May 10, 2019

Shirahige Shrine

Shiga's Shirahige Shrine (lit. "White Beard Shrine") has long been a popular pilgrimage spot for those looking to live as long as they can.

The floating torii gate of Shiga Prefecture's Shirahige Shrine

“What the hell am I doing!” I quietly bemoaned to myself as I checked Google Maps for the umpteenth time to make sure I was on the correct course. It was late April and I traveling the upper rural west side of Shiga Prefecture’s crowning jewel, Lake Biwa. A cool gust of wind swept across the massive body of water which helped to evaporate some of the sweat that had been accumulating on my brow. While it had only been a matter of minutes since I had departed from the sleepy train station, I was already surrounded by the iconic trappings of the Japanese countryside. To my right, there was a handful of bucolic rice fields that were nestled up against the mountains. To my left, there was nothing but the endless expanse of Lake Biwa. With a reassuring sigh, I adjusted my backpack. Only fifteen more minutes until my destination…

OK, so you must be wondering what in the nine hells brought me to such an off the beaten path location? Well, the short answer here is that I was scoping out a hidden gem that goes by the peculiar moniker of Shirahige Shrine. One of this little known spot’s most alluring draws is that the complex boasts a majestic torii gate that sits only a few meters away from the shores of Lake Biwa. Much like Miyajima’s iconic archway, this torii seems to float on top of the water as can be seen in the breathtaking shot above. In fact, the shrine is often hailed as the “Itsukushima of Omi” in homage to Miyajima’s famous Itsukushima Shrine. While these days Miyajima is sadly overrun with legions of tour groups; here, at Shirahige shrine, you’ll only ever have to content with a handful of domestic Japanese travelers.

Alas, as visually impressive as Shirahige Shrine’s torii gate is, it alone is not enough to warrant the hour-long train ride up from Kyoto (not to mention the twenty minute walk). Instead, what brought me all the way up here into the boonies was a rumor I read online that Shirahige Shrine is said to answer prayers for longevity. In fact, this lakeside sanctuary’s name quite literally translates to “White Beard Shrine.” Because of this unique alias, people have been making pilgrimages to Shirahige Shrine for centuries in hopes of being endowed with longer lives. While I don’t talk about it publicly much, I am absolutely obsessed with being able to join the ranks of the centenarians. As soon as I got wind of the whispers that Shirahige Shrine may be able to aid in this lofty goal, I knew I needed to make a visit myself.

Now, in case you’re wondering who it is that is enshrined at Shirahige Shrine, know that it’s the god Sarutahiko Okami who is responsible for doling out the longevity blessings. This deity is the head honcho of all of the earthly kami and is often depicted as a towering man with a large beard, a jeweled spear, a ruddy face, and a long nose. He has been worshiped at Shirahige Shrine ever since its founding over a millennium and a half ago. In addition to bestowing endowments of long life, Sarutahiko Omikami is also known for having ties to areas such as marriage, childbirth, and safe travel. Given the fact that I am not keen on dying on the road anytime soon, this is exactly the type of spirit that I need to be paying my respects to.

Getting to Shirahige Shrine

This might be a bit obvious already but getting to Shirahige Shrine is no simple task. For starters, you’re going to need to make your way over to the ancient capital of Kyoto. From there, you’ll need to take the JR Kosei Line to Omi-Takashima Station up in Shiga Prefecture. The entire journey will take you a little under an hour but know that departures are rather infrequent. So that you don’t miss the next train, refer to the ever-helpful Hyperdia or a similar service to look up the schedules. Though a bit of a long ride for a one-off attraction like this, the views of Lake Biwa en route more than make up for the time lost. Be sure to grab a window seat so that you don’t miss out on the spectacular scenery.

Once you pull into Omi-Takashima Station, you’ll need to make your way to Shirahige Shrine. This can be done on foot in approximately twenty minutes or so. The walk will take you along the coast of Lake Biwa and is actually quite the pleasant stroll all things considered. Alternatively, as I would learn only on the way back to Kyoto, you can also rent a bicycle from the tiny local tourism board. Their office is located right in the train station itself but keep in mind that their minuscule establishment is extremely easy to miss. To find it, exit the gates and then make a right. Immediately thereafter you’ll see the meager tourism help desk as well as a selection of bikes for rent.

Now when it comes to directions, rather than confuse you, the reader, with line after line of unintelligible prose, I’ll instead direct you to the Google Map embedded above. This will help you get a sense of where Shirahige Shrine is in relation to the rest of Japan as well as provide you with a clear and easy to understand means of reaching the sanctorium.

Shirahige Shrine & Memento Mori

A skull representing death, something that praying at Shirahige Shrine is said to stave off for a bit

Before examining additional adventure options waiting along the western banks of Lake Biwa, let me pause for a second to explain my queer obsession with eternal life. As alluded to before, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been absolutely terrified by thoughts of getting older. Moreover, I lost my dad at an early age to pancreatic cancer and have had to watch a number of other loved ones struggle with the challenges of aging. While I am sure I’m not the only one to endure such tragedies, something about my own experiences struck a chord in me. Ever since learning from the esteemed Dr. Peter Attia that one could take preventative actions to preserve both lifespan AND healthspan, I vowed to do all I could to avoid a similar fate as my forebears.

Now, given that my personal brand is mainly travel focused, I rarely talk about my infatuation with longevity publicly. Those who follow my day-to-day life on my Instagram Stories will know that I regularly do extended fasts but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, I’d say that I am just about as obsessed with trying to live forever as I am with exploring Japan. To put my craze into perspective, here are just some of the weird, whacky, and torturous things that I subject myself to on my quest to live forever. While I’m certainly no paragon of virtue, I try to comply with these personal mandates as much as possible as they each address a major pillar of longevity.

  • Eat only one meal per day and track everything to ensure that I’m always hitting a 10% carb / 30% protein / 60% fat macronutrient ratio.
  • Drink a daily mixture of salt water and apple cider vinegar to help balance electrolytes and promote better digestion.
  • Consume copious amounts of leafy green vegetables to eliminate any and all possibility of micronutrient deficiencies and promote good gut health.
  • Completely abstain from any and all vices such as drinking alcohol or consuming junk food. Put simply, it ain’t worth it…
  • Set life up in a way that leads to feelings of fulfillment and purpose as well as the engendering of meaning. These are key to living long.
  • Meditate daily upon waking each morning and follow it up right after with an ice cold shower. Yes, this sucks just as much as you imagine it does.
  • Keep a full time job and avoid making this blog into a business as it would only lead to crippling chronic stress (see this post).
  • Do a three to five day fast every quarter to promote autophagy, shut off mTOR, reset insulin sensitivity, etc.
  • In the gym, focus on maintaining lean muscle mass while working to reclaim full range of movement, especially in regards to hip hinging.
  • Become an absolute dictator when it comes to getting quality sleep. God help you if you get between me and a good night’s sleep.

Lastly, before moving on, I need to give a heartfelt shoutout to my good friend and fellow biohacker Justin Nault. He’s the CEO of a health and wellness company known as Clovis and has helped me really get my act together when it comes to setting up my diet and nutrition for longevity. If you’re struggling with anything related to your physical well being, be sure to hit Justin up as I’m sure he can help you figure it out. The guy cares to the point where one has to wonder how the hell he even has a successful business. He just invests that much time into each and everyone of his individual clients.

Attractions Near Shirahige Shrine

Mangetsu-ji’s Ukimido which is an attraction that pairs well with Shirahige Shrine

OK, before wrapping things up, let’s quickly return to Lake Biwa. In addition to Shirahige Shrine, there are a few other things that you can hit up on the western side after saying a prayer for a longer life. The following two locations take only a couple of extra hours to do and are well worth the time to visit especially if you enjoy a good old hidden gem.

  • Mangetsu-ji’s Ukimido
    This site is the only surviving spot from Hiroshige’s famous Eight Views of Omi woodblock print series. As can be seen in the photo above, this temple’s hall seems to float out over Lake Biwa. Though the current structures are a recreation that was completed in 1937, they are faithful to the original plans and perfectly evoke the scenery of the past.
  • Omi Jingu
    This shrine is registered as an Important Cultural Property and was constructed in 1940 in honor of the ancient Emperor Tenji. The historic ruler carried out a number of reforms and moved the capital from Nara all the way up to the southwestern tip of Lake Biwa towards the latter half of the Asuka period (538–710). If you’re in the mood for an awesome Instagram shot, you can rent a kimono to wear here at Omi Jingu.

Until next time travelers…