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.
Period: From April to late November
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)