June 28, 2019

Mystical Suwa

Found on the banks of Nagano's Lake Suwa, this part of Japan is home to some truly antediluvian shrines that date from time immemorial.

An epic view of Lake Suwa and Mt. Fuji from Nagano Prefecture's Suwa area

I’d like to welcome you back to yet another installment of my in-depth area guide series. As always, we’ll be going quite deep so that you, the reader, can get the maximum enjoyment out of what Japan has to offer. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at an often-neglected area of Nagano known as Suwa. While these days, the prefecture is becoming more and more popular with overseas visitors (thanks in no small part to the snow monkeys), the Suwa region is one that few tourists know. In my eyes, this is a real shame as Suwa boasts a historical pedigree that is as ancient as they come. In fact, as we’ll see in later sections, the area’s claim-to-fame, Suwa Taisha, is often considered to be the second oldest shrine in all of Japan. Suffice to say, if you’re into this sort of thing, Suwa certainly deserves consideration during your next visit.

On that note, before we get into the weeds here, let me first suggest that you get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and make yourself comfy. All of my area guides are quite verbose yet every now and then I sit down to write one that I just know is going to be exceptionally long. Of course, today’s piece is going to be just one such article. While I’ve done my best to distill things down to the pure essentials, there is just so much historical background to Suwa that is crucial to truly appreciating the region. From its connection with mighty warlords throughout the ages to the local belief that an eight-year-old boy was the worldly manifestation of a god, there’s a lot we need to cover. So, without further ado, let’s get started…

Getting to Suwa

One of JR’s Azusa trains bound for Suwa and Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture

First up, let’s start by covering some important geographical logistics so that you, the reader, have some context to work with. As previously mentioned, Suwa is located to the northwest of Tokyo in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture. The area is home to a sizable lake that goes by the moniker of Lake Suwa. At an elevation of 759 meters above sea level, this body of water is the 24th largest lake in Japan and was critical to the daily lives of Suwa’s otherwise landlocked inhabitants. For centuries, the locals within this area of Nagano have taken up residence around the 16 km circumference of Lake Suwa’s shores and the nearby mountain peaks. Over the years, this daily connection to nature has informed much of the region’s cultural development.

When it comes to accessibility, actually getting to Suwa is not that difficult given all things considered. In fact, if you can manage to schlep yourself over to the JR Shinjuku Station, this portion of Nagano can be easily reached in approximately two hours without even making any further connections. All you need to do is book one of the limited express Azusa trains bound for Matsumoto. These trains depart semi-regularly from the JR Shinjuku Station so refer to the incredibly helpful Hyperdia to see which one best fits your schedule. Keep in mind that you must purchase your Azusa tickets at any of the automated kiosks or at the JR Ticket Offices. While these limited express trains are reserved seating only, you are allowed to stand should the train be booked out.

In addition to the above pointers, you’ll also want to note that the Suwa region is mainly serviced by the train stations of Chino, Kami-Suwa, Shimo-Suwa, and Okaya. Of these, I suggest that you make Kami-Suwa your base for the duration of your time in Suwa. This area is home to far more options for accommodations and is thus more convenient than the other three stations. While Suwa could potentially be done in a mere day with an aggressive agenda, I highly suggest that you take it slow and budget for a day and a half instead. Doing so will allow you to get the most of the area while also providing additional time to enjoy the many hot springs lining Lake Suwa’s tranquil banks.

Lastly, when it comes to getting around, be aware that the trains aren’t actually the best option for exploring Suwa. Preferably, those willing to drive are highly encouraged to rent a car. Not too keen about driving? Fret not. Suwa is practically made for cycling and there are a number of vendors who cater to this market by renting bicycles. Many of these can be found in the Kami-Suwa area near the shores of Lake Suwa. From what I can gather, all of the players offer hourly pricing structures. Following about four hours of use, I believe I ended up paying 2,000 yen or so.

Ancient Suwa Taisha

The Maemiya of Suwa Taisha in Nagano Prefecture

OK, let’s finally get to talking about Suwa Taisha as this shrine is basically the main reason to visit the area in the first place. Truth be told, as with many of Japan’s other taisha (lit. “grand shrine”), Suwa Taisha is actually not a single sanctuary. Instead, this ancient establishment is a sprawling complex that consists of four main shrines that are grouped into two distinct sets. The first of these, the Upper Shrine, is perplexingly located on the southwestern side of Lake Suwa and is thought to be the older of the two. The other, the Lower Shrine, is situated on the northern side of Suwa’s central lagoon. In addition to these four main shrines, there are also some sixty additional auxiliary shrines scattered throughout the area for you to explore as well.

Historically speaking, the Upper and Lower Shrines were two completely separate yet interrelated entities that each held their own set of unique deities and practices. According to the imperially-commissioned official chronicles, a being named Takeminakata is the god of the Upper Shrine whereas his consort, Yasakatome, is said to be worshiped at the Lower Shrine. Nevertheless, when you dig a bit below the surface, you begin to see that these roles were largely something that were retconned after the fact. Instead, most of the local rituals are actually centered around a mysterious figure known only as Mishaguji. Unlike with other deities, Mishaguji was believed to be a composite being comprising a myriad of animistic spirits inherent in all things.

While no one knows for sure, historians are now positing that the multiple faces of Suwa Taisha’s deities are in fact the dramatization of the imperial court’s conquest over the indigenous people of the Suwa region during the 7th and 8th centuries. As the Suwa region was brought under the budding empire’s heel, this real-life struggle also played out symbolically through the gradual usurping of Mishaguji for Takeminakata and his consort. Additionally, evidence also suggests that the entire erecting of the Lower Shrine was a political power play by the Kanesashi clan who were tasked with overseeing Suwa by the imperial court. What’s more, their choice to worship the female counterpart of Takeminakata was also a tactical ploy to ride on his coattails.

Confused yet? Don’t worry, you’re not alone here. In fact, it seems like those living in Suwa also struggled with reconciling the discrepancies between the competing narratives as well. Though by no means a clear solution to the problem at hand, it appears that over time, those associated with the Lower Shrine simply began referring to the deity enshrined there as Suwa Daimyojin (lit. “Great Deity of Suwa”). This simplification is likely an attempt to smooth over any lingering inconsistencies in the spiritual narrative that were caused by superimposing Takeminakata over the endemic belief in Mishaguji.

Regardless of the nomenclature used though, it seems that the antiquated worship of the composite being Mishaguji never really disappeared. Instead, the cult that followed this amalgamated spirit merged their beliefs with those brought to Suwa by the imperial court’s loyal lackeys, the Kanesashi clan. In doing so, the descendants of the original Mishaguji adherents were able to reinvent themselves and hold onto their power. This was accomplished via what’s known as the Ohori, a high priest who was considered the worldly incarnation of Suwa Taisha’s deity.

Though an egregious oversimplification, basically, the indigenous devotees somehow managed to maintain the sole rights to ritualistically summon Suwa Daimyojin into the physical realm. Upon doing so, they would evoke his divine spirit into the body of a young boy and thereby transform him into the Ohori. From this point forward, the newly ordained Ohori would be worshiped as the physical incarnation of Suwa Daimyojin. This is evident by the fact that even the mighty Minamoto Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate, referred to edicts of the Ohori as the commands of the god of Suwa himself.

The Akimiya of Suwa Taisha in Nagano Prefecture

How are we doing? Still with me? Good. With the above context now laid out for all, let’s finally get to discussing the shrine complex. As mentioned, Suwa Taisha is spread out over the entirety of the region with the Upper Shrine residing to the southwest of Lake Suwa and the Upper Shrine to the north. These couplings are further divided into two sets of two shrines each. To keep things as simple as possible, I’ll cover each of these in turn below while also including a link to a Google Map so that you can find them yourself.

  • The Maemiya
    As suggested by its name that literally means “the former shrine,” this portion of the Upper Shrine is the oldest among the four main sanctuaries making up Suwa Taisha. Though officially dedicated to Takeminakata and Yasakatome, many of the site’s important rituals have to do instead with Mishaguji. Additionally, during Japan’s medieval periods, the area around the Maemiya was once known as the Gobara (lit. “Field of the Deity”) and was the official residence of the Ohori.
  • The Honmiya
    This facility stands as the head shrine of the Upper Shrine complex. While the grounds of the Honmiya are quite expansive, perhaps the shrine’s most intriguing feature is that it does not possess the typical prayer and main hall layouts common amongst most Shinto shrines. Instead, the Honmiya sports only a prayer hall and supplicants pray to a mountain southwest of the shrine.
  • The Akimiya
    Unlike the aforementioned two sites, the Akimiya (lit. autumn shrine) is part of the Lower Shrine and can paradoxically be found on the northeastern side of Lake Suwa. Like with the Honmiya, the Akimiya has no main hall. In its place, visitors pay their respects to a mighty Japanese yew tree. Note that the Akimiya was erected by the Kanesashi clan alongside the Nakasendo trade route to allow better access to Kyoto.
  • The Harumiya
    This shrine is located only about one kilometer away from the Akimiya. Like with all but the Lower Shrine’s Maemiya, the Harumiya (lit. “spring shrine”) also doesn’t have a main hall. Here, a mammoth cedar tree proudly stands as the main object of worship.

When planning your visit, I suggest taking in the Lower Shrine on the first day of your visit via bicycle then finishing out the Upper Shrine on the following day. While those with rental cars could potentially pack it all into a single day, I’d wager that this will only result in shrine fatigue. Instead, I recommend that you take your time and savor this venerable land. After all, there are few areas of Japan as ancient and as mystic as Suwa. You’d be doing yourself a disservice by rushing through your experience.

When it comes to the timing of your trip, I find myself short on the helping end. You see, the Suwa region is gorgeous year-round; each of the four seasons unfold extraordinary charms. If you find yourself visiting during late winter, be sure to keep an eye out for an awe-inspiring phenomenon known as Omiwatari (which renders as “Gods Crossing” in English). As can be seen in this video clip, when Lake Suwa’s surface freezes, fissures form on the ice due to the natural hot springs beneath. Locals in the Suwa area have long believed these fissures are caused by the gods of Suwa Taisha crossing the lake.

Lastly, before moving on, allow me to put one final issue to rest. By now, I am sure many of you are wondering why the hell Suwa Taisha has this odd four shrine layout. I mean, frankly speaking, I can’t actually think of another shrine that is so dispersed over such a large swath of land. Here though, you need to understand that the present conception of Suwa Taisha is a modern grouping of two distinct sites that have existed for over a thousand years. Historically, the Upper and Lower Shrines have been two separate entities that were only later pooled into the concept of Suwa Taisha.

Suwa Taisha & Hunting

A dear walks in the hills of Nagano Prefecture’s Suwa region

As anyone who has visited the Suwa region can attest, the area surrounding Lake Suwa is nothing short of a natural enclave. For centuries, those dwelling within this area have maintained a harmonious relationship with Suwa’s majestic mountains and woodland forests. Of course, hunting played a critical role in the local food culture which was represented by Suwa Myojin’s status as a deity of the hunt. Alas, this timeworn practice conflicted greatly with Buddhism’s insistence on vegetarianism and not taking the lives of living creatures. As the Suwa native beliefs began to syncretically meld with those of Buddhism, something had to change.

In an attempt to preserve their ancient hunting culture, the residents of Suwa devised elaborate interpretations of Buddhism that legitimized the continuation of eating animals. The shrines of Suwa Taisha produced special talismans called Kajikimen as well as chopsticks (seen here) that enabled the bearer to eat meat. As Buddhist adherents believed in a cycle of death and rebirth, the thinking was that by eating flesh and incorporating it into one’s body, both hunter and hunted could attain Buddhahood together. While this almost feels like an excuse on the level of “the dog ate my homework,” it somehow worked out.

Following the establishment of this loophole, Suwa branch shrines started popping up all across Japan. While there were a number of historical factors in play as well, one major cause was the fact that these sub shrines also had permission to hunt, albeit for ritualistic purposes. Due to the fact that falconry was a favorite pastime of the samurai class, those in power started erecting Suwa branch shrines in their own lands. With this corner case exemption from the Buddhist ban on hunting and eating meat, falconry could be performed, ostensibly to collect offerings for the shrine.

Suwa’s Onbashira Festival

No talk of Suwa would be complete without mentioning the dangerous and deadly Onbashira Festival. This celebration has a legacy dating back well over a millennium and takes place every six years (in the years of the Monkey and the Tiger to be exact). During the festival, sixteen handpicked fir trees are felled and then subsequently transported down to each of the four Suwa Taisha shrines. The massive pillars are then erected at the corners of each shrine. The catch is that the entire process must be completed by hand without the assistance of any modern tools or technology.

Preparations for the Onbashira festival kick-off with the process of selecting the trees. This ritual generally begins approximately two years prior to the festival. Typically, the Upper Shrine and the Lower Shrine set their own criteria for selecting the source location for their trees. When the festival rolls around, a total of sixteen trees ranging from 17 to 19 meters will be cut down using specially-made axes in a ritualistic ceremony. Thereafter, the real hard work begins as teams of locals will then haul these massive logs across rough terrain. At certain points in the journey, the enormous pillars must be skidded down steep slopes.

Sometime during the early 1900’s, a brave fool got the idea to ride one of the Onbashira pillars down the hills. Surprisingly, this practice stuck and now many young men will test their mettle by following suit. Ever since, the festival has gained the reputation as being one of the most dangerous events in Japan. In fact, there have been fatal incidents in 1980, 1986, 1992, 2010 and most recently, in 2016. What’s more, participants have also lost their lives in other ways too. For example, in 1992, two men drowned while the pillars were being transported across a river. Put simply, this is one of those festivals where it’s just better to be an observer.

Anyway, be sure to keep your eyes out for the behemoth Onbashira pillars when visiting any of Suwa Taisha’s four shrines. Despite their impressive statue, the pillars are rather easy to miss if you don’t occasionally turn your gaze skyward…

Enjoy Lake Suwa

The expansive Lake Suwa in Nagano Prefecture

While history, myth, and festivals are definitely the primary draws of Suwa, they are not the only matters of interest in the area. In fact, one could easily enjoy their time in the region without even visiting Suwa Taisha (though I certainly wouldn’t recommend it). What else can one do in Suwa? Well, for starters, Lake Suwa and its surroundings are practically made for cycling. Both professionals and amateurs alike can get a good kick out of peddling around the lake. Moreover, the nearby mountains offer plenty of options for outdoor enthusiasts of all sorts.

In addition to these, there are also plenty of ways to enjoy the waters of Lake Suwa. For starters, from the Kohan Lake Side Park, you can take cruises across the lake as well as rent paddle boats to explore at your own leisure. These activities add a bit of frivolous fun to what is otherwise a destination that is heavy on the history and culture side. In addition to boating, Lake Suwa is also a lazy fisherman’s dream; you’ll find many older folk nonchalantly casting their lines out from the lake’s bridges and shores.

Lastly, for my anime fans out there, I’d like to point out that Lake Suwa is also allegedly the inspiration for the lake in 2016’s worldwide hit, Your Name. If you’re in to making pilgrimages to the sites in your favorite series, you’d do well to munch on some of Suwa’s milk bread. You’ll likely remember this local favorite from the scene where the female protagonist Mitsuha has lunch with her close friend Teshigawara.

Attractions Near Suwa

Nagano Prefecture’s Takeshima Castle near Lake Suwa

Before finally wrapping up this epic tome on the Suwa region, let’s cover a few additional spots that you can also consider during your time here.

  • Takeshima Castle
    This castle was built in 1592 and is the highest elevated fortress to ever be constructed in Japan. Originally known as the “Floating Castle,” this castle was built on a small island in Lake Suwa that was connected to the shore by a single strip of land. Today, the lake shore no longer reaches the sides of the castle, but the gardens and moat still exist.
  • The Venus Line
    This sightseeing route can be found to the east of Suwa Lake and reaches up into the highland areas. Here you will find a number of beautiful resorts and a ropeway offering magnificent views of the lake. The highland areas are quite spacious and provide incredible views of Mt. Fuji and the Japanese Alps.
  • The Watch & Clock Museum
    This is a niche museum for fans of watches and clocks. The museum features a large exhibition room where visitors can learn about the history and ingenuity of Japanese watchmaking while viewing a collection of more than 400 artifacts ranging from the Edo period (1603–1868) to present-day.
  • Okaya’s Silk Museum
    Suwa’s neighboring town of Okaya has a long history of being one of Japan’s largest manufacturers of silks. At this museum, you’ll find more than 30,000 artifacts, including silk-reeling machines, fabrics, and beautiful kimono. Additionally, many of the reeling machines are still running and you can see silk workers creating silk fabrics directly in front of you.
  • Honjin Iwanamike
    This beautifully preserved samurai house once served as a high-class accommodation for important leaders traveling through Suwa. As such, there are escape rooms and hatches built-in to protect against possible attacks. The back room is an open tatami seating area that faces one of the most beautifully sculpted gardens in the region.
  • Mishakaike Pond
    This pond will require a set of wheels to reach but it is one of the most spectacular natural attractions in all of Suwa. The reflections on the water and distinct treeline behind make this a must visit location for photographers and nature lovers. The pond’s setting is quite distinct throughout all four seasons yet especially breathtaking during the fall.
  • Takasugi-An
    This is one of the strangest sites that you will ever see. The tree house was constructed more than 10 meters in the air and precariously balanced on only a few tree branches. The builder and architect, Terunobu Fujimori, also created a nearby tea house which is perhaps even more astonishing.

And with that, let’s call it a wrap before I give you cause to go get yet another beverage…