Sacred and secular mountains

Fuji and herons

Herons view the evening sky with Mt Fuji in the background

Mountains are a vital part of Japan’s identity, and Mt Fuji its sacred symbol. Some 70% of the country is mountainous, and the terrain is characterised by rice-growing villages set amongst steep hillsides. These ‘abodes of the gods’ have shaped the nation’s religious sensibility.

Not only are sacred mountains viewed as protective deities, but they serve sometimes as guardians of remote and scenically situated shrines. ‘Entering the mountains’ to develop spiritual merit started in prehistoric times and was moulded into a syncretic practice called Shugendo. Mountains took practitioners closer to god in more senses than one.

In the abridged book review below, Stephen Mansfield suggests that the sacred quality of mountains has been eroded in a secular age of tourism and environmental destruction. Even the volcano Mt Fuji, tallest and most beautiful of Japan’s mountains, has not escaped despoliation and overuse.

The sacred hill of Mt Miwa, which acts as 'spirit-body' of the kami for Omiwa Jinja

The sacred hill of Mt Miwa, which acts as ‘spirit-body’ of the kami for Omiwa Jinja


On mountain peaks and tourist trash

Stephen Mansfield for The Japan Times July 5, 2015

Review of One Hundred Mountains of Japan, by Kyuya Fukada, Translated by Martin Hood. 246 pages University of Hawaii Press

Despite hazardous climatic conditions, treacherous features, and the large number of people who have come to grief on them, in his 1964 book Nihon Hyakumeizan (“One Hundred Mountains of Japan”) Kyuya Fukada highlights the benevolent characteristics of mountains, their function as protective sentinels and tutelary deities in the lives of those who inhabit surrounding villages and towns.

Fukada’s criteria in selecting peaks was based not on height or reputation, but the following: “A mountain must have character; it must have history; and it should have something that makes it uniquely itself — an extraordinary distinctiveness.” Accordingly, Fukada writes about each mountain as if it were a person, with a particular set of characteristics, strengths, flaws and defining identity. In the author’s view, a truly outstanding mountain should also be associated with religious traditions, and accord with his assertion that, “mountains have always formed the bedrock of the Japanese soul.”

Hill path

Japanese holy men had long been ascending peaks, but it was only in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) that Englishman Walter Weston first introduced Japan to the notion of climbing mountains for the sheer pleasure and the exhilaration of the experience. Many a mountaineer has set out in earnest to “conquer” a peak, only to discover locals — hunters of serow and bear, or religious petitioners — have already been there, leaving small, unvarnished wooden shrines, votive tablets or old bronze coins as evidence of their ascents.

Borrowing from the nature writings of John Ruskin, Fukada shared the Victorian sage’s view of the ascent of mountains as a morally ennobling experience. If one part of Fukada was an unapologetic romanticist, the other half was a cynic — or at least a healthy skeptic.He asks, “Is Japan’s landscape doomed to be despoiled at the hands of the Japanese themselves?” Noting a stone monument to the poet Takuboku Ishikawa near the Akan-dake volcano complex in Hokkaido, Fukada writes, the “local tourist industry has battened on (Ishikawa) as the poet most likely to serve their commercial interests.” Passing a “touristified mock village,” he can barely conceal his derision at the sight of “people in Ainu costume sitting in their shop fronts carving wooden bears.”

Wooded hill track

It was still possible in Fukada’s early climbing days — with many trails relatively untrodden — to treat mountains as objects of reflection and meditation, a pleasure made feasible by a pristine landscape of snowfields, trackless wildernesses, watercourses and highland meadows bedizened with Japanese parsley, sorrel and white florets.

On Mount Iide, a peak in the Tohoku region, Fukada finds a rusty sword placed beside a stone marking the summit. At another spot near a shrine standing beside a grove, he finds antique pottery fragments in a shallow streambed.

The writer knew these peaks before the era of mass tourism, ski lifts and easy access; his later encounters were with increasingly less naturalistic landscapes. On the slopes of Mount Azuma, Fukuda finds once-virgin terrain that has not been able to withstand the attentions of commercial developers. He warns that at the height of the tourist season, “you would be well advised to don a mask if walking in the vicinity, so dense are the dust and fumes.”

Fukada finds old huts and lodgings, once intended as shelter for pilgrims and mountain mystics, which have been converted into modern inns and a sprawl of facilities catering to the contemporary visitor. On Mount Takazuma, a sacred place for both Shinto and Buddhist worship, Fukada finds a spot that was “once the haunt of cognoscenti who shunned the vulgarities of Karuizawa and lake Nojiri” has now been reduced to “just another tourist trap.”

None of Fukuda’s harshest criticisms, however, detract from the intrinsic beauty of his 100 peaks, or their forms, which have remained essentially intact. In his climbs, the writer’s senses sharpened on the grindstone of these mountains, Fukada shares the sheer joy of being alive amid such magisterial eminencies.

Primal mountain… it was here on Mt Takachiho that the heavenly deities first descended to earth in the person of Ninigi-no-mikoto

Gion Festival begins!

Yes indeed, it’s July 1 and for Kyoto it’s the beginning of the month-long Gion Festival, dubbed one of Kyoto’s Big Three (along with Aoi and Jidai Matsuri).  It’s one of Japan’s oldest and biggest affairs, and there are many websites devoted to the event.  For me it’s a true People’s Festival and a wonderful display of Kyoto culture at its finest.

The following brief description comes from the Kyoto Visitors Guide (which has an excellent interview with one of the festival musicians playing ‘Gion bayashi’): ‘Last year was a historical moment for the festival exactly 48 years in history, when the Gion Festival returned back to its original form. The commonly known united-procession was separated into the Saki Matsuri and the Ato Matsuri. So this year will be the 2nd special year to witness the revived Ato Matsuri.

The Saki Matsuri’s parade is gorgeous and boisterous with many floats as usual. In contrast, the revived Ato Matsuri is held in a much quieter atmosphere as there will be no stalls, nor extra goodies, etc. For tourists who can stay a bit longer, you may have a great chance to see the contrast of both the gorgeous and fun Saki Matsuri along with the solemn and beautiful Ato Matsuri, like the yin and yang of the festival.’

On July 1 the chigo (sacred page) of the main float Naginata-hoko visits Yasaka Jinja to pray for a safe festival. (courtesy Kyoto Visitors Guide)

On July 1 the chigo (sacred page) of the main float Naginata-hoko visits Yasaka Jinja to pray for a safe festival. (courtesy Kyoto Visitors Guide)

The festival was kicked off this morning with a visit to Yasaka Jinja, host shrine of the event, by the chigo (sacred page) to pray for safety.  There then follow a whole series of rites and ceremonies throughout the following month, with the highlight being the main procession on the 17th.

The following listing comes courtesy of Wikipedia….

  • July 1 through 5: Kippuiri, opening ceremony of festival, in each participating neighbourhood
  • July 2: Kujitorishiki, lottery for the parade order, in the municipal assembly hall
  • July 7: Shrine visit by chigo children of Ayagasaboko
  • July 10: Lantern parade to welcome mikoshi portable shrines
  • July 10: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo River
  • July 10 through 13: Building-up of floats(Former parade)
  • July 13 a.m.: Shrine visit by chigo children of Naginataboko
  • July 13 p.m.: Shrine visit by chigo children of Kuse Shrine
  • July 14: Yoiyoiyoiyama(Former parade)
  • July 15: Yoiyoiyama(Former parade)
  • July 16: Yoiyama(Former parade)
  • July 16: Yoimiya shinshin hono shinji, dedicative art performances
  • July 17: Parade of yamaboko floats(Former parade)
  • July 17: Parade of mikoshi from Yasaka Shrine to the city
  • July 18 through 20: Building-up of floats(Latter parade)
  • July 21: Yoiyoiyoiyama(Latter parade)
  • July 22: Yoiyoiyama(Latter parade)
  • July 23: Yoiyama(Latter parade)
  • July 24: Parade of yamaboko floats(Latter parade)
  • July 24: Parade of hanagasa or “flower parasols”
  • July 24: Parade of mikoshi from the city to Yasaka Shrine
  • July 28: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo river
  • July 31: Closing service at Eki Shrine

The mystery of Oiwa (pt 4)

An Inari subshrine with 'tama' offerings that look relatively recent though the shrine is unswept

An Inari subshrine with ‘tama’ offerings that look relatively recent though the shrine is clearly untended

The first place I turned to in an attempt to get to the bottom of the Oiwa mystery was Fushimi Inari Shrine, since the Inari connection seemed so strong. However, one of the shrine staff assured us by telephone that there was absolutely no relationship with Oiwa Jinja.

The practice of putting up otsuka stone altars to Inari had started at Fushimi in Meiji times, he said, when people in trouble or ill health turned to ogamiyasan (mediums) who advised them on erecting  otsuka with individualised names. No doubt the practice had spread to nearby Oiwa Jinja, he suggested. As for the present situation of the shrine, Fushimi Inari knew nothing and had no involvement.

So with the Fushimi connection proving fruitless, I determined to try the owner again.  This time fortunately there was someone at home, and in response to my enquiry an elderly woman opened the door tentatively as we stood in the rain at the gate.  For a few minutes it seemed she was going to dismiss us as she fended off our enquiries with polite but meaningless answers, but eventually she relented and invited us into the genkan (entrance area).  For the next half an hour we were able to sit on the edge of the raised floor as she knelt before us and answered questions.

The small handwritten notice of abandonment

The small handwritten notice of abandonment

Information came in dribs and drabs, but a rather sad story emerged.  She had married into the family, and her husband who had inherited the shrine had died unexpectedly at 50 without having told her much about it. The oldest son, who had been going to train as a priest, had also died. I got the impression that with the death of the son, the chance of saving the shrine had passed.

The youngest son, now married, lived with her but had his own career and no interest at all in the shrine.  She herself seemed to have little interest in Shinto (at one point she could not remember the word for ‘the rope thing’ i.e. shimenawa), but had left everything up to the priest who had been in charge for the past forty years. Last year he reached the age of 85 or 86 and was no longer physically capable of running the shrine.

Because of the lack of income, the priest had only been part-time (I asked if the family had paid him; ‘a very small honorarium’, she replied).  His main source of income had come from another job, and the priest’s son, an obvious candidate to take over the father’s job, had indeed become a priest but had taken the more financially secure route of working for Yasaka Jinja, where he was now one of the senior staff.

Before the war, Oiwa had apparently been a flourishing shrine with members from an Osaka fraternity visiting and donating.  There had been too a tea room run by the priest’s wife for visitors. But things had changed after the war, with fewer visitors.  Perhaps some of the believers had been killed, perhaps the new generation did not believe as their parents had, perhaps the Osaka fraternity had lost its charismatic leader.

The house of the Oiwa Jinja owner, substantial by Japanese standards

The house of the Oiwa Jinja owner, substantial by Japanese standards

With an elderly priest and falling patronage, Oiwa Jinja had been on the decline for years.  The person who kept the misogi place clean had become old and stopped his caretaker duties.  Others who helped out had died off too with no one to replace them.  Financially too, the shrine had become a burden. When her husband died, there had been hefty inheritance taxes to pay.  And when torii or stones started to fall over and be a danger to the public, her family had to pay for the repairs.  The priest’s retirement appeared to have brought matters to a head.

I wondered what would happen to the shrine now?  She didn’t know, she said, she was thinking about what to do. Kyoto city was not interested in conserving it. She might ask Jinja Honcho (Association of Shrines).  How about a business sponsor I wondered, but she dismissed the idea as impossible. Perhaps she could sell it someone, I suggested?  No, she said.  Impossible.  It was a family heritage.  It had to be kept out of respect to the family’s ancestors.

Stone altars stand in front of the abandoned shrine

Stone altars stand in front of the abandoned shrine

She likened her position to the British aristocracy, saddled with debt and taxes but unwilling to give up the family estate.  It seemed a good analogy.  The aristocracy had to make compromises, living in a corner of their stately home and opening it to visitors.  Perhaps she too would have to compromise in some way…  but with no priest and a son who was uninterested, it was difficult to see an easy solution.

Perhaps there was land to sell off? Different parts of the mountain belonged to different people, she said.  The bamboo forest for instance belonged to different people.  Even the pond next to the lower portion of the shrine was not hers, and in fact there was a conservation group for it.  Perhaps then that was a possible means of salvation – an Oiwa Jinja conservation group!  It would of course take a good deal of initiative and good will to set up, requiring the energetic input of younger people.  And there was little sign of that.

When it came to the history of the shrine, she said she knew nothing at all and advised asking the younger brother of her husband.  He too said he knew nothing. So I was left to imagine what might have happened from the information I’d got so far. and my surmises were that after the Meiji Restoration a rich individual in the area of Oiwa Hill had decided to revive the local shrine.  Perhaps he employed a priest called Tsuji, for the recently retired priest with that name was said to be the fourth generation.

The goreisho is an area of thanks which honours the spirits of all those who worked on behalf of the shrine

The goreisho is an area of thanks which honours the spirits of all those who worked on behalf of the shrine

The newly restored Oiwa Shrine must have won the favour of ogamiyasan living in the area, and through the recovery of someone with TB the shrine won the reputation of curing people with lung diseases.  Perhaps it was one such person who in prewar years had started the fraternity in Osaka, as a result of which the shrine had seen a profusion of otsuka and Inari subshrines.

Now they stand forlorn and abandoned, but the sacred rocks remain as a poignant reminder of the numinous power of nature.  Japan’s decreasing population in an age of secular values mean that such scenes are going to be increasingly common.  It means the ‘land of the kami’ will have to face a time of falling numbers too as the Age of the Gods fades further into the past.

The abandoned shrine will need a lot of money and energy if it is ever to be restored

The abandoned shrine will need a lot of money and energy if it is ever to be restored


Chinowa summer purification

Chinowa grass ring outside a Kyoto restaurant

Chinowa grass ring outside a Kyoto restaurant

The midsummer season of purification is upon us, and Kyoto today will see several ceremonies involving the chinowa purification circle made of grass.  The photo above features a chinowa erected at the entrance to a Japanese restaurant in the heart of downtown Kyoto.  I’m not sure if the restaurant owner had a religious motive, but I rather suspect he thought it a nice seasonal touch in much the same way that many Japanese put up Christmas decorations in December.

For the religious significance of the grass circle, see this definition from the Kokugakuin encylopedia

Chinowa is “a large ring made of cogon grass (chigaya) and erected on the pathway leading to a shrine on the days of purification (harae) of the last day of the sixth or seventh month. Worshipers at the shrine pass through the ring as an act of purification from misdeeds (tsumi), impurities (kegare), or bad luck.  An extant fragment from the ancient gazetteer of the province  of Bingo relates the tale of Somin Shōrai, a legendary hero who tied a magical ring braided of cogon grass around his waist and thus escaped an epidemic.  In ancient times the ring of woven grass was attached to the waist or hung around the neck.



KYOTO EVENTS (From Kyoto Visitors Guide © Takayoshi Horiuchi )

Nagoshi no Harae Summer Purification – Get rid of misfortune and pray for your health

Every year, at the end of June, many shrines hold an ancient Japanese purification rite called Nagoshi no Harae. In this ceremony, people atone for their sins in the first half of the year and then pray for their health for the remainder of the year by walking through a tall chinowa wreath (a large sacred ring, made of loosely twisted miscanthus reeds called chigaya). At some shrines, people receive a white piece of paper shaped like a person as a form of purification that they can take with them. Some people pull out pieces of the chinowa and weave them into a small wreath which they take home and put above their door.


Recommended Shrines for Nagoshi no Harae

June 25-30 Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine
A giant chinowa wreath (5 meters tall; the largest chinowa wreath in Kyoto) is set up at the shrine gate. The ceremony is held from 16:00 on the 30th.

June 25-30 Kifune Shrine
The ceremony starts from 15:00 on the 30th.

June 30 Kamigamo Shrine
A chinowa kuguri wreath will be set up and people can go through it praying for good health and fortune. The ceremony starts from 10:00. From 20:00, people throw paper dolls into the sacred pond to get rid of their misfortunes.

June 30  Heian Jingu Shrine
The ceremony starts from 16:00. A chinowa kuguri wreath will be set up and people can go through it praying for good health and fortune.

June 30  Nonomiya Shrine
The ceremony starts from 15:00. A chinowa kuguri wreath will be set up on the shrine’s black wooden torii gate (very rare type).


Click here for a ten minute video of the chinowa ceremony at Kifune Jinja, to the north of Kyoto, by Green Shinto friend, Hugo Kempeneer.  The first three minutes are particularly good in that they show priests carrying out the correct three-time figure of eight passage through the circle.

Click here for a beautiful 16 minute video of the summer purification rite by priests at Kitano Tenmangu, also by Green Shinto friend Hugo Kempeneer.




Paris rites

Masatsugu Okutani carries out a purification at a ritual in Paris

Masatsugu Okutani carries out a purification at a ritual in Paris

Any readers in Paris might like to head for Pere Lachaise today as there will be a Shinto ritual carried out at the grave of Nonaka Motoemon (1812-67), a samurai merchant from Saga who headed for the Paris Exposition in 1867. 

At 3 pm June 28, Masatsugu Okutani, a licensed priest who is working for a Japanese company in Paris, will conduct the Irei-sai ceremony for the dead in honour of Nonaka which will be televised by NHK and shown on television here in Japan on July 11.

Not much is known about Nonaka except that he came from a long line of Saga samurai.  On the voyage to France, which lasted two months, he kept a poetic diary which was published in 1936 by his son.

Grave of Nonaka Motoemon in Pere Lachaise in Paris

Grave of Nonaka Motoemon in Pere Lachaise in Paris

The route from Nagasaki included Shanghai, Singapore, Bombay and the Suez Canal.  Sadly not long after his arrival in France Nonaka was taken ill and died.

Pere Lachaise is the home of many famous figures from the past.  The list is impressive, including such illustrious figures as Frederic Chopin, Marcel Marceau, Sarah Berhnardt, Oscar Wilde, Yves Montand, Moliere, Jim Morrison, Honore de Balzac, Simone Signoret, Marcel Proust, Gioacchino Rossini, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas.

Now, at least for Japanese visitors, the grave of a samurai from Kyushu may also be attracting attention.

Maui Shrine lives on

Maui Jinja and toriiRay Tsuchiyama has written in with an article which appeared in an edition of Hana Hou!, the magazine of Hawaiian Airlines.  Entitled The Last Jinja, it tells the story of the last standing shrine on the island of Maui.  When I visited it some ten years ago, it looked forlorn and largely unused.  I knew there was an elderly priestess in charge, but Ray’s article below explains the whole history that lies behind the building.  It’s a fascinating story.

Story By: Ray K. TsuchiyamaRay Tscuhiyama

In the uneasy summer after the Great Tohoku Earthquake three years ago, tormented by the fear of another quake and anxiety about nuclear contamination, my wife and I left our beloved Tokyo. We relocated to Kihei, Maui, a land of sunshine, windsurfers and retirees. Rather than reveling in a stress-free paradise, though, we felt uprooted—disoriented and discontented, immigrants in an alien land. We had lived in Tokyo for two decades; we missed its lights, its restaurants, our circle of friends. We tried to feel grateful to be surrounded by the natural beauty, but in truth our lives felt meaningless.

On a New Year’s Day five months after the move, we made our way to a weather-beaten old Shinto shrine—the last one left on Maui—perhaps searching for a link to the life we had left behind. The Maui Jinja Mission was different from the bustling, ornate shrines of central Tokyo: It was serene, almost too quiet. Until we met Torako Arine. The then-97-year-old wheeled herself toward us and in booming Japanese welcomed us to her “country shrine” and apologized for its dilapidated state. She called herself “the caretaker,” but the elderly Japanese entering the shrine addressed her as though she were a priestess—which, I soon found out, she was.

The jinja is a fixture on Maui, completed in 1917 to serve the island’s issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants). In the 1930s a nisei (second-generation) named Masao Arine left Maui to study Shintoism in Hiroshima. That’s where he met his future bride, coincidentally also from Hawai‘i: Torako was born in Waipahu. The couple arrived on Maui in 1941 to lead the shrine, but their timing couldn’t have been worse; six months later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

The honden (Sanctuary) of Maui Jinja

The honden (Sanctuary) of Maui Jinja

During the war, Shinto was regarded with suspicion, and not without cause: The Japanese government had co-opted the peaceful religion to serve its imperialist agenda. As a result Shinto priests in Hawai‘i suffered terribly. Though he was an Upcountry Maui boy and an American citizen, Masao endured interrogation and incarceration, the sole occupant of a military prison in Ha‘iku. It was left to Torako to care for their six children. Meanwhile, nisei families continued to visit the shrine, especially at New Year’s—at least until the military police nailed the doors shut. They would remain so until Japan surrendered.

After the war, the jinja’s landlord terminated the lease to make way for Maui’s first mall, but Masao had saved up from his night job tending bar at the Wailuku Grand Hotel. The multitasking priest and his spouse bought land in Paukukalo, near Wailuku, and planned a major logistical project: They rented a crane to lift the jinja and had it towed two agonizing miles to its current site on Lipo Place. In November 1954, nisei families gathered at the new location surrounded by curious Native Hawaiian children. The couple had defied the odds and preserved both the shrine and the community.

The Worship Hall has a large wooden ema placed above the entrance

The Worship Hall has a large wooden ema placed above the entrance

When Masao died in 1972, there was no one to take care of the jinja. So at 58 Torako left for Japan to train in Shinto. After, she returned home to Maui and continued her late husband’s mission—a daunting one, as few ordained Shinto priests (barely 7 percent) are women. When I met her that New Year’s Day, I didn’t know anything about her history, about her determination, about how she had become the venerated, spiritual heart of a vanishing nisei community.

She asked whether we lived on Maui, and she must have sensed, I think, the hesitation in my reply. She smiled knowingly and moved on to perform rituals before a simple altar framed by flowers and faded paintings on the walls. She was so confident, so sure of every step, supremely placid and perfect in a building literally falling apart from salt winds blowing off the northern sea.

Last spring Torako Arine died at age 100. I think often of her smile that New Year’s Day. As I stood on that strange ground under a creaking roof, wrestling with my desire to be somewhere else, I watched an aged priestess in a crumbling shrine carry out ancient rituals with absolute presence. And I’ve never left.

Maui Jinja interior

Inside the shrine East meets West in a mix of chairs and traditional offerings


Ray reports that the community still holds services in the shrine, but that the building is tottering due to lack of funds. It is listed on a Historic Register for the State of Hawaii.

Maui has some awe-inspiring scenery

Maui has some awe-inspiring scenery…

... and plenty to be grateful for too.

… and plenty to be grateful for too.

The mystery of Oiwa (pt 3)

Top part of the Domoto Insho torii with reference to Oiwa Jinja and Koiwa Jinja

Top part of the Domoto Insho torii bearing the names of two kami Oiwa and Koiwa (in reference to the large and small sacred rocks)

At the Fushimi-ku Fukakasa Ward Office, I enquired whether they knew anything about Oiwa Jinja.  The offices are not very far away from Oiwa Hill, some fifteen minutes by car, so I presumed they’d know about such a striking abandoned site in their area.  Oddly enough, they hadn’t heard of the shrine and had to get out a map to track down where it was.  When they did, I asked about whose responsibility it was, but they told me that I’d have to go to the Land Deeds Office, where I’d need to pay money and wait for some time.

House of the Oiwa Jinja owner

House of the Oiwa Jinja owner

Since the name and address of the legally responsible person was posted at the shrine, there didn’t seem any point.  So first I tried to find a phone number, but it turned out the person was not listed. So then I tried tracking down the address, and though I was able to locate the house there was no one at home.  Vexing.

One other line of enquiry occurred to me, which was the Domoto Insho museum.  Surely they would have information concerning the artist’s torii and their present situation.  So I rang them up and asked what would happen to the two torii now that the shrine had been abandoned.  They told me that they had no control over that since the torii were owned by the shrine.  I wondered if they intended to contact the owner about preserving them, but apparently there were no such plans.

They checked in their files to see what information there was, and although they had pictures of the torii at the time of the donation, they had little else and no staff who knew about them. To my disappointment, the museum proved to know even less than myself.

I had by now pieced together what I thought may have happened, for my information suggested that one of the torii was donated after Domoto’s mother beseeched the shrine for a cure.  The writer of the brochure I’d spoken to suggested the illness was in the upper half of her body, which would be in keeping with the reputation of the shrine for curing lung diseases.  It’s possible then that the donation was intended to back up the petition to the kami, or that the mother had been cured and that the torii was given in thanks.

Rabbits and birds, along with human figures, are the main elements in the Domoto motif

Rabbits and birds, along with human figures, are the main elements in the Domoto motif

The other and grander torii had been donated after the mother’s death, again perhaps in thanks for her long life.  On the lower torii were written the dates of a male (70) and a female (95), presumably the ages at which Domoto’s parents had died.  The inscription said they were born in the year of the rabbit, which explained the rabbit motif.

Unusually the torii had square legs and the enigmatic design included birds, presumably in reference to tori-i (bird’s roost) and the notion of flight as a vehicle between this world and that of the kami.  On the torii was the name of two kami, Oiwa (Big Rock) as well as Koiwa (Little Rock).  They were in the same enclosure behind the Worship Hall.

Big Rock and Little Rock, two sacred objects of worship and spirit-bodies for the kami

Big Rock and Little Rock, two sacred objects of worship and spirit-bodies for the kami

From my observation there was only one Sanctuary, where unusually alongside the large sacred rock stood another small sacred rock, ‘like a baby’ as my companion put it.

The notion of rocks having babies is an ancient one that goes back into prehistory long before the time of imperial Shinto.  Here was yet another indication of an elemental form of Shinto.  And the prevalence of otsuka was fascinating, linking the shrine with Fushimi Inari where the stone altars famously cover the hill.

A fanciful notion formed in my mind.  Had the Kii clan been part of the incoming Yamato force that marched across the Kii peninsula at the time of Jimmu?  And if so, would they not have had Korean origins and be linked with shamanistic rock worship?  The route by which some incomers would have arrived, from northern Kyushu and across the Inland Sea, was characterised by a multitude of sacred rocks.  And there are several iwakura (sacred rocks) at Fushimi Inari too.

Perhaps then the Kii had settled in the Fukakusa area, and the Fushimi Hill had been their tutelary kami.  Perhaps they were ousted by an expanding Hata clan, who claimed the Fushimi Hill as their own with an invented story about a kami appearing there.  Perhaps Oiwa Jinja even represented the original form of rock worship in the Kyoto basin, before the appearance of Inari.  My fancies were running riot.

I still had two leads to follow up in an attempt to solve the mystery.  One was Fushimi Inari, the other the legally responsible owner.  I’d had dealings with Fushimi Inari before, and they’d always been most helpful.  There is a large team of priests there, some of whom resemble office workers.  I’d already learnt that Oiwa Jinja was not a member of Jinja Honcho (Association of Shrines), and neither was Fushimi Inari.  It seemed yet another reason to suspect a connection.

The profusion of 'otsuka' stone altars is reminiscent of Fushimi Inari

The profusion of ‘otsuka’ stone altars is reminiscent of Fushimi Inari

There's something about the shrine that lingers in the mind, captured here in a photo by Ken Rodgers showing an eerie black entity in the abandoned compound.

There’s something about the shrine that lingers in the mind, captured here in a photo by Ken Rodgers showing an eerie black entity in the abandoned compound.

The mystery of Oiwa (pt 2)

Disused and untended, the shrine buildings have been abandoned to nature

Disused and untended, the shrine buildings have been abandoned to nature

The main part of Oiwa Jinja is the upper section, for it contains the sanctuary with altar and goshintai (spirit-body) of large and small rock.  As far as I could tell, this was elemental Shinto as it used to be in ancient times before the religion was co-opted for imperial purposes.  Formless and nameless, the kami is here manifest in a natural object that serves as a focus for worship – or used to serve as focus.  It suggests a link with prehistoric practice and makes the shrine all the more fascinating.

To the side of the Sanctuary stands another torii decorated by Domoto Insho, together with an impressive avenue of stone lanterns. There are also many examples of the otsuka characteristic of the Inari faith, whereby stone altars with individualised names of the kami are erected by devotees.  The names of donors indicated that many belonged to a fraternity named Osaka Tokki Kouchuu.

A notice in the abandoned shrine office gave prices that seemed to date from the Taisho period

A notice in the abandoned shrine office gave prices that seemed to date from the Taisho period

The general impression was of a shrine that until very recently had been a flourishing enterprise. A bright red lacquered torii which looked relatively new was dated 1999.  A stone lantern bore an even later date, donated in 2014. How had the shrine fallen into such decay?

The abandoned shrine buildings stood forlorn, and on the shuttered shrine office was a small handwritten notice saying that following the departure of the long-serving priest in Nov. 2014, there were no more rituals or services.  It was dated Jan 2015, and an address given for someone called Kubo Yoshio, the ‘shukyou houjin’ (person legally responsible).

Along the main approach were more stone altars, and we exited onto a deserted dead-end road and headed downhill, stopping to make enquiries of some farmers.  They knew little of the shrine, but thought there was no ujiko (parishioners group).  At the bottom of the hill stood a kindergarten, and I wandered in to ask if they could help us.  Again they knew little, but they did have a brochure of the area with a brief account of the shrine.

According to the brochure, the shrine was started by the Kii clan mentioned in the Yamashiro fudoki (accounts of ancient times).  They had apparently been pushed out of their original Fukakusa area by the Hata clan, who had established a shrine at Fushimi Inari in 711.  The Kii relocated southwards to Oiwa Hill, which became their tutelary guardian (hills overlooking areas where clans lived usually became their holy place of worship).

The upper section has another, smaller Domoto torii

The upper section has another, smaller torii designed by artist Domoto Insho

In the Onin War (1467-1477) the shrine had been destroyed and all the records lost.  Apparently it stayed that way until the Meiji Restoration, when the Kubo family restored it (still today there are many Kubo living in the adjacent area).

From ancient times the shrine had been known for its power to heal serious illness (especially TB).  Those who had come here to pray included the mother of Kyoto artist, Domoto Insho, and this explained the two torii that he had decorated and donated.  One had been donated in 1952 when his mother was still alive, and the other in 1963 after she had died.

(An inscription on the back of the larger torii mentioned a male aged 70 and a female aged 95, both born in the year of the rabbit, presumably a reference to Domoto’s parents. On the smaller and later torii is an eerie depiction of a woman with no legs (Japanese spirits are by tradition legless.)

Because the brochure had been produced a few years earlier, there was no reference to the shrine’s difficulties or abandonment.  I was eager to learn more, and so rang the author of the brochure who said his informant had been the priest running the shrine, named Tsuji Shozo.  However, he had no contact number and no information about whether he was still alive.

This was all very fascinating, but I was intrigued by what happens to shrines that have been abandoned.  How and why had it been abandoned, anyway?  Perhaps the local ward office would have some answers for me, I reasoned, and headed off to see what they had to say.  But what they told me only served to deepen the mystery….

The path up to the upper section of the shrine was attractive and well structured.

The path up to the upper section of the shrine was attractive and well structured.


Yet the shrine buildings were in a bad state of decay...

The shrine buildings were in a bad state of decay…


Yet the altar was still in pretty good shape.

Yet the altar was still in pretty good shape.



Behind the altar is the sacred rock that served as the object of worship, together with fox guardians and a small torii

There was another torii carved by Domoto Insho, but not so grand as the one in the lower section

There was another torii decorated by Domoto Insho, but not so grand as the one in the lower section



In the surrounding woods were stone altars with individualised names of Inari.


There were some appealing Inari subshrines too

There were some appealing Inari subshrines too


Judging by the entrance approach to the shrine you'd have no idea that beyond was an abandoned shrine

Judging by this stone lantern approach you’d have no idea that it leads to an abandoned shrine


For part 3 of the Oiwa mystery, click here.

The mystery of Oiwa (Pt 1)

DSC_2146It’s not often you get to play Indiana Jones, but that’s how it felt on a recent excursion to the overgrown Oiwa Jinja for there is something of the feel of Angkor Wat about the abandoned shrine.  Oddly, after more than twenty years in the city I’d never come across this exotic gem before.  Or even heard of it.

It was Ken Rogers of Kyoto Journal who first drew my attention to the shrine, when he sent me photos of a highly decorated torii he had come across.  It was the work of Kyoto artist Doumoto Insho, he said, and stood on the south eastern stretch of the city, on the trail between Fushimi Inari and Momoyama Castle.

Dragon Pond

Surprisingly there is next to no information about the shrine on the internet, even in Japanese.  The location on Oiwa Hill was easy to track down, though, and after locating a torii at the base of the hill my partner and I set off on foot to investigate.  The path took us away from civilisation and through a thick bamboo forest, the lushest I’ve seen in Kyoto, then into mixed and overgrown woods.

As we approached Dragon Pond (Shirahime Ryujin Okami), the ground grew increasingly soggy and there were ominous signs saying ‘Beware of mamushi’ (poisonous snake).  Then after winding uphill, the path took us round a bend to reveal a striking scene.  There before us was a Greek-style torii, totally unexpected in this very Japanese setting.  Behind it stood dilapidated wooden buildings, their roofs caved in by fallen trees.

The stone lanterns, rock shrines and guardian statues spoke of a once flourishing shrine.  Now, however, the forces of nature had started the laborious task of reclaiming them.  Neglect and decay were still in their early stages, but clearly the precincts had not received the attention they badly needed.

Fudo Myoo

Looking around, I could see the typical features of Inari shinko (the Inari faith).  There were stone altars called otsuka, which bore individualised names of the kami.  There were red torii and guardian foxes too, just as at nearby Fushimi Inari.

In the middle of the buildings was a place for misogi (cold water austerities). The overgrown entrance suggested it was more frequented by snakes than ascetics in recent years.  Presiding over it all was the ever vigilant Fudo Myoo, solitary sentinel of the now unused facility.

How and when had this marvellous shrine been abandoned, I wondered?  How could somewhere so prestigious as to boast a torii from famed artist Domoto Inshou be now so neglected?  As we wound our way further up the hill, we discussed the possibilities.  What we hadn’t realised, however, was that the main part of the shrine lay up ahead, unseen through the thick woods.  What we discovered there only served to deepen the mystery.

The entrance torii looks typically inviting - a gateway into the realm of kami.

The entrance torii looks typically inviting – a gateway into the realm of kami.


The bamboo surrounds were superb

Oiwa torii gate and half-torii

But soon suggestions of neglect began to appear…

.... then a most unexpected scene

…. then a most unexpected scene

The design of the torii was puzzling, and the  name too was intriguing - Big Rock (Oiwa) and Little Rock (Koiwa) Shrine.

The design was puzzling, and the name too was intriguing – Big Rock (Oiwa) and Little Rock (Koiwa) Shrine. (photo Ken Rodgers)


Some serious damage had been done…

... and some of the buildings were barely visible

… and some of the buildings were barely visible

... and the entrance to the misogi waterfall was overgrown and spooky.

… and the entrance to the misogi waterfall was overgrown and spooky.

Yet all around was evidence of a once flourishing Inari faith.

Yet all around was evidence of a once flourishing Inari faith.


Click here for part two of the mystery…

Wolf spirit

Okuchimakami: The spirit wolves of the Kanto Mountains
By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News

By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News

One day last week I was doing some research at a nearby Shinto shrine; mapping and measuring the girth of trees and recording species of insects, birds and wildflowers in the shrine’s sacred grove. This was a typical Chinjusha, a local shrine that watches over a particular village. The shrine building itself was small, but was surrounded by huge specimens of chinquapin, cryptomeria, live oaks and momi firs.As is often the case with these chinjusha, there were a half dozen or so small sub-shrines within the precincts. Each of these honors a different kami deity. One particular sub-shrine was guarded by a pair of stone doglike animals. Without thinking I first assumed this to be just another of the ubiquitous Inari shrines, dedicated to an agricultural goddess that has foxes serving as her familiar spirits.

Up close, however, I was surprised to see that the sacred stone was not dedicated to Inari, but instead commemorated a pilgrimage undertaken to the Mitsumine Mountains. Mitsumine, or “Three-peak Mountain,” is a general term referring to a rugged chain in the Chichibu-Sanchi Range, at the headwaters of the Arakawa river in western Saitama Prefecture.

The Mitsumine Mountains, along with Mt. Takao, Mt. Tsukuba, Mt. Oyama and Mt. Mitake, comprise the Kanto region’s premier Reizan, or “Spirit Mountains.” Since ancient times people have made pilgrimages to these mountains, hoping to obtain special blessings and spiritual contentment. More hard-core ascetics, known as yamabushi or shugenja, often spend long periods in the mountains, praying, fasting, running up and down the slopes, and standing underneath thundering waterfalls.

Fox and komainu guardians are common, but a wolf is a rare sight indeed.

Fox and komainu guardians are common, but a wolf is a rare sight indeed.

Mitsumine Shrine, located just below Myohogadake at the northern edge of the chain, is the main shrine serving the Mitsumine Mountains. According to legend, this shrine was founded about 2,000 years ago by the great hero Yamato Takeru, a son of Emperor Keiko.

Takeru had been dispatched from the capital in the Nara Basin to subdue the rebellious Emishi tribes in the northern Kanto and Tohoku regions. He had completed his mission and was heading back home when he became ensorcelled and lost his way in the mountains. Some wolves appeared from the forest and guided him to safety. Since then, wolves have been considered to be the familiar spirits of the Mitsumine Mountains.

This meant that the doglike stone guardians in front of the little sub-shrine were not foxes at all, but Japanese wolves. Carvings on the pilgrimage stone indicate a dedication date of 1844. At that time, there were still wolves all over Japan. The Japanese wolf or nihon-okami was long considered to be an endemic species different from the familiar gray wolf of Eurasia and North America (C. lupus). Recent genetic research, however, has shown that the Japanese wolves were actually a subspecies of the gray wolf.

The Japanese wolves probably entered the islands from the Korean Peninsula during the last glacial epoch, when sea levels were lower than today and the Tsushima Strait was much narrower. Later, when sea levels rose, the island populations were isolated from those on the continent. As is the case with black bear, wild boar and many of Japan’s native mammals, the isolated island forms became reduced in size.

Like other island mammals, the Yakushima deer is smaller than on the mainland.

Like other island mammals, the Yakushima deer is smaller than on the mainland.

The Japanese wolf was once widespread on the islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, with a separate subspecies, the ezo-okami on Hokkaido. Unfortunately, the wolves began disappearing rapidly when modern traps and hunting rifles were introduced in the late 19th century. The last confirmed observation of a Japanese wolf was a young male killed by hunters in Nara Prefecture in 1905. The Ezo-okami as well was extinct before the turn of the century.

Only six confirmed taxidermy specimens of the Japanese wolf survive today. Three of these are in Japan. One is on permanent display at the National Science Museum in Ueno Park. This specimen is arranged alongside a North American coyote, and the two canids appear to be of about the same size and build.

The spirit wolves of the Kanto Mountains, known as Okuchimakami, are revered by farmers, who believe that a wolf charm will keep deer, wild boar and other destructive animals out of their fields. A charm placed at the entrance to a home is also thought to ward off burglars and prevent fires. In the past villages would pool their resources to send a delegation on a pilgrimage to Mitsumine to offer prayers and bring back charms. This stone most likely commemorates such a pilgrimage.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

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