The simple Shinto torii gate always exerts a mysterious pull on my curiosity. Aside from the fact that they nearly always come with trees, they are usually beautiful forms, inviting a thoughtful sojourn exploring the Shinto shrine complex beyond, or working out what deity they signify in Shinto nature worship.
Encountered all over Japan, in forests, on roadsides, in city alleys and private gardens, the elegant shape of the torii gate can be seen demarcating the everyday world from the sacred world of Shinto deities. They can be tiny or enormous, made from natural timber, stone, in vermilion red, or functional concrete. The presence of a torii gate is the simplest way to identify a Shinto shrine from a Buddhist temple, although the two religions harmoniously coexist even on the same site. Consistently appearing in Shinto architecture right down to the dress of shrine maidens, the colour red symbolizes the sun and life, and is thought to repel evil spirits, danger and illness.
The original meaning of the word torii is unclear. The enigmatic
literal meaning of the two kanji
characters which write torii 鳥 居 can be
translated as ‘bird perch’, but it is possible that it derives from the term tōri-iru 通り入る, meaning
to pass through and enter – the function of the gate separating the human world
from the spirit world.
Theories of the origin of torii gates abound:
the ancient religious use of bird perches in groups at the entrance to villages throughout Asia, which were thought to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck
the association of white birds with souls of the dead in folklore and the three-legged crow in Japanese mythology
similar symbolic gates were widespread in Asia in ancient Hindu and Buddhist sites, possibly transmitted back to Japan with Buddhism from the 6th century
Inari & the FOX guardians
Often seen within Shinto shrines are a pair of fox statues, guarding a subshrine or a sacred object. These are the messengers of the deity Inari, a busy god with many portfolios: rice and agriculture, fertility, sake, merchants, swordsmiths and general prosperity and success. The foxes, messengers of Inari, can often be seen with keys to the rice granary in their jaws, a common sight in agricultural areas. Foxes are mythical shape-shifters, often into female form to fatally seduce men, and are believed to have the power to speak. They are mischievous and cunning, but bring protection from bad fortune as well.
The bibs are an interesting feature, placed by devout local people to protect the deity and thereby assist the souls of deceased relatives. As a deviation from the usual foxes, in Takayama I came across a pair of bears as shrine guardians.
The most well-known (and photogenic) Inari shrine is Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, with its hill paths completely covered with red torii gates, donated by businesses grateful for success. There are many other Inari shrines across Japan which have this same style of torii avenues without the crowds.
But my favourite torii gates are the weathered and authentic ones deep in the country. Next time you travel on regional trains in Japan, look out for isolated groves of trees in the middle of fields or hillsides – hidden in the middle is likely to be a local Shinto shrine worshipping some ancient deity of nature. Take note of the style of the torii gate if you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse – simple country shrines show an authentic spirituality which is often lost in important shrines.
(all images are by and remain the property of Relle Mott)
During my Spring 2018 visit to Yamagata Prefecture as a reconnaissance for the Tohoku Basho Trail walk, I caught glimpses of what seemed to be sections of a remnant old trail from bus windows. Kanji characters on the odd dilapidated sign read ‘Rokujuri-Goe Kaido’, meaning the 60 Ri Traverse Road. Looking at this more carefully, a ‘Ri’ is an old distance measurement equalling 3.97km, ‘Goe’ means mountain crossing or traverse, and ‘Kaido’ means an old highway from the Edo period. So my translation is the ‘238km mountain crossing old road’. But where did it go and was the trail still walkable?
There are hundreds of ancient trails throughout rural Japan,
relics of pilgrimage routes, trade routes for transporting goods back and forth
by carriers on foot, oxen and mules, for officials on government business, and frequently
for marauding armies. The deeper into regional Japan you go, the harder it is to
find these trails and usually the less preserved, and finding a multi-day trail
that is cohesive and not hidden under highways and train tracks is a challenge.
With the aging population and demise of agricultural communities, the knowledge
of the old trails is being lost.
I began some months of enjoyable online research into the Rokujuri-Goe
Kaido in preparation for walking this trail in the autumn of 2018 as a side
adventure to the Tohoku Basho Trail.
I discovered that the trail was at least 1300 years old, and
connected Tsuruoka on the coastal Shonai Plains with the inland towns of Mogami
and Okitama, and further on towards Tokyo in the south. It traversed the old province
of Dewa, which once incorporated most of Akita and Yamagata prefectures.
Dewa is famous for the Dewa-Sanzan (the three sacred mountains of Dewa) which were at the centre of mountain worship practices of the Shugendo sect. Mt Haguro (Black Feather Mountain) temple complex is the most well-known, situated at the top of 2446 stone steps. Mt Gassan (Mountain of the Moon) is a mysterious high peak, snow-covered all year round, and Mt Yudono (Spring of Rebirth) is the third mountain. In a simplistic explanation, the pilgrimage to Dewa Sanzan is a ‘journey of rebirth’ where Mt Haguro represents the present and fulfilment of earthly desires, Gassan symbolizes death and the past, and Yudono symbolizes rebirth, the future. The Rokujuri-Goe Kaido seems to be the lower altitude access road to all three mountains, with Mt Yudono the pilgrim’s goal. For most of the year the alpine route is covered in deep snow.
History of the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido
The first mention of the trail was in 712, recorded in a war chronicle as the shortest land route between Yamagata and Dewa Province. In 1587, Lord Mogami and his army invaded Shonai over the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido. Poet Matsuo Basho passed this way in 1689, writing some memorable haiku poems about the sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan. In 1832 the Shonai feudal lord Sakai, his family and 300 vassals travelled this road to pay compulsory homage to the Tokugawa Shogun in Edo (present-day Tokyo). From 1932, a new prefectural road for vehicles was built, signalling the demise of the old foot trail. In 2007, the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido was designated as a ‘Scenic Byway of Japan’ by the Japanese government.
Tracking down the trail
Enlisting the help of my friend Katsuhiro Shoji from the Yamagata Prefectural Tourism Authority a map in English was happily revealed. Apparently this trail was restored in 2007 and was in reasonable condition, walked occasionally by local hikers, nature study groups and pilgrims.The local Asahi district tourism office provided up-to-date information about the state of the trail, revealing several sections closed by landslides after the heavy rains of summer 2018. The trailhead was shown as Kobo-no-Watashi, which was once a wharf on the Akagawa river, but we started several kilometres further on at Honmyoji Temple due to the landslide section. Having previously experienced the beauty of walking in the Japanese mountains in autumn, I set a date for my group at the height of autumn colour at the very end of the season, before the trail is closed from the first weekend of November. Past experience of lesser-known trails in Japan has shown that signage can be non-existent and trails confusing with many side paths, so the next step was finding a guide. Thankfully Shoji-san found me a local volunteer guide, a sprightly 78-year-old who skipped over those mountain trails like a teenager.
Our two day walk on the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido began near Honmyoji Temple, to skip the landslide section. The walk to Tamugimata village started through wet pine plantation forests on a slippery trail on quite steep slopes. The weather was cool with showers and we were grateful for our wet weather gear. As the trail climbed, the deciduous trees showed off their autumn glory and we were immersed in gold. We emerged from the forest round lunch time at the sombre graveyard and stone lanterns of Churenji, a significant and Shingon Buddhist temple from 833. Our damp and cold group was kindly invited inside to eat our picnic lunch by the heater, where we promptly disgraced ourselves by dropping rice balls on the tatami, and melting a beanie on top of the heater! Despite our poor form, we were shown the most significant elements of this ancient temple – some magnificent painted ceilings and the tiny, crusty body of a self-mummified priest!
Setting off again, we walked through quiet rural hamlets,
where jizo stone monuments watched over us, drank from a travellers’ spring, and
admired a venerable sugi cedar tree. Late in the afternoon we saw the valley of
Tamugimata below us in a setting of golden forests, but clouds obscured the snowy
peak of the sacred mountain Gassan. Our inn for the night was the only
accommodation in the district, a roadside establishment run by a cheery family
who cooked up a storm for the weary walkers.
The following morning we walked down to the village to see
the remaining three storied farmhouses with their graceful thatched roofs, an
architectural style unique to the area designed for access from the top floor
windows during winters with very deep snow, and for keeping animals on the
ground floor during long winters and silkworms in the attic in summer. With a
long walk and ascent today we didn’t stay long in Tamugimata. A little further
up the road, our guide had a treat in store – instead of taking the foot trail
off into the hills, we continued up the paved road to Natasu-daki, a
spectacular 90m waterfall thundering from all the rain on the opposite side of
the valley, set in the golden autumn landscape.
We walked up hill and down dale: through golden beech forest, past stone monuments, fording streams and climbing ever steeper slopes until we caught a glimpse through the mist of the red Torii gate of Mt Yudono, our destination. Pockets of snow lay on the mountainside indicating our altitude, and after a very beautiful walk, we emerged from the forest.
The entry to the sacred natural hot spring and sheer red rock face of Mt Yudono is further up the valley beyond the enormous red torii gate. However, the esoteric practices required of pilgrims will remain a mystery and rebirth have to wait till next visit as our warm, dry bus was waiting to take us back to Tsuruoka city, down through the golden landscape of Yudono.
I subsequently discovered that it’s possible to do a third day on the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido, continuing on to Shizu Onsen. Forestry workers told me that there is a trail (for experienced mountain hikers only) down from the summit of Mt Gassan to a mountain hut called Nenbutsugahara, and onward to Hijiori Onsen, but this can only be done in July and August, and a local hiking guide would need to be found. Similarly, walking the high alpine trail to the summit of Gassan is done in summer.
With the support of Tourism Shizuoka Japan organisation (TSJ), the following walking itinerary brings together some of the distinctive elements of this beautiful prefecture – restored and remnant sections of the historic Tokaido trail, landscapes of forests and tea plantations with Mount Fuji views, rural backroads and ancient temples. Access between each day’s walking locations requires bus, train or taxi transfers, and note that this is not remote Japan – urban sprawl frequently overlays the old route, so this itinerary is very selective and not consecutive village to village walking.
Day 1 – start at Odawara Castle (Post Station #9); transfer by train and bus to Amazakejaya Tea House; walk the remnant Tokaido trail from Amazakejaya tea house at the top of the pass down to Moto Hakone (Post station #10); walking distance 3km; overnight Moto Hakone area
Day 2 – walk from Moto Hakone to Hakone Sekisho (barrier checkpoint), then bus up hill to bus-stop Hakone Toge. Cross at the lights, walk past the Hakone Eco-parking lot for 500m and turn right at the toilets onto Ashinoko Country Club road, walk 400m to Baragadaira trailhead on the left, which is the start of the walkable section of the Hakone Hachiri trail; walk to castle ruins and then take bus down to Mishima (Post Station #11), visit Mishima Taisha shrine and beautiful canals and riverside walk on the Genbei river; walking distance 7.5km; overnight Mishima
Day 3 – transfer by train to Fujinomiya, and take a taxi to Asagiri; walk 15km forest and marsh section of the Tokai Shizen Hodo (East Japan Long Trail) from Asagiri to Lake Tanuki; accommodation Lake Tanuki area
Day 4 – start from Lake Tanuki with guides from Fuji Eco Tours, and walk down to Shiraito Falls through pretty countryside on rural backroads in the Yuno valley; walk on to enjoy tastings at a sake brewery and lunch served by community grandmothers; and return to Fujinomiya city by car or bus; walking distance 15km; overnight Fujinomiya
Day 5 – In Fujinomiya visit Fuji Hongu Sengen Taisha Shrine, then a walking option according to the season and the weather. Mount Fuji climbing takes 2 days, and can only be done in the summer. Walking the mid section to the Hoei Crater can be done from May to October, and from November through to May, there are trails in the foothills on rural backroads and through snowy forests. Local mountain guides are recommended here and I use: https://www.mtfujiecotours.com/
With a guide, you can walk the Murayama Kodo old Shugendo pilgrimage trail from Murayama Taisha shrine up through the Mt Fuji foothills. Walking distance is variable depending on snow cover on Fuji; overnight Fujinomiya area
In the early 19th century Japan’s pre-eminent woodblock artist Hokusai created a series entitled ’36 Views of Mt Fuji’ including this one (below) showing pilgrims emerging from the tree line into the lava scree.
In summer, walking to the summit or traversing above the treeline is possible.
Day 6 – Visit the Mt. Fuji World Heritage Centre. The form of this amazing feat of contemporary architecture by Shigeru Ban reflects the symmetry of the mountain. The interpretation inside is just as good – well worth a morning.
Extension tokaido walks
Start from Abekawa Station, take a bus or taxi to Chojiya tea shop in Mariko-juku. This is well worth the visit as it is run by the descendants of the original 19th century owners. From Mariko-juku (Post-station #20) take a bus to Sakashita bus stop to walk a remnant section of the Tokaido over the Utsunoya Pass on a forest trail to the village of Okabe-juku (Post Station #21); walk on to Fujieda town* (Post station 22) – walking distance 8km; overnight Fujieda area
*Note that much of this section of the Tokaido has been overdeveloped, and is through urban landscapes, and unless you are a Tokaido history fanatic it can be a dull walk beside busy highways. I prefer exploring the side valleys like sleepy Asahina which has a thriving tea industry.
Start Kanaya Station (Post Station #24); walk through tea plantations on the Makinohara Plateau to Kikugawa village; continue to Nissaka (Post Station #25). Take a bus on to Kakegawa and visit the castle and the old Edo town area; walking distance 6.5km, overnight Kakegawa area
Note that the views of the pretty tea plantations from the old stone-paved path are somewhat marred by lines of power lines radiating out over the landscape.
A guide is recommended as minimal route information exists in English about the Tokaido trail through Shizuoka
What: easy to moderate hiking through rural areas, some forests trails, and small towns on a mix of earth, concrete and stone paths, and paved roads. Where: through Shizuoka prefecture with a focus on Mt Fuji views. When: recommend March, April, May, October November (6 nights 7 days). Distance: about 75km walking Highlights: Mount Fuji landscape, interesting geology, pretty farmland and sleepy villages, Edo period remnant buildings, hot springs and great food
Caution: some sections require walking along very busy prefectural roads and crossing highways – use Hi-Vis pack covers and jackets
Trip grading: moderate (strenuous if walking Mt Fuji)
Accommodation: traditional inns, onsen hotels, minshuku farmhouse lodging and western-style hotels; hostels and mountain lodges are also plentiful (note – in minshuku and ryokan bathrooms are usually shared)
Soak up the spirit of Edo, walking old trails through the landscape of the Mount Fuji area. Shizuoka Prefecture is easily accessed from Tokyo by train and is full of diverse attractions and great natural beauty.
About the old Tokaido road
The busiest and most direct route between Tokyo and Kyoto from ancient times was the Tokaido – literally the Eastern Sea Road. It was 488 kilometers long and mostly traversed the coast along the Pacific on Honshu island.
During the Edo period the ruling military dictator (Shogun) Tokugawa Ieyasu imposed a system called ‘sankin kotai’ requiring regional lords to reside at the Shogun’s court in Tokyo (Edo) for some months each year, and to leave their wives and families there when they returned to their fiefs, thus controlling their actions by a system of ‘hostages’. To travel from their regional castles, a network of roads developed, with government checkpoints to control the movement of the population. Wheeled vehicles were not permitted – another form of Tokugawa control to prevent fast mass movement of armies, and thus these were roads for pedestrians & packhorses, horses ridden by samurai, and palanquins carried by bearers for important people including noble women. Similarly bridges were also forbidden, so crossing several treacherous, wide rivers was done by boat or human ‘piggyback’. Vast armies of foot-soldiers and samurai also used these roads at times, and the steep mountain sections were paved.
Like the Nakasendo (the inland road), 53 villages called ‘juku’ or post stations were spaced a days’ walk apart along the route providing food, lodging and stables, and were rowdy places during the Edo period (1603 to 1868). The famous woodblock artist Hiroshige created a series entitled ‘The 53 Stations of the Tokaido’ after he travelled the route in 1832 and was impressed by the beautiful landscapes of rural Japan with Mount Fuji often dominating the background.
Today this same route is consumed by a national highway and
the main arterial bullet train rail line, smothering most of the traces of the old
pedestrian road. However, sections of the trail away from the larger towns
still remain and are progressively being restored and the spirit of Edo can
still be experienced.
Four centuries ago exactly, the second Edo Period Shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, ordered the planting of sugi (Japanese Cedar, Cryptomeria japonica) along both sides of Tokaido to shade travellers as they made their way around the shoreline of Lake Ashinoko towards Hakone Checkpoint. 420 of these magnificant specimens remain, towering straight, fat, and proud into the Hakone sky along Cedar Avenue.
Sugi is integral to Japanese life. 70% of Japan’s land area is forested, an astounding proportion for any country, let alone a smallish, highly industrialised nation with a massive population. Most of these forests are plantations established shortly after World War II. Sugi and Hinoki are the two main species planted, as both have been Japan’s main timber species for centuries.
Ceder Avenue, Hakone
Unfortunately these sugi plantations get a lot of bad press, as the copius pollen they produce in spring is the cause of hay-fever grief to…
Deep in the verdant mountains of the Kii peninsular in Wakayama prefecture south of Nara is a network of ancient pilgrimage trails like spokes of a wheel radiating into Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine. Of these 6 trails the Nakahechi route from the town of Kii-Tanabe on the west coast through to Kumano Nachi Taisha in the south-east is the most well-known, well-maintained, well-signposted and thus well-walked. A more remote trail requiring full pack and tent is the Kohechi Trail starting at Mt Koya, the sublime Buddhist mountain-top town, centre of Shingon Buddhism introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, famous founder of the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage. Including a visit to Mt Koya before any of the Kumano Kodo walks is regarded as particularly devout.
Both Koya-san and the Kumano Kodo trail are UNESCO World Heritage Listed, reflecting the ancient heritage and spiritual nature of this area of Japan. The trails were once walked by the Imperial family and though you seldom encounter royalty, Yamabushi monks still walk these trails in their distinctive white robes, straw sandals and conch shell trumpets. Yamabushi are followers of Shugendo, a derivative of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism which incorporates Shinto animist beliefs, mountain worship, purification training through physical endurance, and mysticism.
The Nakahechi route can be done over 5 days with village to village walking, averaging 14 km per day. The 71 km trail ascends pine-clad mountains and meanders through rural backwaters, providing immersion in a very Japanese landscape of misty valleys, rushing streams, bamboo groves, forests and the occasional monkey. Accommodation is simple farmstay ‘minshuku’ and ryokan, often with natural hot spring baths. The grade is on the difficult side of moderate – steep at times with some killer steps, and slippery after rain, and Wakayama is a very wet part of Japan. There are also many snakes in warmer months – mainly the harmless sort. The hot springs village of Yunomine Onsen is worth the detour – remote, atmospheric and a great place for a rest day – hire bikes and swim in the river to find the hot spots!
Descending from the Kii mountain range to the magnificent red shrine buildings, pagoda and waterfall of Nachi Taisha is a grand reward for an amazing walk.
use the luggage forwarding service on this walk and carry a daypack
avoid the typhoon months of August and September as this area can be just too wet
well-worn-in hiking boots required (I use gaiters and walking poles as well)
good quality wet weather gear and a dry-sack for your tech inside your pack
stay overnight in Kii-Tanabe to make your first day an easy one, as you will need to take the bus up to Takijiri which has an information centre and the trailhead
plan your walk on the last day so that you arrive at Nachi Taisha in time for the local bus (last bus at 5.40pm) to Kii-Katsuura train station, and be aware that express trains back to Osaka are infrequent
The Kumano Kodo is a dual pilgrim trail with the Camino de Santiago de Compostela