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Roads of Oku: Travels in Japan: Memorable ...

Describes a series of road trips in Japan begun in spring 2004.

Roads of Oku: Travels in Japan

Dennis Kawaharada

Inspirations for Travel in Japan...

The Poetry of Matsuo Bashō: The poet Bashō with his companion Sora traveled to northern Honshū in 1689 and wrote his classic travel narrative Narrow Roads of the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi). We first followed in his footsteps on our road trip in 2005, stopping to see some of the famous places he visited, then continued to explore his route in subsequent trips. By 2018, we had visited and photographed practically all the places he mentions. That year, I finished and published a translation of the narrative entitled Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind (available in print at; I also marked the route on a Google Map: Bashō's Oku no Hosomichi ("Narrow Roads of the Deep North).” (Below: Departure. “Friends lined the road to bid us farewell and stood there for as long as they could see the shadows of our backs.” From an illustrated scroll of Oku no Hosomichi. Yosa Buson (1716–1784). Itsuo Art Museum, Ikeda, Ōsaka)

The Woodblock Prints of Utagawa Hiroshige and Keisei Eisen: Another inspriration for our travels was the nineteenth-century woodblock prints in Utagawa Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō and Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen’s Sixty-nine Station of the Kisokaidō (Nakasendō) depicting travel on the two main roads between Edo and Kyōto. We drove along the Tōkaidō and Nakasendō in spring 2008, and in subsequent road trips. By 2020, we had visited and photographed almost all the stations on the two roads and posted the photos in Scenes Along theTōkaidō and Scenes Along the Kisokaidō (Nakasendō). We also started visiting and photographing the places depicted in Hiroshige’s Collection of Prints of Famous Places in the Sixty+ Provinces. (Below: “Satta Peak,” Station 16. Yui, depicts travelers descending toward Yui along a cliff called Satta Pass, with Suruga Bay and Mt. Fuji in the background.)

Other Historic Roads: We also went to photograph scenes along two other historic roads, the ancient Yamanobe-no-Michi in Nara Prefecture and the pilgrimage routes known as Kumano Kōdō (Old Roads of Kumano).

My Grandparents: My grandparents emigrated from Hiroshima Prefecture to Hawai'i in the early twentieth century. Their stories are told in “Child of History” (in Roads of Oku: Journeyʻs in the Heartland) and in Makisō (1887–1953) and Harumi (1899–1999) Kawaharada. My mother, Matsuko Kawaharada (21925–2020), took us to visit the ancestral hometowns and my grandparents’ families in Mukaiharamachi, Gōnomura, and Tomomura in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1970.

Fleeting Scenes: Road Trips in Japan is a more recent website at with photos of road trips from this website and more recent trips. The website contains photos from the 46 prefectures we were able to drive to. See Touring the Prefectures.

Photography: Dennis Kawaharada and Karen Ono


Historic Roads

Yamanobe-no-Michi, Nara

The Yamanobe Road in eastern Nara is the oldest recorded road in Japan, mentioned in Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) compiled in the 8th century. The road connected the capital of Nara in the north to Sakurai in the south; today traces of the road can be found between Isonokami Shrine in Tenri and Sakurai; walking paths allow visitors to follow the road.

Isonokami Shrine belonged to the 7th century Mononobe clan and served as its armory. Today it houses swords and other weaponry.

Entrance to Isonokami Shrine. Winter 2015

At the southern end of the road is Mt. Miwa (1532 feet, 467 meters), the shintai (sacred body) of the creation kami Ōmononushi. Nihon Shoki gives this account of Ōmononushi:

Ō-kuni-nushi no Kami is also called Ō-mono-nushi ... or else Ō-na-mochi no Mikoto. ... [Ō-mono-nushi no Kami] and Sukuna-bikona no mikoto, with united strength and one heart, constructed this sub-celestial world. Then, for the sake of the visible race of man as well as for beats, they determined the method of healing diseases. They also, in order to do away with the calamities of birds, beasts, and creeping things, established means for their prevention and control."

Later his guardian spirit appears to him and when asked where he wishes to dwell, the spirit answers Mt. Mimoro (Miwa) in Yamoto, and so the spirit was enshrined there: This is the God of Ō-miwa.

Ōmiwa Shrine. Spring 2011

According to the shrine website, Ō-mono-nushi "is the guardian deity of the human life, and in the age of the gods, cooperating with Sukuna-bikona no mikoto, cultivated the land and developed every industry such as agriculture, industry and commerce, and contrived to augment every social welfare such as curing disease, charming, saké-brewing, medicine manufacturing, and marriage." Thus saké brewers are said to worship at the shrine.

A white snake, a body of the kami, is also said to live in on the grounds.

Water fountain in the form of a snake, for purifying hands and mouth before entering the shrine. Spring 2011

A trail from the shrine leads to the summit, where three small shrine mark the places where the god Ō-kuni-nushi no Kami descended.

Shrine on Mt. Miwa. Internet Photo

On the north side of Mt. Miwa is Hibara Shrine, which is for the worship of the mountain itself, considered to be kami.

Road to Hibara Shrine. Winter 2015

Hibara Shrine. Winter 2015

Kofun (Imperial tomb) down the road from Hibara Shrine. Winter 2015

Kumano Kodō, Kii Peninsula

Kumano Kodō ("Ancient Roads of Kumano") are pilgrimage routes through the mountains and along the coasts of the Kii Peninsula to Kumano Sanzan, the Three Great Shrines of Kumano: Hongū Taisha, Hayatama Taisha (Shingū), and Nachi Taisha. (See "Shrines.")

The Imperial family made pilgrimages from Nara and Kyōto to the three shrines during the 11th-13th century. Kumano worship spread across Japan during the 16th-18th centuries. Pilgrimages increased under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868), when roads were improved and lodgings built to accommodate travelers.

Kumano KodoStream

Mountain Trail near Nachi Taisha, Spring 2004

Kumano Sanzan: Three Great Shrines of Kumano

Hongū Taisha: A giant torii (gateway) marks the area where the original Hongū Taisha was located, on the banks of the Kumano River. After it was destroyed by a flood, the shrine was moved to higher ground nearby.

Hongū Torii, Winter 2015

Hongū Taisha, Spring 2004

Hayatama Taisha is located in Shingū, on the east coast of the Kii Peninsula, where the Kumano River empties into Pacific Ocean.

Hayatama Taisha, Shingū, Spring 2004

Nachi Taisha is located in the coastal hills southwest of Shingū.

Nachi Taisha, Spring 2004

Nachi Falls (Nachi-no-Otaki), Spring 2004

See more photos of Kumano Sanzan at Shrines.

Five Routes to Kumano Sanzan

Five routes led south to Kumano Sanzan.

Two routes went south through the mountains of the central Kii Peninsula to Hongū Taisha:

(1) Kohechi started at the mountain temple at Kōyasan.

(2) Ōmine Okugake-Michi started at the mountain temple at Yoshino.

Two routes went east from Tanabe to Hongū Taisha.

(3) Nakahechi started at Takijiri-oji. Oji, or subsidiary shrines of the Kumano deity, lined the route; pilgrims stopped at oji to make offerings. The route passed through the hot spring town of Yunomine near Hongū Taisha.

Takijiri-oji: Starting point of the Nakahechi route, Winter 2015

Yunomine, a hot spring town on the Nakahechi Route. Winter 2015

(4) Ōhechi went from Tanabe around the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, past the rocks of Hashigui-iwa, to Nachi Taisha.

Hashigui-iwa ("Bridge post rocks")

(5) Iseji starts at Ise Shrine where pilgrims pay homage to Amaterasu, the sun goddess; the route goes east over the mountains and down to the eastern coast, to Hayatama Taisha, in Shingū. Just north of Shingū is Shichirimihama, a 13-mile long pebble beach.

Shichirimihama, Spring 2004

Shakado Kiritoshi, Kamakura, Kanagawa

This pass is cut through a limestone hill in Kamakura about 1200. A short walk up from the town, the pass connects two modern roads.

Shakado Kiritoshi. Spring 2008

Tokaidō, "Eastern Sea Road," Central Honshu

We drove along portions of the Tōkaidō (“Eastern Sea Road”) from Tōkyō to Kyotō in spring 2004 and summer 2012. I kept in mind the woodblock prints Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1831-1834) to locate scenes Hiroshige depicted and note changes in the country between the 19th and 21th century.

Map from "Ando Hiroshige: Tokaido–Hoeido Edition," The Woodblock Prints of Ando Hiroshige (2014)

At their eastern end, the start/end of the Tokaidō and Nakasendō (see below) was Nihonbashi (Station 1) in Edo (Tōkyō):

An old section of the road is preserved in Hakone (station 11), a stone pathway in the hills above Lake Ashi and a cedar-lined gravel path along the lake shore.

Stone pathwayGravel path

Most of the road scenes are memories now, built over by expressways and city roads. However, you occasionally recognize a mountain or river or seacoast depicted in the prints. Below is Hakone Pass (Station 11). Hiroshige made the scene more dramatic visually by depicting Mt. Mikuni steeper than it really is.

Hiroshige printHakone Pass

The scene appeared while we drove along the Hakone-Ashinoko Skyline Road that runs above the west side of the Lake Ashinoko, from Gotemba to Hakone, with great views of Fujisan and Ashinoko:

Skyline roadAshinoko

Below is Hiroshige’s woodblock print of the Tōkaidō at Satta Pass (station 17, Yui), in Shizuoka:

Note the two travelers on the steep cliff to the left; Mt. Fuji appears in the distance. The scene today below: the Tokaidō has been replaced by the Tōmei expressway, Highway 1, and train tracks along the coast. Mt Fuji is hidden in rainy-season (early June) clouds. A white guardrail midway up the green slope marks the location of the old Tōkaido.

The old Tokaidō at Satta Pass is today a single-lane paved road:

Hamamatsu, Station 30: Travelers on the beach at Hamamatsu (Hiroshige). Right Photo: Families visiting the Nakatajima Sand Dunes, just east of Hamamatsu

Travelers on the beach at Hamamatsu (Hiroshige) Families visiting the Nakatajima Sand Dunes, just east of Hamamatsu

Arai, Station 32: Travelers for Kyoto caught a ferry to the Arai barrier, on the western side of the inlet into Lake Hamana. Right Photo: Reconstructed building where travelers were interviewed, at Arai Barrier Gate. A Tokaidō museum is located next to the building.

Travelers for Kyoto caught a ferry to the Arai barrier, on the western side of the inlet into Lake Hamana (Hiroshige)Building where Tokaido travelers were interviewed, at Arai Barrier Gate

Kyotō, Station 55, was the western start/end of the Tokaidō:

Nakasendō, "Central Mountain Road," Central Honshu

Driving from Otsu to Tōkyō in spring 2004, we followed the Nakasendō (“Central Mountain Road”) up the Kiso Valley, the major mountain road between Kyōto and Edo, depicted in Hiroshige and Eisen's Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidō (1834-1842).

Map from "Ando Hiroshige: The Sixty-Nine Satations of the Kisokaidō," The Woodblock Prints of Ando Hiroshige (2014)

Left: Hiroshige print, Station 70, Otsu, with Lake Biwa in the background; right: Otsu in dawn light; Mt. Hiei below the clouds.

At its western end, the Nakasendō started/ended in Otsu, where the Tokaidō intersected with it and continued on to Kyotō.

Otsu, with Lake Biwa (Hiroshige)Otsu in dawn light; Mt. Hiei below the clouds

The Nakasendō went up the Kiso Valley through Tsumago (station 43), where a portion of the old road is preserved.

NakasendoWoodblock print

From Tsumago, it continues up to Magome Pass (Station 44) before descending to Magome town:

Magome PassWoodblock print of pass

At Agematsu (station 39), Ono Falls:

Ono Falls

Above: In the Edo era, the Nakasendo crossed a foot bridge in front of Ono-no-Taki, considered one of the Eight Scenic Spots of Kiso (Hiroshige).




Left: Ono Falls, on the roadside of Route 19 in Agematsu, Kiso Valley; a train bridge passes overhead today.

Station 30 was Shiojiri Pass above Lake Suwa:

Lake Suwa

Station Station 21, Oiwake (print by Eisen), with Mt. Asama:

Mt. Asama at Oiwake (Yeisen)Mt. Asama above Naka Karuizawa

Oku no Hosomichi, Northern Honshu

Bashō and Sora departing at Senju. Ink Painting by Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

Oku no Hosomichi (“Narrow Roads of Oku”), an account of a pilgrimage the poet Matsuo Bashō made with his traveling companiion Sora to Tōhoku in 1689, has inspired generations of travelers to follow his road. After copying the text for the haiku poet, the calligrapher Soryu wrote, “stirred to the core. Once had my raincoat on, eager to go on a like journey.” (See Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi for an annotated texts of his journey, with photos.)

Bashō left from Edo, the capital of Japan, in Musashi Province, and went north, to Nikkō, in Shimotsuke Province, then into Mutsu Province, traveling up the Abukuma River Valley to Sendai, then on to Matsushima, on the Pacific Coast, and Hiraizumi. From there he crossed the central mountains to Dewa Province on the Sea of Japan coast, as far north as Kitakata. Then he went south from Dewa through the provinces of Echigo, Etchū, Kaga, and Echizen, a region known as Hokuriku (“North Lands”) or Koshi. The narrative ends in Mino Province, with Bashō departing to visit Ise shrine, in Ise Province, to the south.

Click on the map for a Google map of the journey.


The Shirakawa Barrier Gate between Shimotsuke and Mutsu provinces was the symbolic passage to Oku, the North Country, the rustic heartland. Bashō wrote: “Days of uncertainty weighed heavily on me; but as we neared the Shirakawa Barrier, I felt destined to push on.”

Even in Bashō’s time, the barrier (once a fort defending the northern borderland of Yamato from the Ezo, or barbarian tribes) was only a poetic memory. Sora's diary records that the travelers "passed through the new barrier gate," but "made a ... detour in order to visit the ruins of the old gate."

Shirakawa was famous for "the deeply moving quality of spring and autumn and for viewing the moon and snow." Bashō crossed the barrier gate during an "off-season" (the first month of summer) when he saw "the green of barley sprouts" and "farmers toiling"; he laments, "I see not one of the hundred poetic scenes." About his summer crossing, he wrote: rice fields and barley—inside them, summer's hototogisu (ta ya mugi ya / naka ni mo natsu no / hototogisu)

Today, a marker (left) stands at a rest stop on Route 76, at the entrance to a hilltop shrine dedicated to the mountain god Oyama. When we went there in October 2009, a stockade that defended the Kantō plains against attacks from the northern Ezo tribes was being excavated nearby. On top of the hill is a shrine to the mountain god Ōyama.

Scenic Mountain Roads

Yamanami Highway, Kyushu. Fall 2006

The highway runs through Aso-Kuji National Park. A highlight was Mt. Kuju smoldering in the distance.

We arrived at the Daikanbo Lookout, with a wide view of the crater of Aso and its volcanic mountains:

Oku Iya, Tokushima, Shikoku. Summer 2009

We drove from Kochi to Takamatsu via Oku Iya on Routes 45, 32, and 439. The famous pissing boy statue is on a side road off Ikeda.

Route 439 is one lane, winding along the Iya River. The GPS symbol for closed in winter (a snowman with an X over it) began looking like a skull and crossbones warning us not to continue; we kept going, stopping at the Oku Iya Kazurabashi (Vine Bridge):

Eventually we reached Mt. Tsuchiyama. From there, we descended down more winding mountain roads, shrouded in mist, to Takamatsu.

Shirakami Line, Aomori. Fall 2009

Shirakami Line Road is 36 miles long, mostly unpaved and winding, through the Shirakami Mountains, designated a World Heritage site for its primeval, pristine beech forests.

Shirakami LineRoadway

The oldest tree, known as Mother Tree, a four-hundred year old beech, is near Tsugaru pass.

Yahiko Skyline Road, Niigata. Fall 2009

Mt. Yahiko is a sacred mountain southeast of Niigata. On the east side of the mountain is Yahiko shrine and Yahiko park, whose Momiji-Dani ("Crimson Leaves Valley") was at prime viewing when we visited in early November.

Mt. YahikoMomiji-Dani

The skyline road on the west side offers views of Sado Island and the Echigo Coast.

Bandai Azuma Lakeline (Rte. 70) and Highway 2, Fukushima. Summer 2010

Routes 459, 115, and 70 go from Nihonmatsu up around Mt. Adatara to Lake Hibara in Urabandai, with views of Lake Akimoto, Mt. Bandai, and Lake Onogawa.

Lake AkimotoMt. Bandai

Lake OnogawaLake Bandai

From Lake Hibara, Highway 2 goes up to Funasaka Pass, where, looking back, there is a distant view of the lake and Mt. Bandai:

Farther along, as the road descends to Yonezawa in Yamagata, is a view of the rows of mountains at the borders of Fukushima, Yamagata and Niigata prefectures.

Echo Line Road to Katta Pass, Yamagata. Summer 2010

The Echo Line Road winds its way up to Katta Pass from Kamiyama, just south of Yamagata City:

From the parking lot at the end of the toll road off the Echo Line Road is a short walk to Lake Okama:

The summit of Mount Katta is a short hike from the lake (photo left); Mount Kumano, the tallest peak of Mt. Zao is a longer hike (photo right):

Mt. KattaMt. Kumano

Mt. Chokai Road, Akita and Yamagata. Summer 2010

The road goes from Nikaho, Akita, up toward the summit of Mt. Chokai, then down to Fukura in Yamagata, offering panoramic views of the coast. The shadow of the mountain falls on the Sea of Japan. On the day we drove the road, it was too cloudy for this phenomenon to occur. The road is closed from late Fall to late Spring due to snow. The snow was still there in May, at the upper elevations.

Snowy roadMt. Chokai mist

Hakusan Super Lindo. Summer 2012

Hakusan Super Rindō ("Forest Road”) opens in early June each year, when the mountains are arrayed in vivid shades of green.

The Super Rindō turned out to be one of the most spectacular we’ve traveled in ten road trips over the last eight years.

The twenty-mile road winds up a river valley north of Hakusan (“White Mountain”), a centuries-old pilgrimage site for mountain ascetics. The peak of Hakusan appears over other mountains near the top of the road, which includes bridges, tunnels, hairpin turns, steep cliffs, and roadside waterfalls.

While the road is considered most spectacular in autumn colors, the greens of summer have their own special beauty and the road is less crowded in June. We were the only car going up until mid-morning, when we passed other cars and buses as we were heading down.

The most famous waterfall is Ubagataki, which can be seen from the road, but is more impressive viewed close up after a walk down a steep stairway and along the river bank.

The end of the walk offers both a public outdoor hot spring, if you don't mind getting naked in public, or for the modest, a foot bath.

Route 140, Kofu to Chichibu. Summer 2015

Route 140 goes the 4 miles long Karisaka Tunnel and past Takizawa Dam. A spiral roadway goes down from the dam into the valley.

Boys' Day Carps on Route 140

Continue to Scenic Seacoasts and Coastal Roads ...

Seacoasts and Coastal Roads

Updated: Feb. 2013


Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa. Winter 2008

Route 249 goes around the Noto Peninsula, along a rocky shoreline.

Meoto IwaNoto pillars

As we drove around Noto in the winter of 2008, we could see snow squalls offshore, sweeping into the coast from the northwest.

Nami no hana, “wave flowers,” occur in the winter when sea foam freezes and floats up in white flakes on the wind, piling up along the rocky shore and tumbling over the coastal road:

Towards the northern end of the peninsula are the Agehama salt farm and Senmaida, “Thousand rice fields.” A light snow storm had just past when we were there, lining the narrow terraces in white:

On the east side of the peninsula, the Suzu coast:

Noto Peninsula, Summer 2012

We drove around the peninsula again in summer 2012.

Past the ricefields of Senmaida is the lighthouse at Rokkozaki, the northernmost point of the peninsula:

South of Rokkozaki, on the east coast of the peninsula, is Mitsuke-jima, a monolithic rock in Iida Bay.

South of Mitsuke-jima is Koiji Kaigan:

Route 136, from Shimoda to Numazu, Shizuoka. Spring 2008

Route 136 follows the scenic coastline of western Izu Peninsula, from Shimoda to Toi, from where the winding Route 17 continues north to Numazu:

In the spring, sakura blooms along the road:

The road winds past the Sanshiro Islands and sea cliffs:

Sanshiro islandsWalkway

As we approached Numata, the snow-capped summit of Fujisan was faintly visible to the north in the mist above the Akashi Mountains:

Route 338, West Coast of Shimokita Peninsula, Aomori. Summer 2005

On the drive from Oma to Mutsu, a troop of wild monkeys appeared walking on electric wires overhead, and foraging in the overhanging trees.

The highlight of this drive was Hotokegaura – rocky pillars said to look like Buddha statues. Strong gusts of winds blowing down from the cliffs darkened the sea surface in patches. At the lookout, we met a man from Osaka who, like us, was on a long road trip.

When we drove the road in the summer of 2013, the cliffs were obscured by mist:

Route 339, Cape Tappi, Aomori. Fall 2009

Having seen Shimokita Peninsula, the northeastern horn of Honshu in summer 2005, we drove to see Cape Tappi, the northwestern horn, in Fall 2009. The first winter storm passed by a couple of days earlier, and the winds were blustery at the cape.

Heading south for Ajigasawa, we descended a winding mountain road to the west coast, with spectacular views of the undeveloped coastline to Lake Jusanko.

Route 45, Rikuchu Coast, Iwate. Summer 2005

Route 45 follows the coast from Ishinomaki to Hachinohe, a 200 mile long drive. In 2005, we stopped at the Miyako Kyukamura Hotel for a night. In a light drizzle, the next morning we hiked the trail along the coast near the hotel.

Rikuchi coastCoastline

Summer 2013

We drove from Hachinohe to Kitayamazaki to see the sea cliffs on the north end of Route 45.

Route 101, Fukaura, Aomori. Summer 2013

Route 101 follows the coast from Ajigasawa to the Oga Peninsula, through Fukaura, noted for its scenic coastline.

Route 359, Nishi Kaigan ("West Coast"), Oga Peninsula, Akita. Summer 2010

Route 359, from Cape Nyudo (left) down the west coast of the Oga Peninsula is narrow and winding, with a scenic coastline. Many of the sites are below the cliffs, with the best viewing by boats, which leave from the pier at the Oga Aquarium. It was pouring rain on the day we drove the route from the north.

Cape NyudoOga Aquarium

In the Summer 2013, the coast was bright in sunshine.

Nyudōzaki, on the northern tip of Oga Peninsula

Matsushima, Miyagi. Summer 2005 / Fall 2009

Matsushima Bay, northeast of Sendai, holds 263 islands. It was selected as one of the three most scenic places in Japan by Confucian scholar Shunsai Hayashi, who traveled around Japan half a century before Basho, in 1643. The other two scenic spots he chose were Miyajima, a sacred island in the Inland Sea near Hiroshima City (above); and Amanohashidate, a sand spit on the Sea of Japan coast in Kyoto Prefecture (below).

Matsushima BayBeach

Matsushima, Summer 2005, Ōshima Island


Matsushima, Fall 2009, from a Tour Boat


Matsushima, circa 1890s. New York Public Library Archives

Photos of Matsushima. Ogawa Kazumasa (1860-1929)

Highway 8, Toyama. Summer 2010 and Summer

The road hugs the steep cliffs between Itoigawa to Ichiburi, past Oyashirazu:

In 2010, a three-day summer storm was battering the coast below the cliff-side road.

Near Oyashirazu was an oddly shaped rock and a park with a giant turtle sculpture.

RocksTurtle sculpture

Highway 8, Echizen Kaigan, Ishikawa-Fukui. Winter 2008

We drove along the Echizen Kaigan from Kanazawa to Tsuruga in winter, 2008. The Kaga (Ishikawa) coast features basaltic rock formations:

Two famous sites are Tojimbo, pillar-shaped rocks eroded by the sea, and Kochomon (“Calling Bird Gate”), a natural tunnel. Kochomon is closed to traffic due to crumbling rocks.


We ended up at Tsuruga Bay in Fukui:

We drove the Echizen-Kaga coast again the summer of 2012, from Tsuruga to Kanazawa.

San-in Kaigan National Park. Spring 2004 and Fall 2006.

San-in Kaigan (Mountain Shadow Coast) National Park stretches for 50 miles along the north side of Honshu, from Tango Peninsula to the Tottori Sand Dunes.

Tango Peninsula, Spring 2004: Route 178 goes around the Tango Peninsula/ At the east end of this route, in Miyazu Bay is Amanohashidate (“Heavenly Bridge”), said to be a remnant of the heavenly bridge from which the creation kami Izanagi and Izanami stirred up the brine to form an island called Onogoro. Viewing the sand spit upside down through one’s legs, from the hill above, gives the impression of a bridge floating in space.

Tango coastTango Ine


AmanohashidateBeach walk

Tottori Sand Dunes, Highway 9. Fall 2006. We walked out to the ocean on a drizzling morning and looked down the tall sand dune at the ocean. Far-away visitors looked like ants. Filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara shot “Woman of the Dunes” (1964) here, a film based on Kobo Abe’s existentialist novel “Suna no Onna” (1962).

Seacoast Near Takeno, Route 11. Fall 2006

SeacoastSanin coast

Route 42, from Ise to Shingu, Kii Peninsula, Mie. Spring 2004

Driving from Ise to Shingu took us along the southeast coast of the Kii Peninsula, to Onigajo (“Demon’s Castle”) and Shishi-iwa ("Lion Rock"). A tunnel lined with tourist shops leads out to the wind and wave sculpted cliffs of Onigajo. We went before the shops opened and enjoyed an uncrowded walk along the coast.


South from Onigajo on the coastal road is Shishi-iwa ("Lion Rock"):

Route 60, Suo-Ōshima , Yamaguchi. Spring 2011

The drive along Rte. 60 on southern coast of Suo-Ōshima, from the beach in front of the Hotel and Resort Sunshine Sazan Seto (1) went past the 1000 cherry blossoms of Gojyo (still in bud, Tateiwa ("Standing Rock"), and Ganmon ("Gate"), which was on a small sandy beach on a short hike over a hill at the end of Ryūzaki (4).

Oshima beachroad scene

Standing Rockrock gate


Route 56, from Kochi to Cape Ashizuri, Shikoku. Fall 2006

Surfing beach near Tosa Irino:

Cape Ashizuri, the southernmost point of Shikoku:

West of Cape Ashizuri is a rocky shoreline formation called Tatsukushi, "Dragon Skewers."

Route 56, Tokushima to Muroto, Shikoku. Summer 2009

Route 56 follows the coast from Tokushima to Cape Muroto, Shikoku's southeastern point. Along the way we stopped at Hiwasa town. Yakuoji Shrine offers a view of a rounded turtle rock just offshore.

Sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs on the beach:

Farther south: Meoto iwa ("married rocks").

At Muroto is a coastal trail, with sites associated with the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi, who is said to have achieved enlightenment in a cave near the cape. Kobo Daishi is said to have blessed the water of Mearai-no-ike Pond and used it to cure eye diseases:

Cape Muroto, from the cliff-side trail up to the Muroto Llighthouse and Hotsumisaki temple:


Route 226, Satsuma Peninsula, Kagoshima. Spring 2011

The drive along Rte. 226 at southern end of the Satsuma Peninsula, from Kagoshima to Cape Kasasa, goes past Mt. Kaimon, known as Satsuma Fuji:

Passing through small towns, the route hugs the seacliffs, to a lookout at Cape Kasasa:

This cape is said to be a land that Amaterasu's grandson Ninigi, after descending from Heaven, declared was good and where he lived:

This place is opposite to the "land of Kara" [Korea]. One comes straight across to the august Cape of Kasasa; and it is a land whereon the morning sun shines straight, a land which the evening sun's sunlight illumines. So this place is an exceedingly good place. (Nihongi)

It was at this cape that he met his wife, Konohana Sakuyahime no Mikoto, “Princess who blossoms like the flowers of the trees.”


Shiretoko Peninsula. Summer 2005

A coastal road (Route 93) goes north along the west coast past some lakes to Kamuiwakka waterfall fed by a hot spring. The main coastal road (Route 334) goes east, up to Mt. Rausu and Rausu Pass, with a view of Kunashiri Island (photo bottom left), claimed by Japan and occupied by Russia since the end of World War II.

Shiretoko peninsulaRausu Passrausu kunashiri offshorerausu fishing boats


Updated: Summer 2015

Nihonbashi, Tōkyō. Summer 2015

Nihonbashi crosses the Nihonbashi River at the north end of Ginza, in Tōkyō. The first bridge was built in 1603; the current bridge, built of stone on a steel frame, dates from 1911.

Nihonbashi was the starting point of the two roads between the new capital city of Edo and the old capital of Kyotō: Tokaidō, along the Pacific Coast, and Nakasendō, through the central mountains. Distances from Edo were calculated from this bridge.

Today it sits beneath the expressway that circles central Tōkyō:


Nihonbashi, c. 1960, before the expressway was built overhead

Nihonbashi: Hiroshige Prints

Hiroshige's Nihonbashi

Akashi Strait Bridge. Akashi and Awaji, Hyogo. Fall 2006 and Spring 2011

The longest suspension bridge of its time (2.4 miles long, 4 kilometers, completed in 1998), the Akashi Strait Bridge connects Honshu and Awaji Island. We drove over the bridge from Honshu to Awaji in Fall 2006, and from Awaji to Honshu in Spring 2011. The drive at night (2006) was like flying between the lit-up harp strings of the suspension cables.

Akashi BridgeAkashi BridgeAkashi BridgeAkashi Bridge

Seto Grand Bridge, Okayama to Kagawa. Spring 2011.

Eight-miles long, the double-decked Seto Grand Bridge crosses the Inland Sea, connecting Kurashiki, Okayama, on Honshu, to Sakaide, Kagawa, on Shikoku.

Seto grand bridge

Shimanami Kaido ("Sea Road"), Imabari to Onomichi. Summer 2010.

A series of ten bridges connecting Imabari, Ehime, on Shikoku, to Onomichi, Hiroshima, on Honshu, via nine islands, a distance of 37 miles (60 kilometers).

Shimanami KaidoShimanami Kaido

 Ikuchi Bridge (above), linking Ikuchijima (foreground) and Innoshima islands. Photo by alon adika, Japan Times, Oct. 9, 2011.

Kanmon Strait Bridge, Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, and Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi. Fall 2006

We drove over the Kanmon Strait Bridge from Kyushu to Honshu.

Kannon StraitBridge

Naruto Bridge, Nandan, Hyogo, and Naruto, Shikoku. Fall 2006

The Naruto Bridge is the part of the Kobe-Awaji-Naruto Expressway connecting Awaji Island to Shikoku. A walkway under the bridge allows you to walk from a park in Naruto out over the strait to view the whirlpools that form when the tides change as water flows into or out of the Seto Naikai (Inland Sea).

Naruto bridge Swirling water

Aqua Bridge, Tōkyō Bay. Summer 2012.

A six-mile long undersea tunnel goes from Kawasaki Ward in Tōkyō and emerges in mid-bay at Umihotaru, an artificial island with parking, restaurants, souvenir shops and viewpoints, before continuing on a bridge over two-miles long to Kisarazu on the Boso Peninsula. You can see Mt. Fuji and the Tōkyō Sky Tree from Umihotaru on clear, calm day, which this one wasn't. The 20-30 knot winds churned up the water with white caps and the horizon was hazy with sea spray.

Kintai Bridge. Iwakuni, Yamaguchi. Summer 2009

Originally built in the Edo period, in 1673, Kintai Bridge crosses the Nishiki River in five arches. Early twentieth century photo:

The bridge was rebuilt in 1953 after it was destroyed by a flood in 1950.

Ukai (cormorant fishing) begins on June 1 upstream of the bridge. We attended the the opening ceremony in summer 2009:

Uji Bridge, Ise Shrine, Mie. Spring 2004 and Summer 2012

The rising sun shines through the grand torii at the front end of Ujihashi, the bridge crossing the Isuzu River to Ise Shrine.

woodblock print uji bridge

Woodblock print by Tomikichi Tokuriki (Sept. 1941)

Togetsu-Kyō ("Moon-Crossing Bridge"), Arashiyama, Kyōto. Summer 2012.

Shinkyō (“Sacred Bridge”), Nikko, Tochigi. Fall 2009

This red-lacquered bridge arches gracefully over the Daiya River. Its legendary origin is this: in 766, when the priest Shonin arrived in Nikko, the river was swollen. He prayed to the river kami for help in crossing it. The kami released two snakes, which entwined to form a bridge over the river, allowing him to cross before disappearing. Later a real bridge was built over the river at the spot of Shonin's crossing. The bridge has been maintained over the centuries, the latest restoration in 2005.

Narugo Gorge Bridge, Miyagi. Fall 2009

The Narugo Gorge Bridge is a favorite site in northern Japan to view fall foliage.

Aomori Bay Bridge. Aomori. Fall 2009

When we first saw this bridge in summer 2005 from our hotel window, lit up in blue, I thought of it as a Bridge of Dreams. The color of the lights on the bridge changes from blue to green to red. In Fall 2009, we crossed the bridge on the way to Cape Tappi, the northwestern tip of Honshu.

Bridge in AomoriBridge in daylight

Tateyama Ohashi ("Big Bridge"), Toyama. Summer 2010

On the way up to Tateyama, a sacred mountain in the mountains of Toyama, the Tateyama Ohashi crosses the Joganji River.

Ayatori (“Cat’s Cradle”) Bridge, Yamanaka, Ishikawa. Winter 2008

Ayatori Bridge, designed by Hiroshi Teshigahara with a curving form, crosses the Daishoji River in Yamanaka Onsen.

Ayatori bridgeOn the bridge

Yume no Kakehashi ("Dream Suspension Bridge"), Fukui. Summer 2010

On our way from Hakusan to Takayama, on Route 158, we passed Yume no Kakehashi, a mini-Golden Gate across Lake Kuzuryu. It's said to be modeled on the Seto Big Bridge, which joins Shikoku to Honshu over the Seto Inland Sea.

Oshima Island Bridge, Suo-Oshima Yamaguchi. Spring 2011

The Oshima Island bridge connects Yanai, Yamaguchi to Suo-Oshima, offshore. From Mt. Iyino on the island, you can see the bridge from above, with the swift currents of the Inland Sea swirling beneath it as the tide changes.

Oshima BridgeOshima Bridge

Kazura-bashi (“Vine Bridge”). Oku Iya, Tokushima, Shikoku. Summer 2009

Getting to Kazura-bashi is half the adventure, as it’s on a remote narrow road in Oku Iya Valley on Shikoku. Traditionally, the bridge was made of vines; today the vines are reinforced with steel cables for safety.

Vine bridgeView of bridge

Megane-bashi (“Eyeglasses bridge”), Nagasaki, Kyushu. Fall 2006

Megane-bashi, built by a Chinese Buddhist monk in 1634, crosses the Nakajima River in central Nagasaki. The bridge’s two stone arches, reflected in a canal, resemble a pair of round eyeglasses.


Posted: Summer 2015

In Summer 2005, planning a drive from Narita Airport, Honshu, to Wakkanai, Hokkaidō, I discovered a car ferry crosses the Tsugaru Strait between Ōma, at the northern tip of Honshu to Hakodate, at the southern tip of Hokkaidō. The drive north to Oma was long; but the two-hour 23-mile ocean crossing was pleasant, convenient, and relatively inexpensive; ever since, we've used the ferry system in Japan to get between islands or to cross bays in order to cut driving time between stops.

Ōma-Hakodate Ferry. Summer 2005, Summer 2013

In 2005, the car ferry from Ōma crossed the Tsugaru Strait from Ōma to Hakodate in a little under two hours. We caught the ferry back to Ōma after driving around Hokkaidō for about a week.

Car ferryView from ferry

In summer 2013, when we took the ferry from Hakodate to Ōma to visit sites in Tōhoku (northern Honshu), the old ferry Vayu had been replaced by the newer, larger Daikan Maru (photo below), which made the crossing in half the time (about an hour).

At the time of our first crossing, I didn't know that the fishing port of Ōma was famous for catching and serving the best hon-maguro (blue-fin tuna sashimi) in Japan, at the best price. In 2013, after landing in Ōma, we stopped in town to eat a maguro bowl; we stopped for another bowl on the way back to Hakodate a week later.

maguro at omazaki

Ōma is famous for the hon-maguro its fishing fleet catches in the Tsugaru Strait.

Across the street from the honmaguro sign was a restaurant where a bowl of maguro over rice, with miso soup and tsukemono, was $25. It was the best meal we ever had in Japan.

Maguro don

$25 Maguro-don at Oma.

On our return trip, he headland of Mt. Hakodate appeared in the sea mist.

Wakkanai-Rebun Ferry, Summer 2005

The ferry leaves from Wakkanai, at the northern tip of Hokkaidō, to the offshore island of Rebun, noted for its good seafood and its summer wildflowers. From Rebun, you can see the neighboring island of Rishiri, with its high peak, known as Rishiri Fuji because of its conic shape.

Niigata-Sado Island Ferry, Fall 2009, Summer 2015

Sado island is about forty miles offshore from Niigata city. The ferry service to Ryotsu includes both a car-and-passenger ferry, and a jetfoil that travels at speeds of over 40 miles per hour and arrives in a little over an hour.

It costs about the same to catch the jetfoil to Sado and rent a car in Ryotsu as it does to take a rental car by ferry to the island; the jetfoil cut travel time of the crossing in half.

Shizuoka to Toi, Izu Peninsula Ferry, Summer 2015

In addition to avoiding the traffic from Shizuoka to Izu, another reason to take the ferry across Suruga Bay is the view of Mt. Fuji from the ocean.

Leaving Shizuoka

Mt. Fuji, from Suruga Bay

Irago-Toba Ferry, Summer 2012. Spring 2014

Leaving Cape Irago at the tip of the Atsumi Peninsula, Aichi, for Toba, on the other side of Nagoya Bay

Wakayama, Honshu, to Tokushima, Shikoku, Summer 2009

After waking up before dawn and driving to Koyasan then returning to Wakayama (62 miles round-trip) to catch the 11:30 ferry to Tokushima, we must have napped during the 36-mile crossing. No photos. After arriving, we drove south along the eastern coast of Shikoku to Cape Muroto, where we stayed at a ryokan overnight.

The road through Hiwasa, on the way to Cape Muroto at the southeast tip of Shikoku

Ferry from Matsuyama, Shikoku, to Oita, Kyūshū, Fall 2006

Schoolchildren on a class trip taking a group photo on the ferry

Kumamoto to Shimabara, Kyūshū, Fall 2006

Seagulls at Kumamoto Ferry Port

Kagoshima-Sakurajima, Kyūshū, Spring 2011

Leaving Kagoshima Ferry Port at dawn to cross Kagoshima Bay to Sakurajima

Walks and Hikes

Updated: Summer 2015

Walks and hikes abound along rivers, to waterfalls, around lakes and ponds, but also up stairways to shrines, temples, and castles located at the top of hills.


Mt. Miwa, Nara. 2011

Mt. Miwa is the site of Ōmiwa Jinja, dedicated to Ōmononushi, the sun kami who entered the mountain in ancient times. The mountain is said to be his sacred body; he also takes the form of a white snake which lives at the shrine.

No photography is allowed on the trail, but here is the map from the shrine.

Someone posted a photo of the shrine at the top on the internet:

Kawazu Nanadaru (“Seven Falls”), Izu, Shizuoka. 2008

The one and a quarter mile walkway along the Kawazu River goes past seven falls. At Kani Daru (top right) are statues of the dancer and the student from Yasunari Kawabata’s novella “Dancing Girl of Izu,” which is set on the Izu Peninsula. The walk ends at Kamu Daru (bottom right).

Kawazu NanadaruKani DaruStatues of Dancing Girl of IzuKama Daru

Kunozan Toshogu Shrine, Shizuoka. 2008

A zigzagging stone staircase with 1159 steps leads up to Kunozan Toshogu Shrine, the first burial site of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 – 1616). From the top is a view of Suruga Bay. The remains of Ieyasu were moved to Toshogu Shrine at Nikko after that grand shrine was completed in 1617.


Philosopher’s Path, Kyōto. 2004

"This is a pleasant city stroll following the old canal, lined with cherry trees, between Ginkakuji Temple and Nanzenji Temple. Local scholars call the little alley flanking the canal The Path of Philosophy" (JNTO Travel Guide.) The path was used for meditation by Nishida Kitaro, a professor of philosophy at nearby Kyōto University.


Ryūokyo, Nikko, Tochigi. 2015

Located between Kawaji Onsen and Kinugawa Onsen, this gorge has a nature trail for walking, including a short 3 km, 1.5 hour walk. From Musasabi Bridge, visitors can view the gorge north- south along the Kinugawa River.

Ishilna Natural Cedar Foreest, Sado Island, Niigata. 2015

Three miles up a narrow mountain road on northern Sado Island, Osado Ishina Natural Cedar Forest nature trail, about a mile RT, well marked, with signs (in Japanese) marking interesting old cedar trees along the way.

Kosuge Shrine, Nozawa, Nagano. 2015

The Kosuge Shrine is a mile or so up a steep mountain trail. Signs in Japanese mark rocks with names/stories along the way.

Mt. Iwaki, Aomori. 2014

Hoei Crater, Mt. Fuji, Shizuoka. 2012

Feeling too old to climb to Fuji-san's summit, we decided to do a shorter hike to one of its craters, Hoei, from Fujinomiya fifth Station. As we approached the station up a winding road, the weather was sunny, but clouds were moving in.

It was chiily and the trail was closed (it was before the opening of the climbing/hiking season), but we went anyway.

When we got out to the crater lookout, the view was hidden by rain and mist:

A day when Fuji-san is hidden, still interesting. —Bashō

Ibuta-ji, Mie. 20012

On the way from Toba to Nagoya, we stopped at Ibuta-ji, in the Suzuka Mountains above Matsuzaka. Ibuta-ji is a Buddhist temple where mountain ascetics train. I saw it on an episode of Extreme Japan (NHK) and located it on a Google Map, then used our GPS to navigate to it. At the beginning of a trail to the top of the 1300-foot Mt. Ibuta is a fifteen-minute climb up a steep cliff, which, with the help of a chain in one section, takes you to a hilltop shrine on a ledge beneath an overhang.

Left: Trail to the shrine. Right: View from the top:

Left: Shrine at the top. Right: Stairs at the end of a long hike around some step ridges, which I skipped.

Azuchi Castle, Shiga. 2012

The ruins of Oda Nobunaga’s Azuchi castle, completed in 1579, is located up a long flight of stairs.

Uba Falls, Ishikawa. 2012

Ubagataki is on the Hakusan Super Lindo ("Forest Road"). We walked to the fall down a steep stairway and along the river bank.

The trail goes past the falls.

A foot bath fronts the falls, on the opposite bank.

Tateyama, Toyama. 2012

Tateyama, like Mt. Fuji, is still snow-covered in June. From the Tateyama train station we took a cable car up to Bijodaira, from where a bus transported us to Murodo, just below the highest peaks. (To protect the environment, private cars aren’t allowed on the road.)

Mikurigaike (Mikuri Pond) still frozen:

Kamikochi, Nagano. 2012

Nature walks along the Azusa River, from Kappa Bridge to Taishō Pond.

Kappa Bridge:

Shosen Gorge and Sengataki, Yamanashi. 2012

Mt. Nokogiri, Chiba. 2012

Mt. Nokogiri, near the town of Hama-Kanaya, is noted for a mountain temple and a giant statue of the medicine Buddha Yakushi Nyorai. Up a walkway of steep stairs and cliff-side trails are 1,500 arhat sculptures set in shallow caves, a towering bas-relief of Kannon carved into a cliff, and a lookout.

Lake Senba, Mito, Ibaraki. 2010

The walk around Lake Senba in Mito starts getting busy at six in the summer, when sunrise is before 5 am. Just above the lake is Kairakuen, a garden famous for its plum blossoms in February.

Lake SenbaPlum orchard

Lake Hibara, Urabandai, Fukushima. 2010

Trails along the lake has views of Mt. Bandai. Fishing is a popular pasttime in the lake.

Lake HibaraMt. BandaiTrees in the lakeFishing

Muroto, Kochi, Shikoku. 2009

The trail goes along the coast and up to Hotsumisaki Temple. The walk features wave-sculpted rock and Mearai-no-ike Pond, where Kobo Daishi is said to have purified the water of the pond and cured people of their eye diseases. A fig tree whose roots cover a rock is another featured site. Hotsumisaki Temple is temple 24 on the 88 temple tour of Shikoku. From the trail up to the temple is a view of Cape Muroto, the southeastern point of Shikoku.

MurotoMuroto pondFig treeWalk

Daisen Falls, Tottori. 2009

A mile long trail goes up and down hillsides on the north side of Mt. Daisen, across Kaseichi Stream, to the two-stage falls.

Oni no shitaburui (“Demon’s Trembling Tongue”), Oku Izumo, Shimane. 2009

The river has steep granite cliffs along the banks and is filled with huge boulders and odd-shaped rocks. The trail goes along the river banks, with bridges crossing the river.



Origin of Oni no Shitaburui, according to Izumo-Fudoki (local history of Izumo): a beautiful princess, Tamahime-no-mikoto, lived in this valley. A crocodile which lived in the Sea of Japan fell in love with her and went up the river every evening to visit the princess. However, the princess disliked the crocodile and placed a big rock in the river to block his visits. It is said that these rocks of Oni no Shitaburui are the remnants of that rock.

Sandantaki, Hiroshima, Chugoku. 2009

Sandan-taki (“Three stage waterfall”) is on the upper end of Sandan Gorge, carved out by the Shibaki River. From the visitor’s center, it’s something like a 7.5 mile walk, one way, 15 miles round trip, but there is a parking lot much closer to the falls, a mile or so away.


Goshikinuma (“Five-colors Marsh”), Urabandai, Fukushima. Summer 2005

Near Lake Hibara, the trail leads from pond to pond through the marshland, each pond with a different color.

Kushiro Wetlands, Hokkaidō. 2005

A boardwalk goes through Wetlands, where tsuru (Japanese cranes) mate in winter. Small birds flit among the reeds in summer.

Kushiro wetlandWild grass

Rebun Island, Hokkaidō. 2005

We caught the ferry from Wakkanai to Rebun Island and hiked up the trail on the eastern side of the island. From the hilltop, you look down on the cliffs on the northern side and to the southeast, Rishiri Island on the horizon. The wildflowers were just starting to bloom in mid-May.

Hagurosan, Yamagata. 2005

The stairway through a cedar forest to Hagurosan Shrine ascends in 2446 steps, with thirty-three carvings. Walkers who can find all 33 are said to be blessed.


Sake cupsBell


Rairai Gorge, Akiu Onsen, Miyagi. 2009

Rairai gorgeStream

Narugo Gorge, Miyagi. 2009

The walk along Narugo Gorge is popular in autumn, when the leaves turn color. The southern end of the walk starts at a bridge above the gorge.

Narugo walkwayGorge

Oirase Stream, Aomori. 2009

The walk goes from Lake Towada, along Oirase Stream, which flows out of the lake, past several waterfalls, down to Kumoi Falls. In early November, the first snow of the year had fallen the night before and a light snow was still falling.

Oirase streamWaterfall

Ammon Falls. Aomori. 2009

The falls in located in the Shirakami mountains, in one of the world's largest birch forests, in Aomori prefecture. We hiked up to the first of the three falls, a 45-minute walk. The trail to the two upper falls was closed.

WalkwayAmmon falls

Ōnami Pond, Miyazaki, Kyushu. 2006

On a misty, drizzly morning, we hiked up to Ōnami Pond near Mt. Kirishima ("Misty Island") and waited .... After half an hour, a circular pond appears under the mist, mirroring the bare trees inside the crater rim, with ripples of light winds moving across the surface, like the tracks of the kami. The lake is said to be inhabited by a water-dragon who became the beautiful daughter of a village headman who prayed for a child. She leapt back into the lake on her eighteenth birthday.

Misen, Itsukushima (Miyajima), Hiroshima. 2006

One of the most famous destinations in Japan, the trails on Miyajima are generally crowded with visitors. But once the hike up Misen gets steep, the crowd grow smaller. When we got to Shishi Iwa (“Lion Rock”) it was almost deserted, as the ropeway was closed due to gusty winds. We could see Hiroshima City and islands in the Inland Sea.

MiyajimaVisitorsPanoramaInland Sea


Yamanaka Hot Spring, Ishikawa. 2008

The walk goes along Kakusen Gorge and the Daishoji River from Daishoji Bridge, passing below the curvey modern Ayatori Bridge, to the traditional Korogi Bridge.

Ayatori (Cat’s Cradle) Bridge, a modern steel structure with an S-curved path inside an inverted triangular frame, designed by ikebana master and film-maker Hiroshi Teshigahara (“Woman in the Dunes”):

Traditional wooden Korogi (Cricket) Bridge, at the upper end of the paved trail along the river bank.

Ninenzaka, Kyōto. 2013

Ninenzaka is a narrow street of shops, between Yasaka shrine and Kiyomizu temple in Higashiyama (eastern Kyōto).


Updated: Feb. 2013

Fujisan, Shizuoka. Fall 2005 / Spring 2008 / Summer 2010

Fujisan, the tallest mountain in Japan (12,288 ft / 3,776 m) is peerless among the mountains of Japan. Below, Mt. Fuji in morning mist, above Lake Yamanaka, Summer 2010.


By mid-morning, the mountain was clear except for a wisp of clouds at the top; by afternoon, it was hidden by clouds. For photos of Fujisan above Lake Kawaguchi and Lake Sai, see Lakes.

Sunrise from Kawaguchiko Fifth Station, Summer 2005:

In the Manyoshu, the first Japanese anthology of poetry, compiled around 759 CE, a poet wrote:

Fuji is at the source of the sun,
The guardian of the land of Yamato,
A living kami, a treasure in Suruga.
Our eyes never grow weary gazing up
At the lofty peak of Fuji

The kami of the mountain, worshiped at shrines around it, is Asama or Sengen, the peaks at the top are associated with various Buddhist deities, and the mountain itself is worshipped as a kami.

Views of Fujisan

From a traffic jam on Highway 2 in Kamakura, Spring 2008:

Over Lake Ashi, Spring 2008:

On the Tomei Expressway to Shizuoka City. Spring 2014

From Nihondaira, Sunset, Shimizu Harbor. Spring 2014

From the Ferry, crossing Suruga Bay, from Shizuoka to Izu, Spring 2014:

Above the rim of Mt. Omuro, on Izu Peninsula, Spring 2014:

From Highway 20, Yamanashi, Summer 2015:

Takachiho-san, Miyazaki. Spring 2011

Where Amaterasu's grandson Ninigi is said to have descended to earth to rule:

So then [the Heaven-Shining-Great-August-Deity and the High-Integrating-Deity] commanded His Augustness Heaven's-Prince-Rice-ear-Ruddy-Plenty; and he, leaving the Heavenly Rock-Seat, pushing asunder the eight-fold heavenly spreading clouds, and dividing a road with a mighty road-dividing, set off floating shut up in the Floating Bridge of Heaven, and descended from Heaven onto the peak of Kuzhifuru which is Takachiho in Tsu-kushi [Kyūshū] (Kojiki). Right: Woodbloock print by Tomikichiro Tokuriki (Sept. 1941).

Mt. TakachihoMt. Takachiho woodblock print

Sakurajima (“Cherry Blossom Island”), Kagoshima. Spring 2011

Located across Kinko Bay from Kagoshima City, Kyūshū, Sakurajima (3665 ft / 1117 m), an active volcano, was an island until the 1914 eruption, when a lava flow connected it to the eastern shore of the bay. Wwe caught the ferry to Sakurajima and drove up to Yunohira lookout to see the face of the northern peak close-up:

Photos, clockwise from top left: 1. Sakurajima at sunrise, from Kagoshima. 2. Coud-capped Sakkurajima. 3. A smoke-plume rising in the afternoon. 4. On the backside of the mountain, the source of the smoke-plume.


Iwaki-san (“Stone Tree Mountain”), Aomori. Fall 2009

Called Tsugaru Fuji, Iwaki-san (5330 ft / 1625 m) rises from the Tsugaru plains west of Hirosaki City.

It’s three peaks are home to three kami: the north peak, Ganki-san, houses Tatsubihime no mikoto, a female kami, the “shining dragon princess.”, a primordial kami. Chokai-san, the south peak is home to Okuninushi, a kami of agriculture and medicine’s also identified with Sakanoue Tamuramaro, a historical figure who is said to have conquered the demons of the north and pacified the area for the Yamato court. He is celebrated each summer in the Nebuta/Neputa festivals of Aomori, with colorful paper floats lit from the inside like lanterns.

Top: from the southwest, above rice fields. Bottom: from the west, the three peaks visible, above apple orchards.

Chokai-san (“Bird-Sea Mountain”), Akita. Fall 2009

Called Dewa Fuji, Chokai-san (7336 ft / 2236 m) is noted for its shadow cast on the Japan Sea at dawn. In summer 2005, it is hidden behind low clouds; in fall 2009, it appeared in the misty landscape below. Omonoimi (“Great Abstainer”), the kami of Mt. Chokai, is the protector of farmers and fishermen of the region.

Road to the lookout below the summit of Mt. Chokai, above the Sea of Japan:

Daisen (“Big Mountain”), Shimane-Tottori. Summer 2009

Called Hoki Fuji, Daisen (5700 ft / 1792 m) is the tallest mountain in western Honshu. On the way to Tottori from Matsue, we drove past in fall 2006, but the mountain was hidden in a yellow morning mist.

In summer 2009, we hiked up to Daisen Falls on the southeast slope, then drove down to the beach at Yonago, on the Sea of Japan.

The mountain kami, worshiped at Okamiyama Shrine Temple on the northern slope, is considered a protector of livestock, so horse and cattle fairs are held in villages around its base on the twenty-fourth day of the fourth moon. The mountain itself is worshipped as a water and agricultural kami and rice-planting festivals are held in honor of the kami in spring.

Ishizuchi-san (“Stone Hammer Mountain”), Ehime, Shikoku. Fall 2006 and Summer 2009

We drove up a narrow mountain road ...

Roadway tunnel

...then caught a ropeway that took us halfway up Ishizuchi:

Past Joju Shrine, the trail to the summit begins:

The trail goes along a ridge through a forest reserve, then climbs steeply toward the summit, with chains laid down on the slope to help climbers get up and down. We walked along leisurely as far as the point where the trail began the ascent.

The mountain was opened for pilgrimage by En-no-Gyoja, the founder of shugendo, who consecrated it to Kumano Gongen. Kumano Gongen is said to have come from Mt. Tiantai (Tendai) in China, stopping at Hikosan in Kyushu, Ishizuchi, and Awaji Island, before settling in Kumano During the Edo period, Ishizuchi-ko (confraternities) formed to make pilgrimages to the summit. After World War II, the pilgrimages were revived. On July 1, a ten-day festival marks the annual opening of the mountain for pilgrimages.

The gods of the mountain at the ropeway entrance:

Dewasanzan (“Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa”) Yamagata. Fall 2009

A pilgrimage route begins at Hagurosan (“Black Feather Mountain,” 1358 ft / 414 m), ascends to the summit of Gassan (“Moon Mountain,” 6509 ft / 1984 m), and descends at Yudonosan (“Bath Chamber Mountain,” 4934 ft / 1504 m).

Temple Bell, Mt. Haguro, where the Pilgrimage Trail Starts

Photo Below, Left: Hagurosan, in the middle ground to the left; Gassan beyond, lightly dusted with snow. Photo Below,Right: The tall peak farthest back, Yudono is a spur on the southside of Gassan. When we visited in Fall 2010, the road and shrine were already closed for the winter.


The Torii at Yudono Shrine, where the Pilgrimage Ends

Hakusan, Ishikawa. Summer 2010 and Summer 2012

Hakusan (“White Mountain”) at the convergence of Ishikawa, Fukui, and Gifu prefectures is one of the Three Holy Mountains along with Fujisan and Tateyama. Hakusan includes three peaks – Gozengamine or Gozenpo, Onanjimine, and Bessan. The tallest peak, Gozengamine, rises to 8,865 feet. We drove up the Hakusan Super Lindō (Forest Road) in the summer of 2012 to view the summit.

Road to the Summit View:

Hakusan is worshipped by fishermen, seafarers and farmers of the surrounding region. It’s said to be inhabited by suijin, or water gods, and dragon kami, as well as spirits of the dead.

Pilgrimage routes (ascend Hakusan from the three surrounding prefectures, with seven shrines along the ridgeway; women are allowed to go only as far as the middle shrine. Those who make it to the top and drink the snow-fed waters of Midorigaike are said to be rewarded with long life.

Mt. Bandai, Fukushima. Summer 2010

Mt. Bandai (5,968 ft, 1,819 m) is a stratovolcano in Urabandai, Fukushima Prefecture. On July 15, 1888, a major eruption caused the north and east rims of the caldera to collapse. The massive landslide created two lakes, Hibara-ko and Onogawa-ko, along along with smaller lakes and ponds, including those called Goshiki-numa, or the "Five-Colors Ponds." (See Summer 2005).

Hida Mountains, Nagano. Spring 2008 and Summer 2012

The Hida Mountains include the highest peaks in Japan after Mt. Fuji. From Shin-Hodaka Onsen Station (3665 ft / 1117 m above sea level), a spectacular ropeway, two miles long (3200 m), takes you in two stages to Nishi-Hodaka-guchi Station (7073 ft / 2156 m above sea level), with a view of Nishi-Hotaka-dake.

Hida mountains ropewayHida mountains

Beyond Nishi-Hotaka-dake is Mt. Oku-hotaka (10,466 ft / 3190 m), the third tallest peak in Japan after Mt. Fuji and the second tallest mountain in the Hida Mountains, after Mt. Kita, in Yamanashi (10,476 ft / 3,193 m).

Farther north is the famous Tateyama, included with Fujisan and Hakusan in the triad of "Three Sacred Mountains of Japan." Tateyama was still covered with snowwhen we went there is the Summer of 2012. From the Tateyama train station we took a cable car up to Bijodaira, from where a bus transported us to Murodo, just below the highest peaks. (To protect the environment, private cars aren’t allowed on the road.)

Asahidake (“Morning Sun Peak”), Hokkaidō. Summer 2005

In Daisetsuzan National Park, Asahidake is Hokkaidō’s tallest peak at 7500 ft (2290 m). It was still covered with snow in early summer.

Rishiri-san, Rishiri Island, Hokkaidō. Summer 2005

We caught a ferry from Wakannai to Rebun Island, then hiked up the hillside from the harbor. Called Rishiri Fuji, Mt. Rishiri (5650 ft / 1721 m) floats on the sea at the horizon.The mountain flowers were just starting to bloom.

Aso Crater, Kumamoto, Kyūshū. November 2006

Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan and one of the largest craters in the world, with a circumference of about 75 miles. We drove south on the Yamanami Highway to Daikanbo, a lookout on the north crater rim. Inside the crater are five volcanic cones, the tallest Takadake (“High Peak,” 5223 ft / 1592 m).

Mt. Kinran, Tsugawa, Niigata. Summer 2010

Mt. Kinran is at fork of the Agano and Tokonami Rivers. Because the water temperature of the Agano river is lower than that of the Tokonami River, the area where the rivers met is often misty. The following folklore is associated with mountain:

On misty nights, kitsune-bi ("fox-fires") may be seen on the mountain. Because a line of kitsune-bi looks like a wedding procession whose participants carry lanterns, people began to call the fireballs “kitsune no yomeiri,” or fox-bride procession.

Mt. KinranFox-bride procession

At the beginning of May, the townspeople paint fox features on their noses and mouths, with whiskers around their noses, then hold a fox wedding parade. A couple who intends to marry that year play the groom and the bride. The parade goes from Sumiyoshi Shrine around the town, then across the Agano River in a boat and ascends Mt. Kirin. People believe that lots of kitsune-bi on the mountain means a rich harvest the following fall; hence they enact the parade of lights each year to ensure the fertility of the land and people.

Mini Fuji-sans. Spring 2011

Mt. Kaimon on the southern tip of Kyūshū is known as Satsuma Fuji. Mt. Iino in Sakaide on Shikoku is called Sanuki Fuji.

Mt. KaimonMt. Iino

Ropeways and Lifts


Mt. Omuro, Izu, Shizuoka. 2014

A lift carries visitors up the eastern side of Mt. Omuro, an extinct volcano, in Ito, on the Izu Peninsula.

Lift to the crater rim
A walking path on the rim circles the crater.

Mt. Fuji above the northern rim

Mt. Takao, Tōkyō. 2014

A lift carries the visitor up Mt. Takao, to a walking path to a shrine dedicated to two tenju, or mountain spirits.

From Mt. Takao, the Tōkyō skyline appears on the horizon:

Tenju shrine:

Mt. Tsurumi Ropeway, Beppu, Kyūshū. 2011

View of Beppu Bay:

Mt. Katsuragi, Nara. 2011

View of the Nara Plains on the way up:

Katsuragi Mountains, between Nara and Osaka:

Shinhodaka Ropeway, Gifu. 2008

Ten miles north of Hirayu Onsen in the Hida Mountains is the Shinhodaka Ropeway, which ascends in two stages to the top of Mt. Hodaka, over 7000 feet above sea level, for a spectacular view of the Japan Alps.

At the top, the peak of Nishi-Hodaka in the background (3rd tallest mountain in Japan after Fujisan and Tateyama):


Mt. Hakkoda, Aomori. 2013

Mt. Asahi, Hokkaidō. 2013

The ropeway to Mt. Asahi opens in mid-June, although the trails are still covered with snow. We rode up on June 15.

Gozaisho Ropeway, Yunoyama Onsen, Mie. 2012

This ropeway ascends from Yunoyama Onsen to the top of Mt. Gozaisho, where there are lookouts and hiking trails, including a trail that goes back down to the onsen.

View of the Suzuka Mountains, between Nagoya and Kansai. On a clear day, you can see Lake Biwa to the west.

Shōsen Gorge Ropeway, Yamanashi. 2012

Fujisan was faintly visible above the clouds and mist.

View of the Akaishi Mountains to the west:

Kachi-Kachi Ropeway, Mt. Tenjō, Yamanashi. 2010

The Ropeway is named for the mountain in the folktale of Tanuki (Racoon Dog) and Usagi (Rabbit):

View of Lake Kawaguchi from the top:

Soun Gorge, Hokkaidō. 2005

Trail at the top leading to Mt. Kurodake:


Shinkobe, Kobe, Hyogo. 2014

The ropeway leaves from near Shinkobe station up to a herb garden and Mt. Maya. Visitors can walk back down past Nunobiki falls.

Nunobiki Falls

Mt. Ishizuchi, Ehime, Shikoku. 2006

Mt. Ishizuchi is the highest mountain (6502 ft / 1982 m) on Shikoku. The ropeway takes you part of the way up its side, to a station from which you can walk to take a ski lift up to Joju Shrine. From there, a steep trail goes to the summit of Ishizuchi-san.

View of Saijō from the Ropeway:

Mt. Misen, Miyajima, Hiroshima. 2006

Mt. Misen is on the island of Itsukushima, off the coast of Hiroshima City. Visitors can hike or ride the ropeway up. From the station, the trails goes to the summiit.

View of Hiroshima City:

View of the Inland Sea, on the other side of Itsukushima.


Echigo-Yuzawa Kōgen Ski Resort, Niigata. 2008

Yuzawa became well-known as the rustic setting of Yasunari Kawabata’a novel Snow Country. Today the town, a little over an hour from Tōkyō on the bullet train, has ski resorts, hotels, and condominiums.


On Rivers of Japan: Abundant rainfall and snow melt in the central mountains flow down numerous waterfalls, steams, and rivers to the coasts, then out to sea. The waterfalls and rivers are worshipped as water gods, sometimes depicted as dragons, with their mouths at the river source and their bodies extending down to the sea.

Kamogawa, Kyotō. Spring 2008

The Kamo River flows south from the mountains north of the ancient capital of Kyotō joining the Katsura River, then the Yodo river, before entering the Ōsaka Bay.

Katsura River below Arashiyama, late afternoon

One source of the Kamo is on the grounds of Iwayasan Shrine:

Hozu River, Kyotō. Spring 2014

Boat ride downstream, from Kameoka to Arayshiyama:

Isuzu River, Ise, Mie. Spring 2004

The Isuzu River passes along Ise Shrine before entering Ise Bay. At the river’s side is Mitarashi, a place to perform ablutions before entering the shrine:


At the shrine entrance, the Uji bridge crosses it:

Doro Gorge, Kumano River, Mie. Spring 2004.

Jet boats take visitors up the scenic gorge.

Doro GorgeVisitors

Sumidagawa, Tōkyō. Spring 2013

The Sumida River branches off from Arakawa River and flows through central Tōkyō; it's known for its boat cruises, sakura in spring, and a firework display in summer. Originally, it was the downstream portion of a river called the Irumagawa.

Mogamigawa, Yamagata. Fall 2009

The Mogami River was made famous by the traveling poet Basho, who boarded a riverboat near Oishida (photo below) and rode downstream to Kiyohara on his pilgrimage to Dewa Sanzan, the Three Holy Mountains of Dewa.

Bashō composed a haiku about the river after his downstream journey:

gathering may rains, flowing fast: mogamigawa

Boat rides on the Mogami are a tourist attraction today:

Near the mouth of the Mogami, in Sakata, on the Sea of Japan is a park where swans come to nest in spring. Young swans wait along shore while their parents leave to look for food in the rice fields.

Inozawagawa, (Shimoda City, Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka). Spring 2008

The Inozawa River flows out to sea at Shimoda, on the southern end of the Izu Peninsula.

Shinanogawa (Nagano, Gunma, Niigata).

The longest, largest river system in Japan (228 miles), the Shinano River flows north from the mountains of Nagano (where the river is called the Chikuma-gawa) and enters the Sea of Japan in Niigata city:

Kurobegawa, Toyama. Summer 2015

Kurobegawa flows north from the Hida mountains, carving out the famous Kurobe Gorge, before entering the Sea of Japan. A train takes visitors into the gorge, from Unazaki up to Keyakidaira.

Flowing past Keyakidaira in Kurobe Gorge

The Kurobe forms an alluvial fan near the coast, before entering the Sea of Japan

Jōganjigawa, Toyama. Summer 2010

The Jōganji River flows down from the Tate mountains into Toyama Bay.

WaterfallJoganji river

On the way up to Tateyama, a sacred mountain in the mountains of Toyama, the Tateyama Ōhashi arcs across the Jōganji River.

Kuzuryūgawa (Gifu, Fukui). Summer 2010.

The Kuzuryū River has its source in the lake formed by Kuzuryū Dam near the city to Ōno, Fukui, and empties into the Sea of Japan near the city of Sakai.

Kuzuryūgawa Dam

Kuzuryū Dream Suspension Bridge over the lake formed behind the Kuzuryūgawa Dam

Tenryūgawa (Nagano, Aichi, Shizuoka), Summer 2012

The Tenryū River flows from Lake Suwa and the Kiso mountains, down the long Ina Valley, emptying into the Enshu-nada Sea just east of Hamamatsu.

Lake Suwa

We drove north from Hamamatsu up the Tenryū River to visit Akiha Hongū, a spectacular mountain shrine to the fire kami Hi-no-kagutsuchi-no-Ōkami.

Nagara River (Gifu, Aichi, Mie). Spring 2008

The Nagara flows from the Gifu mountains south past Gujo-Hachiman, where its joined by the Yoshida River.

Yoshida River, Gujo-Hachiman, Gifu

Downstream from Gujo-Hachiman, the Nagara River divides Gifu City before turning south and emptying into Ise Bay. Gifu Castle, on Mt. Kinka, offers panoramic views of the river wending its way through the city:

The Nagara, entering Gifu from the east

The Nagara, flowing west through Gifu across the Nōbi Plain toward Ise Bay

Kiso River (Nagano, Gifu, Aichi, Mie). Spring 2008, Spring 2014

The Kiso River flows southwest from Kiso Mountains down the Kiso Valley Valley past Inuyama before turning south and entering Ise Bay.

In the Kiso Valley, along the historic route of the Nakasendo ("Central Mountain Road"), near the town of Agematsu, are the rocks known as Nezame-no-toko:

Farther downstream, Inuyama Castle overlooks the river:

Hii River (Shimane). Summer 2009

The Hii river flows north from the Chugoku Mountains and empties into the west end of Lake Matsue, at Izumo. The iron rich sand, tinged red, was smelted into pig iron and fashioned into steel swords.

The Hii River is featured in Kojiki, the oldest written mythical history of Japan. Along the river, the kami Susano-o slew an eight-headed, eight-tailed dragon to a rice-field princess. Finding a sword in the dragon's tail, he sent it to his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu, in the High Plain of Heaven. The rice-field princess became Susano-o's wife, and Susano-o ruled Izumo. The sword eventually became one of the three sacred treasures of the Imperial Family.

We hiked to Oni no Shitaburui ("Trembling Tongue of the Ogre") along O-maki stream, one of the tributaries of the Hii River. This narrow gorge in Oku Izumo is full of large boulders that have fallen from the grantie cliffs along the river.

Fallen rocksGreenery

Origin of Oni no Shitaburui, according to Izumo-Fudoki (local history of Izumo): a beautiful princess, Tamahime-no-mikoto, lived in this valley. A crocodile which lived in the Sea of Japan fell in love with her and went up the river every evening to visit the princess. However, the princess disliked the crocodile and placed a big rock in the river to block his visits. It is said that these rocks of Oni no Shitaburui are the remnants of that rock.

The wide, shallow, sandy Hii river near Lake Matsue

Motoyasu River, Hiroshima. Fall 2006

Motoyasugawa is one of the six branches in the delta of the Ota River, which flows down to Hiroshima from the Chugoku mountains. The river goes past the Peace Park and the Industrial Hall ruins. The T-shaped Aioi Bridge, which crosses the Motoyasu where it forks from the Ota, was used as the target of the first atomic bomb used in warfare in August 1945.

Motoyasu riverAioi bridge

Gō River, Akitakata, Hiroshima. Spring 2011

The Gō River (Gōnokawa), 120 miles long (194 km), is the longest river in the Chugoku region (western Honshu). In 1970, we visited Gōnomura, the hometown of my mother's parents, on the Gōnokawa, but on subsequent trips, I couldn't find the town or river, having only a vague memory of what it looked like and no idea where it was. In Spring 2011, with the aid of Google maps, I identified the town's location and made a second visit there.

go rivergo river

From its headwaters in the Chugoku Mountains, the Gōnokawa flows north, then west, entering the Sea of Japan at Gōtsu, in Shimane.

Nishiki River, Iwakuni, Yamaguchi. Summer 2009

The Nishiki runs through Iwakuni. Kintai Bridge makes this one of the most picturesque rivers in Japan. In summer, ukai (cormorant fishing for sweetfish) takes place upstream from the bridge.

Nishiki river

Cormorant fishing

Yoshinogawa (Kochi, Tokushima). Fall 2006

The Yoshino River flows from Mt. Kamegamori in Kochi, and flows into the Kii Channel at Tokushima. Before leaving the central route on its eastward journey, the river cut a channel known as Ōboke-Koboke, a popular water recreation spot.

Shimanto River, Ehime, Shikoku. Fall 2006

“The last undammed major river in Japan.” Along the banks is a recreation area. We drove along the river on the way from Cape Ashizuri to Uwajima.

Shimanto RiverRiver bed

Gokase River, Takachiho, Miyazaki, Kyushu. Fall 2006

The Gokasegawa flows down from the slopes of Aso crater, southeast into the Sea of Hyuga at Nobeoka. It has carved out a deep gorge near the town of Takachiho. We rented a boat and rowed into the gorge.

Gokasegawa riverRowing into the gorge


Shōmyō Falls, Toyama, Summer 2012

In a ravine below Tateyama is Shōmyō-daki, the tallest waterfall in Japan, falling over 1148 feet. The water flow is heaviest in early summer due to the snow melt and fifth-moon rains; as we approached, the thunder of falling water filled the ravine and gusts of wind blew swirling mist around us:

Shomyo Falls

Nachi Falls, Wakayama. Spring 2004

At four hundred forty feet, the tallest single stage waterfall in Japan. In winter 1160, the priest Mongaku carried out his vow to stand under the waterfall for twenty-one days reciting three hundred thousand invocations to his Buddhist god, Fudo-myoo. The kami of the waterfall, Hiro, is worshipped at a shrine next to it.

Nachi Falls

Waterfalls of Nikko, Tochigi. Summer 2005

Kegon pours out of Lake Chuzenji down a steep cliff. An elevator ride goes down to the foot, from where you can view the falls from below. Close to Tokyo, the falls is usually crowded with visitors and schoolchildren on excursions.

Chuzenji Falls

Left: Kirifuri (“Falling Mists”) is Nikko’s second waterfall after Kegon. Our innkeeper recommend we see it. A boardwalk through a woodland park blooming with azaleas led to a platform overlooking the falls. Right: Urami no Taki ("See from Behind Falls").

KirifuriUrami no Taki

Fukuroda Falls, Ibaraki. Fall 2009

Arriving through a short tunnel, we were greeted by a wall of water. The trail continues across a bridge, past shops, and back to the parking lot.

Fukiware Falls, Gunma. Fall 2009

A broad, shallow river pours from two sides into a narrow pit in the river bed.

Uba Falls, Ishikawa. Summer 2012

The most impressive waterfall on the Hakusan Super Forest Road is Ubagataki, which can be seen from the road, but better viewed close up after a walk down a steep stairway and along the river bank.

Daisen Falls, Summer 2009

A hike on the soutwest side of Daisen goes out to this two stage waterfall.

Ikurado Falls, Okayama. Summer 2009

“The bluff gazes up into the sky with such dignity, even the maple leaves are frightened.” (Akiko Yosana, 1929.)

This waterfall has a cave in the cliff behind it. The cave is dripping with water. As we exited the cave, the feathery falls was pouring down the cliff to the right.

Ikurado falls

Shiraito (“White Threads”), Yamanashi. Summer 2010

Where Kakugyo, the mystic of Fujisan, meditated and purified himself before going to Hitoana cave and receiving his vision of the mountain as god and savior of Japan.

Nabegataki, Kumamoto. Spring 2011

North of Mt. Aso, near the town of Oguni, Nabegataki pours over a ledge so you can walk behind it. We saw it on NHK's "Journeys in Japan" and found its location via Google Maps.

Nabegataki Nabegataki

Sengataki, Kofu. Summer 2012.

A short drive from our hotel in Kofu is Shosen Gorge on the Arakawa River, which flows down from the Chichibu mountain range. The gorge is noted for its oddly shaped rocks (given names like "monkey rock" and "cat rock"), steep cliffs reminiscent of Chinese landscape paintings, and senga-taki, a 30 meter high waterfall. Like Hakusan Super Forest Road, Shosen Gorge is noted for its fall color, but is less crowded in summer.)

Kanba Falls, Okayama. Spring 2011

Kanba Falls Nature Park is located near Maniwa, in the northwest of Okayama Prefecture. Inside the park, the main waterfall is 361 feet (110m, 45 stories) high and (66 feet (20m) wide, with such an abundant volume of water that it can be heard from the trail far from the waterfall itself. Kanba Falls is known as one of the greatest waterfalls in western Japan and is one of Japan's top 100 waterfalls.

Kanba waterfall

Akiu Great Falls, Miyagi. Fall 2009


Shiraito (“White Threads”), Karuizawa, Nagano. Spring 2008.

A short uphill hike leads to the falls, with threads of water trickling out of the hillside rather than falling over a cliff.

Shiraito, KaruizawaWaterfall pool

Maruo Falls, Route 223, Ebino Highlands, Miyazaki, Kyushu. Fall 2006

As we drove through Kirishima National Park, we stopped to photograph Maruo falls.

Maruo falls

Kawazu Nanadaru ("Seven Falls"), Izu, Shizuoka. Spring 2008

A walk of less than a mile along the Kawazu River goes past seven waterfalls: Odaru, Deai Daru, Kani Daru, Hakkei Daru, Hebi Daru, Ebi Daru, and Kama Daru.

Izu waterfall


Izu waterfall deai daru

Deai Daru

Kani DaruIzu Waterfall

Kani Daru / Hakkei Daru

Izu waterfall Hebi Daru

Hebi Daru

Izu Waterfall Ebi Daru

Ebi Daru

Izu Waterfall Kama Daru

Kama Daru


Revised: March, 2013

Five Lakes of Fujisan, Yamanashi

The five lakes of Fujisan are situated around the northern side of the mountain: Yamanaka (the largest), Kawaguchi, Sai, Shoji (the smallest), and Mototsu.

Lake Yamanaka, Summer 2010:

Lake Yamanaka at Dawn, Summer 2010:

Lake Yamanaka with mistSwan at sunrise

Lake Sai, Summer 2005:

Lake Kawaguchi, Summer 2005:

Lake Kawaguchi, from Mt. Tenjo, Summer 2010:

Lake Motosu, Summer 2011:

Lake Shoji, Summer 2011:

Lake Chuzenji, Nikko, Tochigi

Lake Chuzenji, above Chuzenji falls, summer 2005:

Morning and evening:

Lake Chuzenji Evening

Lakes of Tōhoku

Lakes of Mt. Bandai, Fukushima

Lake Akimoto, at the Urabandai entrance to Bandai-Asahi National Park, Summer 2010

Lake Hibara<, on the northern side of Mt. Bandai

Hiking Trail around the southern end of Lake Hibara

Lake Hibara at Sunset

Yaroku Marsh, with Mt. Bandai, near Lake Hibara

Goshikinuma ("Five-Colored Marsh"), a popular walking area east of Lake Hibara; Summer 2005

South of Mt. Bandai, is Lake Inawashiro, the fourth largest lake in Japan (after Biwa, Kasumigaura in Ibaraki, and Saroma, in Hokkaidō). The lake is a popular for watching birds, camping, water skiing, boardsailing, and bathing.

Excursion boats line the shore, Summer 2005

Lake Okama, Yamagata. Summer 2010

Between the peaks of Kumano and Katta on Mt. Zao is the emerald green Lake Okama.

Lake Towada, Aomori

Lake TowadaFall leaves Lake TowadaIsland

Fall 2009

Lake Towada. Summer 2013

Lake Tazawa, Akita

Lake Tazawa is the deepest lake in Japan.


Summer 2010

The lake is known for the legend of Princess Tatsuko who lives in the lake. Her story is this: she prayed to Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, for eternal life. The goddess directed her to a spring and told her to drink its water. The princess did so and turned into the dragon who lives immortally in the lake.

A golden statue of the princess on the southwest side of the lake, across from Mt. Komagadake, is well-known; another statue, at Gozanoishi Shrine, on the opposite side of the lake, presents a less glamorous image of the princess:

Golden statueSeated princess

Summer 2010

In Fall 2009, we stopped briefly on our way to Lake Towada. While we were walking around the lake, a light snow began falling. Despite the frigid winters of the northland, its deep waters never freeze over. Left: Kannon statue, with fall foliage, on the lake shore. Right: Due to its clarity the water is a deep ultramarine blue despite a grayish sky.

Lake Tazawa Kannon Deep blue water

Fall 2009

Juni-ko (“Twelve Lakes”), Akita

Left: Oike (“Big Pond”), one of the 33 ponds created by an earthquake. Right: Aoike (“Blue Pond”).

OikeBlue pond

Fall 2009

Ketoba no Ike. Summer 2013

Ao-ike (Blue Pond). Summer 2013

Lake Usoriyama, Aomori. Summer 2005

Usosriyama is located in the crater of Osore-zan, one of the three sacred mountains of Japan, along with Koya-san and Hiei-zan. When we were there on a gray, dizzly morning, the air smelled of sulfur, and crows cawed desolately in the trees around the crater rim.

At Ozore-san, the souls of dead babies and children gather and pile rocks as penance hoping to gain enough good works to leave this world; the living help them with their penance by piling stones along the shore.

Lakes of Hokkaidō

Lake Toya

At dawn, with snowcapped Mt. Yōtei in the distance, Summer 2005

Summer 2013

Lake Mashu

In a volanic crater in eastern Hokkaidō, Lake Mashu is noted for its pristine water.

Left: Lake Akan, west of Lake Mashu. Right: Lake Abashiri, in eastern Hokkaidō, at sunset:

Lake Akan Lake Notoro

Lake Shikotsu, Summer 2013

Lake Biwa, Shiga

Lake Biwa is the largest lake in Japan. Dawn at Makino, on the north end of the lake. Summer 2012:

View from Otsu, at the south end of the lake. Dawn, Spring 2008:

Seaside townLake Biwa

Midday mist, Spring 2004:

Midday mistTorii

Five Lakes of Mikata, Fukui. Summer 2012

Lake Suigetsu is the largest of the five lakes. The Rainbow Line Toll Road winds up to a park at the summit of Mt. Baijo:

View of Lake Suigetsu from the park at the summit of Mt. Baijo:

Lake Hiruga is connected to Wakasa Bay:

Lake Shinji, Matsue. Sunset, Fall 2006

On our way to Izumo Taisha for the annual gathering of the gods on 10.10 (November 30 that year), the sun set into clouds arriving from the sea of Japan to the west.


Daigo-zakura, Iwaiune, Okayama. Spring 2011

This giant cherry tree in Iwaiune, Okayama, is said to be 1000 years old, which means it started growing during the Heian period (794-1185). It's named after Emperor Daigo (885-930), who is said to have visited it. Sixty feet (18 meters) high, it's at the top of a hill on a narrow, remote mountain road. We visited it in the third week of March, when it was barely in bud, not blooming. Still, a very impressive tree!

giant cherry treesakura in bud

This tree, with relatively small flowers is of the higan-zakura variety, which is said to bloom early, around equinox (higan). But it was around equinox when we visited it, still in bud.

From the web, Daigo in bloom, in April:

daigo in bloomdaigo sakura

Among the other oldest sakura in Japan: Yamataka Jindai Sakura (approx.2000 years old?) in Hokuto City, Yamanashi; Uzumi-zakura (1500 years old) in Motosu, Gifu ; Miharu Takizakura (lit. "waterfall cherry tree", over 1000 years old) near Koriyama, Fukushima.

Sugi (Cedar)

Left Below: Kirishima Shrine, Miyazaki, Kyushu. Towering cedar trees stand in the courtyard in front of the vermilion-colored Kirishima Shrine, the oldest and largest tree eight hundred years old, one hundred ten feet high, and seventeen feet around, its trunk circled by a shimenawa. Fall 2006.

Cedar tree at Kirishima shrineForest

Right above: Sugi, Hagurosan, Yamagata. Summer 2005. Okinasugi (grandfather cedar), which is said to be more than 1,000 years old. Also called Jiji Sugi, Trunk: 6.5m, Height: 42m and Age: more than 1,000 years. Found along the 2,446 stone steps path up to the temple atop Haguro-san. Other 500 old Japanese cedar trees line the pathway. Total number of cedars is 445. (Max. diameter of a cedar is 1.3m and number of the cedars having over 1.0m diameter are 184.) Nearby: Goju-no-To (Five-Story Pagoda), a national treasure, which originally is said to have been built by Taira-no-Masakado (931-938)

Left below: Shogun Sugi. Said to be the oldest cedar tree in Japan, 1400 years old. Summer 2010. The central trunk was lopped off. Right below: Kaya no Ki. Shinzan Shrine, Oga Peninusula, Akita. Summer 2010. The shrine perpetuates the tradition of Namahage, with a festival in the winter.

Shogun SugiKaya no Ki

Left below:Sugi at Fujiyoshida Shrine, Yamanashi. Summer 2010. Right below: Cedar Trunk, Okunoin, Koyasan, Wakayama. Summer 2009

Fujiyoshida shrineOkunoin

Icho (Ginkgo)

Left Below: Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura, Kanagawa. Spring 2008. (The Kamakura gingko, reputed to be a thousand years old, was blown over in a storm in March, 2010. The trunk was replanted to try to save the tree.) Right Below: Buddhist Temple, Takayama, Gifu. Summer 2010.

Tsurugaoka shrine gingkoTakayama gingko

Left Below: Akiu Shrine, Sendai, Miyagi. Fall 2009. Right Below: Mogami River, Yamagata. Fall 2009

Akiu shrine gingkoMogami river gingko

Kusu-no-ki (Camphor Tree)

Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya. Spring 2008. Atsuta Shrine is surrounded by a park with trees up to and over 1000 years old, featuring  elms, and zelkova trees, among others. Goshimboku is the biggest camphor tree among Shichihon-kusu (seven camphor trees). This 1,300 year old giant camphor tree, is said to have been planted by the renowned Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi. White snakes are said to live inside of the tree.


Nachi Shrine, Wakayama. Spring 2004. I call it “the hobbit tree.” The 800 year-old camphor tree is in the precincts of the shrine. You can go through the hole into the tree to place an ofuda (a small wooden plaque) on which you write a prayer.

Kusunoki Nachi shrine

Mother Tree, Shirakami Forest, Aomori. Fall 2009

This Buna (Beech Tree) “is the oldest beech tree in the Shirakami forest, believed to be 400 years old. The trunk is 465 centimeters around in girth, and 148 centimeters in diameter at its widest trunk. It stands 30 meters. Affectionately called “Mother Tree” it's located about a 5-minutes’ walk from Tsugaru Pass, between Nishimeya Village and Ajigasawa Town.”

Shirakami forest buna

Otowa no Tsubaki, Ioji, Fukushima. Fall 2009

The mother, Otowa, who lost her two sons in war, had abandoned herself to grief. Her love for her sons entered into this camellia tree. The tree produces buds, but they drop from the tree without blooming. The camellia is called "Otowa Tsubaki."

Camellia tree

Willow and Eucalyptus Trees, Hiroshima Castle Park. Summer 2009

Near Hiroshima Castle and the epicenter of the Atomic Bomb Blast on August 1945, these two trees, a willow (left) and a eucalyptus (right), have survived.

Willow and eucalyptus

Pine Forest, Tsuruga, Fukui. Winter 2008

With 17,000 red and black pines, Kehi no Matsubara, on the shore of Tsuruga Bay, is counted as one of the three great pine forests of Japan.

Black pine forest


Updated: Summer 2015

Gotobiki, Kamikura Shrine, Shingu, Mie. Spring 2004

Gotobiki is a huge boulder on a cliff of Mt. Gongenyama overlooking Shingu City. It's is worshiped as a kami at Kamikura Shrine. In the morning, for exercise, locals cliimb the steep stone stairs to the shrine.

Gotobiki rocksBoulder

Hashiguiiwa (“Bridge Post Stones”), Wakayama. Spring 2004

Hashiguiiwa (“Bridge Post Stones”) is located along the road to Kushimoto from Shingu.

Hana no Iwaya, Mie. Spring 2004

Hana no Iwaya is said to be the rocks used by the creation god Izanagi to block up a passageway to the underworld, a legend told in first histories of Japan, Kojiki and Nihon shoki, complied at the beginning of the eighth century.

Hana no IwayaBoulders

Tatsukushi (“Dragon Skewers”), Ashizuri, Kochi, Shikoku. Fall 2006

Tojimbo. Kaga Coast, Fukui. Winter 2008

Basaltic rocks along the Kaga Coast, eroded by the sea.

Kaga coastCliff face

Meoto Iwa ("Married Rocks")

Meoto Iwa ("Married Rocks") appear along the coast in several places, joined by shimenawa (rice straw ropes). The most famous Meoto Iwa is at Futami, Mie, where visitors stop to view the sunrise between the rocks.

To left: Meoto Iwa, Spring 2004. Top Right: Noto, Ishikawa, Winter 2008. Below: Kochi Coast, Shikoku, Summer 2009.


Shishiiwa (“Lion Rock”). Mie, Wakayama. Spring 2004

Located on the north end of Shichigahama, Shishiiwa overlooks the rocky beach.

Ningyō Iwa (“Human-Figure Rocks”). Satsuma-Sendai, Kagoshima. Spring 2011

Located on Nishikata Beach on the shore of the East China Sea, these rocks are named "Ningyō-iwa" because they looks like a parent-child doll set.

ningyō rocks

Sesshoseki (“Killing Stone”). Nasu, Tochigi. Fall 2009

Made famous by Basho on his journey to Oku, this stone is located in a sulphurous valley north of Tokyo, below Mt. Chausudake. He noted “a pile of dead bees, butterflies, and other insects” around the stone.

The story of the stone is this: an evil nine-tailed fox spirit was hunted down and killed in Nasu and congealed into the rock, which emitted a poisonous gas that killled anything that came near it. Later, a Zen priest traveling through Nasu heard about the killing stone. He performed an exorcism to release the spirit. The stone broke apart, and the spirit emerged and asked to be enlightened to the Buddhist Law. After being saved, the spirit promised to do no more evil and vanished.

Sesshoseki path


Kurozuka (“Black Mound”), Nihonmatsu, Fukushima. Fall 2009

This group of rocks at Kanze Temple is said to be the former home of a cannibalistic oni-baba (demon woman), who killed and ate travelers. Her evil spirit was destroyed through the prayers of a traveling priest. The story is told in the Noh drama "Adachigahara," the name of the area in Nihonmatsu where these rocks are located. A pond neaby is called "the Pond of Blood," where the onibaba washed her bloody knife. When we were there a black popped up from behind a rock.

KurozukaPond of Blood

Tatamigaura (“Reed-Mat Coast”), Iwami, Shimane. Summer 2009

From a small harbor town in Iwami, a tunnel leads out to a rocky shoreline where stones protrude like mushroom from the flat surface.


Ishibutai Tomb, Nara. Spring 2008

Turtle Rock (Hand-Carved Face), Asuka, Nara. Fall 2014

Turtle Rocks, Cape Hajikizaki, Sado Island. Summer 2015


Shintō Caves

Ama no Yasukawara Cave, Takachiho, Miyazaki, Kyūshū. Fall 2006. A short walk along the Iwato stream from Ama-no-Iwato Jinja, this cave is said to be the one where the kami met to decide how to entice the sun kami Amaterasu out of the cave she retreated into after her brother Susano-o destroyed her rice fields and desecrated her palace.

The cave where Amaterasu hid is said to be across the stream from Ama-no-Iwato shrine. No access across the stream to it, but it can be seen from an observation deck.

Amano Yasukawara caveView from cave

Ama no Iwato, Mie. Summer 2012. South of Ise Shrine, on the road to Shima, is another cave called Ama no Iwato, where the sun kami hid until the other gods drew her out.

Udo Cave, Miyazaki, Kyushu. Fall 2006. Udo Cave houses a shrine dedicted to the father of Emperor Jimmu, Japan's legendary first emperor. A walkway at the back of the cave features a breast-like bulge on the rocky ceiling, said to be the breast of Jimmu’s grandmother, which she left behind to feed Jimmu’s father before returning to her sea palace.

Udo cave shrineCave interior

Mt. Fuji Caves

Hitoana, Yamanashi. Spring 2008. To the west of Fuji, Hitoana is a cave where the sixteenth century ascetic-mystic Kakugyo meditated until the spirit of the mountain appeared to him in a vision as a dual god that was both the female Asama-Sengen and the Buddha Dainichi. Kakugyo was one of the founders of Fuji-ko, societies for worshipping Fuji as a god and savior of Japan. As part of the worship, Kakugyo promoted summer pilgrimages to the summit and climbed the mountain over 100 times himself.

Cave entranceAltar

Fuji Lava Caves. Fall 2009. Fuji Lava Caves are known for their ice stalactites and stalacmites, but so many visitors enter, ice blocks are set up to prevent the icicles from melting.

Fuji lava cavesCave ice

Buddhist Caves

Natadera, Ishikawa. Winter 2008. The caves are in a hillside above the grounds of a temple dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. One cave houses a altar; visitors walk through the cave to be cleansed and reborn.

Natadera cavesAltar

Muroto Cave, Fall 2009. Muroto Cave, Kochi, Shikoku. Summer 2009. The cave is said to be where Kobo Daishi (774–835), the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, attained enlightenment.

Muroto caveAltar

Enoshima Iwaya, Kamakura, Kanagawa. Summer 2012. Enoshima Iwaya includes two sea caves located in the cliffs on the south side of Enoshima Island. Traditions associate the caves with the mediations of the monk Kōbō-Daishi (Kūkai) as well as with Yoritomo, the first Kamakura shogun, who is said to have trained and prayed for victory there.

Buddhist Caves, Matsushima, Miyagi. Fall 2009. Dug into rocks, the Buddhists caves of Matsushima were used for meditation. Left: Cave on Oshima Island. Right: Caves along the Pathway to Zuiganji.

Oshima Island caveEntrance

Taya Cave, Josen Temple, Yokohama, Kanagawa. Spring 2014. From about 1200 to 1700, Shingon Buddhist monks excavated this site for spiritual training. With a candle provided at the door, you enter a maze of tunnels with carvings on the walls and ceilings, chambers for meditation and altars.

Natural Limestone Caves

Akiyoshi Cave, Yamaguchi. Summer 2009. Akiyoshido is the largest and most impressive natural cave in Japan.

Akiyoshi caveView from caveInteriorVisitors

Ryusendo ("Dragon Spring Cave"), Miyako, Miyagi. Summer 2005. Ryusendo is one of the three largest stalactite grottos in Japan, with a stream running through it and a small lake.


Ryugado ("Dragon River Cave"), Kochi, Shikoku. Summer 2009. Ryugado is one of Japan's three major limestone caverns along with Ryusendo in Iwate Prefecture and Akiyoshido in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

StalactitesCave ceiling

Ikura Cave, Okayama. Summer 2009. Along with Akiyoshi-do, Ryusen-do, and Ryuga-do Ikura-do is one of the major limestone cave. It's wet with a feathery waterfall just outside the exit tumbing down a 787 ft. (240 m) high limestone cliff into the Takahashi River. There are three waterfalls inside the cave as well.

Ikura caveWaterfall

Maki Cave, Okayama. Spring 2011. Near Ikura-do is Maki-do, smaller, with a pool and bridges at the back of the cave.

maki cave entrancemaki cave bridge

maki cave pool

Hida Limestone Cave, Nagano. Spring 2008. The Hida Limestone Cave features miniature stalactites and stalacmites.

Hida Limestone CaveStalactites

Hot Springs

Kawayu, Mie. Spring 2004

Kawayu was our first hot spring experience in a natural setting. The river is fed by the hot springs and visitors dig pools into the rocky bed to soak their feet.

Kawayu mistPools

Lake Towada, Aomori. Fall 2009

When we arrived at the hotel, the first snow of the northern winter was fallilng. The rotemburo opened onto a scene of autumn leaves and snow.

OnsenMaple forest

Yubara, Okayama. Spring 2011

Yubara Hot Spring, in a narrow valley north of Maniwa, is famous for its outdoor mixed bathing pool open 24-hours a day. The town is also known for its Hanzaki, or giant salamander, a nocturnal and entirely aquatic creature endemic to the area. The town hold a Hanzaki festival in August, during which a giant salamander float is paraded through town. The food at Hakkei ryokan was excellent, and the owner, Hiroko, whom we had met in Honolulu at Hakkei restaurant, was gracious and full of energy.

Mountain Hot Springs

Clockwise from top left: 1. Hirayu, Nagano. Spring 2008. 2. Aoyama, Mie. Spring 2008. 3. Tone, Gunma. Fall 2009. 4. Ichirino, Ishikawa. Summer 2010. 5. Yudono, Yamagata. Summer 2010. 6. Mt. Bandai, Fukushima. Fall 2009.


Ako, Hyogo, Kansai. Summer 2009

The rotemburo in Ako overlooked the Inland Sea.


Nozawa, Nagano. Winter 2008

Left: Public Onsen (for residents only). Right: Private onsen on the deck of the ryokan room.

Public onsenPrivate onsen

Refre Kayanosato, Kaya, Kyoto. Spring 2004

“A herb resort that grows more than 200 different kinds of herbs, which are served in their restaurant. They also have a healing herb spa.”

Refre Kayanosato

Gifu. Spring 2008

The roykan had an onsen tub inside of it, with a view of the Nagara River and Gifu Castle on Mt. Kinka.


Suwa, Nagano. Summer 2010

The rotemburo was located above the city on the top floor of the building, overlooking Lake Suwa.

SuwaLake Suwa

Jigokudani (“Hell Valley”), Nagano. Winter 2008

This hotspring near Nagano is for monkeys only.

JigokudaniSoaking monkey


Revised: Summer 2015

in sakura’s house, from start to finish, around twenty days (Bashō)

In early April, 2008 (See "Full Bloom and Festivals"), we drove west along the general route of the Tōkaidō (“Eastern Sea Road”), from Tōkyō to Kyōto, into the oncoming bloom of sakura, which sweeps northeast-ward, beginning in Okinawa as early as January and ending in Hokkaidō in late May. In Otsu, near Kyōto, we turned back to Tōkyō on the route of the Nakasendō ("Central Mountain Road") and found sakura blooming in the mountain city of Matsumoto. The fullest bloom was in Hikone, a castle town on the east shore of Lake Biwa.

Kamakura, Kanagawa

Danzakura Avenue to Hachiman Shrine:

Gempei Pond in front of Hachiman Shrine.

Odawara Castle, Kanagawa

Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka

Inozawa River, Shimoda, Early Morning

Izu Road, West Coast, a row of trees beyond field of nanohana (rape-seed flowers):

Sections of the road are planted with sakura:

Nihondaira, Shizuoka

Hamamatsu Flower Park, Aichi

Yozakura ("Night Sakura")

The park in the daytime:

Tulip fields and sakura:

Yoshino, Nara


Ishibutai, Asuka, Nara

Stone tomb of Soga no Umako (551-626), a nobleman who promoted Buddhism and government reforms introduced from China and Korea during the formative years of the nation:


Sakura scattering petals in a gust of wind.


Kamo River:

Mii-dera, Otsu, Shiga

Hikone Castle, Shiga


Agematsu, Kiso, Nagano

On the Nakasendō, in the Kiso valley, we stopped at Ono-no-Taki, a waterfall depicted in Hiroshige’s woodblock print of Agematsu, in Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaidō. A lone sakura tree offered branches in bloom.

Matsumoto Castle, Nagano

Coda: Ueno Park, Spring 2014

On our 2008 sakura journey, we skipped Ueno park to avoid the traffic and crowds. But in Spring 2014, we happened to be in Tōkyō on the first day of prime bloom in Ueno Park, so we caught train there.

ueno park crowd

ueno park sakura

We walked along the Sumida River, where the sakura was also in full bloom:

Fall Colors

Momiji/Koyo (“Colorful Leaves”)

Eikando, Kyōto. Fall 2014

Lake Chuzenji, Nikko. Fall 2009

Russet Hills, Narugo Gorge, Yamagata, Fall 2009

Lake Towada, Fall 2009. After the first snow of the season on November 1."Here in our mountains the snow falls even on the maple leaves."

Ginkgo. Mogami River Valley, Yamagata. Fall 2009

Momiji Valley, Yahiko, Niigata. Fall 2009

Maruo Falls, Kagoshima, Kyūshū. Fall 2006

Takachiho, Miyazaki, Kyūshū. Fall 2006

Susuki Grass

Harvested Rice Fields

Nihonmatsu, Fukushima. Fall 2009

Mt Iwaki, Aomori. Fall 2009

Squashes and Pumpkins

Nebuta no Sato, Aomori. Fall 2009

Ringo (Apples)

Apple Road, Aomori. Fall 2009

Apple Trees, Mt. Iwaki, Aomori. Fall 2009

Daikon (Turnips) Drying

Road to Cape Tappi, Aomori. Fall 2009

Kaki (Persimmons)

Nikaho, Akita. Fall 2009

Kiku Matsuri (Chrysanthemum Festivals). Fall 2009

The Chrysanthemum Festival was celebrated on 9.9 (by the lunar calendar, the ninth phase of the ninth moon of the year, usually in October). The petals of the kiku (chrysanthemum), infused in wine, was said to reinvigorate the spirit and impart good health and long life, important as the season of cold weather approaches. A legendary poet attained longevity simply by drinking dew from the petals.

As part of the festivities, elaborate displays of ki,u are found throughout Japan during October and November.

Hotel Lobby, Mito, Ibaraki

Tōkiwa Shrine, Mito, Ibaraki

At Kasumigajo (Nihonmatsu Castle) are displays of historic figures and animals made from kiku, and chrysanthemum contest winners.

Kasumigajo, Nihonmatsu, Fukushima

Shiogama Shrine, Miyagi

Hirosaki Castle, Aomori

Yahiku Shrine, Niigata

Archaeology and History

Updated: Summer 2015


Oyu Stone Circles, Aomori. Summer 2005. These mysterious stone circles, located south of Lake Towada and dating from the Jomon period  (about 10,500-300 BC), may have been used for burials, religious ceremonies or astronomical observations that kept track of time and the seasons.

Sun dial?Stone circles

Sannai Maruyama, Aomori. Fall 2009. The archaeological site and museum includes a recreation of a village from the Jomon Period  (about 10,500-300 BC).

Jomon villageJomon house


Toro Ruins, Shizuoka City. Spring 2014.

A reconstructed town from the initial rice-farming culture in Japan (Yayoi Period, from 300 BC-300 AD). Below: (1) dwellings, (2) rice fields, and (3) a rice storehouse that was the prototype of a shinto shrine in the Shinmei-style.

Asuka Historical National Park, Nara. Fall 2014. Asuka was Japan's political and cultural center when the foundations of Yamato, as the first nation state was known, were first laid, before the capital was moved to Nara, then Heian (Kyotō) and finally Edo (Tōkyō). The park is spread over area that includes archaeological and historical sites linked by walking courses.

Takamatsuzuka Mural Museum displays artifacts and reproductions of the murals discovered at Takamatsu-zuka (tumulus):

The park includes the stone chamber called Ishibutai, thought to be the tomb of Soga no Umako (551-626), a nobleman who, with Prince Shotoku, established Buddhism and government reforms introduced from China during the formative period of the Yamato state.

IshibutaiTomb entrance


Ishibutai, Asuka, Nara. Spring 2008

Buddhism and Folk Culture

Buddhist Stone Carvings, Usuki, Oita. Spring 2011. These stone carvings are located in the volcanic-tuff hills of Usuki, southeast of Oita. With more than sixty figures, it represents of the largest set of such carvings. The figures were carved during the 12th-14th century. Some of the figures have been restored, and the carvings are protected by roofs and walls.

usuki stone carvingsusuki stone carvingsusuki stone carvingsusuki stone carvings

Shirakawago, Nagano. Summer 2010. Shirakawago is a mountain village that maintains some 150 traditional-style farm houses. So snow and rain will slide off the thatched roof, keeping them dry, the houses have high pitched roofs. The roofs are rethatched once every 40-50 years; three or four roofs in the village are re-thatched each year. The village was added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1995.

ShirakawagoThatched roofs

Shirakawago Interior

Silver, Gold, and Iron Works

Silver Mine, Iwami, Shimane. Summer 2009. Discovered in the early 16th century, Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine was once the most productive silver mine in Japan and one of the top producing silver mines in the world. During the 16th and early 17th centuries, the large production of silver by the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine resulted in significant commercial and cultural exchanges between Japan and the trading countries of East Asia and Europe. It was mined for nearly 400 years. in 2007 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Left: Entrance to one of the shafts. Right: Buddhist memorial to miners.

Mine entranceIwami mines

Gold Mine, Sado Island, Niigata. Fall 2009. Sado Kinzan was the most productive gold mine in Japan. Gold was found in the area in 1601. During the Edo period, the homeless were sent to work in extremely hard conditions. The mine operated until 1989, when it was turned into a museum, with walking courses through the tunnels that include tunnels for extracting water from the shafts.

Gold mineMine work

Mine laborers

Yoshida Iron Museum, Oku-Izumo, Shimane. Summer 2009. With a lack of iron ore, Japan extracted the metal from iron-sand through a process called tatara, which involved layering the sand with charcoal and smelting it down to pig iron. One area rich in reddish iron-sand was the Hii River in Shimane.

Hii riverSand

The town of Yoshida in Okuizumo houses the Historic Museum of Iron. Left: a slab of iron slag, produced in a furnace from iron-sand. Right: museum display of workers forging iron into steel for swords.

Iron slagForging iron

Sites Associated with the Imperial Family

Mt. Takachiho, Miyazaki, Kyushu. Fall 2006. Mt. Takachiho is where Amaterasu's grandson, Ninigi, is said to have descended from the heavenly homeland to govern Japan.

Mt. TakachihoGate

Jimmu’s Tomb, Kashihara, Nara. Spring 2008. Jimmu, a grandson of Ninigi, accompanied his brother Itsuse’s army, from Hyuga (Miyazaki) to Yamato (Nara). His brother was killed in battle, so Jimmu became the head of the army. After defeating those who opposed him, he became the first emperor of Japan and built a palace in Kashihara, south of Nara. He was buried in a mausoleum “on the top of the Kashi Spur on the northern side of Mount Unebi” (Kojiki 185) or “in the Misasagi [“tomb,” traditionally a mound of earth] northeast of Mount Unebi” (Nihon shoki 135).

In 1863, during the reign of Meiji, the one hundred twenty-second head of the imperial family, a site in a grove of trees just north of Mt. Unebi and Kashihara shrine was designated as Jimmu’s tomb. (The actual burial site is unknown.) In 1877, Meiji made a visit to pay homage to his ancestor.

Wash basinKashihara

Nintoku’s Kofun, Sakai, Osaka. Spring 2008. Nintoku is listed as sixteenth head of the Imperial Family. His kofun (key-hole-shaped burial mound) is located in a densely populated urban area next to a park. It's the largest kofun in Japan (1,594 feet long, 1,000 feet wide, and 115 feet high). His reign (recorded as 313–399, which is thought to be historically inaccurate) is described in Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), the oldest history of Japan. his public works included granaries, flood control projects, and a port close to Naniwa (Osaka).

The kofun looks like a large, long hill covered with shrubs and trees. A fence and moat prevent access by visitors.


Gosho (Old Imperial Palace), Kyoto. Spring 2008. The emperors before Meiji lived at this palace in Kyoto. The palace burnt down several times and was moved around Kyoto over the centuries. The present reconstruction dates from 1855. In 1868, after the Tokugawa shogunate collapsed due to its failure to deal effectively with Western powers intruding into Asia and Japan, the central political authority was restored to the imperial family. Emperor Meiji moved the permanent residence of the imperial family from Kyoto to Tokyo.

Gosho palacePalace walls

Meiji’s Tomb, Fushimi, Kyoto. Spring 2008. Meiji oversaw the modernization of Japan and built its industrial and military power to prevent Japan from being colonized or controlled by Western nations. Japan began to dominate East Asia after defeating Russia and annexing Korea and Manchuria. Eventually, it engaged China and America in World War II

A thousand-step stairway leads up to Meiji's mausoleum in Fushimi, a town just south of central Kyoto.



Imperial Palace, Tokyo. Winter 2008. The current emperor lives in the center of the capital of Tokyo, in a nation now dedicated to global peace.

Imperial palace

Shogun History

Beginning with Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199), samurai lords ruled Japan as shoguns most of the time until the restoration of Emperor Meiji in 1868.

Yoritomo’s Memorial, Kamakura, Kanagawa. Spring 2008. Head of the Minamoto family, or Genji, Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199) defeated the Taira family, or Heike, in the Gempei War (1180-1185). After his victories, he founded the Kamakura Bakufu (military government) and was recognized as Japan’s first permanent shogun 1192. The memorial to him in Kamakura doesn't contain his remains, though he is thought to be buried somewhere in the vicinity.

Yoritomo's Memorial


Oda Nobunaga's Castle. Gifu. Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) was one of a succession of three generals who waged war against their rivals and unified Japan in the sixteenth century. His original seat of power was Gifu castle on Mt. Kinka in Gifu City. The first castle was built there at the beginning of the thirteenth century. In 1567, the fortress was captured and renovated by Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), who changed the name of the castle and town from Inaba to Gifu, alluding to a Chinese city from which a warlord set forth to conquer China.

In 1600, two warlords loyal to Tokugawa Ieyasu attacked Gifu castle. The castle was defended by the forces of Oda Hidenobu, Nobunaga’s grandson and an ally of Hideyoshi Toyotomii’s son. After the castle was taken, Ieyasu had it demolished and banned its reconstruction.

In 1954, Gifu castles was rebuilt out of concrete as a cultural attraction.


Nobunaga's residence at the base of Mt. Kinka was being excavated when we visited Gifu Castle in Spring 2008.


Azuchi Castle Ruins, Shiga. After rising to power, Nobunaga built a magnificent castle at Azuchi, on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa. An artist's rendition of the castle:

Nobunaga was killed by a rival at Honno Temple in Kyoto in 1582. He is said to have committed suicide and his body burned in the fire that destoyed the temple. Azuchi castle was destroyed after his death. Below: The stairs up to the ruins of Azuchi castle.

At the top of the stairs, the ruins:

In a museum near to the ruins, a replica of the top floors of the castle tower:

Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Memorial, Kyoto. Spring 2004. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) was a soldier from a farming family who rose through the ranks of Oda Nobunaga’s army to become regent and chancellor of a unified Japan. Hideyoshi’s memorial sits on a hill in Kyoto, at the top of a steep flight of stone stairs.

Hideyoshi's memorial


Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Mausoleum, Nikko, Tochigi. Summer 2005. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) defeated Hideyoshi's son and his other rivals and in 1603, established a shogunate that ruled Japan for 15 generations and 255 years. After his death in 1616, Ieyasu was deified and enshrined in Nikko, at Toshogu (“Shrine of Eastern Shining Light”). Tosho is his posthumous name.

Ieyasu's mausoleumShrine

Modern Times

Meiji Mura, Inuyama, Aichi. Spring 2014. Over sixty Meiji-era buildings have been brought from all over Japan and rebuilt on a hillside above Lake Iruka, a memorial to the Westernization of Japanese architecture in the 19th century. About 250 acres, the grounds include restaurant and shops.

Mutsu Memorial Museum, Suo-Ōshima, Yamaguchi. Spring 2011. Unexpectedly moving, this memorial to the battleship Mutsu, which sank off of Suo-Ōshima in 1943, due to a explosion whose cause was never determined. Over a thousand seamen died and their belongings have been gathered and put on display at the museum. The salvage operation began after the war in 1949 and was completed in 1978.

Peace Park, Hiroshima. Fall 2006. Elderly women arrange flowers at the memorial to those who died in the Atomic Bombing.

A Bomb Dome

After America’s use of a weapon of mass destruction in Hiroshima, and another one later in Nagasaki, Japan surrendered to end World War II. The emperor was forced to declare himself not divine, atlhough the Imperial family continues to worship its divine ancestors, including Amaterasu, the sun goddess, enshrined at Ise.


Castles of Japan: Once common in feudal towns, many castles were dismantled during the Tokugawa period after the declaration of “one castle per province” policy designed to limit the power of regional lords. More castles were dismantled during the Meiji restoration, as the new Japanese government, pressed for cash, sold timber and the iron fittings from the castle to raise funds. During World War II, more castles were destroyed in the Allied firebombing of Japanese cities.

After the war, to develop the tourism industry locally, cities rebuilt castles out of concrete. A few of the castles have retained or restored their original wood construction:

Matsumoto, Himeji, Hikone, Matsue, and Maruoka. Castle ruins in remote areas such as Taketa-Ota, Asago and Tsuwano have an aura of ancient times — unlike reconstructred castles, less crowded, with few or no shops and restaurants surrounding them.

Castles of Kansai (Region around Kyōto and Nara)

Azuchi Castle Ruins, Shiga. Summer 2012

Oda Nobunaga’s Azuchi castle wascompleted in 1579. The castle was lavishly decorated, with a gold-leafed tea room and its standing screens, sliding doors, walls, and ceilings painted by Kanō Eitoku (1543-1590), one of the foremost artists of the period. It was also a fortress, with thick stonewalls and a eight-story tower from which to keep watch over the surrounding countryside. In 1582, in Kyotō, Nobunaga died in an attack on Honno temple, and Azuchi castle was looted and burned down. Today, only its stone stairways and walls remain.

A view of the countryside from the top:

A nearby museum houses a replica of the 7th and 8th floors:

Hikone Castle, Shiga. Spring 2008

Hikone Castle "traces its origin to 1603 when Ii Naokatsu, son of the former daimyo Ii Naomasa, ordered its construction. The keep was originally built in 1575, as part of Otsu Castle, and was moved to Hikone by the Ii clan. Other parts of the castle were moved from Nagahama Castle” (Wikipedia). From the keep, the visitor can take in a view of Hikone town and Lake Biwa to the west. The castle also overlooks Genkyu-en, a garden built in 1677 by Naooki Ii, the fourth lord of Hikone.

Hikone CastleGarden

Takeda Castle Ruins, Asago, Hyōgo. Fall 2006

Takeda Castle was built between 1441 and 1443 by Otagaki Mitsukage (powerful retainer of Sozen) under the order of Yamana Sozen, the lord of the region. It was abandoned in 1600 after the defeat and suicide of its lord.

Takeda castle ruinsView from castle

Himeji Castle, Hyōgo. Fall 2006

Himeji Castle, built in 1610 by lord Ikeda Terumasa, is the most impressive of the restored castles. It is also called Shirasagi-jo, White Heron Castle, because of its white walls. The castle was not damaged in WW II and has kept its original form for over 400 years” ("Guide to Japanese Castles").

Himeji CastleView from roof

Momoyama Castle, Ōsaka. Spring 2004

Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who succeeded in his master Oda Nobunaga’s undertaking to unify the country, began building Osaka Castle in 1583. The main tower was completed in 1585. The castle was captured by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1616, and renovated by Ieyasu's son, Hidetada, in the 1620s, with a new tower. The tower was destroyed by fire caused by lightning in 1665 and rebuilt; then destroyed by fire in 1868 during the civil conflicts that resulted in the Meiji restoration. The main tower was restored in 1928. It was damaged again by air raids in 1945, rebuilt 1953, then modernized in 1997.

Castle wallMomoyama castle

Ueno Castle, Mie. Spring 2014

Castles of Chūbu (Central Honshu)

Gifu Castle. Spring 2008

Sitting atop Mt. Kinka, with a view of the Nagara river running east to west through Gifu City, Gifu Castle was originally built by Oda Nobunaga (1534 – 1582) and used as his headquarters before he moved to Azuchi, nearer the ancient capital of Kyoto. Gifu Castle was taken by the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu, then abandoned. It was damaged during the World War II bombing of Gifu and rebuilt after the war.

Gifu castleWalkway to castle

Inuyama Castle, Aichi. Spring 2014

The castle, on a bluff above the Kiso River, in late afternoon rain.

Gujo-Hachiman Castle, Gifu. Summer 2015

Kanazawa Castle, Ishikawa. Winter 2008.

Matsumoto Castle, Nagano. Spring 2008

Matsumoto Castle is "an original construction, and one of the four castles in Japan to be listed as national treasures — the others being Himeji, Inuyama, and Hikone. Formerly called Fukashi Castle, it was a branch castle of the Ogasawara family during the long period of the warring states" ("Destinations...Japan Travel Guide, The Yamasa Institute"). It’s nicknamed Karasu or Crow Castle because of its black walls and roofs.

Matsumoto CastleCastle moat

Maruoka Castle, Fukui. Winter 2008

Just off Route 8 near Fukui, Maruoka Castle was contructed “in 1576 by order of Shibata Katsutoyo. The castle is also known as Kasumi-ga-jo (Mist Castle) due to the legend that whenever an enemy approaches the castle, a thick mist appears and hides it. The keep was leveled by the Fukui earthquake of 1948, but was rebuilt using 80% of the original materials in 1955. The grounds are used by the local populace for festivals such as hanami (flower-viewing) and traditional parades” (Wikipedia).

Odawara Castle, Shizuoka. Spring 2008

“Odawara Castle was transformed into a large-scale structure in 1495 by the daimyo Hojo Soun. It was surrendered to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ruled Japan in the latter half of the 16th century. It was demolished in the 19th century when political power changed from the Edo shogunate to the Meiji government. It was reconstructed in 1960. The moat and stone wall remain as they were in olden times” (Attractions/Tourist Facilities of Japan/Castles, Japan National Tourism Organization).

Odawara Castle bridgeStairs to castleCastleMoat

Castle of Tōhoku (Northern Honshu)

Hirosaki Castle, Aomori, Fall 2009

Taga Castle Ruins, Miyagi, Summer 2005

The site of Taga Castle today is a park with remains of the castle being excavated; there is an excellent archaeological and historical museum nearby. The castle, actually an administrative outpost, was built during the Nara period (710 to 794) to bring the northern frontier people called Ezo under the governance of the Imperial court.

Taga castle siteTaga castle site

Castles of Chūgoku (Western Honshu)

Tsuwano Castle Ruins, Yamaguchi. Summer 2009

Tsuwano Castle was originally built in 1325. The Kamei clan ruled the Tsuwano fiefdom from it from the 17th through mid 19th-centuries, when it was abandoned. A lift takes visitors from the road up to a ridge trail to the site. The hilltop ruins offer a view of Tsuwano town below.

Tsuwano liftRocky trail

RuinsView from castle

Tsuyama Castle Ruins, Okayama. Spring 2011

Tsuyama Castle was once one of the most magnificent castle in all of Japan, rivaling even more Himeji Castle. It was built by Tadamasa Mori whom Tokugawa Ieyasu gave control of Mimasaka province on a hill overlooking Tsuyama city. Only a small turret remains today, but the castle is surrounded by more the 5000 sakura and is considered one of the best hanami (flower-viewing) sites in Chugoku (western Honshu).

Tsuyama Castle Ruinsview of tsuyama city

Matsue Castle, Shimane. Fall 2006 and Summer 2009

“Nicknamed the ‘black castle’ or ‘plover castle,’ Matsue Castle is one of the few remaining medieval castles in Japan in their original wooden form, and not a modern reconstruction in concrete. The construction of Matsue Castle began in 1607 and finished in 1611, under the local lord Horio Yoshiharu. In 1638, the fief and castle passed to the Matsudaira clan, a junior branch of the ruling Tokugawa clan” (Wikipedia).

Matsue castle moatCastle

Castles of Shikoku

Matsuyama Castle, Ehime, Shikoku. Fall 2006

Matsuyama Castle "was originally built by Kato Yoshiaki in 1603. The current keep was built between 1820 and 1854. The castle survived the Meiji restoration, but parts of it were destroyed by bombing from American forces during World War II. Since 1966, the city of Matsuyama has been working to restore the castle" (Wikipedia). We walked up the steep hill at dawn.

Matsuyama castleCastle walls

Marugame Castle, Sakaide, Kagawa, Shikoku. Spring 2011

A small hilltop castle, Marugame is noted for its stone walls and its view of Mt. Iino (Sanuki Fuji). The current castle was built in 1641 by Yamazaki Ieharu, who was granted the small fiefdom of Western Sanuki. A thousand sakura trees make the castle a popular hanami spot during cherry blossom season.

Marugame castleview of Mt. Iino

Castles of Kyūshu

Taketa-Oka Castle Ruins, Taketa, Oita. Spring 2011

The most extensive castle ruins we visited was in the town of Taketa in southwestern Oita prefecture. Built in 1185 on a elongated hilltop, with steep cliffs descending into a ravine, Oka castle is one of the most dramatic sites in Japan. On the way down a winding trail goes past a shallow cave with a pool of water fed by a fresh water spring. The castle has 1500 sakura planted around it, one of them was barely in bloom when we got there in the third week of March.

Taketa-Oka Castle RuinsTaketa-Oka Castle Ruins

Taketa-Oka Castle RuinsTaketa-Oka Castle Trail

Kumamoto Castle, Kyushu. Fall 2006

The original Kumamoto castle took seven years to construct and was completed in 1607 by Kiyomasa Kato. The main donjon and connected smaller donjon among other buildings were burned to the ground during the Satsuma rebellion of 1877, when Saigo Takamori rose up against the Meiji government. Most of the present castle buildings, including the large and small castle towers, are reconstructions, dating from the 1960s.

Kumamoto castleCastle

Shintō Shrines

Updated: Summer 2015

Shintō is a religious practice that is easily understood, but complex in its manifestiations. Simply, it involves rituals and prayers to kami (spirits, deities) to ensure protection against dangers, disasaters, and angry spirits; and prayers for health, wealth and good fortune, with offerings of thanks when life goes well.

The kami were originally embodied in nature, in mountains, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, rocks, trees, animals, and so on. Man-made objects like tools and swords were also thought to have spirits that might be worshiped for efficacy, safety, and protection. When rice-agriculture was brought from China via the Korean Peninsula and established during the Yayoi Period (300 BC-300 AD), Shintō rituals and prayers for water, good weather, healthy plants, etc. were aimed at ensuring a good annual rice harvest.

Ancestral spirits are also kami, particularly those of ancestors who contributed significantly to the well-being of their descendents. When Yamato (the original name of Japan) was established in Nara prefecture, the Imperial family commissioned Kojiki and Nihonji, the first two mythological histories of Japan; these histories were recorded in writing using kanji borrowed from the Chinese and trace the ancestry of the Imperial family from the gods of creation, including the male-female siblings Izanagi and Izanami, who gave birth to the Eight Great Islands of Yamato, and Amaterasu, the sun goddess, who sent her grandson to rule the islands, thus founding the Imperial family line. The first emperor, Jimmu, and all the emperors since have also been deified and are worshiped at various shrines; and myriad of gods mentioned in Kojiki and Nihonji are also worshiped.

Signifcant historical figures like scholar Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) and the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) are also worshiped as kami.

A Shrine to the Fire God

Akihasan Hongū Akiha Jinja, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka. Summer 2012

Akihasan Hongū Akiha Jinja is situated in one of the most beautiful settings of any shrine in Japan, up a winding forest road, near the summit of Mount Akiha in the southern Akaishi Mountains. From its golden torii, the shrine offers a wide view of the Tenryū river valley below:

The primary kami of the shrine is Hi-no-kagutsuchi-no-Ōkami, the fire god of the creation story found in Kojiki, the oldest written mythological history of Japan. Kagutsuchi is prayed to for protection against fires. The main festival of the shrine is held annually over three nights in December, with ceremonies featuring flaming torches and fireworks. The shrine has 800 branches in Japan.

The stairway to the shrine slopes upward though evergreen and maple trees to the front gate:

The gate features wooden carvings of the four celestial animals associated with the four directions and four seasons of traditional geomancy charts: the green-blue dragon of the east (spring), the the red phoenix bird of the south (summer), and the white tiger of the west (autumn), the black turtle of the north (winter).

Inari Shrines

Inari Shrines, dedicated to the rice goddess Inari, are known for their long tunnels of red torii, donated by worshippers, and their statues of foxes, who serve as messangers of the goddess. There are 32,000 branch shrines, making the Inari shrine network the most extensive in Japan. People from all walks of life and occupations visit the shrines today to pray for prosperity.

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyōto. Spring 2008. The shrine at Fushimi is the main Inari shrine

The fox on the right below holds in its mouth a cylindrical key to the rice storehouse; the fox on the right holds in its mouth a sacred wish-fulfilling jewel.

Fox statueFox

Tsuwano Inari Shrine, Shimane. Summer 2009. At an Inari branch shrine in Tsuwano, a torii tunnel leads up to the shrine from the town below.

TsuwanoTorii tunnel

Takayama Inari Shrine, Aomori. Summer 2013

Shrines to Ancestors of the Imperial Family

Ise Jingu, Mie

In a hinoki forest in the southern hills of Ise Bay is a shrine dedicated to the sun kami Amaterasu (“Heavenly Shining”), ancestress of the imperial family.


Ise Shrine, © 1910. New York Public Library

Amaterasu is said to have chosen the site for her shrine two thousand years ago, during the reign of the eleventh head of the imperial family, Emperor Suinin. The area around the shrine provides everything the kami needs to be happy: forests, rice lands, and fresh water (the Isuzu River, known for its clarity); it is also near the sea, which provides fish and salt.

Ise toriiIse shrine

RiverGravel pathbridge at Ise shrineShrine

Ise Shrine, 2004

Ise shrine, spring 2014, after the 20-year rebuilding in 2013

Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya, Aichi. Spring 2008

South of the present-day city of Nagoya, Atsuta Shrine was established 1900 years ago, in the reign of emperor Keikō (71-130 CE, the twelfth head of the Imperial family) and is dedicated to Atsuta-no-Ōkami and the five great kami of Atsuta, including Amaterasu and Susano-ō.

Atsuta Shrine is regarded as the second most venerated shrine to the sun kami Amaterasu, after the Grand Shrine at Ise. It houses one of the three sacred imperial treasures, the sword known as Ama-no-hayakiri (“Heavenly serpent killer”).

The shrine was in ruins when the haiku poet Bashō was there in the winter of 1684:

The grounds of the shrine were utterly in runs, the earthen wall collapsed and covered with clumps of weeds. In one place a rope marked the remains of a subsidiary shrine, in another was a stone with the name of a god now worshipped. All around mugwort and longing-fern grew wild. (Barnhill “Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field”18)

When the poet stopped there again in winter of 1687, some restoration work was being done:

polished, restored / bronze mirror pure / snow flowers (“Oi Kobumi”)

Many of the shrine buildings were destroyed by fire during World War II bombings and rebuilt after the war. Today the buildings and grounds are immaculately kept. Roosters, the harbingers of Amaterasu, wander around a thousand-year old camphor tree in the woods in front of the shrine. A white snake that brings good luck is said to live in the tree.

ToriiAtsuta shrineFenceRooster

Hetsugū, Munakata, Fukuoka, Kyūshū. Spring 2011

Three shrines of Munakata Taisha are dedicated to the three daughters of Amaterasu, whom she created from the sword of her brother Susano-ō. Hetsugū, in Munakata, on Kyūshū north of Fukuoka, the headquarters of the three, enshrines Ichikishima-himekami. The other two shrines are located on offshore islands:

  • Okitsu-Miya shrine in Okinoshima island, enshrines Tagorino-himekami.
  • Nakatsu-Miya shrine in Chikuzen Ohshima, enshrines Tagitsu-himekami

The region of Munakata is close to the Chinese continent and Korean peninsula and was important as a port of trade. Shippers paid homage to the three goddesses and prayed for safety at sea and good fortune. Today, there are 8,500 Munakata branch shrines in Japan.

Hetsugu Munakata treeHetsugu Munakata wash basinHetsugu Munakata shrineHetsugu Munakata sake casks

Kirishima (“Misty Islands”) Shrine, Miyazaki, Kyushu. Fall 2006

Kirishima Shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu’s grandson Ninigi, who descended from Heaven to rule Ashi-hara-no-naka-tsu-kuni (“Central Land of Reed Plains”), as Japan was known.

The shrine was established in the sixth century. Its original location was along a hiking trail up to Mt. Takachicho, just north of Kirishima, where Ninigi descended from heaven to rule on earth. (See "History.") As the shrine burned down several times in volcanic eruptions, it was eventually moved to its present location, farther from the volcano.

Udo Shrine, Miyazaki, Kyūshū. Fall 2006

Udo Jinju, dedicated to the father of Jimmu who became the first emperor of Japan, is located in a sea cave on the rocky shore south of Miyazaki. When we arrived at the shrine on a windy, rainy day (Nov. 23), a harvest festival was taking place. See "Festivals" and "Caves."

Shrines to Emperors

Kashihara Shrine, Nara. Spring 2011

Built below Mt. Unebi, Kashihara Jinju is dedicated to Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan. Jimmu left southeastern Kyūshū and traveled east to establish his capital in Yamato (Nara). Jimmu's mausoleum is also located in a nearby wooded area to the north of the shrine.

Miyajidake Shrine, Fukutsu, Fukuoka, Kyūshū. Spring 2011

Located on small conic hill overlooking the Genkai Sea, Miyajidake enshrines three kami: Empress Jingū, Katsumura Ōkami and Katsuyori Ōkami.

The Empress Jingū was mother of the fifteenth head of the Imperial Family, emperor Ōjin, and served as his regent. (See "Hachiman Shrines" below.)

People come to pray for business success, transportation safety and family safety. The shrine is said to have the largest shimenawa (sacred rope woven from rice-straw) in Japan (photo: bottom left), but the shimenawa at Izumo Taisha looks larger to me (see above). When we were at the shrine, the sakura in its courtyard were in bloom, earlier than trees elsewhere.

.Miyajidake toriiMiyajidake streetMiyajidake shrineMiyajidake sakura

Hachiman Shrines

Hachiman Shrine, Usa, Oita. Spring 2011

The kami of Usa shrine was originally a god of farmers and fisherman. Subsequently, the kami was identified with Emperor Ōjin (270-310), the fifteenth head of the imperial family. Hachiman, “Eight Banners,” refers to the eight banners that fell from heaven at Ōjin's birth

Today there are 25,000 branches of the Hachiman shrine, making it the second most extensive shrine network in Japan after Inari shrines. Usa Hachiman is the main shrine.

Usa Hachiman toriiUsa Hachiman shrine

After the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century, Hachiman was worshiped as a protector of the bodhisattva Daibosatsu. Toward the end of the eighth century, he was brought from Usa to Nara as a protector of Buddhism. The Tamayakure Hachiman shrine is located today just east of the

Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine, Kyōto. Fall 2014

Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine in Yawata was founded in 859 to protect the southern flank of the newly-built capital of Heian (Kyōto).

Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura, Kanagawa. Spring 2008

The Hachiman shrine in Kamakura was moved to its present site by Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199), founder of the Kamakura Bakufu (military government), who claimed descent from Emperor Ōjin and adopted Hachiman as the protector of his family and the bakufu. As a guardian of Buddha, Hachiman was considered a war kami, and thus was worshiped by the samurai class.


Kotohira-gū , Kotohira, Kagawa, Shikoku. Spring 2011

Located halfway up Mt. Zōzu, up a stairway with 785 steps to the main shrine and 583 more to the inner shrine, Kotohira-gū was dedicated to a local kami worshipped as a kami of seafarers navigation, fishing, and water for agriculture. The local kami's Buddhist avatar is Kubira, one of the twelve guardians of Yakushi, the medicine Buddha. Kubira's name is Konpira in Japanese and Kotohira-gū is also known as Konpira shrine.

In 1165, the spirit of Emperor Sutoku (1119-1164), who visited the shrine in 1163, was identified with Konpira. During the Edo period, visiting Konpira was very popular and became a lifelong dream of people, like visiting Ise Shrine. A Shintō scholar of the Edo period also identified Konpira as a manisfestation of Ōmononushi, the kami worshiped at Mt. Miwa.

Kotohira-gū stairsKotohira-gū stairs

After eating a bowl of famous Sanuki udon, we made it as far as the main shrine. A pavilion near the main shrine is hung with photos and illustrations of ships and features the solar-powered 31-foot "Malt's Mermaid," made from 22,000 recycled aluminum cans. Sailor/envrionmentalist Kenichi Horie used this boat to travel across the Pacific, from Ecuador to Tōkyō, in 138 days in 1996.

Kotohira-gū shrineKotohira-gū boat

View from the shrine, with Mt. Iino (aka "Sanuki Fuji") in the distance:

Shrines to Susano-ō and Ōkuninushi

Susano-ō is the brother of the sun kami Amaterasu. Known as a storm god and a fertility god, Susano-ō and his descendants ruled the Eight Great Islands, as Japan was called, before his descendant, Ōkuninushi relinquished the governance of the islands to Ho-no-Ninigi, a grandson of Amaterasu.

Yaegaki, Shimane. Summer 2009

Located south of Matsue city, Shimane, Yaegaki Shrine is dedicated to Susano-ō and to his wife Inada-hime, a rice kami. The couple are worshiped as kami of marriage, family, and human and agricultural fertility, which is symbolized by the phallus in the shrine courtyard.

At Kagami-no-Ike (Mirror Pond), visitors place a coin on a sheet of fortune paper and wait for the paper to sink to predict the length of time of a marriage or for finding a mate.

Kagami-no-Ike. Photo from

Izumo Taisha, Shimane. Fall 2006

At the foot of the hill of Yakumo (“Eight Clouds”), 11.5 miles west of Lake Shinji in Shimane Izumo Taisha is dedicated to Ōkuninushi, a descendent of the storm god Susano-o and an agricultural kami who relinquished rule of Japan to Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu, in exchange for oversight of private affairs (family and spiritual matters).

Izumo shrineRooftop

The shrine features a giant shimenawa, or rice straw rope. Visitors throw coins up into the overhanging ends of the rope, in hopes that embedding a coin will bring a good marriage and family life.

Every fall, from all over Japan, the eight million kami gather at Izumo Taisha to meet with Ōkuninushi and review the spiritual state of the nation and marriages, deaths, and births. (See "Festivals.")

Statue of Ōkuninushi with a rabbit whose life he saved

Mt. Miwa Shrine, Nara. Spring 2011

Mt. Miwa (1532 feet, 467 meters) is the shintai (sacred body) of the creation kami Ōmononushi. Nihon Shoki gives this account of Ōmononushi:

Ō-kuni-nushi no Kami is also called Ō-mono-nushi ... or else Ō-na-mochi no Mikoto. ... [Ō-mono-nushi no Kami] and Sukuna-bikona no mikoto, with united strength and one heart, constructed this sub-celestial world. Then, for the sake of the visible race of man as well as for beats, they determined the method of healing diseases. They also, in order to do away with the calamities of birds, beasts, and creeping things, established means for their prevention and control. ..."

Later his guardian spirit appears to him and when asked where he wishes to dwell, the spirit answers Mt. Mimoro (Miwa) in Yamoto, and so the spirit was enshrined there: This is the God of Ō-miwa.

According to the shrine website, Ō-mono-nushi "is the guardian deity of the human life, and in the age of the gods, cooperating with Sukuna-bikona no mikoto, cultivated the land and developed every industry such as agriculture, industry and commerce, and contrived to augment every social welfare such as curing disease, charming, saké-brewing, medicine manufacturing, and marriage." Thus saké brewers are said to worship at the shrine. A white snake, a body of the kami, is also said to live in on the grounds.

Mt. MiwaMt. Miwa

Mt. Miwa toriiMt. Miwa snake

For a fee of ¥300, you can hike up a steep trail to the mountain top, where a small shrine marks the rocky spot where Ōmononushi entered the mountain. Hikers are considered pilgrims and wear a white neck-sash adorned with a small bell.

Mt. Miwa shrine

No photos area alllowed in the hike, but later I found photos of the trail and the mountaintop shrine posted on the web. See Walks and Hikes for a trail map and photos of the trail.

Suwa Taisha, Suwa, Nagano. Summer 2010

The four shrines of Suwa Taisha are located around Lake Suwa, two to the south of the lake (Honmiya, or Main Shrine, dedicated to Takeminakata no kami; and Maemiya, or Front Shrine, dedicated to Yasakatome no kami) and two to the north (Haru-miya, or spring shrine, and Ak-imiya, or autumn shrine, both dedicated to the same two gods as Honmiya and Maemiya).

Takeminakata no kami is a son of Ōkuninushi; in what is sometimes called the first sumo match, he was defeated in a test of strength by Takemikazuchi (see Kashima Shrine below), after which Ōkuninushi relinquished the rule of the Eight Great Islands (Japan) to Ho-no-Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu.

Five thousand Suwa branch shrines have been established, mainly in Nagano and surrounding prefectures (Saitama, Niigata, Gunma, and Toyama).

TemizuyaSacred Mirror

Left: Temizuya at Akimiya, with hot spring water. Right: Sacred Mirror at Honmiya.

"Suwa shrines across Nagano Prefecture hold the 'Pillar-raising festival' known as the Onbashira Matsuri in years of the Monkey and of the Tiger (i.e. every six years), in which shrines ceremonially raise four pillars (some shrines only erect one). Suwa Taisha is the first to raise the pillars, after which other Suwa shrines raise theirs." (Encyclopedia of Shinto).

The poles are said to embody the enshrined kami (wind and water gods, battle gods) as well as to mark off sacred space.

Freshly cut pole

Iwakiyama Shrine, Aomori. Fall 2009 Fukutsu, Fukuoka, Japan. It is dedicated to Empress Jingū.

After nativists forced the separation of Buddhism and Shinto in the nineteenth century, the Buddhist halls at the temple-shrine complex at the southern foot of Mt. Iwaki were dismantled or converted to Shinto shrines, and the Buddhist images were tossed out. The site was renamed Iwakiyama Jinja and designated as the northern gate protecting the nation against invasion and ensuring peace. As with Izumo Taisha, this shrine is dedicated to Ōkuninushi.

Today an annual autumn pilgrimage from the shrine to the southern peak of Mt. Iwaki is held as part of Oyama-sankei (“Big mountain ritual”). Dressed in white robes, wrist coverings and leggings, men from the surrounding villages gather in groups at Iwaki-yama jinja and make the four-hour climb via the skyline road to a small shrine at the summit to thank the kami for a good harvest and other blessings

Shrines to Other Kami

Kamosu Shrine, Shimane. Summer 2009

South of Matsue, Shimane, in the town of Ōba, is Kamosu Shrine, dedicated to the female creation kami, Izanami, who with her brother, Izanagi, gave birth to the islands of Japan.

Kashima Shrine, Ibaraki. Fall 2009

Kashima Shrine is dedicated to Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto (“Brave-Awesome-Possessing-Male-Deity”), who is worshiped as a kami of martial virtues and arts. Born from the blood of the fire kami, Take-mika-dzu-chi-no-wo-no-kami (top right photo) pacified and unified Yamato, the first nation-state in Japan. A rock at the shrine (bottom right photo) is said to be the top of the stone stake this kami used to pin down the head of an earthquake-causing catfish who lives in an underground pond at the shrine.

Kashima jinjaTake-mika-dzu-chi-no-wo-no-kami


Kamo Wakeikazuchi Shrine, Kyōto. Spring 2008

Surrounded by a sacred forest, Kamo Wake-ikazuchi Shrine is dedicated to Wake-ikazuchi, the god of thunder. A companion shrine, known as Shimogamo (lower Kamo), is located downstream and is dedicated to Wakeikazuchi's mother, Kamo Tamayori-hime. The two shrines are located at the "Demons' Gates" on the bank of the Kamo river in north-northeast Kyōto to ward off evil from those directions. (Northeast was the primary direction from which evil was believed to arrive.) In May, Kamo Wake-ikazuchi Shrine hosts the oldest of Kyōto's three major festivals, the annual Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival).


Shrines to Deified Historical Figures

Dazaifu Tenmangū, Fukuoka, Kyūshū. Spring 2011

Dazaifu Tenmangū enshrines Michizane Sugawara (845-903), a high-ranking court official who was falsely accused of plotting against the throne and banished from Kyōto to Kyūshū. His miserable life away from his family is described in legends, along with his talent as a poet and his pure heart. After his death in exile, a series of disaster attributed to his angry spirit struck the capital, and a shrine was erected in Kyōto to placate his spirit. Two years after his death, Tenmangū Shrine was built in Kyūshū over his grave. Today there are 10,500 branch shrines in Japan.

While Sugawara’s spirit was originally worshiped for protection against natural disasters, he was a noted scholar and poet, so his spirit also became identified during the Edo period as Tenjin, a kami of scholarship. Students visit his shrines to pray for success in entrance examinations and job applications. The shrine is also known for its 6,000 ume (plum trees) belonging to 167 varieties. One tree, known as Tobiume, stands directly to the right of the honden. Legend has it that Sugawara yearned so much for this tree that it was uprooted in Kyōto and planted in Dazaifu.

Dazaifu Tenmangū toriiDazaifu Tenmangū unicornDazaifu Tenmangū shrineDazaifu Tenmangū ume

Kitano Tenmangū, Kyōto. Fall 2014

Toshogu Shrines, Nikko, Ibaraki (Spring 2004 and Fall 2009), and Kunozan, Shizuoka (Spring 2008)

After his death in 1616, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established a shogunate that ruled Japan in peace for 15 generations, from 1603-1858, was deified as Tosho (“Shrine of Eastern Shining Light”) and enshrined at Nikko, Toshogu.

Toshogu shrineLionCedar tree

Before his enshrinement at Nikko in 1617, his remains were enshrined at the less-well known Kunozan Toshogu, a smaller shrine in Shizuoka prefecture, near Ieyasu's home castle of Sumpu, in Shizuoka City.

Kunozan entrywayKunozan

A stone stairway with 1159 steps leads up to the shrine. (See "Walks.") A ropeway brings visitors down to the shrine from the top of the mountain.

Takeda Shrine, Kōfu, Yamanashi. Summer 2015

The shrine was built in 1919 in the location of the residence of Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), who ruled the province of Kai (Yamanashi Prefecture) during the Sengoku (Warring States) period.

Yasukuni Shrine, Tōkyō. Spring 2014

Founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869, Yasukuni Shrine is dedicated to over 2.4 million people (including non-Japanese) who died in the service of the Japanese Empire (1868-1947)—beginning with those who died in the fight to restore the emperor as the head of government during the Boshin War (1868-1869) and ending with those who died in World War II.

Mountain Shrines

Kumano Sanzan ("Three Sacred Mountains of Kumano"), Mie. Fall 2006

The three sacred mountains of Kumano are a pilgrimage destination on the Kii Peninsula, south of Kyōto, Nara, and Osaka. Three shrines are associated with the sacred mountain: Hongū, Shingū, and Nachi Taisha.

Kumano Sanzan was one of three main centers of shugendō ("way of discipline and training"), for monks practicing mountain ascetism. The syncretic religion, which developed in the 7th century based on the teaching of the mystic En-no-Gyoja (634-706) who incorporated beliefs of esoteric Buddhism (Tendai and Shingon sects), Shintō, Taoism, and folk animism into his practice. Its headquaters was at Kinsenpuji, in Yoshino, south of Nara, on the Kii Peninsula. (See Temples.) A pilgrimage route went from Yoshino south to Kumano Sanzan. The practice of shugendō was banned as supersition during the Meiji Era (1868–1912), but was revived after World War II, through association with the Tendai and Shingon sects.

Hongū Shrine. A long path leads up to Hongū Shrine, originally on a sandbank in a river and moved to its present location after it was destroyed by a flood:

Of the three Kumano shrines, Hongū is the most traditionally constructed, roofed with cedar bark and unpainted. It embodies the simplicity, purity and natural harmony of the original Shinto architecture before continental influences introduced images and bright red paint.

Shingū Shrine, on the bank of the Kumano River in Shingū City, dedicated to Hayatama-no-okami, the first kami to be born from male creation kami Izanagi’s spittle after Izanagi returned from his Underworld visit to his sister Izanami, the female creation kami. Hayatama-no-okami is identified with Yakushi, the Buddha of medicine and healing. The shrine is also dedicated to Izanagi.

Kamikura Shrine. On a cliff nearby, up a long stone stairway, Kamikura is associated with Shingū and enshrines a huge kami rock known as Gotobiki.

Nachi Taisha is dedicated to Fusumi no okami, an avatar of Kannon and also identified with the female creation kami Izanami.

On the road to the shrine is Nachi Falls, the tallest single stage waterfall in Japan. The kami of the waterfall, Hiro, is worshipped at a shrine next to it.

Dewa Sanzan ("Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa")

Dewa Sanzan includes shrines on the three sacred mountains of Hagurosan, Gassan, and Yudono in Yamagata, near Tsuroka city. We visited Hagurosan in the summer of 2005 and Yudono in the summer of 2010. The shrine for the third sacred mountain, Gassan, is at the top of the tallest of the three mountains. (See Mountains.)

Dewa Sanzan was the second of three main centers of shugendō ("way of discipline and training"), for monks practicing mountain ascetism.

Hagurosan Shrine, Yamagata. Summer 2005. In a misty summer rain, we walked through a cedar forest and up the 2446 steps to Hagurosan, one of the three sacred shrines of Dewa. (See "Walks.")

The shrine is dedicated to Tamayorihime, “Divine Bride,” also called Uganomitama (a kami of food, or the spirit of rice, identified with the rice-kami Inari). The kami is also identified with the Buddhist deity Kannon.

Worshippers of the syncretic sect Shugendō (combining beliefs of Shinto, Buddhism, and Taoism) gather at Hagurosan three times a year (summer, autumn and winter) to go through a symbolic death and rebirth through ten successive realms – the six realms of suffering and the four realms of enlightenment – to become bodhisattavas ready to return to the everyday world to assist others along the path toward enlightenment.

Hagurosan Shrine is the departure point for the pilgrimage to the Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains of Dewa, that also includes Gassan and Yudonosan.

Gassan Shrine. In late May, the road to Gassan was still closed to visitors. Here is a photo of the shrine atop Gassan in mid-summer.

Yudono Shrine, Yamagata. Summer 2010. Yudono shrine is the end of the pilgrimage to the Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains of Dewa, that begins at Hagurosan. The shrine is dedicated to the kami Oyamatsumi (“Great mountain possessor, who is considered an avatar of Dainichi, the cosmic Buddha.

The shrine is reached by an uphill walk into the ravine beyond the main torii near the parking lot.

The object of worship is a triad of conic, ochre-colored rocks that mirror the three sacred mountains, with the tallest rock, twelve-feet high, flanked by two lower rocks, just as Gassan is flanked by the Haguro-san and Yudono-san. Water from a hot spring flows down from the side of the ravine over the three rocks and into a stream rushing by. The water’s mineral content (perhaps limonite, or hydrated iron oxide) has coated the three rocks, giving them their ochre coloring. As Pilgrims walk over the rocks bare-footed, the warm water soothes their feet and cleanses them from the dust of the world.

It's one of the eeriest sites in Japan. Shugenja (mountain ascetics) are forbidden to speak about the rituals that take place here. Photos are prohibited at the shrine, but a search of the Japanese internet yielded the following image of the rocks, taken from above the shrine, on the trail up to Gassan:

Hikosan, Oita, Kyūshū. Spring 2006

Along with Kumano Sanzan in Kansai and Dewa Sanzan in Tōhoku, Hikosan, on Kyūshū, was considered the third main center of Shugendō (mountain ascetism) training.

From a copper torii, a stone pathway leads to steep strairs up to the shrine. From the shrine, the trail continues up to the top of Hikosan.

hikosanhikosan torii

hikosan pathhikosan stairs

hikosan wash basinhikosan shrine

Mt. Takao, Tōkyō. Summer 2014

Technically a Buddhist temple, the Mt. Takao complex is described as the "Central Shugendō Training Center in Kanto." Shugendō developed as a syncretic religion with elements of Buddhism, Shintō, and Taoism combined.

The center worships Izuna Daigongen, who "combines the elements of five deities: Fudo Myo-o, Karuraten (Garuda, a divine bird), Dakiniten (a demon that feeds on human hearts), Kangiten (a fertility deity with the head of an elephant) and Benzaiten (the deity of water, music and victory in battle)."

Mt. Takao is also devoted to Tengu, a long-nosed demon that dwells on sacred mountains and serve as the messengers of the kami and buddhas, punishing evil and protecting the good.

Mitsumine Shrine, Saitama. Summer 2015

Said to be founded by Yamato Takeru, the son of an emperor in the second century AD, Mitsumine Shrine is dedicated to mountain wolves and also the creation kami Izanagi and Izanami. Mountain wolves, now extinct, are worshiped for protection against fire and theft.

The shrine is located above Futase Dam and Lake Chichibu, up a narrow, 5-mile long, winding mountain road. A hiking trail connect the shrine to Mt. Kumotori, the highest mountain (6617 ft.) in Tōkyō prefecture.

Fuji Sengen Shrines

Fuji Sengen Shrines are dedicated to the goddess of Mt. Fuji, known as Sengen or Asama, who is also identified with the princess of flowering trees, Konohana Sakuyahime no Mikoto, the wife of Amaterasu's grandson Ninigi.

Fujisan Hongū Sengen Taisha, Yamanashi. Summer 2010

The main shrine, Fujisan Hongū Sengen Taisha was constructed by Tokugawa Ieyasu in the 17th century as the headquarters of Mt. Fuji worship in Fujinomiya, on the mountain's southwest side. The shrine is dedicated to Sengen-Asama-Konohana Sakuyahime, as well as Ninigi and Konohana Sakuyahime father, the mountain god Oyamatsumi. The Kanda River flows from the Wakutama Pond at the shrine, fed by spring water from the snowmelt of Mt. Fuji.

Fuji Sengen shrineWakutama pond

Kitatguchi Fuji Hong Sengen Taisha, Yamanashi. Summer 2010

On the northeast side of Fuji in Fujiyoshida is Kitatguchi Fuji Hong Sengen Taisha, which is the northern entrance of the pilgrimage route to summit of Fuji. A fire ceremony to to placate the mountain goddess is held on August 26, based on a five-hundred-year-old ceremony. During the ceremony, the street leading up to the shrine is lined with towers of wood holding burning torches.

Fujiyoshida toriiMikoshi

Family Shrines

Hokori-no-Miya, Gōnomura, Hiroshima. Winter 1970 and Spring 2011

On a hilltop overlooking the Gō River, Hokori-no-Miya Shrine is in my mother's parents' home town of Gōnomura, now a part of Aki-Takata city, in Hiroshima prefecture. A cousin took us to the shrine near his mother's house over four decades ago, in 1970. After a couple of failed attempts to find the shrine (Fall 2006, Summer 2009), I located on Google Maps a photo that matched my faded Polaroid and went to visit the shrine on a rainy spring day in 2011:

Hokori-no-Miya toriiHokori-no-Miya Shrine shrineHokori-no-Miya carvinggo river

Hokori-no-Miya, Gōnomura. Spring 2011

Suwa Shrine, Tomo, Hiroshima. Winter 1970

After visitng my mother's parents' family shrine in Gōnomura in 1970, we visited my father's parents' family shrine in Tomo, just outside of Hiroshima City. The Kawaharada family were the caretakers of the shrine, which is a branch of the Suwa Taisha in Nagano. (See above.) In 2009 and 2011, driving around Tomo four decades later, I couldn't find the shrine. Later, however, on Google Maps and Street Views, I found an image of the shrine and its location.

tomo shrinetomo farm 1970

Suwa Shrine, 1970

Suwa Shrine, Tomo. c. 2014

Buddhist Temples and Statues

Updated: Summer 2015

Buddhism was a gift to Yamato (the original name of Japan) from the kingdom of Baekje on the Korean peninsula during the sixth century. A tributary of Yamato, Baekje was seeking the help of the Japanese emperor in its fight against the kingdom of Silla.

Shintō priests and aristocrats led by Mononobe no Moriya opposed the introduction of the new religion, blaming it for an outbreak of smallpox; the first bronze statue of Buddha was thrown into the Naniwa River in Ōsaka.

Despite this opposition, Buddhism established itself, supported by Emperor Yōmei (518-587), the thirty-first head of the Imperial family, and his son Prince Shōtoku, who encouraged people to adopt the new religion after his seriously ill father recovered his health following prayers to Buddha. Allied with the powerful Soga clan, Prince Shōtoku defeated the anti-Buddhist forces in a battle in 587, during which Mononobe was killed.

Despite the early opposition, Buddhism was adopted as a state religion in the Nara period (710–794), and temples were established in all the provinces to conduct ceremonies to prevent epidemics, earthquakes, and floods and to ensure an abundant harvest.

Today, about 90 million Japanese, about 70% of the population, identify themselves as Buddhist. The major sects include the esoteric Tendai and Shingon Buddhism, Zen Buddhism (Sōtō and Rinzai sects), and the popular sects of Jōdo (Pure Land), Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land), and Nichiren.

The head temples of Jōdo (Pure Land), Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land) are located in the ancient capital of Kyotō. The head temples of Tendai and Shingon Buddhism are located on mountains outside of Kyotō.

The most widely worshiped deity is Amida Buddha, who admits souls into his Pure Land (Jōdo), where they can attain Nirvana; Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion, who comforts those who are suffering in this world; and Jizo, the bodhisattva who eases the suffering of those sent to hell or left in limbo because they don't have enough good karma to proceed to the Pure Land. (See "A Temple in the Far North: Osoresan Bodai-ji" below.

Statues and Carvings of the Buddha

Tōdai-ji, Nara

The initial center of Buddhism in Japan was Yamato (Nara prefecture). Tōdaiji in Nara houses the giant bronze Buddha commissioned by Emperor Shōmu (r. 724-749) to quell a smallpox outbreak ravaging the capital. The hall has been rebuilt twice after fires; the current building dates from 1709.

Early Morning, Spring 2004

Early Afternoon, Winter 2013

The statue housed in Tōdaiji is 14.98 m or 49.1 ft high. Various parts have been recast over the centuries because of fire and earthquake damage.

Kōtoku-in, Kamakura, Kanagawa

A smaller bronze Buddha statue (13.35 m, 43.8 ft high) is found at Kōtoku-in, a Jōdo temple in Kamakura, west of Tōkyō. Kamakura was the seat of government during Kamakura Shogunate (1192–1333); Buddhism flourished there. The original statue dates from 1252; it's uncertain if the present statue is the original.

Kōtoku-in. Spring 2008

Nihon-ji, Mt. Nokogiri, Chiba

A statue of Yakushi, the medicine Buddha, 31 meters (102 feet) high, was carved in 1783 from volcanic tuff at Nihon temple on Mt. Nokogiri, in Chiba prefecture:

The Buddha's hands holds a medicine bowl:

Mt. Nokogiri is known for its trails like with 1500 statues of rakan (followers of Buddha):

A 100-foot high bas-relief of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy:

Buddhist Rock Carvings, Usuki, Kyūshū

The stone buddhas on the hillsides of Usuki were carved into the volcanic tuff during 12th-14th centuries.

Buddhist Rock Carvings. Spring 2011

Temples of Northern Honshu

On a 1689 pilgrimage from Edo to northern Honshu and down to Ogaki, on Lake Biwa , the poet Bashō visited famous shrines and temples. At Nikkō he praises, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kūkai (774-835, posthumously Kōbō Daishi, or Great Teacher), for helping to establish a temple here and bringing enlightenment to the land: "the light from here illuminates the heavens, its beneficence fills the whole land, with the four classes living in peace.

miraculous! / green leaves, young leaves / in sunlight (Nikkō)
ara tōtō / aoba wakaba no / hi no hikari

Rinnoji Temple, Nikkō, Tochigi

Although Kūkai is credited with found temples in the Nikkō area, the first temples are said to have been established by Shodo Shonin (735-817), who climbed to the top of Mt. Nantai and saw an image of Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion, reflected in the lake below.

The first temple, which eventually became known as Rinnonji, was established in 766; Tōshōgū shrine, the mauseleum of the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan from 1603-1868, was built in 1617 farther up the hillside, above Rinnoji.

Rinnoji enshrines Amida Buddha and two versions of Kannon ("thousand-armed" and "horse-headed"); the three Buddhist deities are considered to be the original deities of the three mountain kami worshipped at Futarasan Shrine nearby. (Under Buddhist-Shintō syncretism, kami were said to be earthly manisfestations of buddhas.)

Rinnoji, Fall 2009

Ungan-ji, Nasu, Tochigi

Unganji was founded in the twelfth century. Basho located the meditation hut, “perched on a ledge up against a cave,” where his Rinzai Zen teacher Butcho (1642-1715) had meditated while serving as a priest at this temple.

Ungan Temple, six miles east of Nasu town, Fall 2009

Bashō wrote after his visit:

even a woodpecker / can’t destroy this hut / summer’s grove
kitsutsuki mo / io wa yaburazu / natsu kodachi

“Woodpecker” alludes to the angry spirit of Mononobe no Moriya (d. 587), who opposed the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. (See the introduction.) After his death, Mononobe’s angry spirit is said to have become a woodpecker in order to destroy Buddhist temples.

Io-ji, Iizaka, Fukushima

Basho stopped at Ioji, the temple where the Sato family tombs are located, on 5.5, Boys’ Day, 1689.

Ioji. Fall 2009

Bashō composed this haiku for the occasion:

pannier and sword / display them in the fifth moon / with paper banners
oi mo tachi / mo satsuki ni kasare / kami-nobori

The warrior priest Benkei’s pannier (a wicker pack for carrying Buddhist paraphenalia) and Yoshitsune’s sword were two treasures housed at Ioji. Kami-nobori, or paper streamers, with the names of kami (gods) and prayers for children written on them, were raised on bamboo poles to honor boys and encourage them to become strong and brave, like warriors. But Basho’s praise of warriors is tempered by its tragic context: the poet wept at the graves of the widows of Sato Shoji’s two slain sons, Tsugunobu and Tadanobu, who fought and died acting as “substitutes” for Yoshitsune in the twelfth-century Gempei War between the Genji and Taira.

Zuigan-ji, Matsushima, Miyagi

Zuigan-ji is a Zen temple that was revived Ungo (1582-1659), a Rinzai Zen master who was a teacher of Basho’s teacher Butcho.

Zuigan-ji (Internet Photo)

Chuson-ji, Hiraizumi, Iwate

Chusonji is a Tendai temple established in 850 north of Hiraizumi. The Konjikido, or “Golden Hall,” also called Hikarido, or “Hall of Light,” is a small, beautifully gilded mausoleum inlaid with mother of pearl and jewels housing the mummified remains of three generations of Fujiwara rulers – Kiyohara, Motohira, and Hidehira – who ruled the north country from Hirazumi in the eleventh and twelfth century. Basho visited the site three centuries later and noted the survival of Hikarido:

fifth-moon rains / have left untouched / the Hikarido
samidare no / furinokoshite ya / hikarido

The fifth-moon rains of Basho's poem represent time and change that destroys all that’s impermanent; the gilded hall represents Amida Jodo, the Pure Land of Amida, a place beyond time and change where worshipers go after death to be instructed by Amida in achieving Nirvana and to escape the karmic cycles of rebirth.

Today, a concrete building houses the Hikarido.

Chusonji. Summer 2005

No photos are allowed of the Golden Hall, but a photo of it (below) appeared in the online Japan Times (Kyodo/Cultural Affairs Agency, Yoshiaki Miura), when Hiraizumi was being considered for a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in June 2011.

Ryushaku-ji (Yamadera), Yamagata

Twenty miles south of Obanazawa, Ryushaku-ji, founded in 860 by Tendai priest Ennin (Jikaku Daishi), was also known as Yamadera (“Mountain Temple”). It was an “unusually well kept quiet place,” atop a hill pitted with caves, overlooking a small valley north of the town of Yamagata.

Ryushaku-ji (Yamadera), Yamagata. Summer 2010

When Basho climbed the hill (“massive rocks piled up, old pines and oaks, old earth and rocks moss-smooth”), the halls at the top were locked, and no one was there, so he circled around the brink of a cliff and crept over some rocks to the main sanctuary.

The lonely desolation cleared his heart and mind:

untroubled / cicada voices sinking into rocks
shizukesa ya / iwa ni shimiiru / semi no koe

Cicada is a summer kigo, or season word. This insect emerges from the ground in the warm summer weather to mate, lay eggs, then die in one or two weeks. Their brief appearance in summer, like that of fireflies, became a conventional symbol for the transiency of human life.

Kanmanju-ji, Kisakata, Akita

Origin of this temple, located across the street from Kisakata Station, is unknown; it's believed to be over 1000 years old. One legend has it that Empress Jingu, wife of Emperor Chuai (r. 192-200) and the mother of the Emperor Ojin (r. 270-310), visited the temple after she led an invasion of the Korean peninsula. She she dedicated two stones, kanju, which brought the tide in, and manju, which brought the tide out, hence "Kanmanju." The area was once a lagoon with small islands, but an earthquake associated with an eruption of Mt. Chōkai in 1804 raised the land and today the temple is surrounded by rice fields.

Front gate. Summer 2005

Mt. Chōkai from the cemetery at Kanmanju-ji. Fall 2009

Nata-dera, Ishikawa

Six miles south of Komatsu, the temple of Natadera was founded in 717 by the priest Taicho (682-767), a shugendo ascetic said to have the powers to fly and to disappear before one’s eyes, then appear elsewhere.

Taicho climbed the sacred mountain Hakusan (“White Mountain,” 8,865 feet high), twenty-two miles east-southeast of Natadera, and at the pond below its peak, had a vision of the mountain goddess Kikuri Hime, who is worshipped at Shirayama Hime Jinja (“White Mountain Princess Shrine”), the main shrine in Kaga.

After emerging from the waters, the princess turned into Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. Taicho enshrined an image of the eleven-headed, thousand-armed Goddess of Mercy in one of the caves at Natadera. (Another tradition says that the emperor Kazan enshrined the figure. Emperor Kazan (968-1008), the sixty-fifth head of the imperial family, named Nata-dera from the first syllables of the first and last temples in the tour of thirty-three temples dedicated to Kannon in the Kinki region: “Na” from Nachi temple in Kii (Wakayama) and “Ta” from Tanigumi temple in Mino (Gifu).

Natadera, Ishikawa. Winter 2008

The temple is noted for its cliff-side cave:

Bashō visited the temple on his journey through Tōhoku in 1689 and composed a haiku on its cliffs:

whiter than / Ishiyama’s stone / autumn wind
ishiyama no / ishi yori shiroshi / aki no kaze

Bashō's haiku uses synesthesia to link the color white, which in Asian tradition is associated with death, with the wind, which represents the transient world of suffering. The stones of Ishiyama temple (see below) resemble Natadera's.

Today, Natadera is dedicated to world peace and natural harmony. Visitors can enter one of the womb-like caves to light a candle in worship, wash away the impurities of life, and be symbolically reborn. Below the famous caves is a garden, with a swan pond, representing the Pure Land, where Kannon resides.

Natadera, Summer 2010

Eihei-ji, Fukui

One of the two head temples of Sōtō Zen (the other is in Yokohama), Eihei temple was founded in 1244 by the monk Dōgen. After returning from his study in China, Dōgen advocated shikantaza "nothing but sitting" as a simple but rigorous way to achieve enlightenment.


Eihei-ji. Winter 2008

Bashō visited this temple on his 1689 journey to the north country. He notes that Dōgen had a profound reason to retreat "a thousand li from Hoki" to a remote place in the mountains to establish this temple. Hoki, “imperial capital,” is a reference to Kyotō, where the powerful Tendai sect opposed Dgen’s teachings as heresy. To escape petty arguments and persecution, Dōgen left Kyotō to practice meditation in peace and solidtude in the forested hills above Fukui town.

A Temple in the Far North

Osoresan Bodai-ji, Mutsu, Aomori

Bodai Temple is set inside the volcanic crater of Osoresan. Walkways through the sulphur fields lead to Lake Usori.

Piles of stones are made at sites around the lake by parents and friends to assist the spirits of children who died before they could accumulate enough good deeds to enter the Pure Land. The souls of the children are protected by Jizo, a bodhisattva. During the summer, itako, or blind mediums, gather at Bodaiji to assist grievers to communicate with the spirits of the deceased.

Osoresan Bodai-ji. Summer 2005

On the shore of Lake Usori: stones piled for the souls of children

Statue of the bodhisattva Jizo

Temples in Kyotō and Central Japan

Jōdo-shū and Jōdo Shinshū (Pure Land Sects)

Nishi Hongan-ji, Kyotō

Nishi Honganji is the headquarters of the Jōdo-Shinshū sect, which has the largest number of adherents of any religious sect in Japan. The original temple, located in Higashiyama (eastern Kyotō), was founded in 1272 by the daughter of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jōdo-Shinshū.

Nishi Honganji. Summer 2012

Chion-in, Higashiyama, Kyotō

The original temple was constructed in 1234, Chion-in serves as headquarters of the Jōdo (Pure Land) sect founded by Hōnen; buildings destroyed by fire in 1633 were rebuilt by shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, whose family crest (three hollyhock leaves) decorates the roof beams.

The 74-ton temple bell at Chion-in, ast in 1633, is the largest in Japan. The bell sounds 108 times at midnight on New Years' Eve to drive away the 108 desires that plague humanity.

Zenrin-ji (Eikandō), Higashiyama, Kyotō

At its founding during the Heian period, Zenrinji was a Shingon temple, but in the 13th century, under the influence of Chion-in, the nearby headquarters of the Jōdo sect, Zenrin-ji was converted to a Jōdo temple. The temple is a favorite place for viewing momiji, or autumn colors.

Entrance to Zenrin-ji. Fall 2014

Zen Temples

Tenryū-ji, Arashiyama, Kyotō

Tenryūji, a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple, was completed in 1345 by Ashikaga Takauji for the repose of the spirit of his rival for rule of Japan, Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339). Takauji's brother had a dream of a golden dragon in the Hozu River, which flows from the west and joins the Katsura River near Tenryūji. The "Heavenly Dragon" (Tenryū) in the river was said to be the emperor's unhappy spirit, which had to be placated and set to rest.

Tenryū-ji, Spring 2014

A garden and walking paths extend behind the temple

Nanzen-ji, Higashiyama, Kyotō

The area was formerly the site of the retirement villa of Emperor Kameyama (1249-1305), but he later converted his villa into a Zen temple in 1291.

The main gate of Nanzen-ji, built by the Tokuguawa family in 1628. Spring 2014

A large brick aqueduct passes through the temple grounds at the back end, part of a canal system to transport water from Lake Biwa to Kyotō.

Ryōanji, Kyotō

The villa of an artistocrat during the Heian Period, the site became a Rinzai Zen temple of the Myoshinji school in 1450. Ryōan ("Dragon Peace") is noted for its rock garden representing islands in an ocean.

Spring 2004

Kinkaku-ji, Kyōto

The "golden pavilion temple" in northern Kyotō was a villa of a statesman and later of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1368-1408), who donated it as a Zen temple after his death. The current structure was rebuilt in 1955, with the two upper floors covered in gold leaf.

Kinkakuji aglow in morning sunlight. Winter 2013

Shingon Temples

Daigo-ji, Fushimi, Kyotō

Founded in 874 by the monk Shōbō, the Shingon Buddhist complex of Daigoji (the grounds extend to the top of Mt. Daigo) developed with Imperial family support, including that of Emperor Daigo (r. 897-930), who entered the priesthood there after he became ill. The five-story pagoda, the oldest building in Kyotō, was completed in 951 for the repose of Daigo's spirit.


Kongōbu-ji, Kōyasan, Wakayama

Kōyasan, a mountain temple south of Kyotō, in Wakayama, is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, founded by the monk Kūkai (774–835, posthumously Kōbō Daishi, or Great Teacher). Kūkai brought the teachers to Japan from China, where he traveled with Saichō, the founder of Tendai Buddhism. In 816, Kūkai was given permssion by Emperor Saga to establish a temple on Koyasan.


Left: Daimon (“Great Gate”) at the entrance to Kōyasan. Right: the entrance to Kongōbu-ji. Summer 2009

Located at the end of a pathway through a cedar forest and cemetary is Okunoin, the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi. The Great Teacher is thought to be in eternal meditation in a cave at Kōyasan. (No photography allowed: the woodblock print below is by Tomikichiro Tokuriki [Sept. 1941]).

On the way to Okunoin is the largest cemetery in Japan, where the faithful are interred to be near the spirit of the Great Teacher.


Jingo-ji, Mt. Takao, Kyotō

Jingoji was originally called Takaosanji (Mt. Takao Temple). Its name was changed when another temple was merged with it in 824. Kūkai (774–835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism, served as head priest of Jingoji. A stone stairway with 300 steps leads up from the Kiyotaki River to the temple, which is a site for viewing momiji (autumn colors).

Mt. Hiei: the Tendai Head Temple

Enraku-ji, Mt. Hiei, Shiga

Atop Mt. Hiei near Kyotō, Enraku temple is the headquarters of Tendai Buddhism, founded by Saichō (767-822) in 807 after he studied Tiantai Buddhism in China.

Along with Osoresan in Aomori and Koyasan in Wakayama, Mt. Hiei is counted as one of the three most sacred Buddhist mountains in Japan. The temple sits on a mountain northest of Kyotō and serves to guard the capital against spirits bringing illness and misfortune from that direction. On the day we drove up the winding toll road to Enraku-ji, Mt. Hiei was shrouded in an eerie mist.

Mt. HieiRinging the bellMist

Enraku-ji. Spring 2008

Kannon Temples

Kiyomizu-dera, Higashiyama, Kyotō

Established in 778 and located halfway up Mt. Otowa, Kiyomizudera (Temple of Clear Water) enshrines Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. Water from a spring on Otowa flows from a pipes at the temple; visitors line up to drink the water for good health and long life.

Spring 2008

KiyomizuderaThe water

Spring 2004

Ishiyama-dera, Otsu, Shiga

On the west bank of the Seta river, near Lake Biwa, in Shiga Prefecture, Ishiyamadera (“Stone Mountain”), like Natadera and Kiyomizudera, enshrines Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion.

Ishiyamadera is the thirteenth temple in the tour of the thirty-three Kannon temples in the Kinki (capital) region.

Ishiyama-dera. Summer 2012

The shrine is depicted in a Hiroshige wood-block print, “Autumn Moon over Ishiyama,” in Eight Views of Ōmi (1834).

Temples of Syncretic Sects of Buddhism

Kinpusen-ji, Yoshino, Nara

Founded by the mystic En-no-Gyoja (634-706), Kinpusen-ji is the headquarters of shugendō ("way of discipline and training") a syncretic religion that developed in the 7th century. Shugendo incorporates beliefs of esoteric Buddhism (Tendai and Shingon sects), Shintō, Taoism, and folk animism into its practice.

Enshrined in the temple is Zao, a fierce-looking, blue-skinned protector of the Buddha and a manifestation of three buddhas representing the realms of past (the original Buddha who achieved enlightenment); the present (Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion for human suffering),;and the future (Miroku Buddha). The practice of shugendō involved rituals, ascetic practices, and mountain pilgrimages through the three realms of past, present, and future to achieve enlightement.

Kinpusen-ji. Spring 2008

Ibuta-ji, Matsuzaka, Mie

Ibuta-ji is a Buddhist temple in the Suzuka Mountains above Matsuzaka where shugenja (mountain ascetics) train. At the beginning of a trail to the top of the 1300-foot Mt. Ibuta is a fifteen-minute climb up a steep cliff, with a climbing chain in one section, to a hilltop shrine on a ledge beneath an overhang.


Ibuta-ji, Mie. Summer 2012

Kuramadera, Mt. Kurama, Kyotō

Located on Mt. Kurama, north of Kyotō, Kuramadera was originally a Tendai Buddhist temple, but became independent and syncretic, blending Buddhism with the esoteric mountain worship of three deities: Bishamonten, guardian of the north; Kannon, bodhisattva of mercy; and "Defender Lord," a deity who came from Venus millions of years ago.

The temple is accessed via cable car, a mountain trail, and stairways.

Mt. Kurama is the site where the famous swordsman Yoshitsune (1159-1189) learned combat skills from the King of the Tengu, long-nosed mountain demons who protect the good and punish evil doers.

Kuramadera, Spring 2013

Zenko-ji, Nagano

The first Buddhist statue brought to Japan is said to be housed here. A tunnel of darkness below the floor of the temple, allows visitors to walk through the realm of darkness and emerge in to the light of Buddha.

Zenko-jiStatuesCenserZenkoji temple

Zenko-ji. Winter 2008

Of this temple, Bashō once wrote:

moonlight / four gates, four sects / simply one
tsuki kage ya / shimon shishū mo / tada hitotsu (“Sarashina Journal” 48)

The poem alludes to the fact that at Zenkō-ji, four sects worshipped together – Tendai, Jōdo, Zen, and Ji, which was founded by Ippen Shonin (1239-1289) as an off-shoot of Jōdo. Today, Zenkōji is still managed jointly by Tendai and Jōdo priests.

Eighty-Eight Temple Pilgrimage of Shikoku

The pilgrimage starts in Tokushima and goes clockwise around Shikoku island. Walking the 745 mile route takes 1-2 months; spring and fall the most popular times for making the pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage is associated with the wanderings of Kūkai (774–835), posthumously Kōbō Daishi, or Great Teacher, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Kūkai was born on at Zentsū-ji, Marugame (temple 75) and achieved enlightenment near Hotsumisaki-ji, Muroto (Temple 75).

Temple 1. Ryozen-ji, Tokushima

Ryozen-ji is located on the east coast of Shikoku, across the Kii Channel from Koyasan, the headquarters of Shingon Buddhsim, in Wakayama, on Honshu, where Kūkai is said to be in eternal medication. Pilgrims may go to Koyasan before crossing the channel to Tokushima; at Ryozenji, they purchase white clothings, walking sticks, straw hats, and souvenir booklets to document with stamps the temples they visit.

Ryozenji. Fall 2006

Temple 23. Yakuoji, Hiwasa

On the east coast of Shikoku, south of Tokushima, Yakuoji overlooks Hiwasa.

Giant sandalStairs

Yakuoji. Summer 2009

Temple 24. Hotsumisaki-ji, Muroto

Hotsumisaki-ji is located on a bluff above Cape Muroto, at the southeastern tip of Shikoku.


Hotsumisaki-ji. Summer 2009

WalkHotsumisaki stone

Below the shrine, on the coastal road, is the cave where Kōbō Daishi is said to have achieved enlightenment.

Muroto caveAltar

Temple 38. Kongofuku-ji, Ashizuri

Kongofuku-ji is near Cape Ashizuri, the southwestern point of Shikoku island. The turtle in the courtyard of the temple is said to bring you good luck if you rub its head.

Cape AshizuriSea turtle

Kongofuku-ji. Fall 2006

Temple 51. Ishite-ji, Matsuyama

Ishite means "stone hand," based on the legend of Emon Saburō, a wealthy man, who repeatedly turns away a beggar said to be the spirit of Kōbō Daishi. Soon after his sons die, his fields wither, and he falls ill. He seeks out the beggar to repent, traveling from temple to temple repeatedly (the original Shikoku pilgrimage route around Shikoku) but can't find him. Finally, he dies, clutching a stone in his hand which contains a promise of rebirth for his life of pilgrimage so he can help the poor. His wife then gives birth to a baby with a stone in its fist.

The day we visited Ishite-ji, a festival was taking place: a boat was set on fire with prayers for the dead, and newly harvested rice was being distributed.

Ishiteji statueStatue of monk

Ishite-ji. Fall 2006

Temple 75. Zentsūji, Marugame

Kōbō Daishi is said to have been born at this temple in Marugame, Shikoku, in 774.

Zentsū Templestatue at Zentsū Temple

Zentsūji. Spring 2011

Temple 84. Yashima-ji, Takamatsu

Yashima temple is located atop Mt. Yashima just east of Takamatsu. The temple offers a view of Takamatsu City and the Inland Sea.

Yahima-jiTakamatsu City

Yashima-ji. Summer 2009

Family Temple, Hiroshima

Sennin-ji, Tomo, Hiroshima

The Kawaharada family is registered at Sennin-ji, in Tomo, just outside of Hiroshima. (Registration was required by the Tokugawa shogunate.) Sennin-ji is a temple of Jodo Shinshu, a Buddhist sect founded by Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), based on the belief that faith in Amida Buddha alone brought salvation, that salvation was a gift from Amida rather than the result of an individual’s effort to achieve salvation through ritual practices, meditation, good works, or invocations of Amida's name.


Sennin-ji. Summer 2009


3 Famous Gardens: Kenroku-en, Koraku-en, and Kairaku-en

Kenroku-en, Kanazawa, Ishikawa. Winter 2008

"Kenroku-en" translates "Garden of the Six Sublimities," "referring to spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views, which according to Chinese landscape theory are the six essential attributes that make up a perfect garden. Constructed by the ruling Maeda family over a period of nearly two centuries, the garden was located next to Kanazawa Castle and was not opened to the public until 1871" (Kenrokuen Garden,


Pine treeWaterway

Koraku-en, Okayama. Summer 2009

Located next to Okayama castle, “Koraku-en” means “After-pleasure garden,” alluding to the Confucian belief that rulers should attend first to the needs of his people and only after those needs were met, should they take pleasure in a garden. “The local feudal lord ordered the construction of Korakuen in 1687 as a place of entertainment for the ruling family and a location for receiving important guests. Occasionally, the public was permitted to enter the garden” (Korakuen Garden,

KorakuenTopiary birds


Kairaku-en, Mito, Ibaraki. Fall 2009

Famous for its plum tees that bloom in February, “Kairakuen was built relatively recently in the year 1841 by the local lord Tokugawa Nariaki. Unlike Japan’s other two great landscape gardens Kenrokuen and Korakuen, Kairakuen served not only for the enjoyment of the ruling lord, but was open to the public. Kairakuen means ‘park to be enjoyed together’” (Kairakuen Garden,


Gardens, Kyotō and Tōkyō

Zen Garden at Tenryū-ji, Kyotō. Summer 2012

"Heavenly Dragon Temple" was named for a dragon rising from a river in a dream, which was taken to mean that the recently-deceased Emperor Go-Daigo was not resting peacefully. To placate his unhappy spirit, the temple with its Zen garden was built in 1339 by shogun Askhikaga on the former site of Go-Daigo's villa. It is now the headquarters of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism.

Hama Rikyu Garden, Tsukiji, Tōkyō, Spring 2014

Formerly a duck hunting site, then a residence for the Tokugawa shoguns and, after the Meiji restoration, a detached palace of the Imperial family, Hama Rikyu was donated by the family as a public park in 1946.

Kiyosumi Garden, Fukagawa, Tōkyō, Summer 2015

During the Edo period, the garden was part of the residence of a wealthy businessman, then a lord; in the Meiji period it belonged to the founder of Mistubishi Industries. In 1932, the garden was open to the public.

Gardens, North to South

Motsuji-en, Hiraizumi, Iwate. Summer 2005

Located next to Motsu temple, Motsuji-en is an example of a jodo (“pure land”) style garden popular during the Heian Period. This style of garden attempted “to recreate the Buddhist concept of the pure land or ‘Buddhist paradise.’ Like all pure land gardens, Motsuji's garden is centered around a large pond” (Motsuji Temple, A Heian Poetry Festival was taking place when we were there.

Motsuji-en gardenFestival

Senshu Park, Akita. Summer 2010

Senshu Park is the site of the now-ruined Kubota Castle of the Satake family. When we were ther the azaleas and wisteria were in bloom.

Akita gateStatueAzaleasWisteria

Genkyu-en, Hikone, Shiga. Spring 2008

Located below Hikone castle, Genkyu-en “was built in 1677 by Naooki Ii, the fourth lord of Hikone. The garden is designed in the Chisen-kaiyu style, meaning it is centered around a pond. It was modeled after the garden of the detached palace of Emperor Hsuan Tsung (685-762) of China’s Tang Dynasty” (Hikone Castle and Genkyu-en Garden, Destinations...Japan Travel Guide / The Yamasa Institute).


Ritsurin Park, Takamatsu, Kagawa, Shikoku. Summer 2009

“Ritsurin Koen is a landscape garden in Takamatsu City, built by the local feudal lords during the early Edo Period. Considered one of the best gardens in Japan, ... Ritsurin Koen deserves a spot on the list of the ‘three most beautiful gardens of Japan’ alongside Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen, Mito’s Kairakuen, and Okayama’s Korakuen.” (Ritsurin Garden,

Ritsurin bridgePinesStonesPond

Suizenji-en, Kumamoto. Spring 2011

Suizenji is noted of its replica of Mt. Fuji as part of a reproduction of the 53 post stations of the Tōkaidō. The day we were there, a wedding was taking place in front of the mound. Lord Hosokawa Tadatoshi began construction of the garden in 1636 as a tea retreat.

suizenji gardensuizenji garden

Rock Gardens

Ryoanji, Kyoto. Spring 2004

Built in the late 1400s, the rock garden at Ryōan (“Dragon Peace”) temple in Kyoto, is designed without water (karesansui = “dry landscape”). The raked gravel and rocks suggest a vast lake or ocean with islands.

Sesshu Garden, Joei-ji, Yamaguchi. Fall 2006

This rock garden was created by Zen artist Sesshu (1420-1506) during the Muromachi Period.


Kōmyō-zenji, Dazaifu, Fukuoka. Spring 2011

The rock garden is in the courtyard of Kōmyō, a Zen temple founded in 1273 by a Buddhist priest, Tetsugyu Enshin, a former nobleman of Sugawara clan. The temple is near Dazaifu Tenmangū, and its rock garden is said to be the only one on Kyūshū.

Kōmyō-zenji rock garden

Western-Style Flower Gardens

Kawaguchiko Music Museum and Flower Garden, Yamanashi. Early Summer 2005

Western-style flower gardens are popular in Japan today. This one in Kawaguchiko feature a music museum with old music boxes and automatic musical instruments.

Kawaguchiko gardenFlower cartFlowersMusic museum

Hamamatsu Flower Park, Aichi. Spring 2008

Another Western-style garden with tulips and sakura, ponds, a water fountain, and a hot house of exotic plants. At night in the spring the sakura around its lake is lit-up for visitors.

Hamamatsu Flower ParkFountainsGardensGarden at night

Kagoshima Flower Park, Kagoshima. Spring 2011

This park at the southern tip of Satsuma peninsula features tropical and subtropical plants. Mt. Kaimon (Satsuma Fuji) rises in the distance.

Kagoshima flower parkKagoshima flower park

Kagoshima flower parkKagoshima flower park


Hanabi (Fireworks) Festival, Tejikarao Shrine, Gifu. Spring 2008

A 300-year old spring fireworks festival held on the second Saturday in April. Mikoshi (portable shrines) from the twelve towns in the area converge on Tejikarao Shrine and light up the night with fireworks to celebrate the return of the mountain gods in spring.

Tejikarao streetOmikoshiStageFireworks

Takayama Spring Festival, Gifu. Spring 2008

On April 14 and 15 each year. Takayama welcomes the spring gods with afestival that features twelve exquisitely-made floats, beautifully lacquered, carved, and embellished with metal ornaments, and hung with banners and paintings on silk. Three of the floats house 21-string puppets that perform dances to traditional music. After the puppet performance in the central plaza, several hundred residents dressed up in Edo-style costumes and paraded through the town, stopping to perform a lion dance before the shrines along the way.

Takayama floatPuppet

Lion danceProcession

Opening of Ukai, Iwakuni, Yamaguchi. June 1, Summer 2009

Ukai is the practice of river-fishing at night for ayu (sweetfish) with trained sea cormorants on leashes. The fish are attracted with fires burning in metal baskets attached to the front end of the shallow-water boats. The birds dive for the fish, but cannot swallow them because the leahs ring constricts its esophagus. Originally from China, ukai is described over 1300 years ago in Japan: using this method, fishermen provided ayu to the imperial court. Eventually, the art declined to near extinction when it was no longer economically viable, but has since been revived to promote cultural and regional tourism. Ukai takes place about a dozen towns and cities in Japan. In Iwakuni, upstream of the five arches of the Kintai Bridge, the season opens on June 1 and continues till August 31.

Iwakuni boatAyu

ComorantsNight fishing

Nebuta Floats, Aomori. Fall 2009

The Neputa festival takes place in summer and celebrates the victory of samurai over the demons of the northland. We were in Aomori in summer and fall, so never saw the festival, but the beautiful paper floats lit from the inside are on display year round at Sato no Nebuta, just south of Aomori.

Nebuta floatFloat

Kami Ari, the Gathering of the Gods, Izumo Taisha, Shimane. Fall 2006

Kami Ari begins on 10.10, the tenth day of the tenth moon. In fall 2006, 10.10 fell on November 30. Photos: Ten day old moon. Preparing the fires to welcome the kami from around Japan. Pathway of the gods arriving from the sea. Priests lead the procession back to the shrine. Ceremonies are held at the Taisha the following week. Izumo Shrine.

Izumo moonIzumo beachPathwayPriestsProcession of priestsShrine rooftop

Thanksgiving Festival, Udo Jinja, Miyazaki, Kyushu. Fall 2006

On November 25, shrines around the country hold an annual first fruits/thanksgiving festival, when rice, fruits, and sake are offered to the gods, accompanied by music and dance.

Udo JinjaMusic performers


Music performanceShrine

Ishiteji, Matsuyama, Shikoku. Fall 2006

When we visited Ishiteji, the courtyard was crowded and hazy with incense smoke pouring out of a large censer. A ceremony was taking place, culminating in the torching of a large boat made of paper, straw, and branches, the flames and smoke lifting prayers skyward and connecting the living to the spirits of the dead.

Ishiteji statueMonk



Hi Matsuri (Fire Festival), Nozawa, Nagano. Winter 2008

The festival is dedicated to dosojin, dual kami (male-female) of fertility and safety. A shaden, or tower-shrine, is built for the festival from pine and beech trees from the village’s forests. The festival begins with fireworks and a celebration of the sons born in that year, with a toro, or lantern pole, for each, with best-wishes streamers hung from them.. 42 year olds sit in the nest of pines on the shaden, daring the townspeople to try to burn it down. The 25 year olds are stationed at the base to protect the 42 year olds above. The villagers load up on sake snd attack with torches. After an hour battle, in which the 25 year olds fend off the attackers, the 42 year olds declare victory, then descend from the nest of pines. Then the shrine is torched.


Closeup of shadenFireworks

Father and sonTaking sake

The 42 year oldsThe 25 year olds


Setting the bonfireBurning of the shaden

Sacred fireDestruction of the shaden


Updated: Summer 2015

Best Seafood: Hon-maguro

The fatty cuts of hon-maguro (bluefin tuna), served at Oma, Aomori

Best meat: Marbled Beef

Matsuzaka Beef, ready for grilling, M's, Osaka

Matsuzaka Beef sushi, rare, M's, Osaka

Grilling Yonezawa Beef, with mushrooms, onions, and pepper, Yudono, Yamagata

Seafood and Fish

Uni (sea urchin egg sacs), Otaru, Hokkaidō

Uni, Hakodate, Hokkaidō

Hairy Crab, Sapporo, Hokkaidō

Grilled King Crab, Hachinohe, Aomori

Queen Crab (Snow Crab) sashimi, Kyōto

Queen Crab (Snow Crab), cooked in broth (shabu-shabu), Kyōto

Marinated Abalone, Kofu, Yamanashi

Grilled Abalone, Shimoda, Shizuoka

Assorted sashimi, with fresh wasabi root, Mohee, Shizuoka City

Assorted sashimi, Kaisenya Negibozu, Niigata City, Niigata

Assorted sashimi, Shiosai Kirara Shokichi, Ako, Hyogo

Lobster sashimi, Ise, Mie

Lobster in miso soup, Toba, Mie

Live ika (squid), Hakodate, Hokkaidō

Ika sashimi, Hakodate, Hokkaidō

Grilled hokke (Atka mackerel), Hakodate, Hokkaidō

Freshwater Fish

Deep-fried trout, Kani, Aichi

Ayu: A relative of the trout, Ayu is served during the summer when it's caught using long poles or by a traditional method of using cormorants (ukai).

Opening day of Ukai (cormorant-fishing) season, June 1, 2009, Iwakuni, Yamaguchi

Ayu from the fishing handed over to the ryokan staff to cook for breakfast

Ayu for breakfast

Roasting ayu, Tedori, Ishikawa


Shrimp and vegetable tempura, Kura, Matsumoto, Nagano

Fish Tempura, Sapporo, Hokkaidō

Pork, Chicken, and Sausages

Grilled pork , Sapporo, Hokkaido

Grilled chicken, Toyama

Grilling chicken, mushrooms, and peppers, Tsutaya, Yudono, Yamagata

Grilled wings, Chochin-ya, Kanazawa, Ishikawa

Grilled home-made pork sausages, Hops and Herbs, Kofu, Yamanashi

Tonkatsu, Haneda Airport, Tōkyō


Buckwheat field, Izumo, Shimane

Soba (buckwheat noodles), with tempura shrimp and mountain plants, Hakkaisan Brewery, Niigata

Udon: Japanese-style wheat noodles, Kyōto-style (vegetarian)

Udon, covered with beef and shrimp tempura, Kagawa (Sanuki), Shikoku
Shoyu Ramen (Chinese-style wheat noodles) with fatty pork, Tōkyō

Spicy Ramen, Hamamatsu, Aichi

Mountain Plants

Tsuruoka, Yamagata. Summer 2010

Fresh mountain greens, Tsutaya, Yudono, Yamagata

Pickled mountain plants, Tsutaya, Yudono, Yamagata

Grilled bamboo shoots, Tsutaya, Yudono, Yamagata

Wasabi, Tsukiji, Tōkyō

Planting wasabi in a mountain stream bed below Joren Falls, Izu, Shizuoka. April 2008. Izu is noted for its production of wasabi. A stand in the parking lot was selling wasabi ice cream, which was refreshing after the walk down to the falls.


Kaiseki dining consists of a set course of regional foods and drinks, with ingredients varying by the seasons.

Kitayama, Niigata City, Late May 2015: A Kitayama, a restaurant run by Ishimoto Brewery, which produces the legendary saké Koshi no Kanbai ("Winter Plum Tree of Koshi"), a kaiseki served to go with their saké:

Otōshi, made with small leaves and stems of water shield, an aquatic plant, floating in a lake-like clear, chilled dashi (soup) around a center of foamy tororo (mountain yam)—a cool summer treat

Appetizer:a sea snail, steamed soy beans, konnyaku (yam cake) topped with miso, and a sushi made with pickled mioga (ginger shoot)

Saké: jumai daiginjo and daiginjo

Raw: squid, with seared tuna (tataki)

Grilled: suzuki, or sea bass, garnished with lemon and a pickled ginger stalk

Simmered: bamboo shoots and snapper, with yuba, or tofu skin, and fu, or wheat gluten

Dessert: sorbet flavored with kasu, or saké lees; shochu and plum wine

Auberge Tosayama, Kochi, Shikoku, Summer 2009: The ryokan in Tosayama, a small valley just north Kochi, serves a new–age kaiseki.

Appetizer: stewed whelk, green pea tofu, shallot with uncured ham, Japanaese radish, stewed sweet potato flavored with lemon; homemade ume (plum) liquer

Local saké

Horse mackerel, flatfish, prawn

Simmered yurine and scallop cake with urchin flavored with ginger, pumkin, and radish

Mountain yam and local yomoogi (edible wild plants), gratinated sea bass, fruit tomato, asparagus, sardine, home-grown vegetables

Jellied moray eel, grape, petite tomato, oreginao and leek

Green pea tempura, deep-fried kidney beasn with two color sesame, with shiso labiate salt

Cockle with egg vinegar

Rice with egg, clam miso soup, local vegnetables (mitsuba, nameko mushroom, water shleld).
Missing: pickled daikon, ume, and vegetables.

Dessert: warm sweet read bean soup and white sticky rice dumpllings, local strawberry and orange, home-made sponge cake with honey, mountain_farmed sencha (green tea)


Wall of Sake, Echigo Yuzawa Train Station, Niigata. Winter 2008 and Summer 2009

The train station in Echigo Yuzawa features a wall of sake, where you purchase slugs to sample sake from dispensers. The wall offers over a hundred sakes, many of which are sold at the shop next door. Niigata is known as the Kingdom of Jizake (Local Sake), with more breweries that any other prefecture. A figure outside of the wall-of-sake room illustrates the effect of too much sake.

Wall of sakeAsleep

More more on saké in Niigata, see "Summer 2015: Saké-Tasting in the Kingdom of Local Brew."

Obata Brewery, Mano, Sado Island, Niigata. Fall 2009

After tasting Manotsuru at the wall of sake in Echigo Yuzawa in Winter 2008, I was to get to the brewery on Sado Island. In 2009 we visited and bought its ginjo, daiginjo, and super daiginjo.

Obata BreweryBuying sake

Gekkeikan Brewery, Fushimi, Kyoto, Kansai. Spring 2004

Our first visit to a sake brewery was in Spring 2004. Located in a quiet neighborhood with canals shops, and restaurants, south of Kyoto in Fushimi, Gekkeikan Brewery houses a sake musueum.

GekkeikanGeishaSake museum

Otokoyama Sake Brewery, Asahikawa, Hokkaido. Summer 2005

Otokoyama is one of the well known sake brands in Hawai'i, so we stopped by its brewery when were were in Asahikawa. The brewery was originally from the Osaka area, but moved to Hokkaido to brew with the spring water coming from the snow melt of Daisetsuzan. The water and cold climate make it an ideal place for sake-brewing.

Otokoyama Tasting

< Spring water

Masuichi Ichimura Sake Brewery, Obuse, Nagano. Winter 2008

On a wintry day, Masuichi Ichimura Sake Brewery served passers-by with cups of hot amazake, a sweet low-alcoholic drink made from the leftovers of the sake-brewing process.

Masuichi Ichimura Sake brewery

Saijo, Hiroshima. Summer 2009

Saijo, Hiroshima, Chugoku. Summer 2009. Eight breweries are located around the train station in Saijo — Kamotsuru, Fukubijin, Kamoizumi, Kirei, Saojtsuru, Hakubuton, Sanyotsuru, and Kamoki. We went for sake tasting and had our first taste of nama, or unpasteurized sake — refreshing! In October, Saijo celebrates sake with a festival.

SaijoSake display

Dewazakura Brewery, Tendo, Yamagata. Fall 2009

Dewazakura brews some of my favorite sake: Dewasanzan, Dewa Oka, and Dewa Izumi Judan. We visited the brewery in fall 2009. Next to the brewery are an art museum, a traditional house displaying ceramic sake cups and flasks, and a sales room. We bought a bottle of daiginjo not available in Hawaii.

Dewazakura Brewery

Sake wares

Sake Breweries, Summer 2010

By summer 2010, I had done enough research on breweries to be able to find a local brewery wherever we traveled in Japan.

Among the breweries we stopped at that summer: Okunomatsu and Daishichi in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima; Yonetsuru in Yamagata; Mansaku-no-hana (Hinomaru) in Akita; Dewanoyuki in Tsuruoka; Miyao (Shimeharitsuru) in Murakami, Niigata; Kirin in Tsugawa, Niigata; Koshino setsugetsuka in Joestu, Niigata; Miyasaka (Masumi), in Suwa, Nagano; Shichiken, in Daigaharajuku, Yamanashi

Not all breweries are set up for visitors, tastings, and sales; here are three that were:

We went to the Kirin Brewery in Tsugawa because the town has an interesting legend of kitsune-bi (fox fire, or bioluminescent fungi). The townspeople thought strings of ktisune-bi, which appear on nearby Mt. Kirin, were lanterns in a fox wedding procession. At the beginning of May, the townpeople make-up their faces to look like foxes and put on a fox wedding. Kirin brewery makes a sake called Bride of the Fox. In the showroom, there were bottles ready to pour in a refrigerator. We bought two bottles of daiginjo, one called Shogun Sugi, which is said to be the oldest tree in Japan, in Mikawa, a town just downstream from Tsugawa. (See "Trees.")

Fox brideKirin showroom

The Masumi Brewery in Suwa, Nagano, has an elegant tasting room that sells a $3 tasting glass, with which you can sample from a range of six brews, but not their daiginjo. When I asked about it, she brought some out and poured a glass, after which we bought a bottle (called Nanago).

Masumi BrewerySake bottles

The Shichiken Brewery in Yamanashi is in a former station town on the old Koshu Road between Edo and Nagano. It's housed in a historical building with an interesting interior and a modern tasting room. The founder, Ihei Kitahara, became enchanted by the Hakushu water in Daigahara-juku and brought his brewing expertise from Nagano to Yamanashi in 1749, during the Middle Edo period. We bought an award-winning daiginjo called O-nakaya.

Shichiken BreweryTasting

Gozenshū Brewery, Katsuyama, Okayama. Spring 2011

On the way to Yubara Onsen, we stopped in the town of Katsuyama, in Maniwa, Okayama, and visited the Gozenshū Brewery. The town features a shopping and restaurant street with 93 Edo-style houses. I tasted Gozenshū sake at a Maniwa hotel in 2009 and wanted to visit the brewery, which features a daiginjyō called Kei (50% polished rice) and one named Hō (40% polished rice). "Their original sake was a tribute to the castle lord, Gozen-sama. Conditions for making sake in the area are excellent -- good quality rice, pure water from the understream of the Asahi River that flows through the town and the winters are sufficiently cold, providing just the right temperature for the brewing process."

Gozenshū Breweryasahi river

Sake Shops

The best reason to go to a brewery is to taste the sake before you buy it or to purchase a special sake not widely distributed. Some breweries offer tours, but most tours are in Japanese only.

If you're not near a brewery, you can stop at any sake shop and find a range of sake from local breweries.Most of the major train stations have sake shops in their shopping areas. One sake shop on the highway into Kochi, Shikoku (Fall 2006), was memorable because of two samurai figures perched on a second-floor ledge, enjoying sake together.

Two samurai

We stopped to take a photo, then went in and bought a couple of bottles for the road.

Bottles for the road

Sapporo Beer Factory, Sapporo, Hokkaido. Summer 2005

Beer breweries are another favorite stop. The Sapporo Beer Factory served some deliciously cold beer. A restaurant attached to the brewery served sausages and beer. Sapporo was built during the nineteenth century as Japan borrowed technology and processes from the west as part of its industrialization.

Sapporo beer factoryTasting the beerSapporo ads

Asahi Beer Factory, Saijo, Ehime, Shikoku. Summer 2009

After a hike on Mt. Ishizuchi, we head from the Asahi Beer Factory in Saijo for a glass of beer and sausages.

Asahi beer factory


Although shōchū can be produced from rice, barley, soba (buckwheat), or chestnuts, our favorite is imo-shōchū (produced from imo, or sweet potato) because of its distinct flavor, which some describe as "almondy" others as "smoky." Unlike sake, shochu is distilled. Its alcohol content is higher than sake (16% vs. 25% or higher).

We first tasted imo-shōchū in Kagoshima, Kyūshū, where it was once exclusively produced in Japan. The distilling process was brought from China via Korea. The warmer climate of Japan's southernmost main island is conducive to growing imo.

Our favorite imo-shōchū is Satō, served in restaurants in America, but not sold in liquor stores. It's even hard to find in Kagoshima city; it depends on which restaurant or which liquor store you go to.

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