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.
It is the end of September which in the world of Japanese confectionary and pomiculture (is there really no word in the English language for the cultivation of chestnut trees?) means it is time to start thinking about harvesting and making use of the extraordinarily sweet Japanese Chestnut (Castanea crenata). The trees are quite simply gorgeous, unlike any of the varieties of Castanea that we have in Europe, and the ripe fruits are encased in the sharpest needles you could ever imagine. Being used to our European varieties where the needles are often a bit soft, I learnt with much pain that these Japanese Chestnut are seriously spiky. Fresh they are half a percent fat and loaded with vitamins so quite healthy even as fruits go. Japanese use them for everything from ice-cream to jellies, candies, jams, sweets, roasts and in creams and lotions, and even as a topping on hot rice. I saw these specimen in a lovely garden in the lovely little town of Obuse in Nagano Prefecture, way north of Tokyo. Enjoy!
A couple of months ago I mentioned on the blog how I had visited Kamikochi National Park in Nagano Prefecture, north of Tokyo. Here are some photos from this trip, more specifically some of the wildlife I met walking around Taishoike, the lower parts of the river that is the centre of the national park. Due to it’s high elevation, it remains pretty cool even in the summer and nights tend to get chilly, as I discovered trying to sleep rough on the way up there to save on hotel money. As with all Japanese national parks, it is not the most tiring of hikes, easily enjoyed even for the elderly and children. I guess the Japanese perception of nature plays in here: no matter how much we wish to preserve nature, there’s a few vending machines even here! Still, for a long weekend out of Tokyo, it is hard to beat in terms of sheer beauty! Entrance is free but the ride there can get very expensive.