Suwa Taisha Shrine is one of japan‘s oldest shrines and is known for its unique festival that happens once every seventh year. The shrine consists of four shrine complexes, namely the Kamisha Honmiya, Kamisha Maemiya, Shimosha Akimiya, and Shimosha Harumiya. The Kamisha shrines are located on the southern shore of Lake Suwa, while the Shimosha shrines are on the northern shore.
The Onbashira Festival, held only once every seventh year, is a major highlight of Suwa Taisha Shrine. This festival is renowned across Japan for its unique and dynamic events, attracting both locals and visitors from outside the area. During the festival, 16 giant 200-year-old fir trees are cut down and then slid down the mountainside for 10-20 kilometers to the nearby village. This process is done purely with manpower, without the use of machinery. The trees are then erected at the four corners of each shrine.
One of the interesting aspects of Suwa Taisha Shrine is the division between the Kamisha and Shimosha groups. The Kamisha shrines revere the mountain, while the Shimosha shrines worship large trees. This is a characteristic of shrines that lack a Honden, the most sacred building within a Shinto shrine complex. Instead of a Honden, these shrines worship the surrounding nature.
To visit the Kamisha group, you can start from JR Kami-Suwa Station. The main Kamisha Honmiya is about 50 minutes away by bus or 15 minutes by taxi. From Kamisha Honmiya, it’s a 30-minute walk to Kamisha Maemiya. To visit the Shimosha group, you can start from JR Shimo-Suwa Station. Shimosha Akimiya is a 10-minute walk from the station, followed by a 15-minute walk to Shimosha Harumiya.
If you’re coming from Tokyo, you can take the Azusa Limited Express from Shinjuku Station. The ride to Chino Station takes about two hours, while Kami-Suwa Station and Shimo-Suwa Station take two hours 15 minutes and two hours 20 minutes, respectively. There is also a direct express bus service from Shinjuku’s express bus terminal.
When visiting Suwa Taisha Shrine, don’t miss observing the posts at each shrine’s four corners, which are carried from the mountains during the Onbashira Festival. You can also cleanse your hands before entering the grounds at the unusual chozuya that spouts hot spring water. Another attraction near Shimosha Harumiya is the Manji no Sekibutsu stone Buddhist statue, which is revered for its spiritual power.
According to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest existing compilation of history, traditions, and legends, Suwa Taisha Shrine has a rich history. It is said to have originated during the kuni-yuzuri event, where rulership over Japan was passed from the gods of the heaven to the gods of the land. One of these gods, Takeminakata-no-kami, fled to Suwa after a power struggle and created the land of Shinano, which is now Nagano. Takeminakata-no-kami was enshrined as Suwa Myojin at Suwa Taisha Shrine.
There is no hierarchy between the shrines at Suwa Taisha, so it’s fine to visit just one group or the other due to the distance that divides them. However, if you have the time or are traveling by car, it is recommended to visit all four shrines. Visitors who do so and collect their red ink stamps will receive a memento.
Let’s start with the Kamisha Maemiya, which is considered the birthplace of the Suwa faith. It is where the deity Suwa Myojin first arrived. Suwa Myojin is widely worshipped as a guardian deity of agriculture, industry, victory, and military fortune. The Kamisha Maemiya complex features several structures, including a main hall, torii gate, and stone lanterns. The intricate details and architectural beauty of these structures are worth admiring.
Moving on to Kamisha Honmiya, you’ll find a great number of historic structures on its precincts. The Shikyakumon Gate, built in 1608, is a magnificent example of traditional Japanese gate architecture. The Nunohashi Bridge, built in 1777, is another notable structure that adds to the charm of the shrine. The hall of worship, built in 1857, is also worth seeing. As you approach the temple, you’ll pass by souvenir stores and restaurants, where you can take a break and indulge in local delicacies.
Now let’s explore the Shimosha Harumiya. The layout of this shrine is similar to the Shimosha Akimiya. The Kagura Hall stands in front, adorned with sacred “shime-nawa” rope. Behind the Kagura Hall, you’ll find the Houden treasure hall, a sacred tree, and the Heihaiden Hall, a hall of worship. The Heihaiden Hall, built in 1799, is particularly interesting as it houses two united cedar trees that are joined at the base and fork out from each other. These trees are considered a symbol of unity and are often associated with matchmaking. A short walk from the shrine grounds will lead you to the Manji-no-Sekibutsu, a stone Buddha that is said to grant wishes to those who walk around it three times while chanting their heart’s desire.
Lastly, let’s visit the Shimosha Akimiya. The Heihaiden Hall for the Shimosha Akimiya was built in 1780. This shrine features a pair of 1.7-meter bronze komainu (guardian dogs) that stand before the Kagura Hall. The komainu are believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the shrine. The Shimosha Akimiya complex also includes other structures such as a main hall, torii gate, and stone lanterns.
Aside from the shrines, there are other attractions and activities to enjoy in the area surrounding Suwa Taisha Shrine. If you’re interested in history, you can visit Takashima Castle, which offers panoramic views of Lake Suwa and the surrounding mountains. The castle is a reconstruction of the original castle that was built in the 16th century. Another must-visit is Lake Suwa itself, a beautiful lake known for its clear waters and picturesque scenery.
For those who enjoy outdoor activities, the Nakasendo trail is a great option. This trail is one of the Gokaido five trails that were paved during the Edo period. Walking along the Nakasendo trail will take you through scenic landscapes and traditional Japanese inns. The hot spring town of Shimosuwajuku, located along the trail, was a bustling center for weary travelers to rest and rejuvenate in the hot springs. You can also visit the Shukuba Kaido Museum to learn more about the lives of merchants during that time.
In conclusion, Suwa Taisha Shrine is a fascinating destination in Nagano, Japan. Its rich history, unique festivals, and beautiful shrines make it a must-visit for both locals and tourists. Whether you’re interested in religious and cultural sites or outdoor activities, Suwa Taisha Shrine offers something for everyone. So, make sure to include this ancient shrine in your itinerary when exploring Japan.
Address And Maps Location:
1 Nakasumiyayama, Suwa-shi, Nagano-ken