Kanagawa: Hakone Shrine

Although every shrine in Japan has a common core in the Shinto belief system, local history and tradition also make them quite different. For example, let’s compare Meiji Shrine with Hakone Shrine. While Meiji Jingu enshrines a dead emperor, Hakone Jinja enshrines three gods: Ninigi-no-Mikoto, who brought the imperial regalia to earth; Konohanasakuya-hime, goddess of volcanoes and wife of Ninigi-no-Mikoto; and their son Hoori-no-Mikoto, mythological ancestor of all Japanese emperors. Where Meiji Jingu is 93 years old, Hakone Jinja is over a thousand years old, with it’s current incarnation on the shore of Lake Ashi clocking nearly 350 years. Despite these differences, Meiji Jingu is a relatively important shrine, while Hakone Jinja is relatively unimportant. (Different strokes, I guess.) Despite being “unimportant,” Hakone Jinja has plenty to offer for a visitor, and I was excited to explore it.

We woke up bright and early, legs aching from our hike around Owakudani the day before, and took the bus down the mountain to see Hakone Shrine. The bus made me nauseous as we wound through the forest to Motohakone, the trip taking well over an hour. When we finally alighted, the day was cold and windy, the clouds still thick over the sky.

We followed the road around the lake, pausing a moment to pose in front of the Lake Ashi sign. We followed the sidewalk as long as we could before having to dash across the street to the stairway up toward the shrine. We passed beneath bright orange torii and into the trees. The sound of traffic fell away as we ascended the mountain, the smell of soil and moss growing stronger.

After a few hundred feet the path leveled out and opened into a clearing with several small buildings and the first torii into the shrine proper standing to our right. On our left, however, was something far more intriguing: a huge tree surrounded by a fence, moss blanketing the bark around its feet, a shimenawa rope draped around its trunk. The shimenawa is used in Shinto to enclose things that are considered sacred or which are inhabited by spirits. Although my Japanese wasn’t strong enough to decipher the sign that gave the tree’s history, my guess is that someone once encountered a kodama tree spirit at this tree, giving it religious protected status. I’d never seen a shimenawa around a tree before, but knew that it was important and that the tree was sacred. As I stared up into its gently swaying branches, I tried to feel for the power or presence of the deity said to live inside it.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

Nothing, I’m afraid. Maybe the kodama was asleep that morning? I love trees, and love the feeling they give me of being so small, my life so brief and beautiful, but let’s be honest: it’s hard to really appreciate a tree. Despite being fantastic conversationalists, what deep wisdom they must possess is locked in a chemical language I can’t detect. I decided to move on to the shrine.

The stairs up to the shrine made the previous path seem like a pleasant, level stroll. Three long flights of stairs, shallow steps wet and mossy, led us deeper into the forest and higher up the mountain, ancient trees lined up on each side like veteran soldiers. It looked like it may lead to a Chinese temple where a wizened old master would berate you and demand you complete pointless tasks in exchange for learning to avenge your family and catch flies with chopsticks… but only if you can climb the stairs in the first place.

The shrine grounds were surprisingly small: a bit of a courtyard at the front, the shrine lounging against the mountain only about fifty feet in front of us. A moss-covered komainu statue moldered beneath the shiny black eaves, and the sun shone through the trees to light everything with a yellow and green tint. The sheen of water over everything, left by the morning rain, gave everything an extra shine.

To the right, a fountain in the shape of a nine-headed dragon spat water into a basin, welcoming visitors to the tiny shrine Kuzuryu, the nine-headed dragon. According to legend, the dragon appeared in Lake Ashi during the Nara period and demanded a human sacrifice. A local priest was able to overcome the monster by chaining it to an underwater rock formation called the Upside-down Cedar. Over time the dragon reformed and changed into a dragon king, after which it was freed and a shrine built to it. Though the shrine is quite small, everyone seemed interested to visit.

"Untitled" by Jeremy Hochspeier. Used with permission.

“Untitled” by Jeremy Hochspeier. Used with permission.

I paid my respects to the gods of the main shrine first, tossing a 100 yen piece into the coffer before bowing and giving them a moment of silence. I filled out an ema votive tablet, requesting a safe journey for the four of us, then helped Jeremy buy an omikuji fortune in the hopes of turning his luck around since the bad luck fortunes he’d been getting in Tokyo.  A bought a small, randomized charm packet and received a tiny frog, no bigger than my pinky nail, who’s magical, punny powers would prevent me from losing the wallet or purse I kept him in. (The Japanese word for frog, “kaeru,” also means “to return.”)

We headed back down the stairs, taking a few moments to look at the displays, including the mikoshi divine palanquin, in which the gods ride to and from festivals. Once at the bottom of the stairs, Shannon and Jeremy headed into town to shop, while Jason and I decided to remain behind and explore the mountain’s spiderwebbing network of trails in the hopes of getting a closer look at the torii gate in the waters of Lake Ashi.

The dappled light intensified as we made our way down the ancient mountain trail, the stepping stones almost invisible under the thick layer of moss, leaves, and pine needles. As we drew nearer the lake, it became clear where the bright light came from: the sun was beginning to clear the clouds, the light reflected from the lake hard and metallic. We passed old stone lanterns more green than grey and finally arrived at the torii guarding the shrine’s entrance from the lake.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

We followed the steps down to the boat landing, the earth falling away with each step. The water was shockingly clear, the moss and stones on the bottom perfectly visible with no hint of mud. The lake water sloshed quietly around the pier and the base of the torii, the sun warm on my face as the wind bit at my ears and fingers. Despite the cold, the mountains ahead showed no sign of changing autumn foliage. To my right, a “pirate” ship brought more tourists across the lake; to my left, the city of Moto-hakone bustled in the sunshine. Despite the visible activity, however, I could hear nothing but the soft rustling of the trees in the wind and the occasional footfall as Jason explored behind me.

Address: 80-1 Motohakone, Hakone, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa Prefecture 250-0522

Get there: Follow the primary road in Moto-hakone (Tokai-do) north and east around the lake. As you begin to head more east around the northern side of the lake, you’ll see a set of stairs going into the forest on the right-hand side of the road, clearly marked with lanterns and torii. Ascend the stairs to reach the shrine.

Price: Free. However, it’s a good idea to have at least a 5 yen to throw in the coffer, and maybe 1000 or 2000 yen more if you want to buy emaomikuji, charms, or other items.

Based on my diary entries from November 12, 2013.

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