The day after Christmas in Nagano, I embarked on a pilgrimage up a snowy Mount Togakushi, a mountain said to have been created during the Age of the Gods.
Togakushi’s “Hidden Door” Shrine refers to an ancient legend in which the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu hid herself in a cave behind a stone door following a quarrel with her brother. As she was goddess of the sun, Japan plunged into darkness.
To restore the sunlight, the gods attempted to draw Amaterasu out of the cave with music and dancing. Once she came out, the gods took the stone door and threw it all the way to Nagano, where the five shrines now stood.
Each of the shrines is associated with a different blessing:
- Hokosha (lower shrine) for childbirth, women and children, good fortune, and handicrafts.
- Hinomikosha, for matchmaking and talent at court dancing and music.
- Chusha (middle shrine) for wisdom, luck on exams, success in school, and prosperity in business.
- Kuzuryusha Shrine (upper shrine built for the god of five grains) matchmaking and rain.
- Okusha (upper shrine) for good fortune and to answer prayers.
Starting at Hokosha, the 5.5 kilometer trail that connects the five shrines is estimated to take 2-3 hours in good weather.
I took the NR 70 bus from Nagano. Most of the passengers on the bus appeared bound for the ski slopes. An hour later, the bus stopped at Togakushi Hokosha, the bottommost shrine.
One woman stepped off the bus with me. I had hoped to have someone to walk with and was disappointed when she turned and set off in a different direction.
I had miscalculated on multiple levels. Firstly, I had thought that the route would be teeming with pilgrims. Secondly, because I had seen photos showing many pilgrims on the route, I had assumed that there would be shops or stands to purchase hot coffee and get a quick bite before beginning the trip.
As it turned out, it was 19 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius) outside and nothing was open.
A blast of especially frigid air reminded me I had been a fool not to layer clothes better. I had been a fool not to eat breakfast beforehand. Most of all, I was a fool not to have packed something more substantial than a seaweed, rice, and tuna triangle snack.
At that moment, I seriously considered whether it was safe to continue and whether the wisest course of action would be to scrap the plan.
The Lower and Middle Shrines
I decided to at least visit Hokosha and make a decision as to whether to continue from there. I climbed the alternate steps to the shrine and tossed my ¥100 coin at the serrated offering box.
Several coins had missed the mark and landed around the box. It was unusual for the Japanese to be imprecise. It was even more unusual for them to leave something other than its proper place. The only explanation that made sense was that the hands that had thrown the coins had either been gloved or frozen to the point of numbness.
I picked up the errant coins and tossed them into the box.
In what was a very special moment, I saw a fox. It stood neatly on the path for several seconds before finally disappearing into the forest. In the Shinto religion, a fox is a representative of the god Inari. I took the fox’s presence as a sign that things were exactly as they should be.
And with that, I decided to follow the wooded path to the next shrine.
There was one solitary set of fading footprints to follow through the forest. The route was otherwise pristine and untouched. Fortunately, my boots had excellent tread and thus far were living up to their waterproof promise.
When the path opened onto a street, I stopped at a vending machine and pressed a button for a can of ‘Fire coffee’. Unfortunately, because of the outdoor temperature, what would normally have been hot came out lukewarm. I downed the can of coffee and, spying an open shop, ducked inside.
Seeking Sanctuary in a Straw Craft Shop
This area was known for its local crafts, particularly its woven products. The warmth coming from an old-fashioned stove felt delicious.
The small, cozy shop sold bowls, baskets, and plates made from finely woven straw.
An older man sat on a low stool explaining something to a young school boy. The boy, who was perhaps there for a school project, took careful notes under his mother’s attentive gaze.
I stayed for ten minutes to warm up, then purchased a woven basket and continued up the hill.
Happily, the Chushu “information stop” was open, and I once again ducked indoors to warm up. The woman at the “information stop” was visibly surprised to see me.
“Konnichiwa. Summimasen. Toire wa doko desu ka.” Greetings. Excuse me. Where is the toilet?
She gave me directions. The toilet was a traditional porcelain rectangle on the floor that required a deep squat. Despite this, the toilet paper roll was still neatly folded into a perfect point and the bathroom itself was immaculate.
I thanked her for allowing me to use the restroom, and she waved as I left the shop.
As soon as I stepped outside, I saw the NR 70 bus continue past en route to the upper shrine. I had a moment’s hesitation before deciding to keep moving forward on foot.
Had I taken the bus, I would have missed seeing the enormous 800-year-old cedar trees.
The Chushu Shrine water purification station was half-frozen over with ice. Although cold, I followed the ritual and washed my hands and rinsed my mouth with the icy water.
Past Chushu Shrine, the walk continued through what in the warmer months would be a lovely botanical garden. The trail itself was wonderfully and meticulously sign-posted. All the same, it was hard work crunching through the snow. I broke out my seaweed and salt roe rice triangle and silently cursed myself again for not having eaten beforehand.
Eventually, the woods opened up to a large parking area and a few shops. Unlike the lower and middle shrines – which I had navigated alone – the upper shrine area was fairly bustling with pilgrims. Because so many had driven to the upper shrines, they looked very clean and presentable. I, on the other hand, was dripping snow off every crevice.
I decided to stop at one of the restaurants for a quick snack and was deeply embarrassed by the amount of snow I brought in. Despite this, the staff greeted me warmly and directed me to a table. Thinking that a bowl of hot soba or hot food would cause me to become drowsy, I requested a soba-flavored “soft cream”. It arrived beautifully presented in a silver-plated cone stand.
After paying the bill, a kind employee confirmed that the path to the upper shrines lay directly behind their restaurant.
A Walk in Mount Togakushi’s Primeval Forest
I have never paid much attention to snow tracks before. Thus, I marveled at how much information one could gather looking at footprints. Due to the heavy snowfall – and because only one area had been broken in – the hikers had created a special etiquette.
The polite thing to do when you saw a person returning from the shrine was to either 1) veer off the cleared path and break your own path. (This was no easy feat, given that the snow level was knee-deep.) The other option was to 2) kick yourself a small “shoulder” adjacent to the broken-in track and stay there until the other person passed. That seemed the preferred option for families and groups.
The primeval forest must gorgeous in any season. However, I cannot help but opine that the BEST way to experience it is during winter. The trees of the ancient forest were enormous, majestic, cathedral-like. I could not get over the stunning beauty of this trail.
The shrines might be the destination, but the 400+-year-old giant cedar trees lining both sides of the path were the true stars.
A Slippery Slope
My fellow pilgrims carried with them everything from umbrellas and plastic tarp, to snow shoes and hiking poles. Despite the cold and regardless of what direction we were headed, the overall ambience was surprisingly festive.
A couple with their teenage son were my companions for most of the trip. We eventually reached the staircases leading to the shrines.
The stairs had long since been covered by thick snow. Unable to use them, we pilgrims navigated our way up on all fours. It was like trying to crawl up a slide.
I had a silent chuckle as the husband braced against his wife’s backside and grunted as he attempted to push her up the slippery hill. From high above, the teenager laughingly called out to them, the tone of his voice buoyant and teasing.
There was something comical and insanely joyful about clutching your way up an icy hill. We might not have been able to fully communicate in each other’s language. But we were joined together by laughter at the absurdity of it all.
Okusha and Kuzuryusha
I had saved my ¥500 coins, the largest denomination of Japanese coin currency, especially for the Okusha and Kuzuryusha shrines. Over the years, I’ve been to many cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, and temples. It was not until I looked around the shrines from the top that I appreciated how dangerous the conditions here were.
Things could have quickly gone wrong at so many points. The shrine was remote, the path was icy, the wind was howling, I was wearing the wrong clothes to protect against hypothermia…
The list of dangers went on.
Of all the religious structures I have been to, this Okusha shrine felt most like a shelter, something built to protect you from harm. This was a sanctuary in every sense of the word.
The Journey Back
After deciding it was too dangerous to attempt going down on my feet, I slid down the first hill inelegantly but efficiently on my rear.
A wild gust of wind sent a torrent of snow swirling, and the three Japanese I had grown oddly attached to called out in alarm. I darted under the protection of the solidly constructed Zuishinmon Gate as the world went white for several seconds.
It was a scary moment. I felt relieved and then horribly guilty the good fortune of having been under the protective gate at the very moment the wind struck. I silently promised them I’d be coming soon to dig them out.
The burst of wind past and after a few seconds I could make out their figures, still upright and now moving.
Back at the Torii gate I made a determined beeline for the soba restaurant. I was absolutely famished.
A man gently pointed to the brooms on the wall and I beat snow off my backpack, jacket and boots. There was a large basket of slippers in the foyer for guests. I removed my boots and in doing so inadvertently stepped onto the foyer rug.
Unfortunately, this rug had absorbed every guest’s melted snow. Consequently, my previously dry feet were now soaked in icy water. I felt sulky as I slid my cold, wet feet into the slippers.
The hostess ushered me to a table by a large window with an excellent view of the Torii Gate.
A Soba Celebration
A woman brought out a menu in neat, hand-written English, with two pages of detailed instructions.
I asked for the kamozaru soba and the “special sake.” The soba arrived alongside a broth with slices of tender duck, mushrooms, grilled onion leaves and wild parsley, atop special bamboo-woven plates. The meal was absolutely extraordinary.
The premium seat by the window allowed me to see pilgrims as they returned from the upper shrine. I gawked in disbelief at a young woman wearing a dress, slippers, and a red cape, her hair braided up like a princess. She looked like something straight out of a fairytale.
After lunch, I carefully studied the map, now shriveled from snow moisture.
I had started off at the lower shrine Hokosha, and made it to Chusha, Kuzuryusha, and Okusha – four shrines.
Somehow, I had missed Hinomikosha. Although disappointed, I reckoned that four out of five was still an excellent percentage to showcase one’s devotion, especially considering the heavy snow. Plus, I double-checked what Hinomikosha shrine was known for: matchmaking and talent at court dancing and music.
I didn’t expect to need either anytime soon.
On top of all that, I was a happy kind of drowsy from the meal.
In the foyer, I saw a pair of tiny pink embroidered shoes and recognized them as belonging to the young lady wearing the red cape. They looked far too dainty to provide much protection, and it was with some effort that I resisted the temptation to flip the shoes over to see what the tread looked like. Only fairies had feet that small.
The deep feeling of contentment and sleepiness instantly disappeared as I put my wet feet back in the boots. The first blast of harsh wind confirmed my decision not to return the way I had come.
My new plan was to hug the main road for safety.
Nature seemed against me. Snow flew at sharp angles and stung my face. The vehicular traffic, on the other hand, could not have been more courteous. I appreciated the effort drivers made not to splash icy road sludge over me.
The Chusha information center was still empty except for the kind woman, who once again let me use the toilet.
As before, as I left I saw the NR 70 round a curve up the mountain. With that, I started jogging downhill.
It was by complete accident that I stumbled upon the shrine I had missed, Hinomikosha. I wavered as to whether to go. If I missed this bus, it would be another hour out before the next bus. The sun was scheduled to set around 4:30 p.m., and the last thing I wanted was to be outside. The temperatures had fallen rapidly and by now my teeth were chattering continuously.
Furthermore, the odds of me being required to impress anyone with my court dancing or musical abilities was slim.
Ultimately, arrogance and the temptation to boast I had been to all five shrines won out. I ran up the shrine steps to say a quick prayer and throw a coin before skidding back onto the street.
A Triumphant Bus Ride Home
I made it back to the Hokosha stop a scant four minutes before the bus. By this point, the sky had turned a silvery-blue color.
The passengers on the bus were in a stupor, weary after a day of snowboarding and skiing. Everyone was exhausted. I‘m willing to bet we all had bruises somewhere.
And yet I got the impression…everyone on that bus was happy.