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Volunteers help maintain Wakayama's famous pilgrimage routes

Employees of Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co. lay, level and harden soil on a damaged part of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage roads, in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, on Feb. 4, 2017. (Mainichi)

WAKAYAMA -- The prefectural government here is borrowing help from private-sector volunteers to keep its famous Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes, part of a designated World Heritage site, maintained.

    Early in February, during road repair work on a pilgrimage route near Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, volunteers from Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co. carried bags of soil before spreading, leveling and hardening it on the road.

    The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes straddle over Mie, Nara and Wakayama prefectures, and they are managed by local municipal governments. They lead to the "Kumano Sanzan," three shrines in Wakayama Prefecture, in an area considered a sacred land of the fusion of Shinto and Buddhist faiths. The Kii Mountain Range has large amounts of rainfall, however, and the area frequently experiences heavy damage from typhoons and heavy rains. Since the rains wash away the dirt of the roads, they need regular work.

    Starting in 2009, Wakayama Prefecture began calling for volunteers from the private sector to protect the routes. Takeharu Yamanishi, 57, head of the prefecture's tourism bureau, says, "We are using the power of volunteers from companies and other associations. Not only does it let them meet their CSR (corporate social responsibility), we thought it could allow people to learn about Japan's traditional culture."

    The volunteering organizations pay the costs for the soil used in the repairs. Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance has been participating since around the start of the volunteer program, gathering and sending volunteers once a year. This year the company sent 27 volunteers aged in their 20s to their 50s.

    Tsuyoshi Takiguchi, 40, who transferred to the area from Tokyo last April, said, "The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes are a World Heritage site full of nature and surrounded by mystical forest. I was able to help in the conservation of that."

    Risa Maiya, 30, who claimed this was her seventh time in a row joining in the volunteer work, added, "I'm able to have lively conversation with people I don't normally have much contact with, so it is an opportunity for communication between workers." When the repair work can't be done because of rain, the volunteers hear talks from employees of the Wakayama World Heritage Center on the importance of the repair work.

    The Wakayama Prefectural Government is aiming for a total of 100,000 people to volunteer for the project. So far around 90 companies including KDDI Corp., West Japan Railway Co. (JR West), Ito En Ltd. and Kao Corp. have sent a total of around 26,000 people to help with the work.

    For three years through 2015, Japan Tobacco Inc. (JT) sent employees from the Kinki, Tokyo metropolitan, Chugoku and Shikoku areas to work on the Kumano Kodo roads. In 2011, Typhoon Talas caused mudslides and fallen trees in the area, and JT volunteers worked to help in the recovery effort. Afterwards, they worked with the Wakayama Prefectural Government to remove mud and leaves covering the cobblestones, which are estimated to have been built early in the Edo Period.

    The Wakayama Prefectural Government's project, called "Juman-nin no Sankeido Kankyo Hozen Katsudo" (activity by 100,000 people to preserve the environment of pilgrimage roads) can be reached through http://www.sekaiisan-wakayama.jp/protect/fifth.html.

    Employees of Japan Tobacco Inc. remove dirt from the top of a cobblestone road, on the Nakahechi part of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage roads. (Photo courtesy of the Wakayama Prefectural Tourism Bureau)

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