Fureai Trail Saitama Section IX: The Path Seeking Masakado Legends (Part 1)


Overview

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.

Castle Peak at sunset

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.

From the summit of Castle Peak; below, you can see Castle Peak Shrine

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.

The trail were Bellclad Castle once stood; now it’s just a flat spot atop a hill

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.

bus timetable
The timetable from Minano Station to the bus stop at Nishi Montaira.

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.

The Bugs’ Farewell
Photo credit: https://paruruharu.blog.so-net.ne.jp/2013-08-16

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.

Takeda Shingen by Utagawa Kuniyoshi [Public domain or Public domain]

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

Trail NameThe Path for Seeking Masakado Legends (Masakado Densetsu wo Saguru Michi, 将門伝説を探るみち)
MapClick here
Access:Start: Nishikado-daira Bus Stop (西門平バス停)*
End: Tosenkyo Bus Stop (登仙橋バス停)
Difficulty: Moderate
Natural Beauty:Average (good views of distant mountains)
Ideal SeasonsSpring and Fall
Camping LocationsJomine-yama Campground (城峰山キャンプ場)
Length (distance)14.3 km
Length (time)4 hours and 50 minutes
Food accessnone

*No transit information available from Google. The bus that goes there departs from Minano Station in Saitama.


Haiji’s Trail Stats

Distance traveled189.1 km 10.5%
Courses completed16/16010%
Days Spent: 12

© Brian Heise, 2018

Thanks for reading! Be sure to like and comment! What part of the hike do you think is the most interesting? And, if you like what I do, drop a tip in the tip jar!

Latest Posts

Chichibu_basin

Fureai Saitama VIII: The Path Gazing Over the Chichibu Basin

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.

Chichibu_basin
The view from Gable Mountain

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.

Course Overview

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.

Attractions

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.

food_tray_miso_gyudon
Lunch at Mangan no Yu

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.

keiskei_rhododendron
By Alpsdake投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 4.0, Link

Asebi

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.

asebi_tree
By Liné1 – Personal picture taken with my IXUS 800 IS, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

Monkey Rock

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.

Monkey Rock
Towards Hinozawa from Monkey Rock
The Chichibu Basin from Monkey Rock

Gable Mountain

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.

Chichibu_basin
The Chichibu Basin from the summit of Gable Mountain

Tagstand Pass

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.

Suisen Temple

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

Trail NameThe Path Gazing over the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地を眺める道)
MapClick here
AccessStart: Futto Iriguchi Bus Station (風戸入口バス停)*
End: Fudasho Mae Bus Stop (札所前バス停)*
DifficultyEasy
Natural BeautyModerate
Ideal SeasonLate spring to early summer
Camping LocationsAround 100 meters from the summit of Gable Mountain there’s a pavilion that would make an excellent campsite
Distance4.3 km
Time2 hours
Food accessMangan no Yu Hotspring

*Note: No bus information available from Google. Take the bus from Minano Station.

The bus timetable. To go to the trailhead, take the bus from Minano. To get back, take the bus towards Minano

My Trail Stats

Distance traveled: 174.8 km (9.7%)
Courses completed: 15/160 (9.4%)
Days Spent: 12

© Brian Heise, 2018

Thanks for reading! Be sure to like and comment! What part of the hike do you think is the most interesting? And, if you like what I do, drop a tip in the tip jar!

Fureai Saitama Intermission: The Legends and History of Hôdô-san Shrine (2 of 2)

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.

 

Tenmanten Shrine

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.

IMG_8079
The interior of Tenmanten Shrine

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).

IMG_8081
Foxes flank this shrine to the fox god

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.

IMG_8082
The shrine to Yamato Takeru

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).

IMG_8088
The Kagura Hall

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.


What did you think about this post? Did you enjoy learning about the history and culture of this rural shrine? Let me know in the comments down below! And, if you want to make sure I can keep writing similar articles, consider leaving a tip in the tip jar! Be sure to stay tuned next week, as we move on down the Fureai Trail to see what lies on Section VIII: the Path Gazing Down on the Chichibu Basin!


© Brian Heise, 2018