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Roads of Oku: Home


Inspiration ...

Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa / Google Map: Bashō's Oku no Hosomichi ("Narrow Road to the Deep North")

Journeys ...

Spring 2004: On the Road in Kansai / Google Map
Summer 2005: Roads of Oku / Google Map
Fall 2006: Where Gods Alight / Google Map
Summer 2007: Hōkūle‘a in Yokohama / Map
Winter 2008: Snow Country / Google Map
Spring 2008: Full Bloom & Festivals / Google Map
Summer 2009: Fireflies & Sweet Fish / Google Map
Fall 2009: North Country Colors / Google Map
Summer 2010: Legends of the Land / Google Map
Spring 2011: On the Far Side of Disaster / Google Map
Summer 2012: Travels in the Fifth Moon / Google Map
Summer 2013: Far Roads: Finishing Touches / Google Map
Summer 2015: Saké-Tasting in the Kingdom of Local Brew

Memorable ...

Roads / Seacoasts & Coastal Roads / Bridges / Ferries / Walks & Hikes / Mountains / Ropeways / Rivers / Waterfalls / Lakes / Trees / Rocks / Caves / Hot Springs / Sakura / Fall Colors / Archaeology and History / Castles / Shrines / Temples / Gardens / Festivals / Food / Drinks
Photography: Dennis Kawaharada and Karen Ono

Note ...

On Driving in Japan

Roads of Oku: Journeys in the Heartland

A collection of essays on Japanese culture, history and literature. Available at Amazon.com. (Far Roads Press, 2015).

Shintō Shrines

Updated: Summer 2015

Shintō is a religious practice that is easily understood, but complex in its manifestiations. Simply, it involves rituals and prayers to kami (spirits, deities) to ensure protection against dangers, disasaters, and angry spirits; and prayers for health, wealth and good fortune, with offerings of thanks when life goes well.

The kami were originally embodied in nature, in mountains, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, rocks, trees, animals, and so on. Man-made objects like tools and swords were also thought to have spirits that might be worshiped for efficacy, safety, and protection. When rice-agriculture was brought from China via the Korean Peninsula and established during the Yayoi Period (300 BC-300 AD), Shintō rituals and prayers for water, good weather, healthy plants, etc. were aimed at ensuring a good annual rice harvest.

Ancestral spirits are also kami, particularly those of ancestors who contributed significantly to the well-being of their descendents. When Yamato (the original name of Japan) was established in Nara prefecture, the Imperial family commissioned Kojiki and Nihonji, the first two mythological histories of Japan; these histories were recorded in writing using kanji borrowed from the Chinese and trace the ancestry of the Imperial family from the gods of creation, including the male-female siblings Izanagi and Izanami, who gave birth to the Eight Great Islands of Yamato, and Amaterasu, the sun goddess, who sent her grandson to rule the islands, thus founding the Imperial family line. The first emperor, Jimmu, and all the emperors since have also been deified and are worshiped at various shrines; and myriad of gods mentioned in Kojiki and Nihonji are also worshiped.

Signifcant historical figures like scholar Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) and the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) are also worshiped as kami.

A Shrine to the Fire God

Akihasan Hongū Akiha Jinja, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka. Summer 2012

Akihasan Hongū Akiha Jinja is situated in one of the most beautiful settings of any shrine in Japan, up a winding forest road, near the summit of Mount Akiha in the southern Akaishi Mountains. From its golden torii, the shrine offers a wide view of the Tenryū river valley below:

The primary kami of the shrine is Hi-no-kagutsuchi-no-Ōkami, the fire god of the creation story found in Kojiki, the oldest written mythological history of Japan. Kagutsuchi is prayed to for protection against fires. The main festival of the shrine is held annually over three nights in December, with ceremonies featuring flaming torches and fireworks. The shrine has 800 branches in Japan.

The stairway to the shrine slopes upward though evergreen and maple trees to the front gate:

The gate features wooden carvings of the four celestial animals associated with the four directions and four seasons of traditional geomancy charts: the green-blue dragon of the east (spring), the the red phoenix bird of the south (summer), and the white tiger of the west (autumn), the black turtle of the north (winter).


Inari Shrines

Inari Shrines, dedicated to the rice goddess Inari, are known for their long tunnels of red torii, donated by worshippers, and their statues of foxes, who serve as messangers of the goddess. There are 32,000 branch shrines, making the Inari shrine network the most extensive in Japan. People from all walks of life and occupations visit the shrines today to pray for prosperity.

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyōto. Spring 2008. The shrine at Fushimi is the main Inari shrine

The fox on the right below holds in its mouth a cylindrical key to the rice storehouse; the fox on the right holds in its mouth a sacred wish-fulfilling jewel.

Fox statueFox

Tsuwano Inari Shrine, Shimane. Summer 2009. At an Inari branch shrine in Tsuwano, a torii tunnel leads up to the shrine from the town below.

TsuwanoTorii tunnel

Takayama Inari Shrine, Aomori. Summer 2013


Shrines to Ancestors of the Imperial Family

Ise Jingu, Mie

In a hinoki forest in the southern hills of Ise Bay is a shrine dedicated to the sun kami Amaterasu (“Heavenly Shining”), ancestress of the imperial family.

Shrine

Ise Shrine, © 1910. New York Public Library

Amaterasu is said to have chosen the site for her shrine two thousand years ago, during the reign of the eleventh head of the imperial family, Emperor Suinin. The area around the shrine provides everything the kami needs to be happy: forests, rice lands, and fresh water (the Isuzu River, known for its clarity); it is also near the sea, which provides fish and salt.

Ise toriiIse shrineRiverGravel pathbridge at Ise shrineShrine

Ise Shrine, 2004

Ise shrine, spring 2014, after the 20-year rebuilding in 2013

Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya, Aichi. Spring 2008

South of the present-day city of Nagoya, Atsuta Shrine was established 1900 years ago, in the reign of emperor Keikō (71-130 CE, the twelfth head of the Imperial family) and is dedicated to Atsuta-no-Ōkami and the five great kami of Atsuta, including Amaterasu and Susano-ō.

Atsuta Shrine is regarded as the second most venerated shrine to the sun kami Amaterasu, after the Grand Shrine at Ise. It houses one of the three sacred imperial treasures, the sword known as Ama-no-hayakiri (“Heavenly serpent killer”).

The shrine was in ruins when the haiku poet Bashō was there in the winter of 1684:

The grounds of the shrine were utterly in runs, the earthen wall collapsed and covered with clumps of weeds. In one place a rope marked the remains of a subsidiary shrine, in another was a stone with the name of a god now worshipped. All around mugwort and longing-fern grew wild. (Barnhill “Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field”18)

When the poet stopped there again in winter of 1687, some restoration work was being done:

polished, restored / bronze mirror pure / snow flowers (“Oi Kobumi”)

Many of the shrine buildings were destroyed by fire during World War II bombings and rebuilt after the war. Today the buildings and grounds are immaculately kept. Roosters, the harbingers of Amaterasu, wander around a thousand-year old camphor tree in the woods in front of the shrine. A white snake that brings good luck is said to live in the tree.

ToriiAtsuta shrineFenceRooster


Hetsugū, Munakata, Fukuoka, Kyūshū. Spring 2011

Three shrines of Munakata Taisha are dedicated to the three daughters of Amaterasu, whom she created from the sword of her brother Susano-ō. Hetsugū, in Munakata, on Kyūshū north of Fukuoka, the headquarters of the three, enshrines Ichikishima-himekami. The other two shrines are located on offshore islands:

The region of Munakata is close to the Chinese continent and Korean peninsula and was important as a port of trade. Shippers paid homage to the three goddesses and prayed for safety at sea and good fortune. Today, there are 8,500 Munakata branch shrines in Japan.

Hetsugu Munakata treeHetsugu Munakata wash basinHetsugu Munakata shrineHetsugu Munakata sake casks


Kirishima (“Misty Islands”) Shrine, Miyazaki, Kyushu. Fall 2006

Kirishima Shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu’s grandson Ninigi, who descended from Heaven to rule Ashi-hara-no-naka-tsu-kuni (“Central Land of Reed Plains”), as Japan was known.

The shrine was established in the sixth century. Its original location was along a hiking trail up to Mt. Takachicho, just north of Kirishima, where Ninigi descended from heaven to rule on earth. (See "History.") As the shrine burned down several times in volcanic eruptions, it was eventually moved to its present location, farther from the volcano.


Udo Shrine, Miyazaki, Kyūshū. Fall 2006

Udo Jinju, dedicated to the father of Jimmu who became the first emperor of Japan, is located in a sea cave on the rocky shore south of Miyazaki. When we arrived at the shrine on a windy, rainy day (Nov. 23), a harvest festival was taking place. See "Festivals" and "Caves."


Shrines to Emperors

Kashihara Shrine, Nara. Spring 2011

Built below Mt. Unebi, Kashihara Jinju is dedicated to Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan. Jimmu left southeastern Kyūshū and traveled east to establish his capital in Yamato (Nara). Jimmu's mausoleum is also located in a nearby wooded area to the north of the shrine.


Miyajidake Shrine, Fukutsu, Fukuoka, Kyūshū. Spring 2011

Located on small conic hill overlooking the Genkai Sea, Miyajidake enshrines three kami: Empress Jingū, Katsumura Ōkami and Katsuyori Ōkami.

The Empress Jingū was mother of the fifteenth head of the Imperial Family, emperor Ōjin, and served as his regent. (See "Hachiman Shrines" below.)

People come to pray for business success, transportation safety and family safety. The shrine is said to have the largest shimenawa (sacred rope woven from rice-straw) in Japan (photo: bottom left), but the shimenawa at Izumo Taisha looks larger to me (see above). When we were at the shrine, the sakura in its courtyard were in bloom, earlier than trees elsewhere.

.Miyajidake toriiMiyajidake streetMiyajidake shrineMiyajidake sakura


Hachiman Shrines

Hachiman Shrine, Usa, Oita. Spring 2011

The kami of Usa shrine was originally a god of farmers and fisherman. Subsequently, the kami was identified with Emperor Ōjin (270-310), the fifteenth head of the imperial family. Hachiman, “Eight Banners,” refers to the eight banners that fell from heaven at Ōjin's birth

Today there are 25,000 branches of the Hachiman shrine, making it the second most extensive shrine network in Japan after Inari shrines. Usa Hachiman is the main shrine.

Usa Hachiman toriiUsa Hachiman shrine

After the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century, Hachiman was worshiped as a protector of the bodhisattva Daibosatsu. Toward the end of the eighth century, he was brought from Usa to Nara as a protector of Buddhism. The Tamayakure Hachiman shrine is located today just east of the

Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine, Kyōto. Fall 2014

Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine in Yawata was founded in 859 to protect the southern flank of the newly-built capital of Heian (Kyōto).

Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura, Kanagawa. Spring 2008

The Hachiman shrine in Kamakura was moved to its present site by Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199), founder of the Kamakura Bakufu (military government), who claimed descent from Emperor Ōjin and adopted Hachiman as the protector of his family and the bakufu. As a guardian of Buddha, Hachiman was considered a war kami, and thus was worshiped by the samurai class.

SakuraKamakura


Kotohira-gū , Kotohira, Kagawa, Shikoku. Spring 2011

Located halfway up Mt. Zōzu, up a stairway with 785 steps to the main shrine and 583 more to the inner shrine, Kotohira-gū was dedicated to a local kami worshipped as a kami of seafarers navigation, fishing, and water for agriculture. The local kami's Buddhist avatar is Kubira, one of the twelve guardians of Yakushi, the medicine Buddha. Kubira's name is Konpira in Japanese and Kotohira-gū is also known as Konpira shrine.

In 1165, the spirit of Emperor Sutoku (1119-1164), who visited the shrine in 1163, was identified with Konpira. During the Edo period, visiting Konpira was very popular and became a lifelong dream of people, like visiting Ise Shrine. A Shintō scholar of the Edo period also identified Konpira as a manisfestation of Ōmononushi, the kami worshiped at Mt. Miwa.

Kotohira-gū stairsKotohira-gū stairs

After eating a bowl of famous Sanuki udon, we made it as far as the main shrine. A pavilion near the main shrine is hung with photos and illustrations of ships and features the solar-powered 31-foot "Malt's Mermaid," made from 22,000 recycled aluminum cans. Sailor/envrionmentalist Kenichi Horie used this boat to travel across the Pacific, from Ecuador to Tōkyō, in 138 days in 1996.

Kotohira-gū shrineKotohira-gū boat

View from the shrine, with Mt. Iino (aka "Sanuki Fuji") in the distance:


Shrines to Susano-ō and Ōkuninushi

Susano-ō is the brother of the sun kami Amaterasu. Known as a storm god and a fertility god, Susano-ō and his descendants ruled the Eight Great Islands, as Japan was called, before his descendant, Ōkuninushi relinquished the governance of the islands to Ho-no-Ninigi, a grandson of Amaterasu.

Yaegaki, Shimane. Summer 2009

Located south of Matsue city, Shimane, Yaegaki Shrine is dedicated to Susano-ō and to his wife Inada-hime, a rice kami. The couple are worshiped as kami of marriage, family, and human and agricultural fertility, which is symbolized by the phallus in the shrine courtyard.

At Kagami-no-Ike (Mirror Pond), visitors place a coin on a sheet of fortune paper and wait for the paper to sink to predict the length of time of a marriage or for finding a mate.

Kagami-no-Ike. Photo from www.visit-matsue.com

Izumo Taisha, Shimane. Fall 2006

At the foot of the hill of Yakumo (“Eight Clouds”), 11.5 miles west of Lake Shinji in Shimane Izumo Taisha is dedicated to Ōkuninushi, a descendent of the storm god Susano-o and an agricultural kami who relinquished rule of Japan to Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu, in exchange for oversight of private affairs (family and spiritual matters).

Izumo shrineRooftop

The shrine features a giant shimenawa, or rice straw rope. Visitors throw coins up into the overhanging ends of the rope, in hopes that embedding a coin will bring a good marriage and family life.

Every fall, from all over Japan, the eight million kami gather at Izumo Taisha to meet with Ōkuninushi and review the spiritual state of the nation and marriages, deaths, and births. (See "Festivals.")

Statue of Ōkuninushi with a rabbit whose life he saved

Mt. Miwa Shrine, Nara. Spring 2011

Mt. Miwa (1532 feet, 467 meters) is the shintai (sacred body) of the creation kami Ōmononushi. Nihon Shoki gives this account of Ōmononushi:

Ō-kuni-nushi no Kami is also called Ō-mono-nushi ... or else Ō-na-mochi no Mikoto. ... [Ō-mono-nushi no Kami] and Sukuna-bikona no mikoto, with united strength and one heart, constructed this sub-celestial world. Then, for the sake of the visible race of man as well as for beats, they determined the method of healing diseases. They also, in order to do away with the calamities of birds, beasts, and creeping things, established means for their prevention and control. ..."

Later his guardian spirit appears to him and when asked where he wishes to dwell, the spirit answers Mt. Mimoro (Miwa) in Yamoto, and so the spirit was enshrined there: This is the God of Ō-miwa.

According to the shrine website, Ō-mono-nushi "is the guardian deity of the human life, and in the age of the gods, cooperating with Sukuna-bikona no mikoto, cultivated the land and developed every industry such as agriculture, industry and commerce, and contrived to augment every social welfare such as curing disease, charming, saké-brewing, medicine manufacturing, and marriage." Thus saké brewers are said to worship at the shrine. A white snake, a body of the kami, is also said to live in on the grounds.

Mt. MiwaMt. Miwa

Mt. Miwa toriiMt. Miwa snake

For a fee of ¥300, you can hike up a steep trail to the mountain top, where a small shrine marks the rocky spot where Ōmononushi entered the mountain. Hikers are considered pilgrims and wear a white neck-sash adorned with a small bell.

Mt. Miwa shrine

No photos area alllowed in the hike, but later I found photos of the trail and the mountaintop shrine posted on the web. See Walks and Hikes for a trail map and photos of the trail.


Suwa Taisha, Suwa, Nagano. Summer 2010

The four shrines of Suwa Taisha is located around Lake Suwa, two to the south of the lake (Honmiya, or Main Shrine, dedicated to Takeminakata no kami; and Maemiya, or Front Shrine, dedicated to Yasakatome no kami) and two to the north (Haru-miya, or spring shrine, and Ak-imiya, or autumn shrine, both dedicated to the same two gods as Honmiya and Maemiya).

Takeminakata no kami is a son of Ōkuninushi; in what is sometimes called the first sumo match, he was defeated in a test of strength by Takemikazuchi (see Kashima Shrine below), after which Ōkuninushi relinquished the rule of the Eight Great Islands (Japan) to Ho-no-Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu.

Five thousand Suwa branch shrines have been established, mainly in Nagano and surrounding prefectures (Saitama, Niigata, Gunma, and Toyama).

TemizuyaSacred Mirror

Left: Temizuya at Akimiya, with hot spring water. Right: Sacred Mirror at Honmiya.

"Suwa shrines across Nagano Prefecture hold the 'Pillar-raising festival' known as the Onbashira Matsuri in years of the Monkey and of the Tiger (i.e. every six years), in which shrines ceremonially raise four pillars (some shrines only erect one). Suwa Taisha is the first to raise the pillars, after which other Suwa shrines raise theirs." (Encyclopedia of Shinto).

The poles are said to embody the enshrined kami (wind and water gods, battle gods) as well as to mark off sacred space.

Freshly cut pole


Iwakiyama Shrine, Aomori. Fall 2009 Fukutsu, Fukuoka, Japan. It is dedicated to Empress Jingū.

After nativists forced the separation of Buddhism and Shinto in the nineteenth century, the Buddhist halls at the temple-shrine complex at the southern foot of Mt. Iwaki were dismantled or converted to Shinto shrines, and the Buddhist images were tossed out. The site was renamed Iwakiyama Jinja and designated as the northern gate protecting the nation against invasion and ensuring peace. As with Izumo Taisha, this shrine is dedicated to Ōkuninushi.

Today an annual autumn pilgrimage from the shrine to the southern peak of Mt. Iwaki is held as part of Oyama-sankei (“Big mountain ritual”). Dressed in white robes, wrist coverings and leggings, men from the surrounding villages gather in groups at Iwaki-yama jinja and make the four-hour climb via the skyline road to a small shrine at the summit to thank the kami for a good harvest and other blessings


Shrines to Other Kami

Kamosu Shrine, Shimane. Summer 2009

South of Matsue, Shimane, in the town of Ōba, is Kamosu Shrine, dedicated to the female creation kami, Izanami, who with her brother, Izanagi, gave birth to the islands of Japan.


Kashima Shrine, Ibaraki. Fall 2009

Kashima Shrine is dedicated to Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto (“Brave-Awesome-Possessing-Male-Deity”), who is worshiped as a kami of martial virtues and arts. Born from the blood of the fire kami, Take-mika-dzu-chi-no-wo-no-kami (top right photo) pacified and unified Yamato, the first nation-state in Japan. A rock at the shrine (bottom right photo) is said to be the top of the stone stake this kami used to pin down the head of an earthquake-causing catfish who lives in an underground pond at the shrine.

Kashima jinjaTake-mika-dzu-chi-no-wo-no-kami TreesStake


Kamo Wakeikazuchi Shrine, Kyōto. Spring 2008

Surrounded by a sacred forest, Kamo Wake-ikazuchi Shrine is dedicated to Wake-ikazuchi, the god of thunder. A companion shrine, known as Shimogamo (lower Kamo), is located downstream and is dedicated to Wakeikazuchi's mother, Kamo Tamayori-hime. The two shrines are located at the "Demons' Gates" on the bank of the Kamo river in north-northeast Kyōto to ward off evil from those directions. (Northeast was the primary direction from which evil was believed to arrive.) In May, Kamo Wake-ikazuchi Shrine hosts the oldest of Kyōto's three major festivals, the annual Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival).

KamoEntrywayPathwayStones


Shrines to Deified Historical Figures

Dazaifu Tenmangū, Fukuoka, Kyūshū. Spring 2011

Dazaifu Tenmangū enshrines Michizane Sugawara (845-903), a high-ranking court official who was falsely accused of plotting against the throne and banished from Kyōto to Kyūshū. His miserable life away from his family is described in legends, along with his talent as a poet and his pure heart. After his death in exile, a series of disaster attributed to his angry spirit struck the capital, and a shrine was erected in Kyōto to placate his spirit. Two years after his death, Tenmangū Shrine was built in Kyūshū over his grave. Today there are 10,500 branch shrines in Japan.

While Sugawara’s spirit was originally worshiped for protection against natural disasters, he was a noted scholar and poet, so his spirit also became identified during the Edo period as Tenjin, a kami of scholarship. Students visit his shrines to pray for success in entrance examinations and job applications. The shrine is also known for its 6,000 ume (plum trees) belonging to 167 varieties. One tree, known as Tobiume, stands directly to the right of the honden. Legend has it that Sugawara yearned so much for this tree that it was uprooted in Kyōto and planted in Dazaifu.

Dazaifu Tenmangū toriiDazaifu Tenmangū unicornDazaifu Tenmangū shrineDazaifu Tenmangū ume

Kitano Tenmangū, Kyōto. Fall 2014


Toshogu Shrines, Nikko, Ibaraki (Spring 2004 and Fall 2009), and Kunozan, Shizuoka (Spring 2008)

After his death in 1616, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established a shogunate that ruled Japan in peace for 15 generations, from 1603-1858, was deified as Tosho (“Shrine of Eastern Shining Light”) and enshrined at Nikko, Toshogu.

Toshogu shrineLionCedar tree

Before his enshrinement at Nikko in 1617, his remains were enshrined at the less-well known Kunozan Toshogu, a smaller shrine in Shizuoka prefecture, near Ieyasu's home castle of Sumpu, in Shizuoka City.

Kunozan entrywayKunozan

A stone stairway with 1159 steps leads up to the shrine. (See "Walks.") A ropeway brings visitors down to the shrine from the top of the mountain.


Takeda Shrine, Kōfu, Yamanashi. Summer 2015

The shrine was built in 1919 in the location of the residence of Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), who ruled the province of Kai (Yamanashi Prefecture) during the Sengoku (Warring States) period.


Yasukuni Shrine, Tōkyō. Spring 2014

Founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869, Yasukuni Shrine is dedicated to over 2.4 million people (including non-Japanese) who died in the service of the Japanese Empire (1868-1947)—beginning with those who died in the fight to restore the emperor as the head of government during the Boshin War (1868-1869) and ending with those who died in World War II.


Mountain Shrines

Kumano Sanzan ("Three Sacred Mountains of Kumano"), Mie. Fall 2006

The three sacred mountains of Kumano are a pilgrimage destination on the Kii Peninsula, south of Kyōto, Nara, and Osaka. Three shrines are associated with the sacred mountain: Hongū, Shingū, and Nachi Taisha.

Kumano Sanzan was one of three main centers of shugendō ("way of discipline and training"), for monks practicing mountain ascetism. The syncretic religion, which developed in the 7th century based on the teaching of the mystic En-no-Gyoja (634-706) who incorporated beliefs of esoteric Buddhism (Tendai and Shingon sects), Shintō, Taoism, and folk animism into his practice. Its headquaters was at Kinsenpuji, in Yoshino, south of Nara, on the Kii Peninsula. (See Temples.) A pilgrimage route went from Yoshino south to Kumano Sanzan. The practice of shugendō was banned as supersition during the Meiji Era (1868–1912), but was revived after World War II, through association with the Tendai and Shingon sects.

Hongū Shrine. A long path leads up to Hongū Shrine, originally on a sandbank in a river and moved to its present location after it was destroyed by a flood:

Of the three Kumano shrines, Hongū is the most traditionally constructed, roofed with cedar bark and unpainted. It embodies the simplicity, purity and natural harmony of the original Shinto architecture before continental influences introduced images and bright red paint.

Shingū Shrine, on the bank of the Kumano River in Shingū City, dedicated to Hayatama-no-okami, the first kami to be born from male creation kami Izanagi’s spittle after Izanagi returned from his Underworld visit to his sister Izanami, the female creation kami. Hayatama-no-okami is identified with Yakushi, the Buddha of medicine and healing. The shrine is also dedicated to Izanagi.

Kamikura Shrine. On a cliff nearby, up a long stone stairway, Kamikura is associated with Shingū and enshrines a huge kami rock known as Gotobiki.

Nachi Taisha is dedicated to Fusumi no okami, an avatar of Kannon and also identified with the female creation kami Izanami.

On the road to the shrine is Nachi Falls, the tallest single stage waterfall in Japan. The kami of the waterfall, Hiro, is worshipped at a shrine next to it.


Dewa Sanzan ("Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa")

Dewa Sanzan includes shrines on the three sacred mountains of Hagurosan, Gassan, and Yudono in Yamagata, near Tsuroka city. We visited Hagurosan in the summer of 2005 and Yudono in the summer of 2010. The shrine for the third sacred mountain, Gassan, is at the top of the tallest of the three mountains. (See Mountains.)

Dewa Sanzan was the second of three main centers of shugendō ("way of discipline and training"), for monks practicing mountain ascetism.

Hagurosan Shrine, Yamagata. Summer 2005. In a misty summer rain, we walked through a cedar forest and up the 2446 steps to Hagurosan, one of the three sacred shrines of Dewa. (See "Walks.")

The shrine is dedicated to Tamayorihime, “Divine Bride,” also called Uganomitama (a kami of food, or the spirit of rice, identified with the rice-kami Inari). The kami is also identified with the Buddhist deity Kannon.

Worshippers of the syncretic sect Shugendō (combining beliefs of Shinto, Buddhism, and Taoism) gather at Hagurosan three times a year (summer, autumn and winter) to go through a symbolic death and rebirth through ten successive realms – the six realms of suffering and the four realms of enlightenment – to become bodhisattavas ready to return to the everyday world to assist others along the path toward enlightenment.

Hagurosan Shrine is the departure point for the pilgrimage to the Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains of Dewa, that also includes Gassan and Yudonosan.

Gassan Shrine. In late May, the road to Gassan was still closed to visitors. Here is a photo of the shrine atop Gassan in mid-summer.

Yudono Shrine, Yamagata. Summer 2010. Yudono shrine is the end of the pilgrimage to the Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains of Dewa, that begins at Hagurosan. The shrine is dedicated to the kami Oyamatsumi (“Great mountain possessor, who is considered an avatar of Dainichi, the cosmic Buddha.

The shrine is reached by an uphill walk into the ravine beyond the main torii near the parking lot.

The object of worship is a triad of conic, ochre-colored rocks that mirror the three sacred mountains, with the tallest rock, twelve-feet high, flanked by two lower rocks, just as Gassan is flanked by the Haguro-san and Yudono-san. Water from a hot spring flows down from the side of the ravine over the three rocks and into a stream rushing by. The water’s mineral content (perhaps limonite, or hydrated iron oxide) has coated the three rocks, giving them their ochre coloring. As Pilgrims walk over the rocks bare-footed, the warm water soothes their feet and cleanses them from the dust of the world.

It's one of the eeriest sites in Japan. Shugenja (mountain ascetics) are forbidden to speak about the rituals that take place here. Photos are prohibited at the shrine, but a search of the Japanese internet yielded the following image of the rocks, taken from above the shrine, on the trail up to Gassan:


Hikosan, Oita, Kyūshū. Spring 2006

Along with Kumano Sanzan in Kansai and Dewa Sanzan in Tōhoku, Hikosan, on Kyūshū, was considered the third main center of Shugendō (mountain ascetism) training.

From a copper torii, a stone pathway leads to steep strairs up to the shrine. From the shrine, the trail continues up to the top of Hikosan.

hikosanhikosan toriihikosan pathhikosan stairshikosan wash basinhikosan shrine


Mt. Takao, Tōkyō. Summer 2014

Technically a Buddhist temple, the Mt. Takao complex is described as the "Central Shugendō Training Center in Kanto." Shugendō developed as a syncretic religion with elements of Buddhism, Shintō, and Taoism combined.

The center worships Izuna Daigongen, who "combines the elements of five deities: Fudo Myo-o, Karuraten (Garuda, a divine bird), Dakiniten (a demon that feeds on human hearts), Kangiten (a fertility deity with the head of an elephant) and Benzaiten (the deity of water, music and victory in battle)."

Mt. Takao is also devoted to Tengu, a long-nosed demon that dwells on sacred mountains and serve as the messengers of the kami and buddhas, punishing evil and protecting the good.


Mitsumine Shrine, Saitama. Summer 2015

Said to be founded by Yamato Takeru, the son of an emperor in the second century AD, Mitsumine Shrine is dedicated to mountain wolves and also the creation kami Izanagi and Izanami. Mountain wolves, now extinct, are worshiped for protection against fire and theft.

The shrine is located above Futase Dam and Lake Chichibu, up a narrow, 5-mile long, winding mountain road. A hiking trail connect the shrine to Mt. Kumotori, the highest mountain (6617 ft.) in Tōkyō prefecture.


Fuji Sengen Shrines

Fuji Sengen Shrines are dedicated to the goddess of Mt. Fuji, known as Sengen or Asama, who is also identified with the princess of flowering trees, Konohana Sakuyahime no Mikoto, the wife of Amaterasu's grandson Ninigi.

Fujisan Hongū Sengen Taisha, Yamanashi. Summer 2010

The main shrine, Fujisan Hongū Sengen Taisha was constructed by Tokugawa Ieyasu in the 17th century as the headquarters of Mt. Fuji worship in Fujinomiya, on the mountain's southwest side. The shrine is dedicated to Sengen-Asama-Konohana Sakuyahime, as well as Ninigi and Konohana Sakuyahime father, the mountain god Oyamatsumi. The Kanda River flows from the Wakutama Pond at the shrine, fed by spring water from the snowmelt of Mt. Fuji.

Fuji Sengen shrineWakutama pond

Kitatguchi Fuji Hong Sengen Taisha, Yamanashi. Summer 2010

On the northeast side of Fuji in Fujiyoshida is Kitatguchi Fuji Hong Sengen Taisha, which is the northern entrance of the pilgrimage route to summit of Fuji. A fire ceremony to to placate the mountain goddess is held on August 26, based on a five-hundred-year-old ceremony. During the ceremony, the street leading up to the shrine is lined with towers of wood holding burning torches.

Fujiyoshida toriiMikoshi


Family Shrines

Hokori-no-Miya, Gōnomura, Hiroshima. Winter 1970 and Spring 2011

On a hilltop overlooking the Gō River, Hokori-no-Miya Shrine is in my mother's parents' home town of Gōnomura, now a part of Aki-Takata city, in Hiroshima prefecture. A cousin took us to the shrine near his mother's house over four decades ago, in 1970. After a couple of failed attempts to find the shrine (Fall 2006, Summer 2009), I located on Google Maps a photo that matched my faded Polaroid and went to visit the shrine on a rainy spring day in 2011:

Hokori-no-Miya toriiHokori-no-Miya Shrine shrineHokori-no-Miya carvinggo river

Hokori-no-Miya, Gōnomura. Spring 2011

Suwa Shrine, Tomo, Hiroshima. Winter 1970

After visitng my mother's parents' family shrine in Gōnomura in 1970, we visited my father's parents' family shrine in Tomo, just outside of Hiroshima City. The Kawaharada family were the caretakers of the shrine, which is a branch of the Suwa Taisha in Nagano. (See above.) In 2009 and 2011, driving around Tomo four decades later, I couldn't find the shrine. Later, however, on Google Maps and Street Views, I found an image of the shrine and its location.

tomo shrinetomo farm 1970

Suwa Shrine, 1970

Suwa Shrine, Tomo. c. 2014