The Suwa Taisha is not only one of the oldest shrine in Japan it is also the home of one of the most (in)famous festivals that takes place once every six years, the Onbashira Matsuri. In the festival huge tree trunks are cut down, transported and raised again in a series of huge ceremonies. Very few festivals pass without one or more gruesome accidents though. The next Onbashira festival takes place in 2016. A few of the large trees used in the ceremonies are exhibited at the shrine, and there are a few more in the city (including one right in front of the train station).
The shrine is also popular with pregnant women praying for a safe birth, who can dedicate a steel ladle at the shrine with their prayers.
If you are ever traveling through Nagano Prefecture this shrine is a must see. There are so many things that I missed on my first visit here, I hope I can go back soon again!
In Nagano Prefecture, way to the north of Tokyo I visited Suwa City and their Suwa Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest shrines, having been founded sometime in the 8th century A.D. It’s age and status meant that is was once one of the holiest places in country. Most shrines have a building called Honden that actually enshrines the kami or God that it honors, but these very old shrines usually do not have a Honden, in this case it is because the kami of the shrine is the mountain itself. Taisha means that is is a grand shrine, in this case the head shrine of well over 25 000 shrines all over the country. There is plenty of archaeological evidence for the Suwa area to have been associated with a very prosperous and powerful dynasty due to the discovery of richly decorated pottery unlike other places in the country. This could explain the mythological and cultural reason why this shrine became so important.
The shrine has plenty of details to discover, in addition to being very beautiful. One of the fountains where you perform the ritual washing before approaching the shrine is actually a natural hot spring and the thick cloud of steams are probably enough to convince visitors to wash their hands and mouth in colder waters (see the last photo). As you approach the shrine you encounter a massive cedar tree called the Neiri Sugi which is believed to be 700 or 800 years old. During ushimitsu (丑三つ), the hour of the ox, it is said to go to sleep and if you stand beneath it at that hour (between two and half past two in the morning) you can hear the tree snore. Fallen branches of the trees are popular with young parents, as it is said that a brew of the branches from this tree will stop them from crying in the night.
The Suwa Taisha, like the Izumo Taisha, has several massive Shimenawa decorating the shrine buildings. The shimenawa binds the holy space together and acts as a guard agains evil spirits. Apart from shrines, you will often see these ropes around especially holy objects, stones and trees that often attracts spirits (both good and bad). I assume the weight of the biggest shimenawa at Suwa Taisha is about a ton at least.
A few months ago I visited the town of Suwa, in Nagano prefecture north of Tokyo. Suwa is not only famous for its lakeside castle (blogged about here) but also interestingly enough the setting of the book “Autobiography of a Geisha“, the first wildly published modern publication of a geisha’s tale. Another famous native of Suwa is the Marutaka Miso store (丸高蔵), one of Japan’s premier producers of the Japanese speciality. If you haven’t tried miso, the taste can be a little bit difficult to explain. It is fermented bean paste, but the fermented part is not really noticeable in the flavor. Most people would say that it has a rich and very salty taste and is used most often in the famous miso soup that is often served in sushi restaurants around the world.
Marutaka Miso store is located half way between the castle and the station and the owners happily allowed me to take photos inside the store, even before I went on a shopping spree ending up with several kilos of miso (including their pitch black prized top variety) and several liters of soy sauce. Miso is not very expensive and it is great fun to sample different variants. The store often produces gold medal winners in national competitions and my personal favorite was a green pepper miso, very spicy and absolutely fantastic.
The building itself is only part of a larger complex in Suwa that includes a sake factory, a sake store and some other places scattered around town. Just outside the building there is a natural hot spring foot bath were customers and passers by are encouraged to dip their feet and get a little rest. There is also a rest area inside the store, where the kind staff is happy to let you rest. Winters in Suwa get quite cold so the store is a perfect stop for tourists on their way to the castle. The seats next to the cast iron stove is always popular!
In April, as part of my photography of the cherry blossoms around Japan I visited Suwa City in southern Nagano Prefecture, quite far north of Tokyo. The main purpose of the trip was to catch the sakura around the famous Takashima Castle that was once built on the shores of Lake Suwa. These days the shoreline have receded quite a bit from the castle, and the building we can see today is a reproduction of the original that was torn down in 1870 and rebuilt one hundred years later. Unlike the more even more famous nearby Matsushima castle, the Takashima castle is a light brown color, quite rare among the predominantly black or white castles of Japan. It is also famous for being the highest elevated flatland castle ever built in Japan. Suwa is one of those rare gems of small Nagano cities that easily get overlooked by people heading to the much more famous Matsumoto City or even Nagano City. There’s plenty of nice temples, interesting shrines and well preserved old buildings around the lake that I’ll blog about later on. Enjoy!