As one walks along the stream flowing through the middle of Agano Village at the beginning of Section 11, one will eventually catch sight of a large boulder atop which sits a small pine tree and a stone statue accompanied by several red flags bearing white characters. According to local legend, this stone is the residence of the goddess Benzaiten (弁財天), a deity that originated in India and has since entered the Japanese Buddhist-Shinto syncretic tradition.
Benzaiten originated as a goddess of a holy river and was worshiped for making lands fertile and prosperous, but has since developed into a deity who governs all things that flow, including music, rhythm, and speech. They say the bridge near this rock is blessed by the goddess, and those who cross over it can feel her miraculous powers. If you are a musician or a writer, consider sending a prayer to Benzaiten as you pass.
This post is a continuation of last week’s post on Section 9 of the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama. Be sure to check out last week’s post for general information, bus timetables, and additional points of interest.
More Points of Interest
A Mountain with a Class-1 Triangulation Point
In 1888 the Department of Land Survey (陸地測量部) set out to produce the first modern survey of the country and so installed a network of triangulation points across the country to serve as a standard of measurement for this endeavor. The 1/50,000 scale maps that were produced from this survey became the gold standards for Japan’s first generation of recreational hikers. Today these original markers are known as Class-1 Triangulation Points and can be found spaced at roughly 40 km intervals all across the country, one of which can be found at the summit of Castle Peak.
In Saitama Prefecture alone there are eleven Class-1 triangulation points. Five of these are located on top of mountains: Three Jewels Mountain (Sanpōzan, 三宝山, 2,483m), Cloud-Catcher Mountain (Kumotori-yama, 雲取山), Mt. Dōdaira (堂平山, 876m), Lookout Mountain (Monomi-yama, 物見山, 375m), and Castle Peak Mountain (1038m). From the summit of Castle Peak, the first three of these are visible. In addition, many other Class-1 points outside of Saitama are also visible from the summit, including Mt. Nantai (男体山), Kesamaru Mountain (袈裟丸山), Jizo Peak (地蔵岳) at Akagi Mountain (赤城山), Hotaka Mountain (武尊山), Komochi Mountain (子持山), Tanigawa Peak (谷川岳), Mt. Haruna (榛名山), and Akakuna Mountain (赤久縄山).
Castle Peak’s Legendary Tragedy
In the first half of the 10th century, the warlord Taira no Masakado, a rebel against the central Japanese state based in Kyoto, subjugated the Eight Kanto States, or Kanhasshū (関八州), which once occupied the broad plain where Tokyo now lies. Shortly after he captured the state of Shimōsa (下総) Masakado established a castle on the top of a mountain far to the east, which was then known as the Peak of Ishima (石間ヶ岳). From then on, the local villagers began to call the mountain “Castle Peak.” At least, this is according to tradition.
In those days, the Kanto area was on the hinterlands of state authority and could have been considered particularly valuable in and of itself, but Masakado’s subjugation could not be left unchallenged. Therefore, Fujiwara no Hidesato (藤原秀郷) was dispatched to bring the Eight States back under imperial control. According to legend, the two faced off in Chichibu, with Masakado occupying the high ground at Castle Peak.
Staying in the fort with him at the time was his beloved wife, Bellflower (Kikyō, 桔梗). Unbeknownst to him, however, she would at times disappear from the fort, but for what reason is unclear. Some stories say that she was betraying him, reporting secret information to Hidesato, while other stories say that Masakado, upon discovering her absences, merely assumed this to be the case. Regardless, all accounts agree that Masakado had her executed for this offence. Shortly thereafter, Masakado himself was defeated and executed. Thereafter, bell-flowers ceased to bloom on the mountain.
Taira no Masakado and Mt. Castle Peak
The above legend notwithstanding, there actually isn’t any hard evidence that Taira no Masakado ever personally set foot in Chichibu, let alone Mt. Castle Peak, and yet a great number of Masakado legends have been passed down through the ages all over the region. This appears to be due to the fact that the area became a stronghold of the Bandō branch of the Taira family (坂東平氏). Since Masakado became such a famous figure, the Bandō Tairas likely spread these rumors in order to secure an association with their more famous family member.
That said, there are many signs of military activity times past. For example, great many military-sounding place names can be found all over the mountain, including “Horse-Washing Pool” (Uma-arai Fuchi, 馬洗い渕), “The Estate Grounds (O-Yashiki Ba , お屋敷場), Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城), King’s Castle (Ōjō, 王城), Castle Valley (Shiro-no-Sawa, 城の沢), and Castle Flat (Jōdaira, 城平). On top of those places, an excavation survey carried out by prefectural government discovered a flat area on Castle Peak that is thought to be the remains of a lookout site. Despite this, experts believe that these all date to the Warring States Period rather than to Masakado’s time.
Castle Peak Shrine
Shortly after descending from the summit of Castle Peak, the trail visits Castle Peak Shrine, whose founder is said to be Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, the same figure who founded Hodo-san Shrine in the same area. According to legend, he climbed to this point during his famous Eastern Expedition to subjugate western Honshu to the central government in Kyoto in the 1st century CE. According to legend, when he reached the area, he deemed that it would be an excellent place to worship the gods, and so he enshrined an arrow there. Even today there remains a place on the north side of the ridge known as Yanō (矢納), or “Arrow-Offering.”
One of the interesting points about this shrine is the fact that it has a campground attached to it. This provides a rare experience for hikers spend the night sleeping on temple grounds. For this reason, I recommend anyone hiking this section to plan an overnight stay so you can take advantage of this chance.
Taira no Masakado in Japanese Culture
As a member of the Taira Clan, Taira no Masakado belonged to one of Japan’s oldest and most distinguished samurai clans, whose pedigree extends back to the earliest recorded history of the country. Thus, though in actual terms he was hardly more than a minor rebel who only briefly defied central authorities, he has nonetheless become an incredibly well-known figure, and has even become the subject of religious worship. This worship has typically taken two forms.
The first of these is the formal worship of his spirit at Shinto shrines dedicated specifically to him. Two prominent examples of these are Kanda Shrine (Kanda Myojin, 神田明神) and Torigoe Shrine (Torigoe Jinja, 鳥越神社), both in Tokyo. The second of these is the worship of Masakado’s severed head. After Fujiwara no Hidesato ended the rebellion and decapitated the rebel leader, he sent the head back to Kyoto to be put on display. Various stories have circulated about mysterious events connected to the head, including that it would laugh and passerby and also that it actually flew away back to Masakado’s hometown. The common people, hearing these stories and believing in the power of Masakado’s spirit, build kubizuka, or “Head Mounds,” to worship this mysterious power. Today you can still find some of these mounds in the Kanto area, for example at Enpuku Temple (円福寺) in Minano Town and another in Ōtemachi (大手町) in Tokyo.
Photos from the Trail
Trail at a Glance
The Path for Seeking Masakado Legends (Masakado Densetsu wo Saguru Michi, 将門伝説を探るみち)
On a day in November of 2018 I stood on the mountainside to the east of Nagatoro, overlooking a long arm of the Chichibu Basin stretching out towards the Kanto to the east. Below, the town spread out along the blue line that was the Rough River (Arakawa, 荒川), and past that the wall of mountains beyond which lay Gunma Prefecture, the next stage of the Fureai Trail. For nearly a year now, I had been making my way steadily to this point. And along that ridge, the highest peak rose up, towering over the basin, a perfect vantage point. I had stood there myself some months before. Then it was a peak wrapped in mist so thick that I could hardly see more than a few kilometers. At that time, I had no idea what view was hidden from me, nor how important that view has been in the past.
What I was looking at was Mt. Castle Peak (Jōmine-san, 城峰山), the focus of Section 9 of the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama Prefecture. At 1037.7 meters tall, the mountain is the tallest within Chichibu’s Jōbu Nature Park (上武自然公園) and commands a sweeping view of the mountains of Inner Chichibu (奥秩父), the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地), Nikko (日光), and also the mountains of Jōshinetsu (上信越). It’s a shame that on the day I passed through it was too misty to see any of that, but such is a common experience for hikers in Japan.
Given that the peak makes for such an excellent lookout position, it comes as no surprise that over the centuries it has been associated with prominent military figures, in particular the Heian Period (794 – 1185) rebel Taira no Masakado and also the Warring States Period (1467 – c. 1600) general Takeda Shingen. Even today there are numerous place names on and near the mountain that reflect this history: King’s Castle (Ōjō, 王城), Castle Mountain (Shiro-yama, 城山), Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城), and Castle Valley (Shiro-no-Sawa, 城の沢). As such, this section of trail makes an excellent stop not just for nature enthusiasts but also for fans of history as well.
At 14.3 km long, this section is the longest course on the trail since Section IV, all of which have been less than 10 km. As such, those who are more interested in hiking than simply strolling will definitely get their fill on this trip. The trail picks up some distance up the road from the end of Section VIII and is accessible by bus from Minano Station (皆野駅), but Google doesn’t have the bus line in its system yet, you’ll have to rely on this timetable. You should get off at Nishi Montaira (西門平). From the bus stop, walk further up the road a short distance until you see your first Fureai Trail marker.
The first half of the trail sticks to footpaths all the way to the summit of Castle Peak, but shortly after descending down to Castle Peak Shrine, the trail begins to follow predominantly roadways, though there are still some sections of actual trail. Towards the end, this section meets up with Section X before ending at Tosen Bridge (登仙橋). Google can carry you home from there.
Points of Interest
“The Bugs’ Farewell” of Montaira
If you’re planning on hiking this section in mid-August, consider planning your trip for the 16th so that you can witness a distinct local celebration: Montaira Village’s Mushi Okuri or “The Bugs’ Farewell.” In this event, the villagers perform a sort of exorcism to remove evil spirits from the village who were once believed to cause disease, pestilence, natural disasters, and all sorts of other misfortunes. The event features a parade of people in traditional dress marching to the edge of town while playing musical instruments such as taiko drums and flutes or carrying special flags, called segaki hata (施餓鬼旗), all the while chanting a special prayer.
This parade occurs on the last day of the Bon festival, a Buddhist celebration for honoring deceased ancestors celebrated all over Japan and is often compared to the Thanksgiving holiday in North America. The last day of the festival, on which Montaira’s Bugs’ Farewell occurs, is known as Okuribon (送り盆), or “Farewell Bon,” because on this day people would traditionally hold a ceremony in which they bid the spirits of their ancestors farewell.
What sets the Bugs’ Farewell apart from the more typical version of the festival is that in Montaira the focus of this ceremony is not to see off the spirits of their own ancestors, but rather to do so for the spirits of those who don’t have families to tend their graves. According to tradition, people who die childless or whose family line dies off are left in a deeply unsatisfied state and therefore cause all sorts of trouble for those of us in the human world. To appease these ghosts, the people of Montaira began holding this special ceremony just for them, bringing them to the edge of the town like honored guests on the point of departure. The festival acquired its name because, once these spirits were satisfied, they would quit sending bugs to lay pestilence upon the crops.
Mountain Forts of the Warring States Period
The period from 1467 to roughly 1600 is typical referred to as the Warring States Period, or Sengoku Jidai (戦国) and is marked by a collapse of central authority and the rise of autonomous military states across the country who constantly vied with each other for territorial control. A number of great generals are remembered from this time, among them one Takeda Shingen (武田信玄), who became active in the area around Castle Peak towards the end of this period. For those of you who have followed this blog, you might be interested to know that he was the ruler of the old state of Kai (甲斐), where a certain Peak of the Colt (甲斐駒ヶ岳) is located.
By 1569 Takeda had established control of western Jōshū (上州), whose southern border happened to be the mountain range on which Castle Peak sits. During that same year he pushed further south, crossing the Kanna River (神流川) into that range (which was then part of Musashi (武蔵) province), where he established a line of forts to secure his frontier. Among the many that he built, the best remembered today are Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城) and the lookout on Mt. Castle Peak, both of which are located along Section IX; Kanasana Mitake Castle (金鑚御嶽城) Kamikawa Village (神川村); Tiger Hill Castle (Tora-ga-Oka Jō, 虎が丘城) and Kanao Stronghold (Kanao Yōgai Sanjō, 金尾要害山城) in Yorii Town (寄居町); Highpine Castle (Takamatsu Jō, 高松城) and Dragon Valley Castle (Ryū-ga-Tani Jō, 竜ヶ谷) in Minano Town (皆野町).
Near the end of the Warring States Period, rival daimyo managed to capture one of the castles in Takeda’s line, and after Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s unification of the country their reason for existence was lost, so they fell into ruin. Today, only their earthwork portions remain.
More to come!
There was quite a lot of information about this section, more than could fit in a single post. Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we discuss more about the history of the area. Until then, please enjoy some of photos from my visit!
Trail at a Glance
The Path for Seeking Masakado Legends (Masakado Densetsu wo Saguru Michi, 将門伝説を探るみち)
On the day I hiked the Path Gazing Over the Chichibu Basin, the skies were threatening rain. I remember standing atop Gable Mountain (Happu-san, 破風山) looking out at the dark clouds rolling across the horizon obscuring the high mountains in the distance; nonetheless, the broad expanse of the basin lay clear ahead, painted in dark evergreen with geometric patches of grey townscape and pale green rice fields. Barely visible in the distance, the thin blue stroke of the Rough River (Arakawa, 荒川) meandered across the valley.
Nearby, my coworker Derek rested on a low, rough-cut wooden bench. In that humid August air, we were both thoroughly drenched in sweat. I checked my phone. “It looks like the sun might come out in a few hours. If we’re lucky, we just might get some swimming done this afternoon.”
That was the original plan at least. Since the Path Gazing Upon the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地を眺めるみち) is just a short 4.3 km section, we needed something to fill out the day trip. I’d ordinarily have been inclined to do a second section, but this one was isolated from the previous and the next by several kilometers of roadway, so I decided on another tack: a stop by the Rough River for some good swimming, something which had been longing for for a while. Wouldn’t you know it that the weeks of perfectly sunny skies would be punctuated with rain when I finally did. As it turned out, though we did get some rain the sun eventually did come out. During the rain, we got to enjoy a hotspring spa, and during the sun we went swimming in the river. I call that a win.
The Path Gazing Upon the Chichibu Basin officially starts some distance from the end of the previous section, but the two are connected by roadways marked with Fureai Trail signposts if one were to want to hike the whole distance. Once you arrive in the small village of Futto (風戸), however, the path turns left across the stream and up into the mountains. From there its a quick 4.3 km hike to the top of Gable Mountain (Hafu-san, 破風山) and back down to the pavement. Overall, it’s a fairly easy and quick hike well suited to people of all ages, but it still yields some fantastic views.
Being such a short section of trail, hikers ought to plan to spend a significant amount of time enjoying the various attractions to be found along the trail and just after. Luckily, this section has a lot to offer, including a hot spring spa, a variety of flowering plants, and a bit of history and religion. Read on for details.
Mangan no Yu Hotspring
Mangan no Yu Hotspring is a popular local hotspring sure to be lively with visitors on any weekend. Equipped with a gift shop selling local products, an outdoor bath in addition to the typical indoor pools and saunas, and a cafeteria to boot, you could easily spend a whole afternoon here relaxing after the hike. It’s located very close to the start of the trail, but since the route makes a horeshoe loop up to the summit of Gable Mountain before dropping back down to the main road, its pretty easy to just walk right back down after you finish. Derek and I spent a couple hours there while we waited for the rain to let up, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
The Flowers of Futto Village
A walk through a village in Saitama is certain to dazzle you with beautiful flowers, and Futto is no different. Even in August, everywhere I looked there were flowers of all colors blooming.
The Shade Rhododendron Colony in Futto
If you’re visiting in May, about 2 km into the hike you’ll come across a slope covered in pale yellow flowers: these are Futto Village’s colony of shade rhododendrons (hikage tsutsuji, 日陰躑躅). This evergreen shrub native to Japan grows approximately 1 meter high and can be found in shady spots on mountainsides all over Shikoku and Kyushu, but only grows in the southern half of Honshu. In fact, this particular colony is thought to be at the absolute extremity of their livable climate — no other known colonies exist further north.
Known as Japanese Andromeda in English, asebi is a medium-sized shrub whose name written in Chinese characters literally means “horse intoxicating tree” and was so named because its poisonous leaves would cause horses who ate them to behave as though they were drunk. Interestingly, though, this poison had its benefits: in the old days, farmers would steep the leaves and stems in hot water and then spray the resulting tea on plants and livestock as insect repellent. I suppose we hikers today might use it in this way if we forget to bring our own repellent, but try it at your own risk.
Asebi typically grows from 1.5 to 3 meters high and can be found everywhere in Japan. Owing to its wide distribution, its has become known by a variety of names according to local dialects, including asebu, ashibi, and asebo, among others. It can be identified by its long, thin, and waxy leaves that taper to a point, accompanied by its pale purple bell-shaped flowers, which bloom in March. Be careful not to mistake it for suzuran, another species that features similarly shaped flowers.
About a half a kilometer from the summit of Gable Mountain is Monkey Rock (Saru Iwa, 猿岩), a outcrop right by the trail that stands about 3 or 4 meters high. The rock can be scaled easily around the back side without needing to do any real bouldering, and from the top one can get a decent view of the surrounding landscape.
The summit of Gable Mountain is easily the highlight of the trip. At a height of just 627 meters, at first glance it might not seem worth the trip, but in fact the summit offers a sweeping view of the Chichibu Basin as well as the high mountains beyond, making it a great destination for photographers and sightseers alike. I imagine the view would be especially beautiful on a starry night, where one could juxtapose the light of the town below with that of the moon. Just below the summit is a large pavilion that would make an excellent place to sleep for the night.
Shortly after descending from the summit of Gable Mountain one will arrive at Tagstand Pass (Fuda-tate Toge, 札立峠), where the trail joins with the Chichibu Fudasho pilgrimage route. This route covered 100 km and takes roughly 6 days to complete, during which pilgrims visit a total of 34 local temples, each of which offers a fuda, a type of paper tag used as a talisman; to complete the pilgrimage, one should acquire a fuda from each of these temples. This pass is located between the last two temples on the route, Kikusui Temple (Chrysanthemum-water Temple, 菊水寺) and Suisen Temple (Water-concealing Temple, 水潜寺). The route follows the Akahira River (赤平川) from the former in Hisanaga Village (久長集落) before descending down to the latter in Shimo Hinozawa, where pilgrims can receive their final fuda tag.
At first thought, one might assume that the name “tagstand” originates from the fuda tags associated with the pilgrimage route, but actually it comes from a different fuda tag. According to the stories, long ago in great times of drought, monks would climb up to this point to place special fuda to request the gods send rain.
The way to Suisen Temple follows a narrow ravine lined by rocky outcrops. As you approach the temple, Buddhist monuments start to appear on the right.
I wasn’t able to find a lot of information about the temple’s history, but the hall dedicated to the Buddhist deity Kannon located there was apparently built in 1828, so it’s a fairly historic building. It’s also the final stop on the Chichibu 34 Holy Grounds and Japan’s 100 Kannon Holy Grounds pilgrimages. Even today you can still sometimes see pilgrims passing through wearing the traditional white tunic and sedge hat.
The main object of worship here is a single block wooden statue of the Thousand Handed Kannon, which dates back to the Kamakura Period (1185–1333). The temple also venerates images of the deities Amida Nyorai and the Yakushi Nyorai. These two deities represent the Saigoku and Bando regions respectively, which along with Chichibu comprise the entire area within which the the 100 Kannon Pilgrimage is contained.
Unfortunately, as the temple occupied an extremely narrow valley and was set somewhat up a hillside slightly obscured by trees, it was impossible to get a decent shot of the building.
Trail at a Glance
The Path Gazing over the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地を眺める道)
The following post is Part 2 of my two part series about Hôdô-san Shrine in the town of Nagatoro, Japan. Be sure to check out Part 1 before reading on! And be sure to leave a comment and let me know what you think.
The Sub-Shrines at Hôdô-san
It isn’t at all uncommon for Shinto shrines to be accompanied by one or more sub-shrines, or betsu-gû (別宮). In Hôdô-san’s case, there are three: Tenmanten Shrine, Hogyoku Inari Shrine, and Yamato Takeru Shrine. Each is dedicated to a different spirit, and each has its own legends, traditions, and holidays, which are explained below.
Originally, this shrine was simply dedicated to the renowned Heian Period (794-1185) poet and statesman Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真). However, in later years another nearby shrine was combined with this one and so was renamed Tenmanten Shrine (天満天神社). Michizane, however, remained as the venerated spirit, and is today revered as a deity of calligraphy, scholarship, and agriculture.
In the past the temple’s holy day was called Hatsutenjin (初天神) and was held every year on January 25th. On that day, the local children would make a visit to the shrine to present their first calligraphy of the year. Afterwards, they would gather together at a nearby house to spend the day having fun playing traditional Japanese games like karuta (歌留多) and sugoroku (双六) and eating delicious food.
These days, owing to modern work schedules, the holiday is now celebrated on the nearest Saturday to January 25th. These days, parents and children who are preparing for a test or for school admissions visit the temple to pray for success in these endeavors. For this reason the holiday is also called Kangaku-sai, or the “Encouraging Study Festival.” Those celebrating the holiday also leave small wooden ema (絵馬) plaques in front of the temple containing such messages as prayers for success in school or, as in the old days, the year’s first calligraphy.
Hôgyoku Inari Shrine (宝玉稲荷)
The Hôgyoku Inari Shrine is just one of the countless shrines across the country dedicated to fox god Inari, a god not of mischief as in the western tradition but of rice, tea, sake, and fertility. I suppose these things go together. This particular shrine was established on December 14 of the year Bunsei 5 (1822) when half of the spirit of Uka-no-Mitama (倉稻魂, the spirit of rice in storehouses), an associated deity to Inari, was enshrined here. I say half of because according to custom, that’s literally what is believed: a spirit cannot be simply worshiped in two places since the spirit is not considered to be omnipresent as in many Western traditions, and it has to be ritually divided in order to be worshiped in two different locations. The other half of Uka-no-Mitama’s spirit can be found at its original home at Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷社).
This shrine is revered by numerous people both within and without Nagatoro for it’s divine virtues, which are said to bring about bountiful harvests, prosperity in trade, and domestic security. It is also believed that if you visit the shrine at times when you’ve lost something, it will miraculously return to you.
The annual festival of Hôgyoku Inari Shrine is called Hatsuuma-sai (初午際), or the “First Horse Festival,” so named because it falls on the first day of the horse by the old lunar calendar. Additionally, there is a ritual held on the 25th each month called Otaki-age Matsuri (御炊上際), or “The Cook-up Festival.” This festival starts at 3 pm with prayers for wealth and happiness followed by offerings of red beans, rice, and holy sake left in the grottoes around the mountain so that the messenger of Uka-no-Mitama, the white fox Obyakko (御白狐), will come to work miracles.
The Shrine to Yamato Takeru no Mikoto
Longtime readers of this blog will have already heard something of the famous 8th century warrior and son of the 12th emperor of Japan Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, who led a great expedition to eastern Japan to subdue rebellious subjects. There are more than a few locations in this area that have legends about this man attached to them. Here at Hôdô-san, he holds a special place as the founder of this holy site.
According to legend, Yamato Takeru was enthralled with the beautiful shape and mystical atmosphere of this mountain, and so he decided to establish a shrine here (see the previous post for more information). Those who remembered Takeru’s compassion built this shrine, near the spring where he ritually purified himself before climbing the mountain.
The festival for Yamato Takeru is called the 88th Night, so named because it occurs on the 88th day following the first day of spring by the old lunar calendar, which is May 2nd by the current system. On this day believers reenact Takeru’s climb to the summit, carrying a ritual palanquin holding his spirit to the Inner Shrine at the top of Hôdô-san, where the festival is carried out and traditional Shinto dances and songs are performed. Another name for the festival is Tsutsuji Matsuri, or the Azalea Festival, because a prominent variety of azalea blooms at this time. In addition to marking the start of the farming season in the Chichibu area, it is also the official day when the mountain is ceremonially opened for the year, so the summit is lively with believers and hikers alike at this time.
Kagura: Entertaining the Gods
Among the several outbuildings at Hôdô-san Shrine lies one building that isn’t actually a sub-shrine per-se, but is rather a hall dedicated to a traditional form of Japanese theatrical performance known as Kagura (神楽), or the God’s Entertainment. This practice is rooted in the most ancient of Japanese mythology and originates from the following tale.
Long ago, the sun goddess Amaterasu (天照) hid herself in a cave to sulk after a dispute with her brother, thus casting the world into darkness. The goddess Ame-no-Uzu danced at the entrance of the cave in order to coax her out. The plan worked: Amaterasu was intrigued by her dance and came out to watch, and so light was restored to the world. From then on, the people of Japan commemorated this important event by repeating Ame-no-Uzu’s dance, which is now called Kagura (神楽), or “the gods’ entertainment.”
Though the Kagura tradition is carried out in some form all across Japan, the practice takes various shapes, from the formalized mikagura (御神楽) of official shrines to the folk versions known as Village Kagura, or satokagura (里神楽). In the Chichibu area, there are a total of six lineages of Kagura, one of which is still practiced today at Hôdô-san Shrine. The unique characteristic of this form of Kagura is the fact that there are individual dances dedicated to many gods that appear in the two great classics of Japanese mythology, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. In addition to simple dances, theatrical performances of famous stories from these two books also occur. Whether dance or theater, all of the performances are done silently save for a single Waka poem that appears in one of the stories, which is uttered aloud. In addition, a cauldron containing hot water used in a special purification ritual is hung outside of the Kagura Hall (pictured below).
The variety of Kagura performed at Chichibu’s shrines dates back to the early 19th century, but these activities were suspended roughly half a century later during the political upheavals that led to the end of the Tokugawa regime (1603-1868). The formal practice resumed once more in the 1920s; prior to that the dances were performed by roaming Kagura troupes. One of those troupes was the Hinozawa Futobuto Society (日野沢太々協会) of Hinozawa village in nearby Minano Town (a few stops down on the Chichibu Line from Hôdô-san). At that time, the people of Nagatoro (then called Fujiyabuchi, 藤谷淵), lacking their own Kagura Troupe, went there to engage in the practice. However, in 1910 the Nagatoro’s own Fujiyabuchi Kagura Troupe was founded, and so the two troupes began to take turns giving Kagura performances at the local shrines.
In 1922 the Fujiyabuchi Troupe became the official Kagura performers for Hôdô-san Shrine and thus changed their name to Hôdô-san Shrine Kagura Troupe (Hôdô-san Jinja Kagura-dan, 寳登山神社神楽団). Since then, they have continued to preserve traditional performances and so in 1960 they were designated as an intangible cultural heritage of Nagatoro.
The major performances each year occur on January 1st, February 3rd or 4th (depending on the year), April 3rd, and May 4th.
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Out in the mountains northwest of Tokyo in a region known as Chichibu, Section VII of the Saitama’s portion of the Fureai Trail winds through the quaint riverside town of Nagatoro (長瀞). Given it’s rural location, one would hardly expect such a place to have much to recommend it, but in fact the area boasts one of the most beautiful and historic shrines that I’ve ever found in such a place: ancient Hôdô-san Shrine (寳登山神社), which according to legend has been operating in some capacity for nearly 2,000 years. Put together with the many other nearby attractions, this certainly makes Nagatoro a must-see destination for anyone looking for a day-trip out of Tokyo.
The Founding Legend
According to legend, Hôdô-san was established more than 1,900 years ago by the imperial prince Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (日本武尊), a child of the 12th emperor of Japan. Takeru arrived in the Chichibu area while on a military expedition to subjugate the locals, who had not yet bowed to his father’s rule. Upon reaching present-day Nagatoro, his heart was taken by the mysterious atmosphere and beautiful shape a mountain on the west side of the river, so he ritually purified himself in springwater and attempted to climb to the top. Not long after setting out, however, a wildfire suddenly broke out on the mountain and in no time he was surrounded by flames. Takeru and company fought the flames and it seemed like they might not survive, but then a group of large wolves appeared who helped him quell the rampant flames. After that, they accompanied him to the summit, but disappeared once he arrived there. Takeru considered these animals to have been the divine messengers of the wolf god Ôkuchima-kami (大口真神).
After the event, Takeru decided to call the mountain Hôdô-san (火止山), meaning “fire quelling mountain.” Looking out at the magnificent view of the mountains of Chichibu, he deemed it a place befitting the worship of the gods, so he established three shrines on the summit: one to the spirit of Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan; one to Ôyamatsumi-no-Mikoto (大山祇命), the spirit who made the mountains; and one to Homusubi-no-Kami (火産霊神), the spirit of fire. In later years, the place became a prosperous holy site, and so an inner shrine (okumiya, 奥宮) at the summit and the main shrine (honden, 本殿) at the foot of the mountain were established to venerate Takeru’s spirit.
In the early 9th century, a mystical orb was seen soaring over the mountaintop, which was taken as an auspicious sign from the gods. Consequently, the shrine and mountain were renamed Hôdô-san (寳登山), which possessed a similar pronunciation to the original but was written with the characters meaning Jewel-Ascending Mountain. From then to this day, the shrine has been an important place of worship.
Today Hôdô-san Shrine can be found at the end of a long, wide thoroughfare marked by a large white torii gate that runs straight from Nagatoro Station to the foot of the foot of the mountain. The distance is easily walk-able, but taxis and buses are also available to suit the elderly and those with small children.
The main shrine complex features a main hall surrounded by a series of minor shrines dedicated to various gods and spirits and is located at the foot of the mountain. An inner shrine can be found at the summit and is accessible by either on foot or by cable car.
The Main Hall
Easily the most recognizable building at the Hôdô-san, the Main Hall is located at the top of a steep flight of stone steps at the end of the main approach, or omote-sando (表参道). In contrast to the typical Shinto Shrines found in the area, which tend to be either unpainted wood or painted plain red, this one is covered in a variety of bright colors and designs reminiscent of more famous shrines like the Toshogu in Nikko.
The point that really sets this building apart from other shrines in Japan, however, are the scenes carved on its exterior. Each of these are drawn from classics of Chinese literature, namely four from The 24 Filial Exemplars (13th century) by the scholar Guo Jujing and a fifth from the Record of the Three Kingdoms (4th century) by Chen Shou. Their presence here at a holy place for Japan’s native religion shows the strong effect that Chinese culture had on Japan over the centuries, and the deep respect afforded to its wisdom.
The Filial Exemplars
The 24 Filial Exemplars is a collection of parables intended to illustrate the proper application of the Confucian moral principal of filial piety, or loyalty to one’s parents. Although in the West we tend to learn of Confucius and his teachings as a distinct system of thought, these principles were in fact widely accepted as a basic philosophy of life all across Asia and were thus followed in tandem with the teachings of other religions, hence their appearance here at a Shinto shrine. The four scenes depicted here can be found high on left wall towards the front of the main hall, above the sliding wooden windows and below the eaves. Each scene progresses from right to left in the order that they are presented below.
He Fed His Parents with Doe’s Milk Enshi’s (郯子) parents were losing their eyesight, so for their sake tried to obtain doe’s milk for medicine. He therefore donned the skin of a deer approached the herd, but a hunter mistakenly shot him. Nonetheless, Enshi obtained the milk and thus fulfilled his filial duty.
He Carried Rice for His Parents
Shiro (子路), one of Confucius’ 10 disciples, lived a life of poverty, but though he himself ate meager meals, he spent his daily earnings on rice which he delivered to his parents without begrudging the long road. Thus, he fulfilled his filial duty. Confucius greatly lamented Shiro’s passing.
He Fought a Tiger to Save His Father
Yôkô (陽香) and his father were working in the mountains when a tiger appeared before them. In an attempt to sacrifice himself for his father, Yôkô leaped out in front of the tiger though might have eaten him at any moment. Even the tiger could sense the depth of his filial devotion in risking one’s life for his parent, and so both father and son were saved.
He Cried and Bamboo Sprouted
Môsô’s (孟宗) mother was deathly ill during a brutally cold winter, but she desired to eat bamboo shoots in spite of their being out of season. In order to grant her request, Môsô went out into the cold bamboo forest to look for shoots even though he knew he could not possibly find one. However even the heavens were moved by this display of filial devotion, and so the gods made shoots grow up through the snow.
Interestingly, the story as presented at the shrine differs from the original telling. In that story, Môsô was told by a physician that his sick mother needed a soup made of bamboo shoots to be healed, but since it was winter and they were unavailable he simply went to the forest and cried. Suddenly, he heard a loud noise and, going to the source, he found bamboo shoots growing.
The Record of the Three Kingdoms
The Record of the Three Kingdoms might be the most famous work of early Chinese scholarship and chronicles the history of the country from the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 CE) through the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280), from whence the book derives its name. The work was so monumental that it became widely read throughout east Asia, including in Korea and Japan, hence why a depiction from the book can be found on Hôdô-san’s Main Shrine. The carving here is of General Zhao Yun (趙雲) at the Battle of Changban Dike (長坂坡の戦い) in 208 CE.
Zhao Yun is counted among the many beloved characters of the book along with his beloved horse White Dragon (白龍) and his spear Yajiao (涯角). At the Battle of Changban Dike, which preceded the even more famous Battle of Red Cliff (the subject of Jon Woo’s movie), Zhao Yun was tasked with defending Liu Shan (阿斗), the son of his leader Liu Bei (劉備). Zhao Yun fought hard to protect the boy, who would later go on to rule the kingdom of Shu. For this reason, he was often called “The Pillar of Shu” (蜀の柱石).
This post started getting a little long, so the second half will appear next week. If you enjoyed reading about this shrine, be sure to like and comment below! And, of course, click subscribe on the bar on the right to make sure you get to see next week’s post.