On September 7, we received a phone call from a city officer. He reported damage to the World Heritage site. Amid the disaster, they were still making rounds to assess the damage. Local volunteers were making rounds of the pilgrimage route. Together, they sent the information to the prefectural government office, located 100 kms. away.

On September 8, the national road was opened to traffic. I drove to the World Heritage site. Volunteers had begun to clean up the pilgrimage route and remove fallen trees.

Also washed away was a huge tree that was the symbol of the holy island in the river. The owner, the shrine's priest, offered to restore it by planting trees.

There was also damage to the secondary forests surrounding the pilgrimage route belonging to the buffer zone of the World Heritage property, and which are maintained by owners and the forest association. They offered to remove the fallen trees and plant saplings. 

In the meantime, I was able to negotiate with the national government to provide funding for the restoration plan of the large affected areas.

After a while, the city hall officer who first called me, said to me "I'd love to study the concept of World Heritage. I would like to be able to do a better job of protecting the World Heritage site.” I spoke to the colleagues with whom we were discussing the restoration of the site, and we decided to hold a workshop to bring together people from the three prefectures, the municipal and the national government. These workshops continue after 10 years.

The "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range" are protected by the efforts of many different people: the three prefectures, municipalities, volunteers, religious leaders, and foresters. Protection is achieved through dialogue, mutual learning and cooperation between the parties. We should not forget the efforts of all those people. (Fumihiko Ito, Mie Prefecture)

Contributed by

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Fumihiko Ito Mie Prefectural Government Board of Education

Other contributors

ICCROM-IUCN World Heritage Leadership