Ascending the Togakushi Shrine Hike (Kodo), Japan

The Togakushi Shrine hike is one of the most popular and scenic hikes in Japan. It offers breathtaking views of the Togakushi Mountains and a chance to explore the ancient Shinto shrines that are scattered throughout the area. The hike takes visitors on a journey through lush forests, past crystal-clear streams, and up to the peaks of the mountains. You can enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

The Togakushi Shrine hike is actually a network of trails that wind through the mountains, connecting the various shrines that are scattered throughout the area. The most popular route is the Togakushi Kodo, a 4.5-kilometre path that leads from the first shrine (Hokosha) to the fifth shrine (Okusha). Along the way, it passes through beautiful forests, over wooden bridges, and up steep mountain paths. Hikers can stop at each of the five shrines and explore the ancient structures. Each has its own unique character and significance.

Steeped in Legends

Terror

There are several legends associated with Mt. Togakushi in Japan. One of the most well-known legends is the story of a giant snake or dragon that lived in a cave on the mountain. According to the legend, the snake terrorised the local villagers. In turn, the villagers prayed to the god of the Togakushi Shrines for help. The god sent a brave warrior to slay the dragon, and after a fierce battle, the warrior emerged victorious. The dragon’s body turned into the surrounding mountains, and its spirit became enshrined in the Togakushi Shrines.

Brave Warriors

Another legend associated with Mt. Togakushi involves a famous samurai named Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who lived in the 12th century. According to the legend, Yoshitsune was fleeing from his enemies and sought refuge on Mt. Togakushi. He disguised himself as a woodcutter and lived in a small hut on the mountain, practising swordsmanship and training in secret. The locals eventually discovered his true identity and helped him escape to safety.

How the mountains were made

However one of the most famous is connected with the sun goddess, Amaterasu. According to the legend, Amaterasu became so saddened by her brother’s cruel actions that she retreated to a cave. This cave, called Amano-Iwato, was located in the Izumo region of Japan. The other gods tried to coax her out of the cave, but she refused to come out. As a result, the world plunged into darkness.

Eventually, the gods devised a plan to lure her out of the cave. They performed a dance and played music outside the entrance. The goddess Uzume, in particular, performed a provocative dance that caused the other gods to laugh and cheer. This finally enticed Amaterasu to peek out from behind her rock. When she did this, a crack appeared between the rock and the stone. The gods were able to rip the rock away and threw it as far as they could. Not only did light return to the world but Mt Togakushi formed where the stone landed.

History of the Togakushi Shrines

According to legend, the Togakushi Shrines were founded by a Shinto priest named Taira no Masakado in the 10th century. Masakado was a powerful figure who rebelled against the imperial court and was eventually defeated and executed. It is said that he fled to the Togakushi Mountains before his death, and it was here that he built the first shrine.

Over the centuries, the Togakushi Shrines grew in importance. By the Edo period (1603-1868), they had become a major pilgrimage site for worshippers across Japan. The shrines were also home to a thriving community of monks, who studied and practised the esoteric Shugendo tradition.

Today, visitors to the Togakushi Shrines can explore the five main shrines, which are connected by a beautiful tree-lined path known as the Togakushi Kodo. Each shrine has its own unique character and significance, from the first shrine (Hokosha), which is dedicated to the god of thunder, to the fifth shrine (Okusha), which is located deep in the mountains and is said to be the dwelling place of the mountain deity.

The Togakushi Shrine Hike

The hike starts at the lower shrine, which sits at the top of a long flight of stairs. Get off the bus at the Togakushi Hokosha stop, which is the name of the first shrine in the series.

Togakushi Hokosha

The shrine is dedicated to the god of wisdom and learning. Hokosha shrine is still a place of pilgrimage and worship for visitors to Japan. It is said that those who visit the shrine and pray to the god of wisdom and learning will be granted success and knowledge in their studies and pursuits. The shrine is also famous for its impressive torii gate, which stands at the entrance to the shrine and is one of the largest in Japan.

The first shrine also has two beautiful palanquins. They are held behind glass (hence the reflections in the images below) but they are brought out for special celebrations:

The hike and the next Shrine

The second shrine on the Togakushi Kodo hike (but actually the third one), Chusha, is located about 1.3 kilometres from Hokosha. In other words, your hike has already begun. There are several possible stops along the way, such as viewing points, nature spots and other small shrines.

Chusha is dedicated to the god of thunder and is believed to have been built around the same time as the first shrine in the 10th century. The shrine is known for its beautiful architecture, which features intricate wood carvings and paintings that depict the story of the god of thunder. It is also surrounded by ancient trees that are said to be hundreds of years old.

If you do not want to hike much, it is also possible to get off the bus at this shrine. The stop is “Togakushi Chusha”.

Continuing the Hike

From here is where you really start heading up the mountain. The climb becomes steeper and you begin moving away from civilisation. Like previously, there are other shrines and other viewpoints but there are a lot fewer houses and people:

You know you are going in the right direction if 1) you follow the signs and 2) you see information for a kids’ ninja village. The entrance to the route up the mountain starts across from the ninja village sign.

Zuishinmon Gate and Togakushi Okusha

If you are on Instagram, you are probably already familiar with the Zuishinmon Gate. This gate is the place that marks the beginning of a nearly 2 km stretch of giant red cedar trees running up the mountain. While the path has its ups and downs, it is almost perfectly straight. It is simply breathtaking. When you see it in person, it is no wonder why it is so popular!

At the end of the line of cedars is your final destination: Togakushi Okusha. This shrine is the last one on the Togakushi Kodo. When you reach Togakushi Okusha, you are greeted by a stunning view of the surrounding mountains and countryside, as well as the impressive shrine complex itself. The shrine features a main hall, where visitors can offer prayers and offerings, as well as a museum that houses a collection of ancient artefacts and artworks.

This shrine is also the only one on the route that is not manned year-round. Historically the monks would descend from this shrine after summer as it quickly became too cold to live up there. They would then return mid-spring when it had become warmer.

Getting to the Togakushi Kodo

Of all the possible hikes, the Togakushi Kodo is the most well-known in the area. The Togakushi Kodo itself is located in the mountains, so you will need transport to get to the bottom of the hike.

To get to the Togakushi Shrine from Nagano Station, there are several transportation options available.

The most convenient way to get to the shrine is by car or taxi. It takes approximately 45 minutes to drive from Nagano Station to the Togakushi Shrine. Rental cars are available at Nagano Station, and there are also several taxi companies that operate in the area.

Alternatively, you can take a bus from Nagano Station to Togakushi Bus Stop. The Nagaden Bus Company operates regular bus services between Nagano Station and Togakushi, with several departures each day. The journey takes approximately 50 minutes, and the bus stop is located a short walk from the Togakushi Shrine. The bus line is called the “Nagano-Togakushi Line”. The bus company’s offices are located outside the west exit of the station. Look for “Alpico Bus Ticket Office”.

Alternatively, you can hike all the way from Nagano, although this is a much longer trip. There are smaller shrines along the way, so it will just depend on how much time you have/would like to spend on this hike. You can find more information about the longer high in the tourism office at Nagano station.

More in the area

If you are interested in going to this area but don’t know what else to do, nearby Matsumoto is a must-see. Visiting Matsumoto Castle (松本城) is a magical experience as it is one of the few original castles still standing. If you happen to be visiting in late July, the Matsumoto Castle Grand Taiko Festival may also be taking place.

Nagano is also worth a visit, including Zenko-ji (one of the oldest and the largest wooden temples in Japan), nearby Obuse, and the samurai village at Matsushiro.

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