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.
© Brian Heise, 2018