Suwa Taisha – One of Japan’s Oldest Shrines
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.