Kosuge is a little hamlet tucked away in a high corner of Iiyama City. A super steep road rising up from the Chikuma River takes you under tori gates and into the heart of this ancient village. You can walk right up from the Sekizawa bus stop, but be prepared for a bit of a climb. It’s worth it though.
At first glance, Kosuge may seem like another little farming village, but it is so much more. I felt like I walked into one of Miyazaki’s Ghibli films. Scenes from Kosuge hardly feel like they could exist outside of some fantasy. Cedar trees wider than your out-stretched arms line the narrow roads. Slanting rock walls of large irregular but perfectly interlocking stones form the shapes of flowers at their seams. Water always flowing, dripping, pooling seems to be inviting you to be with it. And the imposing mountains looking down on you are not threatening, but reminding you of your place. It is easy to see why local people believe that it is a land of gods, and it has been known as such for over a thousand years. It was particularly famous as a training ground for natural ascetic monks, the ones who would live in solitude in the mountains and meditate under the pelting of waterfalls.
For those with a little time and leg strength, you must climb up to the mountain top shrine, the Kosuge Okusha Honden, and walk in the steps of so many pilgrims before you.
I highly recommend reading up a little on its history before making a visit. I am by no means an expert on it, so there may be some mistakes here, but I will try to explain a little. The Kosuge area received patronage from a rich and powerful daimyo who financially supported its development. However, when he was transferred to a different region, all of the records were taken with him and never recovered, so many exact dates for structures are lost to time. With the ebb and flow of politics, noble families of Kyoto sometimes fell from favor. Many of them moved to Kosuge for refuge. Then I believe at the start of the Edo period, Buddhism and Shinto gods were separated from one another. Prior to that, they dwelled together and received worship together. Kosuge then became strictly a Shinto only place. Many of the Buddhist images and relics were destroyed, buried, or hidden. Luckily some remain, like the three massive statues in the Koudou building. There is also a rock at the base of the Okusha trail with ancient Buddhist carvings that was discarded and buried, but recently is has rediscovered and put on prominent display. The local people are trying to recover and preserve as much of Kosuge as they can, both the Shinto and Buddhist aspects. So this is one of the few places in Japan where you can experience the ancient harmony of Shinto and Buddhism.
There is so much history and importance here and it is just quietly waiting for you to discover it.