August 5, 2017

The Mysteries of Chikubushima

Found in the middle of Shiga Prefecture's Lake Biwa, Chikubushima is a sacred island that is dedicated to the syncretic goddess Benzaiten.

The Bentenmaru ferry cruises its way out to Shiga Prefecture's island of Chikubushima

Today we are going to take a look at a destination that has been on my bucket list for a LONG time. Known as Chikubushima, this secluded little island lies in the middle of Lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest lake. Chikubushima is considered one of the country’s nationally designated Place of Scenic Beauty as well as a Historic Site. The island is also a pain in the ass to get to!

As you might expect, Chikubushima has long upheld its ancient historical legacy as a spiritual setting. For example, the island’s Tsukubusuma Shrine is said to have been established as far back as 420. As if this was not enough, Chikubushima’s Hogon-ji temple was also constructed not long thereafter in 724. Furthermore, this temple was supposedly completed at the behest of the emperor who was acting out the direct will of the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami.

Both Chikubushima’s Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple honor the goddess Benzaiten. This deity of luck, eloquence, and music is one of only a few to appear in both religions. Along with Enoshima and Miyajima, the island ranks among Japan’s three great sites dedicated to Benzaiten. Much like the myth narrating Enoshima’s origins, Benzaiten is said to have also lived on Chikubushima long ago.

A stone pagoda found on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima that came from Mt. Hiei

Legends aside, Chikubushima itself is littered with historical artifacts. The island’s Karamon gate for example was originally rooted within a famous Kyoto shrine. The gate was later moved in 1602 during the reconstruction of the island’s temple and the other facilities. There are many more historical items to explore such as a five-storied stone pagoda that allegedly graced the heights of the sacred Mt. Hiei (pictured above).

Like with Enoshima and Miyajima, Chikubushima appeals to both families and history nerds. The island has a lot of fun options for both kids and adults alike! That said, you’ll need to climb many stairs to reach Chikubushima’s attractions. Consider yourself warned; I don’t want anyone to come crying that they had to turn back halfway!

Getting to Shiga Prefecture & Chikubushima

The ferry terminal for boats going to Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

I’ll be frank; getting to Chikubushima isn’t exactly a leisurely walk in the park. For starters, the island is located in the middle of Lake Biwa. This massive body of water resides to the northeast of Kyoto and runs over 60 km from top to bottom. There are several water-routes for traveling to and from Chikubushima. All things considered, I found the port city of Nagahama to work best.

To begin your island adventure, you will need to travel on the JR Biwako Line from Kyoto up to Nagahama Station. Alternatively, those coming all the way from Tokyo might find better success on the bullet train which pulls into the nearby Maibara hub. As always, be sure to consult Hyperdia for the best possible route for your travels.

The schedule for ferries going to Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

Once you have arrived in Nagahama, you will need to hoof-it to the pier. It’s about a 10 minute walk from the station to the dock but it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to find. In any case, here’s a link to a Google Map in case you get lost. The round-trip ferry fees to the island will cost you roughly 3,000 yen per person. The ferry departs every 75 minutes. Please refer to the schedule above when planning your voyage. Also make note that the last ferry departs Chikubushima at 3:50 PM.

While I’ll be covering the journey from Nagahama, it is possible to reach Chikubushima via cruises departing from Hikone and Otsu. From what I can gather, both of these destinations offer limited accessibility due to the location of the ports. Nevertheless, those looking to skip the train ride up to Nagahama might consider looking at Otsu as their departure point.

Arriving at Chikubushima’s Port

Where the ferry leaves off passengers on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

After navigating your way to the island, the ferry will dock within a small inlet cove. Immediately after debarking you’ll be greeted by a handful of shops peddling souvenirs and cold drinks. But, keeping in mind the impending deadline of a 3:50 PM boat, I suggest you first explore the island. Besides, you will need a cold drink later after traversing the island’s elevated levels!

In addition to the ferry fees to Chikubushima, you will also be required to pay an additional fee to explore the island. You can purchase your tickets from an automatic vending machine before passing them over to an awaiting attendant. Given the isle’s remoteness, the 400 yen is a small price to pay to keep Chikubushima’s cultural heritage alive. No one said this trip would be kind to your wallet.

The Inori-no-Ishidan that lead up to Hogan-ji on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

After forking over your entry fee, you’ll find yourself at the base of a LONG towering staircase. These stone steps lead directly to the top of Chikubushima. History tells us that these 165 stairs have been named the Inori-no-Ishidan or “Stone Steps of Prayer.” Supposedly, long ago, worshipers visiting the island would make the pilgrimage ascending these mighty stairs en route to the Hogon-ji temple complex.

While this may well explain the Inori-no-Ishidan’s historical name, I would recon instead that the name captures the pilgrim’s prayers for the sweet release of death on the way up. In order to avoid unnecessary physical suffering, we’ll be taking the easier side path. You’ll find this route on the right-hand side, immediately following the first few sets of stairs.

If you are a glutton for punishment then by all means attempt the Inori-no-Ishidan but don’t go getting yourself hurt! Having to be flown off the island by helicopter to the nearest hospital would be a very bad way to spend your vacation.

Benzaiten’s Shrine on Chikubushima

The main hall of Tsukubusuma Shrine on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

The Shinto shrine on Chikubushima is known as Tsukubusuma Shrine. For well over 1500 years, a monument of some form has resided here on the island. Today, the main hall of the shrine is actually comprised from pieces of Toyotomi Hideoyoshi’s castle. When renovating the shrine, the warlord directed his men to move the best feature of his fortress, the Higure Goten, to Chikubushima. Supposedly, this room was crafted with the intent of entertaining the emperor himself.

A lakeside torri on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

In addition to the above national treasure, the adjacent Ryujin Haisho hut is also worth a look. This structure overlooks the water and is dedicated to the dragon god Ryujin. The Ryujin Haisho is most famous for the Kawarake Nage, a ritual where one throws two earthenware dishes toward the nearby torii gate.

Participants are instructed to inscribe their name on the first dish followed by a special wish on the second dish. Should one manage to toss both dishes through the torii gate, then the dragon god will ensure the wish becomes a reality.

Regardless of your luck with the Kawarake Nage, I suggest you spend some time gazing lazily out at the lake while enjoying the cool summer breeze.

Chikubushima’s Ancient Wonders

A hall found on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima that was once part of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s pleasure boat

Tsukubusuma Shrine is connected to the next area by the pathway pictured above. This corridor is known as the Funa Roka corridor and was actually created using the roof of Hideyoshi’s pleasure boat, the Nihonmaru. It’s amazing to see how the the old vessel has held up to the elements over the years, especially considering Chikubushima’s geographical location.

The interior of the Kannon-do on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

The far side of the Funa Roka opens up to the Kannon-do. This hall is currently being painstakingly renovated but if you peek closely through the scaffolding you can see the original woodwork. This hall marks the thirtieth of thirty-three specific locations on a regional pilgrimage. Just imagine trying to get out here before modern transportation!

As mentioned, currently both the Kannon-do and the Karamon gate are undergoing an intensive restoration process. While this is indeed a necessary evil, it also means it will be hard to truly appreciate and realize the attraction’s beauty for several years to come. Here’s an older picture of what the Karamon gate looked like prior to the start of the renovations for reference.

Note: It appears that the restoration work is now complete and the Karamon gate has been restored to its former glory.

—Donny Kimball
A wooden statue of the Medicine Buddha on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

Lucky for us, the wooden Buddha has been left out in the open for visitors to see! Local legend holds that rubbing the statue can alleviate any ailment. Just rub the spot on the carving that corresponds with the spot where you are experiencing pain. The Buddha should work its magic! Maybe it’s just my imagination but my knee is feeling a lot better.

Benzaiten’s Temple on Chikubushima

The main hall of Hogan-ji on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

If you’ve been following along with my prescribed route, you should now find yourself just outside the Karamon gate. This is actually the opposite direction that visitors are suppose to travel but it’s a small price to pay for avoiding much of the aforementioned staircase from hell. Unfortunately though, completely the Inori-no-Ishidan isn’t possible so make your way up the remainder of the steps toward Hogon-ji.

As I noted earlier, this Buddhist temple was created in the 700s at the order of the emperor himself. Since then, the temple has been remade time and time again. The current structure dates back to 1942. As with Tsukubusuma Shrine, Hogon-ji is also dedicated to Benzaiten. The temple reflects a period when the sacred lines between Shinto and Buddhism were much more fluid.

Small Daruma statues found within Hogan-ji on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

The principle attraction at Hogon-ji is the Benten-sama no Shiawase Negai Daruma. This is a ritual where one writes a wish on a piece of paper and inserts it into the bottom of an adorable little Daruma. This is then left alongside countless others at the temple. It’s a fun little attraction that can be a blast for kids and adults alike.

If you have a wish that you’re just dying to come true why not give it a try. You’ll need to write your name, address and your deepest desire on the paper provided. Then, roll it up and stick it in one of the available Daruma. Once it’s inside the last step is to pay the monk a small fee for a seal and then set your Daruma on the altar.

Chikubushima’s Must Visit Treasure Hall

The pagoda and treasure hall found on Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

Last up, we have Chikubushima’s treasure hall. Entering will run you another 300 yen per person but it’s more than worth it. There are some ancient artifacts here that will make your jaw drop. I think I stood in the small area for more than an hour just gaping in awe. While I’d like to visually show you some of these incredible treasures, photography is prohibited (as is common elsewhere in Japan).

Japanese speakers would be wise to set aside some time to learn a thing or two from the elderly gentlemen who oversee the treasure hall. They are certainly well versed when it comes to discussing the hall’s unique antiquities (and they will also talk your ears off if you let them).

You’ll find the Treasure Hall located next to the three story pagoda that crowns the island. Despite its beauty, this pagoda is a historical reconstruction of the original structure. Apparently documentation of the earliest pagoda indicates it was completed in 1487 yet later destroyed by lightning during the Edo period (1603–1868).

Thankfully though, the ancient carpentry techniques and decorations have been faithfully reproduced so you can enjoy it still today.

Attractions Near Chikubushima

Nagahama’s Kurokabe Square, an attraction that pairs well with Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

If you’re going to trek all the way up to Nagahama, I highly suggest you try to arrange your travels such that you can also visit nearby Hikone Castle. For all but the most stalwart adventurers, this will involved overnighting or getting a VERY early start. Nevertheless, a trip to this lakeside fortress is more than worth it and you’ll enjoy every minute of the trip.

For those who are day tripping and perhaps pressed for time, I instead suggest checking out Nagahama. Not only does the area have it’s own castle, it is also home to some very old historical buildings. I was constantly reminded of Kawagoe’s Kurazukuri District while strolling through its lazy streets. Talk about a great way to end the day!

Nagahama Kaiyodo Figure Museum, another attraction that pairs well with Shiga Prefecture’s island of Chikubushima

Two spots I suggest you keep an eye out for are the Kurokabe Square glass workshop and the Kaiyodo Figure Museum (both featured above in this section respectively). You’ll find these along the Shotengai shopping streets that make up the central core of Nagahama.

To learn more about this eclectic collection of hidden gems, check out my standalone guide on Nagahama. The town makes for a great add-on to both Chikubushima and Hikone!