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Shinryoku season: Mystical and magical Togakushi

Shinryoku season: Mystical and magical Togakushi

A beautiful country shaped by the forces of nature, nearly 70 percent of Japan is made up of majestic mountains and stunning peaks. In the past, the people of Japan worshipped mountains as being sacred, and practiced sangaku shinkō (山岳信仰 mountain worship). Sangaku shinkō eventually evolved into the religion of Shintō (神道), which means "the way of the Gods", where it is believed that all things, especially natural elements like mountains and forests, have a deity (神 kami) residing within.

 

Cedar-lined walking path at Togakushi. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

Located in a forested area of the mountains at an elevation of 1,280m, one place in Japan filled with mysticism and spiritual energy is Togakushi (戸隠) in Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken). According to Shinto mythology, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu was upset with her brother Susano-o, so she hid herself in a cave, sealed behind a large rock, and the world was plunged into darkness.

 

Without Amaterasu’s light, the world was filled with darkness and disaster, so the God of Wisdom, Omoikane, gathered the other gods and goddesses, and thought of holding a festival to lure Amaterasu out of hiding. The Goddess of Performing Arts, Ame-no-Uzume, started dancing hilariously, causing the other gods and goddesses to laugh merrily. A curious Amaterasu moved the rock to sneak a peek at the merriment, and upon seeing this, the God of Strength Tajikarao threw the rock far away with all his might, so that Amaterasu couldn’t hide behind it anymore.

 

Mount Togakushi. (Image credit: Nagano Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

Light was restored to the world, and it is said the place where the rock landed is Togakushi! The name “Togakushi” means “hidden door”, and it is believed that Mount Togakushi is the rock door from the legend.

 

Due to this legend, Togakushi is considered a sacred and important place, and is home to five shrines at the foot of the mountain, most of which worship the gods and goddesses from the legend. Togakushi is just an hour away from Nagano City (長野市 Nagano-shi) by bus, so why not take a day trip the next time you are in the area?

 

Map of Togakushi. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

The Togakushi Shrine (戸隠神社 Togakushi Jinja) complex is made up of five shrines, which are connected by a 6km path. A hike to visit all five shrines takes about 2.5 hours, or more if you stop for breaks and snacks in between. The five shrines are:

  • Okusha Shrine (upper shrine)
  • Kuzuryu Shrine
  • Chusha Shrine (middle shrine)
  • Hinomiko Shrine
  • Hokosha Shrine (lower shrine)

 

While the walking path is open all year round, I feel that the best season to visit is late spring to early summer, during the shinryoku (新緑 fresh greens) season, where you will be surrounded by lush greenery throughout your walk. The weather during this period is also cool and pleasant, making it perfect for hiking!

 

Kuzuryusha Shrine and Okusha Shrine

Start of the walkway to the Okusha Shrine. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

If you don’t have the time or energy to walk the entire path of the five shrines, the must-visit section is the 2km walkway, the Okusha Sando (奥社参道 Okusha  Sandō), which passes through an ancient cedar forest to reach the Kuzuryusha Shrine and the Okusha Shrine.

 

Zuishinmon Gate. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

From the Togakushi Okusha Iriguchi (戸隠奥社入口) Bus Stop, a 15-minute, 1km walk will take you to the Zuishinmon Gate (隋神門), a bright red gate that exists in harmony with the surrounding nature. Plants grow on the roof of the gate, a sign that the gods and nature are one.

 

Cedar-lined path behind Zuishinmon Gate. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

After passing through Zuishinmon Gate, you will be greeted with the stunning sight of tall and towering cedar trees (杉 sugi) that line both sides of the path. The path is lined with 200–300 cedar trees, many of them over 400-years-old and exuding a mystical energy.

 

Whenever I walk through this path, I always feel so calm looking up at the trees, breathing in the fresh air, and being in awe of the amazing nature surrounding me. The scenery here is tranquil and gorgeous, and the walk always refreshes my mind, body, and soul.

 

Kuzuryusha Shrine. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

Continue along the path for another 25 minutes and you will reach the two shrines at the end. The first one you will come across is the Kuzuryusha Shrine (九頭龍社Kuzuryūsha), the oldest of the five shrines at the Togakushi Shrine complex. “Kuzuryu” means “nine-headed dragon”, and this shrine is said to enshrine a deity with nine dragon heads who watches over water and rainfall. In the past, Japan was mainly an agrarian society, and locals would come to pray for rainfall and bountiful harvests for their crops.

 

Okusha Shrine. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

Climb up the steps along the path beside Kuzuryusha Shrine and you will reach the Okusha Shrine (奥社), the innermost and most important shrine of Togakushi Shrine. The Okusha Shrine enshrines the God of Strength, Tajikarao, who threw the rock covering Amaterasu’s hiding spot. Many visitors come here to pray for happiness, good luck, blessings, and victory.

 

Okusha Shrine (戸隠神社 奥社)
Access: Kuzuryusha Shrine and Okusha Shrine are a 40-minute walk from the Togakushi Okusha Iriguchi (戸隠奥社入口) Bus Stop, which can be reached by a 70-minute bus ride from Nagano Station (長野駅).
*Note that in winter, the bus only operates until the Togakushi Chusha Bus Stop, so visitors will need to walk or take a taxi from there.
Admission: Free

 

Kagami-ike Pond

View of Mount Togakushi from Kagami-ike Pond. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

Although the Okusha Sando walking path from Togakushi Okusha Iriguchi bus stop is the most common approach to the Okusha Shrine, there is an alternative route via Kagami-ike Pond (鏡池), a small but scenic pond that provides a fantastic view of Mount Togakushi.

 

From Kagami-ike Pond, there is a 1.5km path that connects to the Zuishinmon Gate, and it takes about 50 minutes to walk from Kagami-ike Pond to the Okusha Shrine.

 

Mirror-like surface of Kagami-ike Pond. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

Kagami” means “mirror”, and when the water is still, the pond becomes like a mirror, reflecting the imposing peaks of Mount Togakushi, the sky, and the surrounding scenery. The majestic Mount Togakushi is said to be the rock “door” from the legend, and Kagami-ike Pond is the perfect place to get a view.

 

Although Kagami-ike Pond is best known for its autumn foliage, when the trees are covered with vivid shades of orange and yellow, during the shinryoku season it is surrounded by bright and vibrant greenery, and combined with the mystical energy, it makes me feel that the forest is alive and growing!

 

Kagami-ike Pond (鏡池)
Access: Kagami-ike Pond is a 40-minute walk from the Kagamiike Iriguchi (鏡池入口) Bus Stop, which can be reached by a 65-minute bus ride from Nagano Station (長野駅).
Admission: Free

 

Chusha Shrine

Chusha Shrine. (Image credit: Nagano Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

After exiting the Okusha Sando walking path, a 30-minute, 2km walk will lead you to the Chusha Shrine (中社 Chūsha). The entrance to the shrine is marked with an 11m-high torii (鳥居) gate, and climbing up a short flight of steps will bring you to the shrine building. On the grounds of the Chusha Shrine, you can find giant and ancient cedar trees that are believed to be up to 800-years-old!

 

The Chusha Shrine enshrines the God of Wisdom, Omoikane, who devised the plan to lure Amaterasu out of hiding. People pay their respects at this shrine to pray for educational endeavours and prosperity for their businesses.

 

Chusha Shrine (戸隠神社 中社)
Address: 3506 Togakushi, Nagano-shi, Nagano 381-4101
Access: The Chusha Shrine is right by the Togakushi Chusha (戸隠中社) Bus Stop, which can be reached by a 65-minute bus ride from Nagano Station (長野駅).
Admission: Free

 

Hinomiko Shrine

Hinomiko Shrine. (Image credit: Nagano Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

A 15-minute walk from the Chusha Shrine will bring you to the Hinomiko Shrine (火之御子社), which is about 1km away. This modest wooden shrine enshrines the goddess of the performing arts, Ame-no-Uzume, whose dance piqued the curiosity of Amaterasu and got her to come out of hiding.

 

Hinomiko Shrine (戸隠神社 火之御子社)
Access: The Hinomiko Shrine is a 15-minute walk from the Togakushi Chusha (戸隠中社) Bus Stop, which can be reached by a 65-minute bus ride from Nagano Station (長野駅).
Admission: Free

 

Hokosha Shrine

Torii gate leading to Hokosha Shrine. (Image credit: Nagano Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

From the Hinomiko Shrine, a 15-minute walk will bring you to the Hokosha Shrine (宝光社Hо̄kо̄sha). At the entrance is a torii gate, after which is a 270-step flight of stairs that leads to the shrine building. Every time I walk up these steps, the anticipation in my heart builds up as I get closer and closer to the shrine.

 

Hokosha Shrine. (Image credit: Nagano Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

The Hokosha Shrine is most intricately decorated of the five shrines, and enshrines Ame-no-Uwaharu, the child of the God of Wisdom who is enshrined in the Chusha Shrine. Ame-no-Uwaharu is the deity looking over childbirth, women, and children, and women come here to pray for safe childbirth and the health of their children.

 

While you’re visiting this shrine, take a few moments to appreciate the architecture and ornate carvings on the wooden shrine building, they really are a spectacular sight to behold.

 

Hokosha Shrine (戸隠神社 宝光社)
Access: The Hokosha Shrine is a 5-minute walk from the Togakushi Hokosha (戸隠宝光社) Bus Stop, which can be reached by a 55-minute bus ride from Nagano Station (長野駅).
Admission: Free

 

Togakushi Soba

After a few hours of walking, how about taking a break to enjoy some delicious soba noodles? In the past, soba (そば buckwheat) was grown as an emergency crop for people living in mountains to survive severe winters, but over the years, soba has become a staple in Nagano people’s diets, and is now one of Nagano’s leading agricultural products.

 

Soba shop in Togakushi. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

In particular, Togakushi is especially well-known for its high quality and delicious soba noodles, which can be found nearby the shrines, especially around entrance to the Okusha Sando walkway and around the Chusha Shrine.

 

Togakushi soba. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

Something special about Togakushi soba is that the flour is made with the outer layer incorporated into the mix, so the resulting noodle colour is darker compared to other soba noodles, and the soba flavour is stronger compared to others.

 

Togakushi is also famous for bamboo weaving crafts (竹細工 takezaiku), and Togakushi soba is usually served in five small bundles on a round, woven bamboo basket, with the five bundles representing the five shrines.

 

Sansai tempura. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

During the shinryoku season, you can enjoy eating Togakushi soba with a side of sansai tempura (山菜天ぷら batter-fried mountain vegetables), another one of Nagano’s unique foods.

 

Closing

Hiking around Togakushi’s shrines. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori)

 

Home to gorgeous natural beauty and sacred Shinto sites, Togakushi is a fantastic place to visit during the shinryoku season, when the cedar-lined paths are covered with lush greenery, and the weather is cool and pleasant. As you walk through the ancient cedar forests, you can imagine feeling the same mystical energy and spiritual auras that visitors of the past felt.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are thinking of visiting Togakushi and Nagano Prefecture, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Narita Airport and Nagano (~¥22,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Japan's Green & Great Shinryoku Show @#StayAtHome

Join us for Japan's Green & Great Shinryoku Show. (Video credit: JAPAN RAIL CAFE)

 

If you want to find out more about our trip to the various shinryoku spots in Eastern Japan, join my colleagues and I for a virtual tour at Japan’s Green and Great Shinryoku Show @#StayAtホーム. You can watch the recorded event in the video above, or on Facebook as well as YouTube. See you at the Shinryoku Show!

 

Header image credit: JR East / Kobori

 

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