Suwa Taisha Spiritual Cycling

June 11th, 2019 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Report

Suwa Taisha is one of Japan’s oldest sanctuaries, so old that nobody knows when it first came to be. Its origins are object to much speculation and some say the history of the shrine goes back thousands of years. What we do know is that it’s mentioned in the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest written text to date, so well… pretty old.

Suwa Taisha has always had a big influence in the local community, so we got the idea to create a guide tour to the two upper shrines of Homniya and Maemiya which would shed light on the most interesting points of Suwa’s history and culture.
To make it more fun we decided to use bikes!

Here’s a report from this spring:
(Skip to the end of the articles for the tour details)

The meeting point for the tour is the Tourist Information Center at Chino Station, where the tourism bureau has started renting bikes, pedalecs to be precise (*bikes where the pedaling is assisted by a small electrical motor). Get your bike, make a few adjustments and you’re ready to go. The guide will take you through back alleys and less trafficked roads to your first destination. The highlight of the cycling course is the tract along Miyagawa river which is lined with dozens cherry trees and has a great view on the Yatsugatake Mountains.

Before heading for Suwa Taisha shrine, stop by a kanten shop selling agar agar, the local specialty. You can taste raw agar and get a few explanations on how it’s produced. We’ll see more of kanten later on, but for now let’s move to Maemiya.

Suwa Taisha is made up of 4 complexes, two upper shrines on the Eastern side of Lake Suwa and two lower shrines on the Western side. This tour will take you to the upper shrines, Maemiya and Honmiya. Maemiya is considered the most ancient and that is reflected in its eclectic layout which sets no definite boundaries between the shrine spaces, the nature spaces and the human spaces. The prayer hall is positioned uphill at the border of the woods, but no sweat, with the pedalecs getting there will be a piece of cake!

I have a strict no spoiler policy, so I’m not going to give out the juicy bits, but Suwa Taisha is a unique place where the Shinto of modern Japan and the animism of ancient Japan coexist. And there is no better place than Maemiya to show that: massive centenarian trees stands behind every shrine, no matter how small, the chozuya where you wash hands and purify your body is a natural pool of water fed by a mountain stream and the towering wooden pillars erected during the primeval festival of Onbashira protect the shrine.

After uncovering the millenary secrets of Suwa Taisha, we’ll proceed toward Moriya Jinchokan Historical Museum and a quirky teahouse cluster. The museum which contains some of Japan’s oldest scriptures is the first building designed by the local architect Fujimori Terunobu, famous worldwide for his fantastical architecture which seems to melt into the surrounding nature. The teahouses are works by Fujimori as well, the oldest -Takasugi-an (“The too-high teahouse”) has been listed by The Time’s among the world’s 10 most precarious buildings.

 

 

 

 

We’re close to our final stop for the day, but you must be thirsty by now so why don’t we take a break? There is a local café right next to Honmiya run by a local stonemason’s wife with a delightful Japanese garden. The owner will serve some delicious traditional food such as home-made Japanese pickles and colorful agar cakes (you remember agar?) with a nice cup of tea.

Our tour will end at Honmiya, the biggest of Suwa Taisha’s shrines. Wash your hands with fuming hot spring water, admire the detailed carvings decorating the shrine and pay your respect once more to the gods. Then, hop on your bike one last time and follow the guide back to the station while enjoying the scenery.

Tour details
Period: From April to late November
Duration: 3h
No. of participants: Min. 2 persons Max. 6 persons
Price: JPY 5,000 (tax excl.)/ person
Included in the price: Guide, Bike rental, Tea break, Insurance
Access: 1 min on foot from JR Chino station
(*Chino station is 30 min from Matsumoto by special express)
Reservations: https://chinotabi.jp/en/activity/111/

Snowshoeing Around the Shrines of Togakushi

February 7th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The Zuishinmon Gate marks the entrance to the Okusha’s lane of giant cypress trees.

Togakushi is often overlooked during winter in favor of Jigokudani’s snow monkeys or Hakuba’s ski slopes, but it offers a memorable winter experience you won’t find anywhere else. Walking effortlessly on freshly fallen snow, you can admire the forest’s towering, 400-year-old trees and ancient Shinto shrines—not to mention the precipitous face of Mt. Togakushi itself.

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48 Hours in Nagano City

August 18th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

In 1998, Nagano City hosted the Winter Olympic Games and introduced the world to the Japanese Alps, the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, and glorious Japanese powder (or, “japow”). But that isn’t all that the area has to offer. With beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the heart of Japan’s mountains, Nagano City is a hub of spiritual sites and natural splendor.

Take a model 2-day trip around Nagano City and enjoy another side of Japan!

National Treasure Zenkoji

The main hall of Zenkoji Temple


After arriving in Nagano, walk (or ride the colorful Gururingo bus) from the station to Zenkoji, following the wooden lanterns along Chuo-dori street. Eventually you’ll reach Motozen-machi with its cobbled streets and beautiful temple lodges. After passing through the Niomon and Sannomon gates, you’ll see Zenkoji—one of the largest wooden temples in Japan with over 1400 years of history.
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Experiencing the Japanese Countryside in Chikuma

November 30th, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Culture Art, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities

Tyler shows our group some Showa era graffiti on a local earthern wall.

On a beautiful fall day, I joined a group of foreigners on a cycling tour of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen south of Chikuma City. The area was once home to several mountain castles and a post town so there is a wealth of history in the area. Our guide, local ryokan owner and area expert Tyler, took us along beautiful mountain roads and pointed out interesting relics and features along the way.
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Impressions of the Onbashira Festival

July 13th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Report

Locals watch as the first pillar is lifted into place at the Harumiya shrine.

The Onbashira festival is finally at an end. After months of preparation and twelve long days of labor, the sixteen onbashira pillars have reached their resting places at the corners of the four shrines of Suwa Taisha.

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Nagano’s Quiet Samurai Town

June 21st, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Experience, Sightseeing

Matsushiro castle in spring.

Matsushiro was once the domain of the Sanada clan, the samurai family starring in NHK’s newest historical drama, Sanada Maru. The Matsushiro domain covered the largest area of the Shinano province and thrived as a castle town during the Edo period. Now the Matsushiro area is a sleepy, undeveloped town with pristine artifacts of its Samurai history.

A group of us visited Matsushiro recently to learn more about its history and enjoy some cultural activities and local food.

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Summer Fun Around Lake Suwa

May 27th, 2016 by
Category: Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

A view of the lake from the rooftop of the Clasuwa restaurant.

In a land-locked prefecture, the Suwa area is surprisingly blessed with water. The surface of lake Suwa offers beautiful, reflective views of the surrounding mountains and sky. Hot springs bubble up from the grounds of Kami and Shimosuwa and feed over 150 public bathing facilities in the area. And, fresh water from the highlands helps brew Suwa’s many award-winning rice wines.

Visitors to the area have been increasing in advent of the 2016 Onbashira festival, so I thought I’d take a closer look at Suwa’s activities and sights.

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Hatsumode- the First Visit to a Shrine

January 3rd, 2013 by
Category: Information
the front Torii gate for Ikushima Tarushima Shrine

the front Torii gate for Ikushima Tarushima Shrine

 

Hatsumode literally means ‘ the first visit to a shrine or a temple’, and this year we  visited the Ikushima Tarushima Shrine in Ueda city.

My fellow blogger, Tyler-san has written about the shrine with a perfect explanation

so I will save the details on the shrine, but instead of the serene and quiet atmosphere of the shrine which Tyler-san depicted, the shrine on  new year’s holiday was very festive and crowded.

 

 

the bridge to the main hall of the shrine

this bridge is allowed to cross only during the New Year holidays

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a long queue to cross the vermillion bridge which locates in the center of the shrine and leads to the main hall.

This bridge we heard, is open only during the New Year’s holidays for people visiting the shrine for their Hatsumode.
Other than the season, the bridge is saved only for the Gods and no one is allowed to cross it.
Once crossed the bridge we were right in front of the main hall, and making an 8 people lined queue by the instuction of a priest, we made the official visit to the Gods.
“a light bow- 2 deep bows- 2 clappings of hands- a deep bow- one last light bow”
is the politest official courtesy to Gods.  Of course you may make a wish afte clapping the second hands.
ducks in the shrine

ducks inside the shrine site

 

 

Legends of Zenkouji Temple – the Devoted Raccoon Dog

December 16th, 2012 by
Category: Culture Art, Information

Zenkouji Temple in Nagano City has many legends associated with it. On the east side of the road leading to Zenkouji, just south of the Nioumon Gate and outside one of the pilgrim lodges, is a small statue and sign about a devoted raccoon dog (mujina in Japanese).

The raccoon dog story on the roadside south of Zenkouji Temple

Next to the sign is a small sculpture of the raccoon dog and the monk.

Sculpture of the devoted raccoon dog and the monk

The lantern itself is still in the grounds of Zenkouji Temple. Look for it about 20m west of the southwest corner of the main hall.

Mujina Lantern at Zenkouji Temple

There is another, longer version of this story. A raccoon dog’s parents had died tragically, so the raccoon disguised itself as a human and travelled to Zenkouji. He wanted to dedicate a lantern to comfort his parents’ souls. He checked into the pilgrim’s lodge, and organized the construction of the lantern. After it was completed, he was relaxing in the bath when the landlord discovered he was a raccoon. He ran away. A while later, a samurai came to Zenkouji. Late that night, he went to pray at the temple. Near the lantern, he saw an apparition which was following him. He drew his sword and fought the ghost, and in the battle, he accidentally struck the lantern. Next day, the samurai went back to the temple and saw a scar on the lantern, from which blood had oozed. The lantern photo above shows a diagonal mark on the square stone above the vertical writing. Maybe that is the sword mark? The samurai left town and headed north. While travelling through the deep forest in the mountains, he was buried alive by a sandstorm, and died. Why? Because three years earlier he had needlessly killed the raccoon dog’s parents while travelling over a mountain pass. (Thanks to Miyairi-san for help with the translation.)

Mecca of Japanese Pilgrimage — Zenko-ji Temple

May 12th, 2012 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Sightseeing
Main Hall of Zenko-ji Temple (National Treasure)

Main Hall of Zenko-ji Temple (National Treasure)

Nagano, widely known as the host city of the Winter Olympics in 1998, has always been a Buddhist mecca for Japanese pilgrims since ancient times. This renowned temple, Zenkoji, has a history of 1,400 years and has grand 300 year-old Main Hall (believed to be one of the three largest historical Buddist temple buildings in Japan) designated as a National Treasure complementing its natural environs.
Walking through the pitch-black passageway underneath the altar of the sacred main image of Zenkoji (Amitabha), and touching the ‘Key to Paradise’, will give you a deep insight into what Buddhism has meant to the Japanese people.

Bell Tower of Zenko-ji Temple

Bell Tower of Zenko-ji Temple

Nio-mon (Deva King Gate)

Nio-mon (Deva King Gate)

 

Here, with an advance reservations and according to the number of your party, you can experience traditional Japanse culture such as Kimono, Tea Ceremony, and Zazen. Traditional Buddhist Meals are also available.

Nagano is only 85 min from Tokyo by Shinkansen. Come visit us.