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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 (Far Roads Press, 2015).

Legends of the Land:

More Travels in Northern and Central Japan /May 19 -June 2, 2010

(Last Revised: February 6, 2011)

On our last journey to Japan in Fall 2009, we entered the front gate of Kashima Shrine then turned around and left to make it to Narita Airport for our flight home.

The shrine is considered one of the most important in Eastern Japan, dedicated Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, a patron deity of martial arts, who helped unify the country for the rulers of Yamato. Legend also has it that he used a stone spike to pin down an earthquake-causing catfish who lives in an underground pond on the grounds of the shrine.


So after landing at Narita in summer 2010, we headed back to the shrine to see the stone.

Kashima stone

After a night in Mito, we headed north to spend more time at another legendary place we had visited only briefly on the last trip: Lake Tazawa, home of Princess Tatsuko. And to visit a place we missed as we ran out of daylight (the sunset at 4:37 pm in early November): Shinzan Shrine on the Oga Peninsula, where each New Year's Eve a festival features Namahage demons.


Click on the Image for a Google Map.

On the way to Lake Tazawa were several other beautiful lakes. In Mito was Lake Senba, a popular walking spot for locals. The sun is up before 5 am in May, and walkers were out by six:

WalkwayLake Senba

After a walk around the lake, we drove via Expressways to and over the Bandai Mountains, around Mt. Adatara, on routes 459, 115, and 70 to the lake country of Mt. Bandai. In summer 2005, we walked the trail to Goshikinuma (“Five-colored marshes”) and wanted to go back to spend a night at nearby Lake Hibara. The lakes, ponds, and marshes in the area were created by the eruption of Mt. Bandai in 1888.

Yoroku marshHibara walkTreesFishing

Our next stop was Yamagata, near Mt. Zao and Lake Okama. We crossed Funasaka Pass between Lake Hibara and Yonezawa on Route 2, with views of Lake Hibara behind us and, on the other side of the pass, the mountains along the borders of Fukushima, Yamagata and Niigata prefectures.

Winding roadBlue mountains

Lake Okama was at Katta Pass, at the top of the winding Echo Line road:

Echo lineLake Okama

After a night in Yamagata, we drove north to Lake Tazawa, the deepest lake in Japan. Despite the frigid winters of the northland, its waters never freeze over.


The lake is known for the legend of Princess Tatsuko who lives in the lake. Her story is this: she prayed to Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, for eternal life. The goddess directed her to a spring and told her to drink its water. The princess did so and turned into the dragon who lives immortally in the lake.

A golden statue of the princess on the southwest side of the lake, across from Mt. Komagadake, is well-known; another statue, at Gozanoishi Shrine, on the opposite side of the lake, presents a less glamorous image of the princess:

Golden statueSeated princess

The next day a storm front swept in from the west, and it was raining heavily as we drove to the Oga peninsula. The view from Mt. Kanpu (360-degree panorama of the Sea of Japan and Hachiro-gata Lagoon) was obscured by the low clouds and rain.

Mt. Kanpu

Down from the mountain, we used our umbrellas to get from our car to the Namahage Museum.

Namahage are demons said to visit homes on New Year's Eve, looking for naughty or lazy children or mothers who haven't disciplined them and threatening to take them back to the mountains with them.

Today fifteen villagers dressed in masks and straw outfits and carrying knives and torches reenact the Namahage visits (both on December 31 and on the eve of the traditional lunar New Year in February).

The family reassures the Namahage that everyone in the household has worked and studied hard during the past year and offer the visitors food and sake, in exchange for "purification to prevent disaster, ... bumper crops, good catches of fish and auspicious events through an invocation [the Namahage] chant as they march: Namakemono wa ine ga. Nakuko wa ine ga (meaning No lazy people. No crying children)" (Namahage Museum website).

The museum displays the outfits and masks on life-size forms.

NamahageNamahage with sickle

Its theater shows a film of the New Year's Eve events. As the Namahage march down the mountain with knives and torches and enter the houses chanting and reaching out to grab children, the children are terrified. No doubt, at least on that night, they vow to be obedient for the coming year.

Some say the Namahage are traditional "messengers of the gods enshrined at the two mountains of Mayama and Honzan, who come once a year as spirits who visit each house and warn against doing wicked deeds."

Oga’s Namahage are associated with a legend of demons from China:

Legend has it that the Han emperor brought five demonic ogres with him to Japan a little more than two millennia ago. These oni stole crops and young women from Oga's villages. The villagers decided to trick these ogres, promising to give up all their young women if the demons could build a stone staircase of one thousand stairs in a single night. If the oni failed to reach the local temple to which the stairs were to be built, they would have to leave Oga never to return again. The ogres accepted, and had reached 999 stairs when a quick-witted villager imitated a cock crowing for the arrival of down. The surprised and dismayed oni fled, never to be seen again.

Near the museum is Shinzan Shrine, where the Namahage festival originates. A sacred tree is located in its precincts.

Shinzan shrineSacred tree

The February Namahage visit is combined with the annual Sedo Festival, when "a big rice cake is toasted on the Sedo fire in the precinct and dedicated to the god of Mt. Shinzan in the hope of rich harvest and safe navigation." A "boiling water dance" (yu no Mai) accompanied by a ceremony of pouring the boiling water is carried out to calm the rough sea," which surrounds the peninsula on three side, and threaten the lives of the fishermen of the areas.

From the museum we drove out to Cape Nyudo in the driving rain, and had lunch at the deserted tourist stop.

Cape NyudoTourist shop

Rain swept down the mountainsides in gusts and the sea was white-capped as we drove down the rugged Nishi Kaigan (West Coast).

LookoutRain storm

The sights along the coast are best viewed from an excursion boat from Oga Aquarium. At one parking area a sign marked a trail down to see a bell rock, but it was raining too hard to make the hike appealing.

After a night in Akita City, we left for Tsuruoka City. On the way south, we drove up the road to Mt. Chokai, which was closed for snow the last time we passed by (Nov. 2009).

Road to Mt. ChokaiSnowNear the top

Near the top, the road crosses from Akita prefecture to Yamagata.

Tsuruoka was holding its Tenmangu Shrine Festival. Billed as "one of the Three Biggest Festivals in the Shonai region," it's a modest small-town festival, with a parade from the shrine to the city center, where food and game booths and an Obake (ghost) house were set up.

FestivalObake house

The festival is dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane. The origins of the parade, which , which featured locals with their faces hidden by large straw hats and hand towels, serving sake. The costume and sake originated in the events of Sugawara’s life.

A political figure who lived from 845-903, Sugawara was falsely accused of plotting against the throne and banished from Kyoto to Kyushu. According to legend, his followers offered each other sake to commiserate over their lord’s exile, but had to disguise themselves, so the authorities wouldn’t recognize them.

After Michizane’s death in exile, a series of disaster attributed to his angry spirit struck the capital, and a shrine was erected in Kyoto to placate his spirit. The Tenmangü Shrine was built in Kyushu over his grave two years after his death, and branch shrines spread to other parts of the country. His spirit was worshiped for protection against natural disasters. As he was a noted scholar and poet, his spirit was also identified during the Edo period as Tenjin, kami of scholarship, so he was prayed to for success in school.

The festival in Tsuruoka is also called “Obakemono” or “Ghost” festival, perhaps a vestige of the origins of worship of Michizane as an angry spirit which had to be placated to prevent disasters.

The parade is led by a entourage reenacting Michizane’s procession into exile from Kyoto to Kyushu, flanked by two men in masks of the Tengu (“Heavenly Dog”), a mythical patron of martial arts, who is said to be a warrior and trickster, who targets misbehaving Buddhist priests and those who misuse their knowledge or authority to advance themselves, as did those who slandered Michizane.

Tusruoka Tengu

The Michizane procession was followed by folk dance groups, then locals in straw hats and towels covering their faces and children carrying mikoshi, or portable shrines.

Folk dancingProcession

It's said that if you pray at Tenman-gu in this costume (or pour sake without being recognized) for three years, a wish you make will come true.

While the festival might once been an event of sake-fueled, drunken revelry, when we were there for the afternoon parade, it was a family affair, without much sake-pouring going on except at a stand in front of the Tsuruoka local products store.

Stranger than the Tenmangu Festival was Yudono Shrine, in the mountains to the southeast of Tsuruoka. We had visited Tsuruoka twice before (Summer 2005 and Fall 2009) but had never got to Yudono. When we tried to drive there in November 2009, we discovered the toll road and shrine were closed from November to April.

One of three sacred mountains of Dewa that includes Hagurosan and Gassan, Yudono is considered the holiest of the three. It is the end of the pilgrimage route that begins at Hagurosan, ascends Gassan, and descends to Yudono, a spur of Gassan:

During the ritual period known as natsu no mine (Summer Peak) when shugenja traveled between the various sacred sites in the three mountains, they prayed for peace and tranquility in the present at Haguro, attained assurance of buddhahood in the future at Gassan, and reached the Mitsugon Pure Land, the paradise of Dainichi, at Yudono, traversing the barriers of the everyday and the sacred realms, experiencing the unity of the everyday and the sacred, and achieving the enlightenment of buddhahood in this very body. (Encyclopedia of Shinto, “Dewasanzan Shinto”)

Photos are prohibited inside the shrine, but here is what the shrine complex looks like from the parking lot:

Shrine complex

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:


Ochre stones at Yudono / Gassan ("Moon Mountain") at dusk.

After a rainy night at a ryokan near Yudono, we headed for the town of Tsugawa, Niigata, noted for its sake breweries and the legend of kitsune-bi ("fox-fire") on Mt. Kirin.

The town is located where the Agano and Tokonami Rivers meet. Because the water temperature of the Agano is lower than that of the Tokonami, mist forms, and on misty nights, fox-fire, lines of glowing lights, were often seen on Mt. Kirin, which overlooks the river:

Mt. Kirin

The locals came to believe that the lights were lines of paper lanterns used for a wedding procession of foxes and that in a year when a lot of lights were seen, the rice harvest would be good. They began the tradition of enacting kitsune no yomeiri ("fox-bride procession") at the traditional beginning of summer in early May.

The townspeople paint fox features on their noses and mouths, with whiskers, and hold a fox wedding parade. A couple who intends to marry play the groom and the bride.

Fox wedding

Photo from (2006/12/13)

Both the wedding parade and the wish for a good rice crop suggest that the tradition was rooted in an old agricultural fertility rite.

The town is filled with reminders of the fox wedding: one set of statues across from Mt. Kirin depicits the fox-bride with other forest animals joining the procession.


You can also buy a saké called "Bride of the Fox" from the Kirin brewery.

Kirin showroom

Heading back to Niigata for the night, we stopped at Mikawa, the next town downsteam to see Shogun Sugi, said to be the oldest cedar tree on Honshu, 1400 years old. The top of its trunk was lopped off, with side branches growing out from its ancient base:

Shogun Sugi

It continued to rain as we headed down the coast for Tateyama the next day. We got off the Expressway for a picnic at Takada Park in Joetsu, with some leftovers from dinner at an izakaya the night before. I had seen some photos of the park during springtime, with its cherry trees in full bloom. It was still raining.

Takada parkTakada pond

We continued south along route 8 to see the coast between Itoigawa and Ichiburi, known for its steep cliffs and rough seas.


Near Oyashirazu were an odd shaped rock and sea-turtle statue:

Coastal rocksSea turtle statue

We spent the night below Tateyama, one of the three holy mountains of Japan, along with Fujisan and Hakusan. The plan was to see all three mountains on this trip. However, we discovered the road to Tateyama was open only to buses. The Tateyama Ohashi (Big Bridge) over the Joganji River offered a spectacular view of the valley:


We left for Hakusan the next day. On the way we stopped at Tada Shrine in Komatsu, at Natadera, and at Yamanaka Onsen. All three sites are uta-makura, famous places, mentioned in Basho's travel narrative "The Narrow Road to the Deep North."

Tada Shrine is a couple of blocks from Komatsu Station.

    Tada shrineWalkway

It was still early, no one was around and the buildings were closed. I'm not sure if the helmet Basho wrote about was still on display at the shrine:

pitiful / under Sanemori’s helmet / a cricket

Saito no Betto Sanemori (1111-1183) first served under Minamoto no Yoshitomo, head of the Genji, who gave him the helmet, but later switched sides, joining the Heike against the Genji in the Gempei War. A native of Echizen, Sanemori rode into battle when he was seventy-three, intent on dying a warrior’s death in his homeland. He dyed his white hair black so he wouldn’t suffer the humiliation of being dismissed as an over-the-hill warrior by a younger opponent. After he was slain and beheaded, one of Minamoto’s warriors recognized the head and cried out “Ana muzan ya” (“How pitiful!”), and the narrator comments, “How pitiful that his empty name alone should have survived, impervious to corporeal decay, while his mortal remains have become one with the northern soil!” (The Tale of the Heike).

We had gone to Natadera in the winter of 2008. However, in our rush, we neglected to enter the hall to see the famous Kannon Statue; so we went back to see it, then strolled around the valley again and revisited the caves.

NataderaCavesCave entranceAltarMonkBaisho's haiku

Basho's haiku on Natadera is inscribed on one of the stones (bottom right above):

whiter than stones of Ishiyama, autumn wind

The wind – both its sound and its coldness – evokes, through synesthesia, a color, white, which in Asian tradition is associated with death. In another haiku, the poet used synesthesia with the color white to express loneliness:

sea darkens / wild duck’s voice / faintly white

Basho's haiku on Yamanaka Hot Spring mentions the smell of the hot spring water:

Yamanaka: chrysanthemums unpicked; redolent water

I was curious what the redolent water smelled like: I suspected it was sulphuric, as the water is said to have sulphates in it, but wasn't sure, as the last time we were in Yamanaka, we walked along the Daishoji River and skipped the onsen. This time, after tenzaru for lunch at a small soba shop, we stopped at the footbath at the center Yamanaka.


The "redolent" water smelled of sulphur.

When Basho was in Yamanaka, September 12-18, chrysanthemums were not in season yet (and thus, "unpicked"). The Kiku or Chrysanthemum Festival, the seasonal festival of the year, is held on 9.9 (ninth day of the ninth moon, October 22 that year). Traditionally, in China, celebrants climbed a mountain and drank rice wine infused with the fragrance of chrysanthemum petals to ward off evil and promote longevity. Tz’u-t’ung is said to have lived for seven hundred years by drinking only the dew of chrysanthemums.

In his haiku, Basho associates the chrysanthemum with Buddhist purity and enlightenment:

white chrysanthemum / holding it up to the eye / not a mote of dust
shiragiku no / me ni tatte miru / chiri mo nashi!

chrysanthemum’s fragrance /in Nara, ancient / buddhas
kiku no ka ya / Nara ni wa furuki / hotoke-tachi

The gist of his humorous poem on Yamanaka is that in the absence of chrysanthemums (enlightenment), Basho and Sora must turn to the smelly sulphate waters of the onsen to soothe their ailments – aching muscles, fatigue and digestive problems, all of which the onsen claimed to cure.

While the redolent bath water is no substitute for enlightenment, it brings welcome relief from the cold autumn wind, and thus can be associated with the compassion of Kannon.

That afternoon we drove to a ryokan in Ichirino, on a tributary of the rustic Tedori River Valley to spend the night.

Tedori valleyonsen

Just past the ryokan was the entrance to the scenic Hakusan Super Rindo (“Forest”) Road to Shirakawago, a village famous for its traditionally-built houses, with thatched roofs, high-peaked so snow and rain slide off, keeping both the house interior and the thatching dry.

We were planning to visit Shirakawago the next day, just 20 or so miles from Ichirino by the Super Lindo Road, which also offers a view of Hakusan, a holy mountain. Unfortunately, I found out about the road after making our travel reservations, and also learned that it was closed to car traffic until June 1, two days after our May 28-29 stay.

On the weekend before the road opens, a 14-kilometer community walk takes place on the road. The ryokan staff gave us a flyer and asked if we wanted to join the walk, but we were planning to leave early the next morning to Shirakwago.

Since we couldn't take the Super Lindo to Shirakawago, we drove a hundred or so miles around the rugged mountain terrain around Hakusan to get therew. I was initially disappointed we had to make the long drive, but it turned out to be a scenic and enjoyable route.

Heading south from Ichirino we passed a long lake formed by the massive Tedorigawa Dam. We were looking for Hakusan Panoramic Park, which the ryokan staff told us offered a good view of the sacred mountain. They printed a map for us from the internet. There was no signage for the park along Route 157, but in the approximate area indicated on the map, we found a winding road that looked like it went up to a scenic look-out. Near the top was an excellent view of Hakusan.


This holy mountain is associated to Natadera, twenty miles to the WNW. Taicho, the legendary monk who founded Natadera in 717 is said to have climbed Hakusan and at Midorigaike, the pond at the top, had a vision of Shirayama-hime ("White Mountain Princess"), the goddess of the mountain, emerging from the waters and turning into Kannon. Taicho later enshrined an image of the eleven-headed, thousand-armed bodhisattva in one of the caves at Natadera.

Hakusan is worshipped by fishermen, seafarers and farmers of the surrounding region. It’s said to be inhabited by suijin, or water gods, and dragon kami, as well as spirits of the dead.

Pilgrimage routes (zenjo-do, or paths of meditation) ascend Hakusan from the three surrounding prefectures of Ishikawa, Fukui, and Gifu, with seven shrines along the ridgeway. Women are allowed to go only as far as the middle shrine. Those who make it to the top and drink the snow-fed waters of Midorigaike are said to be rewarded with longevity.

Along the south side of Hakusan were scenic areas along the Mino Highway, which follows the Kuzuryu River to a narrow lake formed by Kuzuryu dam. The Kuzuryu flows westward then north to the sea of Japan, entering it at Fukui. At Lake Kuzuryu, we passed Yume no Kakehashi, "Dream Suspension Bridge," a famous sight of Fukui prefecture.

Kuzuryu damBridge

We got onto the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway at Mino-Shirotori and headed north for Shirakawago. On the way, we stopped at Hirugano-kogen Service Area for lunch. I had read that cuisine at these expressway stops had a following among roadies, with publications on the best places to eat. As it was Saturday and sunny, the parking area and restaurant were packed with young people and families. We ordered tonkatsu and shoyu pork, which were okay, nothing special.

Between Hirugano-kogen and Shirakawago, we passed through the Hida Tunnel, the second longest road tunnel in Japan at 10,710 meters (6.7 miles). (The longest car tunnel is the Kan-Etsu Expressway tunnel in Gumna prefecture, 11,055 meters or 6.9 miles long; we drove through it in Fall 2009.)

Shirakawago, one of the most famous spots in Japan, was crowded tourists, many from China and Europe:


After walking around the village that afternoon, we drove to Takayama, which we visited in 2008 for its famous Spring Festival. Takayama is a great walking town, especially the morning market along the Miya River and the shopping streets in the old town. Odd statues abound.

UnagiTouristsSake shopStatueStreet signsStorefront statue

We also enjoyed an early morning walk up Shiroyama to the ruins of the old castle.


The next stop was Suwa, famous for its lake and its Onbashira festival. The festival, established 1200 years ago, involves the cutting down of onbashira ("honored poles"), four of which are set around shrines of the Suwa Taisha sect, which currently numbers around 3000.

The four shrines of Suwa Taisha are 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).

Suwa dragonMasumi mirror

According to journalist Hiroko Yoda, the poles must be replaced every six years -- "in the Chinese zodiac's Year of the Tiger and the Year of the Monkey." She describes the festivals as follows:

Yamadashi, in April, literally means "coming out from the mountains." After a Shinto purification ceremony, 16 massive and carefully selected fir trees are felled by hand with special axes and saws. Then select groups of local men haul the logs off the mountain, again by hand, to the four shrines of Suwa Taisha. The most dramatic moments, called Ki-otoshi ("tree-drops"), occur on slopes too steep to carry the logs. Instead the men clamber atop and ride them downhill like massive toboggans. The sight of these massive, multi-ton timbers plunging down steep hillsides and into rivers is almost as breathtaking to watch as it must be to participate. Many times riders are seriously injured and sometimes even killed in the process.

Later, in May, the pole raising takes place:

Satobiki ... involves parading the logs through narrow streets to the four shrines that comprise Suwa Taisha: Hon-miya, Mae-miya, Haru-miya, and Aki-miya. Accompanying the logs are huge parades of dancers, horseback riders and other performers.

The Yamadashi and Satobiki had already taken place when we arrived, and the events were being shown on television. Yoda reports, "This April, more than half a million people gathered to watch the first half of the festival -- the largest recorded attendance in the history of Nagano prefecture."

At the shrines, the new poles had been erected:

New pole

The famous soba shop in front of Akimiya Shrine was packed, so we ate a more modest udon shop nearby.

The next morning, we stopped at an Onbashira display.

Onbashira display

Suwa is also famous for Masumi Sake Brewery. According to its website, Masumi (Miyasaka Brewing Company, Ltd.), founded in 1662, "has been dedicated to brewing in Suwa, in the Shinshu region, under the brand name "Masumi no Kagami" (Masumi Mirror), named after a national treasure in the Suwa Taisha Shrine." The tasting room was elegant.


For $3 for a glass tasting cup, you can sample a range of six brews. When the hostess realized I was a serious sake drinker, she brought out a seventh bottle, one of their best, which we bought.

Our last stop was Lake Yamanaka, at Mt. Fuji. On the way was Shichiken Sake Brewery, which made one of my favorite sake in Hawai'i. But only the ginjo is sold in Hawai’i. I wanted to get a bottle of its daiginjo, named after the founder, Ihei Kitahara, who became enchanted by the Hakushu water in Daigahara-juku, a station town on the old Koshu highway that connected Edo with what is now Yamanashi province. The town is in the valley of the Kamanashi River which flows south, joining the Fuefuki River to become the Fuji River, which flows into Suruga Bay.

The historic building has an interesting interior and a modern tasting room.

Shichiken waterShichiken treeTasting room

We ended up buying an awarding winning daiginjo called Oonakaya.

I was hoping to drive to Lake Yamanaka via the famous Misaka Pass, but the old road was closed and the new road went through a tunnel instead.

The last time we visited the lakes of Fujisan (Summer 2005), we missed the ropeway up to Mt. Tento, so we went up for the view of Lake Kawaguchiko and the short hike to the summit.

Lake Kawaguchiko

We had also missed the famous Sengen Shrines for worshipping the kami of Mt. Fuji, Sengen, or Asama, also identified with the princess of flowering trees, Konohana Sakuyahime no Mikoto. On the way to the ryokan at Yamanaka we stopped at Kitaguchi Fuji Hongu Sengen Taisha, the northern entrance to the mountain. A fire ceremony 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 toriiFujiyoshida mikoshi

The next day we drove around Fujisan, stopping at various sites, starting with Gotemba Fifth Station, which was shrouded in clouds.

Gotemba stationMisty road

Down from the Fifth Station is Fujinomiya Sengen Shrine, constructed by Tokugawa Ieyasu in the 17th century as the main shrine for Fuji worship. The Kanda River flows from the Wakutama Pond at the shrine, fed by spring water from the snowmelt of Mt. Fuji. People come to fill their water bottles from the spring.

Fujinomiya Sengen shrineWakutama pondFujinomiya spring

We also visited the lava caves, with year-round ice, on the northside of Fuji.

Lava cavesIce cave

But what I really wanted to see were two sites associated with the sixteenth century ascetic-mystic Kakugyo, one of the founders of Fuji-ko, societies for worshipping Fuji as a god and savior of Japan. Kakugyo promoted summer pilgrimages to the summit and climbed the mountain over 100 times himself.

One site was a waterfall called Shiraito, just north of Fujinomiya, where Kakugyo performed purification rites:


North of the waterfall was the second site, Hitoana, a cave where Kakugyo meditated until he had a vision of the spirit of the mountain as a dual god that was both the female Asama-Sengen and the Buddha Dainichi.

Just when we found the road to the cave, a school bus showed up. The teacher gave her talk to the students just outside the cave, getting them to stand on tiptoe to imitate Kakugyo, who is said to have performed his mediation while standing tiptoe on the five-inch square block.


We left because I didn’t want to be looking inside the cave when the teachers were there, not sure what the protocol was. I couldn’t read the sign posted outside.

After driving up to Motosu Lake, we went back to Hitoana. It was deserted. We went down to the bottom of the steps (no barriers) and peered in. The cave was dripping with water from the ceiling, pitch-black inside. A small shrine off to the left at the entrance was where worshipers left coins in homage to the god.

Hitoana caveSmall shrineHitoana altarHitoana stairs

The flash of the camera revealed a triangular rock enshrined farther back and a passage off to the left. Sensing that we weren't supposed to go any farther in (it was dark, wet, and eerie), we left. (Later, with a dictionary, I read the sign, which I had photographed: it said due to the dangerous conditions, not to touch or approach the shrine or enter the cave.)

Lake Yamanaka was a delight, much less developed than Lake Kawaguchi, where we had stayed in 2005. On the first morning, I walked along the shore at dawn. Fujisan was her shy self, shrouded by clouds, but I spent some time photographing swans at sunrise.


When we got back to the ryokan that night, it was still daylight, as sunset was at 6:52 pm. As we headed down to dinner, the hotel staff pointed out that the clouds had lifted around Fuji. From the lobby, we could see the summit. I wanted to get a photo of the mountain, but the staff wanted to serve our dinner, so we ate quickly, then drove out to the other side of the lake. With only minutes of evening light left, I took quick photos as the mountain faded into darkness.

Twilight Fujisan

The weather prediction for the next day was sunshine. After breakfast, we went to the other side of the lake again, to wait for the morning mist over the lake to rise.

Fujisan in mistFujisan

We had the day before us as our flight from Narita didn’t leave till 10 pm. We were going to spend the day at the Gotemba Outlet Shopping Mall, a huge complex south of Yamanaka, to pick up omiyage (travel gifts); but the mall opened at 10 or 11, so we decided to drive to Hakone to get a bottle of Ginnomai, brewed by Nakazawa Shuzo in Matsuda, a sake we enjoyed the last time we were in Hakone in spring 2008.

The Hakone Skyline road was scenic, with views of Mt. Fuji and Lake Ashi:

On the Hakone Skyline roadLake Ashi

Along the way, I recognized the spot depicted in Hiroshige’s famous woodblock print of Hakone Pass and Lake Ashi. The artist had made the slope of Mt. Mikuni much steeper than it is, creating a more dynamic composition:

Hakone PassHiroshige's print

When we got back to Hawai’i, we drank the bottle of Ginnomai. It was as smooth and tasty as I remembered it.