The Ancient Shrine of Lake Suwa: Suwa Taisha

Date: 1st July 2018

I have been putting off writing about my trip to Suwa Taisha (Suwa Grand Shrine, 諏訪大社), the ancient shrine which is mentioned in the Kojiki, indicating that it could have gone back to the 7th or 8th century.

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Honmiya’s heihaiden
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Shimenawa at Harumiya

Suwa Taisha consists of four main shrines, located at two separate sites – the Upper Shrine or Kamisha located in the southern side of Lake Suwa which consists of Maemiya (former shrine) and Honmiya (main shrine), and the Lower Shrine or Shimosha located in the northern side of the lake, consisting of Harumiya (spring shrine) and Akimiya (autumn shrine). The shrine complex also includes at least another 60 auxiliary shrines located around the lake.

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Shimosha Akimiya’s Kagura-den, with its huge Shimenawa (rice straw ropes)
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Torii at Harumiya

Now that we understand how complex Suwa Taisha is, lets move on to the mythology associated to this grand shrine.  The Kamisha’s Kami is Suwa Daimyojin, now often concluded as Takeminakata, while the Shimosha’s Kami is Yasakatome. Though, it is important to note that most rituals point to Mishaguji, the ancient god in Suwa associated to fertility and harvest.

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Lovely pond outside Akimiya

There are a number of myths concerning Takeminakata, one of the more famous ones portrays him as one of the sons of Okuninushi (Izumo’s Kami) who was sent into exile to Suwa after his defeat to Takemikazuchi (god of thunder). Another interesting myth is the tale of Koga Saburo, who went into the underworld via a cave in Mount Tateshina to search for his kidnapped wife, only to resurface (via Mount Asama) as a snake deity known as Suwa Daimyojin.

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Chozuya at Honmiya

Maemiya is the only one of the four shrines which has a honden to worship its Kami. The main object of worship of Honmiya is the holy mountain behind the shrine, Mount Moriya, while the Shimosha worships the sacred trees – a sugi (Japanese red cedar) tree in Harumiya and a yew tree in Akimiya.

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Tree in Harumiya

One of the most famous festivals associated to Suwa Taisha is the Onbashira Festival, held every 6 years in the Monkey and Tiger years of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, with an infamous reputation of being one of the most dangerous festivals in Japan. It involves Yamadashi, as the name suggests – dragging tree logs (around 17-19m tall) out of the mountains towards the shrines, and Satobiki, erecting the onbashira on the four points of the shrine. Watch this brilliant video from Oh!Matsuri. The next Onbashira Festival will be in 2022.

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Onbashira at Honmiya

Another interesting phenomenon is the Omiwatari (god’s crossing), a natural phenomenon of ice cracks across a frozen Lake Suwa. The myth surrounding this is of Takeminakata of Kamisha crossing the frozen lake wanting to meet Yasakatome of Shimosha, leaving behind the trail known as omiwatari. According to local popular belief, when this appears, it is a sign that since it was safe for the god to cross the lake, it was also safe for humans too.

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Sumo Ring at Honmiya

Info

Free admission, 500 yen for Treasure House

Opening Hours: Anytime, 09:00 – 16:00 for Treasure House

Suwa-Taisha Official Website

Further reading:

Access

If you are visiting the Upper Shrine, Kamisha, make sure to visit both Maemiya and Honmiya, they are both located very near to each other. The same goes for the lower shrine, Akimiya and Harumiya are just 15-20 minutes away from each other via the Nakasendo route, so definitely a plus to walk between both shrines. Of course the route is not as atmospheric as the one in Kiso Valley, nevertheless it was a pleasant walk.

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Nakasendo Sign
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View from the Nakasendo Route
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Across Harumiya

Getting to the 4 different shrines

  • Suwa Taisha Kamisha Maemiya
    • From Chino Station, 10 mins, 1200 yen taxi ride
    • From Chino Station, 10 mins bus ride (towards Okuma)
    • 30 mins, 2.5km walk from Chino Station
    • 25 mins, 1.5km walk from Honmiya
  • Suwa Taisha Kamisha Honmiya
    • From Kami-Suwa Station, take bus No. 6 Karin Bus, 30 mins. Around 3 buses a day. Return trip takes about 40 mins.
    • 25 mins, 1.7km walk from Maemiya
  • Suwa Taisha Shimosha Akimiya
    • From Shimo-Suwa Station, take Azami-go, Taisha-kogan Line, Hoshigaoka Line, or Hagikura Toyohashi Line of Shimosuwa-machi Circular Bus, 3 mins
    • From Shimo-Suwa Station, 13 mins, 900m walk
    • 16 mins, 1.2km from Akimiya via the old Nakasendo route
  • Suwa Taisha Shimosha Harumiya
    • From Shimo-Suwa Station, take Shimosuwa-machi circular bus on Azami-go, Taisha Kogan Line, 10 mins
    • From Shimo-Suwa Station, 20 mins, 1.5km walk
    • 16 mins, 1.2km from Akimiya via the old Nakasendo route

If in doubt, there are tourists information centres at the train stations which can help in providing bus timetables and where to get on / off.

Chino Station, Kami-Suwa Station and Shimo-Suwa Station are all 1 station away from each other (in the order I have listed, with Chino towards Takao and Shimo-Suwa towards Shiojiri), so I am only going to provide the access details to Kami-Suwa Station.

Getting to Kami-Suwa Station:

  • From Shiojiri Station: JR Chuo Line, 20-25 mins, 410 yen
  • From Matsumoto Station:
    • JR Chuo Limited Express: 25 mins, 2,050 yen
    • JR Shinonoi Line continue with JR Chuo Line, 40-45 mins, 580 yen
  • From Kobuchizawa Station: JR Chuo Line, 45 mins, 500 yen
  • From Kofu Station: JR Chuo Line, 1 hr 10 mins, 1,140 yen
  • From Nagano Station:
    • JR Shinonoi Line continue with JR Chuo Line, 2 hrs, 1,660 yen
    • JR Shinano Line transfer at Shioijiri Station then JR Chuo Line, 1 hr 25 mins, 3,560 yen
  • From Shinjuku Station:
    • JR Chuo Line, 3 hr 40 mins, 3,670 yen
    • JR Chuo Limited Express, 2 hr 20 mins, 6,550 yen
    • Alpico Bus, 3 hours, 3,200 yen (Timetable here)

 

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Author: Jennifer

Hi! I am Jennifer. I enjoy planning my own travels and love traveling in Japan - for the history, nature, temples, and the food! Read more for travel guides of places I have visited.

4 thoughts

  1. Excellent report! I’ve wanted to visit this place ever since I discovered that the Suwa Shrines have those giant shimenawa, but I didn’t know about the Omiwatari. Maybe I’ll try to go there this winter! There’s also an excellent sake brewery in town that I’d love to visit (Masumi). Thanks for doing the scouting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jonelle. Thanks! Wish you luck with the omiwatari. I’m not sure when is the last time it appeared. I have read that due to the warmer weather it wasn’t appearing every year like it used to.

      Like

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