October 9, 2020

Backyard Tourism Vol. 8

Samukawa Shrine in Kanagawa is a serene, 1,600 year-old hidden gem that rarely (if ever) pops up on the radars of overseas visitors to Japan.

The main gate leading to Samukawa Shrine's inner areas

Welcome back to yet another installment of Backyard Tourism. Like all previous articles in this ever-popular series, we’ll be examining an often overlooked part of Japan that many would never consider to have potential for foreign travels. Given the country has a neigh infinite number of allures, my goal with Backyard Tourism is never to say that you absolutely must check these spots out on your next visit. Simply put, there are just too many top tier destinations out there that are more deserving of your time. Instead of recommending these spots to overseas guests, I want to illustrate how any location in Japan holds potential when its story is properly told.

On that note, this week we will be taking a look at Kanagawa Prefecture’s Samukawa Shrine. Literally meaning “Cold River Shrine,” this hidden gem rarely if ever pops up on the radars of foreign travelers. In fact, it was only recently that I happened upon the likes of Samukawa Shrine. After scaling the sacred peak of Mt. Oyama, I had been haphazardly searching Google Maps for nearby sites when I stumbled upon text reading, “serene 1,600 year-old Shinto shrine.” My interest having been thoroughly piqued by my finding, I’ve been itching to cross Samukawa Shrine off of my bucket list ever since.

A few weeks ago, I finally had a chance to head down to Kanagawa Prefecture again. While my goal was to link up with a friend living in the vicinity of Hayama, I made a point of budgeting extra time for a stopover at the timeworn Samukawa Shrine. Much like other sanctuaries in the Greater Tokyo Region, the origins of this old shrine is shrouded in mystery. Allegedly, this shrine was founded during the reign of Emperor Yuryaku (418–479) yet historical records from that period are quite lacking. Still, what we can say is that Samukawa Shrine has been around for quite some time and pre-dates the nearby former military capital of Kamakura.

In addition to its rather odd moniker (which arises from a nearby river that flows from Mt. Fuji,), Samukawa Shrine was formerly the head shrine of Sagami Province. Previously comprising most of today’s central and western Kanagawa Prefecture, Sagami was formally an important fief during medieval times. The ancient sepulcher enshrines the deity Samukawa Daimyojin, a spirit that is the amalgamation of a pair of local male and female gods. Over the years, warriors such as Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, Takeda Shingen, and the mighty Tokugawa shoguns have all come to Samukawa Shrine to pay their obeisance to Samukawa Daimyojin.

Getting to Samukawa Shrine

Miyama Station in Kanagawa Prefecture, the nearest stop to Samukawa Shrine

The trip to Samukawa Shrine isn’t all that difficult however you will need to make some connections. Depending on where you’re coming from, the optimal route can change greatly so just refer to the ever-helpful Hyperdia or a similar service. In my case, it made the most sense to take JR’s Tokaido Line down to Chigasaki Station and then transfer to the Sagami Line. Regardless of how you make the trek down to Samukawa Shrine, the final stop will be Miyayama Station (lit. “Shrine Mountain” Station). By the way, despite the name, the terrain is lacking any hills so for once you’ll be spared the need to make an ascent.

Once you arrive at Miyayama Station, you’ll need to hoof it approximately 500 meters or so to the grounds of Samukawa Shrine. You’ll find it located here within the confines of a peaceful wooded grove. While walking over to Samukawa Shrine, you’ll cross the supposedly cold river that is the site’s namesake. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a safe way down to the river so I unfortunately cannot confirm or deny if it is actually as cold as they say…

What to See at Samukawa Shrine

The main hall of Kanagawa Prefecture’s Samukawa Shrine

Comparatively speaking, the Samukawa Shrine grounds are quite pleasant and make for a great leisurely afternoon. The complex is nestled within a grove of atmospheric timbers that are dotted with a variety of inviting little nooks. When it comes to architecture, the main building is quite reminiscent of Yahiko Shrine up in Niigata Prefecture. Honestly, as my best friend Cheeserland shared in two selfies, it’s difficult to tell which is which without further context. If you’ve been to Yahiko Shrine before, you’re sure to find the resemblance striking!

Unfortunately for those who enjoy seeing aged buildings, most of the current Samukawa Shrine architecture is from the modern era. That said, the establishment itself is truly primeval. What’s more, no one actually knows when Samukawa Shrine came into existence as the only records we have speak of its existence as a given. All of this has been thoroughly infused into the presentation of Samukawa Shrine’s grounds. As you meander through its calming quarters, you’ll come to understand why scores of mighty warlords have made pilgrimages to the site over the years.

While this will require a fair degree of Japanese, one thing that I’d encourage you to experience at Samukawa Shrine is the Happo-yoke prayer. Though too complex to delve into here, this ceremony essentially protects you from evil from all eight directions. What’s more, Happo-yoke is strongly linked with the god Sumakawa Daimyojin. Those participating in the ritual will have their misfortune and former misdeeds erased by the amalgamated deity thereby inviting in happiness and prosperity. If you can manage to overcome the language barrier, you’d do well to give Happo-yoke a try.

One other benefit of receiving a blessing at Samukawa Shrine is that you get to check out the Kantakeyama Shinen. Found directly behind the main hall, this traditional garden is centered around what is known as the Nanba-no-Koike. If you believe the shrine’s lore, this sacred spring is the point from which Samukawa Shrine emanated all those years ago. At the very least, Kantakeyama Shinen’s grounds are a sight to behold. Be sure to stop by the rest house and enjoy a refreshing cup of matcha!

Attractions Near Samukawa Shrine

A Buddhist statue on the way to the top of Kanagawa Prefecture’s Mt. Oyama

All things considered, a visit to Samukawa Shrine should only account for around two to three hours of your time. Seeing the shrine is located approximately equidistant from both the Shonan Coast and Mt. Oyama (pictured above), Samukawa Shrine can easily be combined with a trip to either destination. I’ve previously penned in-depth articles on both of these destinations so if you’re hungry for more off of the beaten path content, give these a look.

Until next time travelers…