Where Gods Alight: Sacred Sites in Western Japan
November 16-December 4, 2006
Updated: July 17, 2010
Every fall, from all over Japan, the eight million kami, or divine spirits of Shinto, gather at Izumo Taisha (Grand Shrine of Izumo), in western Honshu, where the storm god Susanoo arrived in mythological times. The gathering, to review the state of the nation, is set by the lunar calendar – 10.10, or ten days into the lunar cycle of the tenth moon after the first moon cycle following winter solstice.
Karen and I plan a three-week journey to arrive in Izumo to witness the kami gathering. To confirm the late November date, I call the branch of Izumo Taisha in Honolulu, where we go with her family on New Year’s Day for the annual blessing.
We also plan to visit another sacred site of Shinto: Mt. Takachiho, in southern Kyushu, where the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu descended from heaven to assume political control of Japan. The relationship between the storm god and his sister, the sun goddess, is at the center of Shinto nature worship.
Getting to the two sites by car will take us across four islands and four straits, via three bridges and a ferry. There’s a lot to do, see, and taste along the way.
Map by Honolulu Advertiser. Click on the Image for a Google Map.
Shikoku: Narrow Roads to Far Towns
After navigating the maze of stacked and dividing roadways in Osaka and Kobe, we emerge into darkness from the Maiko Tunnel and onto the Akashi Strait Bridge, a two-mile straightaway, dim-lit and dream-like, suspended from twin 924-foot towers, its vertical cables flitting by like celestial harp strings on both sides.
It’s the longest suspension bridge in the world, connecting Honshu to Awaji Island.
We spend a night at a newly-built onsen (hot spring) hotel in the Seto Naikai (Inland Sea) National Park, with a view of the bridge across the Naruto Bridge to Shikoku, Japan’s fourth largest island.
Attached to the bottom of the bridge is a walkway for viewing whirlpools that swirl in the narrow, rocky strait below as the tide flows in or out of the Inland Sea. Visitors also take sightseeing boats to see the whirlpools close up.
Shikoku is best known for its 900-mile, clockwise-around-the-island Buddhist pilgrimage, with 88 temple stops, to free the devout from 88 evil desiresa bridge to bliss. (Going counterclockwise, according to folklore, can raise the dead.)
Buddhism arrived in Japan after Shinto, in the sixth century. The two religions have coexisted peacefully for most of their history, performing different, but complementary functions. Shinto offers protection, good fortune, health, and productivity for the land, sea, and people while Buddhism promises deliverance from suffering and death.
Temples and shrines are often located next to each other, and Bodhisattvas were worshipped as kami until a separation of the two religions was decreed during the Meiji period.
Ryozenji, the first temple of the pilgrimage, is in Naruto. At its shop, we buy an omamori (protective amulet) for traffic safety and head west toward Kyushu, following the Yoshino River through the mountain gorges of Koboke and Oboke.
In recent literature and film, Shikoku is portrayed as the antithesis of urban Tokyo and Osaka, a place where wilderness and traditions linger. The heart of its wildness is its sparsely-inhabited central mountains, where spirits dwell and roads cling precariously to steep slopes and wind through narrow river valleys.
In the seaport of Kochi on the southern coast of Shikoku, we stop overnight and taste its katsuo and utsubo tataki (lightly roasted bonito and moray eel), served with ponzu sauce, onions, and garlic, topped off with jizake (local sake). Before leaving the next morning, we visit Katsura Beach.
We continue west along Tosa Bay past picturesque coves and a long sandy surfing beach.
Past the town of Ashizuri-misaki is the cape, Shikoku's remote southwestern point, with a lighhouse on its headland.
Near the lighthouse is Kongofuku-ji, pilgrimage temple 38. Along the road, we pass pilgrims in black outfits and straw hats, mostly alone, sometimes in pairs. Large groups also do the pilgrimage by bus.
A cold front is sweeping through southern Japan with rain and gusty winds. Still, when we walk to the temple from the onsen hotel, a busload of pilgrims is chanting in the gloomy, wet courtyard, where a large stone sea turtle greets visitors. Rubbing its head is said to bring good luck.
Across the street from Kongofuku-ji is a statue of local hero Nakahama Manjiro, aka John Mung.
In 1841, when Nakahama was 14, he was marooned on an island off Japan and picked up by a US whaling ship, which took him to Honolulu, then New Bedford. He studied English, math, and navigation, traveled the world, and returned to Japan in 1851, where he became a teacher and an interpreter for the Tokyo government quite an adventure for a boy from a poor rural village.
The next day, after stopping at the wave-eroded rocks of Tatsukushi (Dragon’s Skewers), we head north to Matsuyama where we plan to catch a ferry to Kyushu.
Route 441, sometimes just a one-lane road, snakes along the Shimanto River, the last undammed major river in Japan, offering mountain scenery and sites for camping, fishing, and kayaking. A bridge across it lacks railings so that the floodwater will flow through and over it without sweeping it away
We stop in the fishing town of Uwajima for lunch. Its specialty is tai, or sea bream, served as sashimi over hot rice, with a raw egg. The symbol of town is a bull, since the town features bull fights (two bulls butting heads until one gives up). The road to Matsuyama goes along the mountainous east coast of Shikoku.
Matsuyama is Shikoku’s largest city. It promotes itself as the setting of the beloved nineteenth century novel Botchan, even though the author, Natsume Soseki, from Tokyo, portrays the town as Hicksville: “What a barbaric place!” the hero exclaims upon arrival and in the end leaves, vowing never to return. Today visitors come to see Dogo onsen, featured in the novel, and a mechanical clock tower from which, on the hour, diminutive Botchan characters appear. Visitors enjoy a hotspring footbath while they wait for the characters to appear.
Other attractions include the city’s striking hilltop castle and Ishite-ji, pilgrimage temple 51.
When we arrive at Ishite-ji, the courtyard is crowded and hazy with incense smoke pouring out of a large censer. A ceremony is taking place, culminating in the torching of a large boat made of paper, straw, and branches, the flames and smoke lifting prayers skyward and connecting the living to the spirits of the dead.
East of the city is Mt. Ishizuchi ("Stone Hammer"), at 6,502 feet, is the tallest peak in western Japan and one of Japan's Seven Holy Mountains, where kami alight to restore vitality to the land. It is said to protect the city of Saijo to its northeast from typhoons.
A winding road leads to a ropeway. Mist drifts up the mountain ridges above a rushing stream.
The ropeway goes halfway up the mountain, noted for its red and orange foliage in autumn. A 20-minute walk from the top station take you to Ishizuchi-Jojusha Shrine and a longer, steeper climb ends at a small shrine near the summit; but it’s cold and late, with darkness falling early, so we skip the walk and catch the second-to-the-last car down.
Dedicated to gongen (deities with both Shinto and Buddhist forms), Mt. Ishizuchi is a pilgrimage site during the summer climbing season. The five-hour climb up and back is arduous. Near the summit, a series of chains aids the hiker in getting up the steep slope. Called Kusari Zenjo, this is the most important ritual site, symbolic of the difficult climb to enlightenment, represented by Ishizuchi’s highest peak, Tengudake, which is home to a long-nosed mountain goblin (tengu) called Hokibo. The deities of the mountain are depicted in statuary at the base ropeway station.
Kyushu: Hot Mountains, Hot Springs and Mud
Early he next morning, with a group of students going on an interisland excursion, we catch the ferry from Matsuyama to Oita, Kyushu, a three-hour ride.
The divine energy of the third largest island of the 6000 in the country is expressed in its active volcanoes and numerous hot springs.
The road from Oita climbs into the hills to the west, then descends to the Yamanami Highway, which goes south through Kuju-Aso National Park, past the smoldering Mt. Kuju and across rolling hills and gullies covered with pampas grass and groves of evergreens and leafless deciduous trees, to Daikanbo (“Big-view peak”), a lookout with a panoramic view into the caldera of Mt. Aso.
Aso is the world’s largest active caldera, 12-15 miles across, with rice fields, towns inside, and a cluster of five volcanic cones inside: to the west, Kijimadake (“Pestle-island peak,” 4,334 ft.) and Eboshidake (“Hat-peak,” 4,387 ft.); to the east, jagged Nekodake (“Root-child peak,” 4,620 ft.); and in the middle, Takadake, the highest (“High-peak,” at 5,223 ft.) and Nakadake (“Middle peak,” 4,341 ft.) Nakadake is the only cone still active, last erupting in 1993.
After a night at a hot spring resort in Aso town, we planned to take the ropeway to the rim of Nakadake’s crater to see the lake inside, but the toxic gas level was so high, with the air reeking of sulphur, the ropeway was shut down.
Mt. Aso is the setting of Nastume Soseki’s 210th Day (1906), which consists mainly of a dialogue between two men climbing the mountain in a storm, with its volcano rumbling and ready to erupt. The 210th day of the lunar calendar, the end of the seventh moon, in August, is associated with typhoons. As the two men are discussing class inequities in Japanese society, the storm and impending eruption seem to portend some cataclysmic change in Japanese society. One of the two friends, Kei, the son of a tofu manufacturer, preaches social equality, a concern of many who witnessed the growing gap between rich and poor in industrialized Japan: “If we live in this world our foremost aim should be to defeat the monsters of civilization and give some little comfort to the lower classes without money or power; do you not think so?”
Just south of Aso is Takachiho town, where the most famous event of Shinto mythology is said to have taken place: after a contest in which Amaterasu refused to admit defeat, her storm god brother destroyed her rice fields and desecrated her weaving house; the goddess went into a cave and refused to come out. The other kami got her to reappear by throwing a boisterous party featuring a comic, lewd dance. For his outrageious behavior, the storm god was banished from heaven.
These events took place in the high heavenly plain, not on earth, but a little mythology never hurt the tourist trade. The dance to bring the sun goddess out is reenacted nightly at Takachiho shrine. The cave into which she retreated is said to be located across the stream from the main building at Ama-no-Iwato Shrine on Iwato Stream. A short walk along the Iwato stream from the shrine is Ama no Yasukawara, the cave where the kami met to decide how to entice Amaterasu out. Inside is a small shrine, and around the cave entrance, worshippers have erected numerous stacks of small rocks.
(Some travel sites say that Ama no Yasukawara is the cave where Amaterasu hid.)
Takachiho town is also noted for its picturesque gorge, where we rent a boat and rowed a short ways between cliffs and waterfalls.
A hundred and forty miles south of Takachiho town is Mount Takachiho, in Kirishima National Park. Ninigi, the sun goddess’ grandson, alighted here to pacify and rule the islands. Ninigi’s great-grandson, Jimmu, was Japan’s first emperor, from whom the current emperor traces his ancestry.
On the way to Kirishima is Saitobaru, an archaeological site dating from 300-500 A.D. Its 311 ancient burial mounds (kofun) represent the highest concentration in Japan. The Yamato culture (the foundation of Japanese culture, with roots in the Korean Peninsula and China) developed on Kyushu before Jimmu trekked north to Honshu and, led by a magical three-legged crow, arrived in the area where the imperial capitals of Nara and Kyoto and the holy shrine for Amaterasu at Ise were eventually established.
The shrine that houses the spirit of Jimmu is in Miyazaki, a port city just south of Saitobaru, on the east coast of Kyushu.
South of Miyazaki, in a cave above the sea, is Udo shrine, dedicated to Jimmu’s father, who was born in the cave to a sea goddess with a dragon form; rocks on the ceiling are said to be her breasts, left behind to feed the infant after she returned to the sea.
The morning of our visit, another cold front is passing over southern Japan. We wait in the car for the rain and wind to let up, but they don’t, so we walk to the shrine with rain jackets and umbrellas. As we descend the pathway toward the cave, waves are surging against the sea-sculpted rocks.
To our surprise, the shrine in the cave is decorated with offerings of rice, sake, and fruit, and a group of mostly men in suits are sitting on chairs on one side of the cave. Soon priests appear in full regalia to offer thanks to the kami for a bountiful harvest and healthy food, with chanting, music, and children performing stately dances, sheltered by the cave as the storm god, who also rules the sea, rages outside. Like us, the kami will soon be heading north for Izumo.
On the way back to Miyazaki, we spot a lobster sign and stop to taste the city’s specialty, Ise lobster, along with escargot-like sea snails, in a tatami-matted room overlooking the sea. Across the street is another shrine, where dancing and drumming are going on under rain-tarps.
The next day, we drive up to the Ebino Plateau and Kirishima (Misty Islands) National Park. In a sea of clouds, we hike up to Ohnami pond, in an extinct crater, and wait for the clouds to lift. After half an hour, a circular pond appears under the mist, mirroring the bare trees inside the crater rim, with ripples of light winds moving across the surface, like the breaths of spirits. The lake is said to be inhabited by a water-dragon who became the beautiful daughter of a village headman who prayed for a child. She leapt back into the lake on her eighteenth birthday.
On the way down to Kirishima Shrine, we stop at Maruo falls to take photos of the fall leaves.
Mount Takachiho, capped by wispy clouds, is at the southern end of a chain of six volcanic peaks. Located near its summit and pointing upward from a pile of stones is a three-pronged weapon called Ama-no-Sakahoko, which commemorates the place where Ninigi descended to earth.
Below the mountain sits Kirishima shrine, where Ninigi’s spirit is housed, its bright vermilion paint matching the autumn foliage.
When we return two days later for a clearer view of Takachiho, the mountain is completely hidden by clouds and rain, as a third cold front sweeps over southern Japan. We wait for an hour, and after a loud roll of thunder, the rain abates, and the front of the lower crater rim appears above the torii (gateway to a sacred place).
From Kirishima, you can see Kagoshima city in the distance, on the plain below, and on the opposite side of Kinko Bay, the active volcano, Sakurajima (“Cherry blossom island” at 3,665 feet; 1,117 meters). In 1914 it erupted violently and the lava flow was so heavy, it joined the former volcanic island to the mainland on the east side of the bay. The last major eruption took place in 1994.
What Scotland is to whisky, Kagoshima is to shochu brewed from sweet potato. Kurobuta (black pig), Kagoshima beef, and seafood (crab, whole-fish tempura, flounder) are specialties. We sample the excellent cuisine and shochu at restaurants in Tenmonkan (a shopping street) and Kishaba (the university district). The restaurant in Kishaba offers a wasabi root and grater so we can produce fresh paste for our sashimi.
Doors to the Outside World
From Kagoshima, we turn north for Honshu and Izumo, via Kumamoto, Shimabara, Nagasaki, and Fukuoka. After a short stop in Kumamoto to see its castle, we catch a half-hour ferry from Kumamoto to the Shimabara peninsula and Unzen-Amakusa National Park.
Mt. Unzen (4,921 feet) rises above the onsen resort town of Shimabara.
In 1792, one of Mt. Unzen's volcanic domes collapsed and slid into the sea, causing a tsunami that killed 15,000 people. In 1991, a sudden outburst of lava pouring down the mountain killed forty-three people.
The Shimabara peninsula and the Amakusa islands to the south were the sites of a rebellion against the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1637-38. Due to high taxes and famine conditions, discontent had grown in the region among peasants and masterless samurai (who had lost their social status and jobs when the shogunate replaced the former lords of Shimabara and Amakusa with lords allied to it). Many of the rebels were converts to Christianity, which was introduced in Kagoshima by St. Francis Xavier in 1569. Considered a threat to the established social order, the religion had been banned in 1614 and converts were persecuted, some boiled alive in volcanic mud. These ban and persecution increased discontent in the region.
The rebels made their final stand against the shogunate forces at the site of the former Hara Castle at the south end of the Shimbara peninsula. After a long siege that lasted from autumn through spring, and with the aid of the Dutch, who provided cannons and gunpowder, the shogunate forces overran the fortified castle site. An estimated 37,000 rebels were beheaded. The towns in the area were so depopulated that immigrants from other parts of Japan were brought in to resettle them.
Christianity was introduced in Kagoshima by St. Francis Xavier in 1569 and banned in 1614. The religion was apparently too alien to be accepted into the Shinto-Buddhism complex, but its historical presence here reminds us that Kyushu once served as Japan’s door to the outside worldto ideas, innovations, and technology from Korea and China and later, the West. Although Christianity wasn’t embraced, Western technology was. Kagoshima boasts the first factory, telegraph, and gas lighting in Japan.
After a night in Shimbara, we drive over Mt. Unzen and around Tachibana Bay to Nagasaki.
During the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) Nagasaki was the only Japanese port open to foreigners, and only Dutch and Chinese ships were allowed to trade. The city features an old Dutch district called Dejima and a Chinatown.
Megane-bashi, “Eyeglasses bridge,” was built by a Chinese Buddhist monk in 1634. (The bridge’s two stone arches, reflected in a canal, resemble a pair of round eyeglasses.)
Nagasaki was the target of the second atomic bomb in World War II. It's Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park are dedicated a world without nuclear weapons or wars.
At the northern end of Kyushu, in Fukuoka, we stay at a seaside onsen hotel on Shikanoshima island, where a 2,000-year old gold embossed emblem given by the emperor of China to the “King of Japan, tributary of China” was unearthed in the nineteenth century. The seal is on display at the stylish city museum, along with artifacts left behind by the movement and interaction of peoples from Japan, Asia and beyond, from prehistoric times to the present.
Thirteen days into our journey, we cross the 712-meter-long bridge over the Kanmon strait and arrive back on Honshu.
At Shimonoseki, below the bridge, the line for the town’s specialty, sashimi of fugu (poisonous puffer fish), is too long, so we settle for a tasty meal of deep-fried fugu. According to one aficionado, tourism has degraded Shimonoseki into a market for the lowest quality fugu imported from China or farmed and served mainly to tourist. If you want the best fugu sashimi, he writes, you have to go to Tokyo (and pay more).
East of Shimonoseki, we stop in Yamaguchi and Hiroshima, from where Karen’s and my grandparents immigrated to Hawai’i in the early twentieth century. Back then, these prefectures were mainly rural farmlands and poor, so emigrant laborers were recruited from them.
Karen’s mother’s cousin’s daughter and her husband take us on a whirlwind afternoon tour of Yamaguchi, including Ruriko-ji Pagoda, built in 1404, and a garden designed by the fiftenth century sumi-e painter Sesshu. The next morning they drive with us as far as Iwakuni to the 200-meter-long Kintai Bridgefive graceful arches spanning the Nishiki River. The bridge was built from wood, without nails, in 1673, and most recently rebuilt, with steel reinforcements, in 1953 after it was destroyed by a typhoon.
On the way Hiroshima, we stop at the island of Miyajima, with its iconic offshore torii and Itsukushima shrine, founded in 593 A.D. and dedicated to a kami who protects against sea disasters and wars.
The ropeway to Shishiiwa peak is closed due to windy conditions, so we hike up the steep slope for a panoramic view of Hiroshima, Shikoku, and the Inland Sea. After the long hike to the top, the ropeway starts operating again, so we catch a ride down.
In Hiroshima, we visit the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park. Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) have recovered remarkably well since 1945, when America pioneered the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against civilians to terrorize an enemy into surrender.
Aioi bridge, the target of the first Atomic Bomb, has been restored; next to it, the gutted ruins of the Industrial Promotion Hall, known as the A-Bomb Dome, has been left as a reminder of the tragedy of imperialistic wars.
Kami-ari: The Gathering of the Gods
A hundred miles north of Hiroshima is Matsue, famous for its sunsets over Lake Shinji and its 400-year old Plover Castle. Twenty miles west is Izumo, whose Taisha is the oldest shrine built in the traditional grand-style and Shinto’s second most important after Amaterasu’s shrine at Ise.
Banished from heaven, the storm god Susanoo descended to Silla, a kingdom in southern Korea, then traveled east across the sea of Japan (the direction of storm clouds) to Izumo. Here he slew an eight-headed dragon that was devouring the daughters of an old couple and married the daughter he saved.
His grandson Okuninushi (Master of the Country), a god of healing, agriculture, and marriage, made peace with the sun goddess, by allowing her grandson Ninigi to assume secular power over the nation, in exchange for control of religious affairs. Pleased, Amaterasu built the shrine at Izumo for Okuninushi.
As we drive to Izumo to witness the gathering of the kami, the sun is setting over Lake Shinji, Amaterasu’s splendid rays giving way to the storm-cloud forms and wintry darkness of Susanoo.
At Inasa Beach, a few hundred of the faithful gather, soon to be vastly outnumbered by the visiting kami, who like the storm god, arrive from the sea. Beneath the tenth-day moon, four fires are lit behind four cones of sand. A drum and flute play. The priests march through the crowd to the fires, clap their hands four times, and chant.
A gust of cold wind blows down from Yakumo Hill to welcome the invisible guests. The crowd holds up wands with folded paper to attract the mana of the kami and take it home with them.
The priests clap four more times to finish, then accompany the kami in procession back to the shrine, holding leafy branches of the evergreen sakaki tree, on which the kami have alighted. The branches are screened off by black cloth from the crowd, which follows the procession back to the Taisha. For the next week ceremonies are held at the shrine while the kami meet.
A massive shimenawa (rice-straw rope) marks off sacred space and wards off evil spirits at Kaguraden, Izumo Taisha. Visitors, especially couples, throw coins at the ends of the rope facing the ground because embedding a coin in the straw is believed to bring good fortune and happiness. Couples clap four times (instead of the standard two times) when calling on the deity at Izumo Taisha--twice of oneself and twice for one's partner.
Mountains Shadows Along the Coast
The route we take back to the airport goes east from Matsue, through Daisen-Oki National Park. Snow-capped in a pale yellow mist, Mt. Daisen, another of Japan’s Seven Holy Mountains, rises high over the coastal plain.
East of Mt. Daisen are the sand dunes at Tottori, where the film version of Kobo Abe’s novel Woman in the Dunes was shot.
The most spectacular scenery of the coast is in San-in Kaigan National Park, with its isolated beaches and fishing villages; sea cliffs and small islands, their dark gray rocks awash with waves; and shadowy valleys, orange, russet, and rust with autumn.
The weather changes quickly in the brisk winds, patches of sunlight giving way to periods of rain. Suddenly, in the late afternoon, a hail storm breaks out, ice particles pelting the car and road.
We spend a night at an onsen in Takeno, a fishing town known for its black sand beach and abalone and crab. November is crab season, and the onsen serves crab raw, deep-fried tempura-style, roasted, and boiled, finishing with a risotto-like dish made from the crab broth.
With one night to go, we head south to Himeji. Hilltops are frosted pale black after last night’s storm. In Toyooka we visit a park dedicated to reviving the Kono-tori (Oriental black Stork), which went extinct in Japan 1971 due to pesticides in its food supply of frogs and fish, the loss of wetland and river habitats, and the felling of large pines, where it nests. Storks gifted by Russia in 1985 have been successfully bred. The plan is to recreate and restore the stork’s former habitat and release birds into the wilds to symbolize the return of harmony between the community and nature.
South of Toyooka, at Asago, is the Takeda Castle Ruins. Here on a mountain overlooking a river valley, the castle was built in 1585 and abandoned in 1600 after the defeat and suicide of its lord. There are few visitors and no amenities except for a parking lot and a bathroom at the top of a winding access road. Only the stone foundations remainlike the A-Bomb Dome, a reminder of a tragic period of history.
In Himeji, famous for its 300-year-old black Egret Castle, we are back in the crowded, urbanized coastal region of the eastern Inland Sea. It’s a good place to shop for omiyage (travel gifts) for home.
On the highway back to the airport the next morning, we stop at the Akashi Strait Bridge. In this nation of kami, this modern engineering wonder, which withstood the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, is a descendant of the sacred mountain and the oldest shrine, as well as the Megane Bridge, the Kintai Bridge, and all that was marvelous, magnificent, beautiful, and delicious along the way.