Kochi’s great outdoors retreat   Leave a comment

Sunset Snowmen's picture

The ”Sunset Snowman” in Kochi

Are you looking for a fieldtrip suggestion?  Try out Kochi Prefecture on the south coast of Shikoku with its mild winters for one such ideal location.

So what’s Kochi prefecture good for?  Below we spot 10 things to do with kids while visiting Kochi Prefecture…

#1.  Well, for starters, Kochi’s said to be “the greenest corner of Japan” and to be associated with the great outdoors and mountain hiking.  With 85% of the prefecture covered in forests, and its uncluttered Pacific coastline, getting out and about in the great outdoors is one of the best ways to enjoy Kochi. Mild winters of Shikoku allow for winter hiking.

#2. Good for an adventurous date with the kids going canoeing (Canoe-kan (Japanese only): http://www.canoekan.com/), river-rafting, kayaking. Best rafting said to be at Oboke and Koboke Gorges on the Yoshino River – just over an hour from Kochi City  Happy Raft or Gekiryu Rafting (Japanese only).

#3 Visit Kochi’s beautiful beaches, some good for surfing, (see photos of Katsurahama and more here) or for the coral reefs of Otsuki and the Tatsutsuki marine park. Kashiwajima in Otsuki is a treasure island located in the southwestern end of Kochi Prefecture with rich marine resources.  NPO: Kuroshio Zikkan Center regards Kashiwajima itself as a Natural Museum.  The island is even said to have one of the world’s largest concentrations of reef-building corals (123 different species) with 1,000 different kinds of fish seen in the waters around Kashiwajima. At certain times of the year, at a number of locations in Kochi prefecture, including Katsurahama you can go on whale watching trips (dolphins, sea turtles, and other creatures of the sea can also be spotted).

#4 Make a fieldtrip out to the Muroto Geopark to explore its geological wonders. Watch this educational video for a lesson on geology and earth science in Japanese with English subtitles.

Cape Muroto, Muroto Geopark (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

#5 Featured a lot and much celebrated on Japanese TV and in documentary fare is the Shimanto River. Often dubbed Japan’s “last pristine river” or “Japan’s last clear stream”, see what a water crystal from the Shimanto River looks like under the microscope. Every school kid learns about the Shimanto River from their school social studies textbooks. They typically learn these facts:

a. The Shimanto River is the longest river in Shikoku.

b. It has about 300 tributaries and flows down about 1,200 meters (3,937 feet) from the south flank of Mt. Irazu (1,336 meters (4,383 feet) high) to the Pacific Ocean at the Tosa Bay.

c. The Shimanto River (with the gentle tilt of its river slopebed)  is the only major river in Japan that has not been dammed anywhere.

d. That from the headwaters to its mouth, 94 species of wild fish are to be found in the Shimanto River, the largest number of all rivers in Japan. Using traditional methods rarely seen elsewhere, professional fishermen make their living by catching several product, such as Ayu sweetfish, basses, eel, crab, and “aonori” (green seaweed), etc.

Read more about it here in English  or here in Japanese. Also, from Global Waters comes this additional bit of information:

“Shimanto river is one of the most famous rivers in Japan and possibly beyond boundary for its outstanding natural environment and exceptional water quality. The river for its entirety is certified as one of Japan’s 100 remarkable waters by Ministry of Environment.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to find appropriate adjectives correctly describing the massive natural offerings that this great river of 200 km length brings. So legitimate that the river has other recognitions such as “100 great water areas” and “100 remarkable forests of water sources”.

#6.  ”Sunset snowman” phenomenon(See photo at the top of page) – This is an unusual celestial phenomenon can be seen from Kochi during the winter months around the southern part of the prefecture near Cape Muroto and Cape Ashizuri. From these vantage points, the sun sets into the Pacific Ocean. During the cold months, the temperature difference between the sea and the atmosphere sometimes sets up an optical illusion whereby the sun seems to ‘bleed’ into the horizon, forming the image of a second sun immediately beneath the real sun. The images join just above the horizon, making it seem as though a huge sunny snowman is peeking over the horizon. Lasting only seconds, you have to time it well and hope for a completely clear day. (Source:Tourism Shikoku)

#7.  Have fun visiting Japan’s oldest outdoor marketplace. Opened in 1690, the Sunday Market has continued ever since. Starting at Otemon Gate, the entrance to Kochi Castle, it winds its way for 1km along Otesuji Avenue.

#8. Visit an authentic ancient Japanese castle, i.e. not a reconstructed ferro-concrete one.

Kochi Castle04s3872.jpg

What’s rare about this castle is that all the structures from the original honmaru are extant. Kochi Castle is considered to be one of the 12 “original castles” of Japan. The construction of the castle was begun  in 1601 by Yamanouchi Kazutoyo who took control of the province after the Tokugawa victory and the whole castle was completed in 1611. A fire gutted much of the castle including the donjon in 1727. The current donjon is from the reconstruction that was completed in 1748. The castle was completely rebuilt by 1753.

#9. A heritage or historical tour of a few of the temples along the one of the great Buddhist pilgrimage routes of the world, …might just be your cup of tea. Way back when, walking the entire 1450-km-long Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage route would have taken between 40 to 50 days. 16 of the 88 designated pilgrimage temples, beginning with number 24 (Hotsumisaki-ji, in Muroto) and ending with number 39 (Enko-ji, in Sukumo), are in Kochi and are associated with the pilgrim’s walk founded by the monk Kobodaishi over 1000 years ago. The Kochi leg of the pilgrimage is called the ‘Training Ground for Ascetics.’  According to legend, Kobodaishi, aka Kukai, is said to have reached enlightenment after spending many days and nights in a cave on Cape Muroto, in modern-day Muroto City.

#10. More educational spots or just for fun include: Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial MuseumJapanese Paper Museum in InoAnpanman Museum and the Makino Botanical Gardens.

The Makino Botanical Gardens house the extensive collection of botanical specimens of the father of Japanese botany, Dr Tomitaro Makino, who had traveled all over Japan collecting over 400,000 specimens and naming 1,500 species of plants, spearheaded the whole field of plant taxonomy in Japan. The Makino Botanical Gardens were opened in 1958 to honour his work and the gardens remain a serious place of research for botanists today.

Finally, if you more than a few days on your hands, then exploring the rest of Shikoku makes for a really terrific summer camping trip. Check out all the stellar sights of Shikoku here (Source: The Miracles of Shikoku).


Kochi Prefecture and How to get to and around Kochi

Kochi Prefectural Makino Botanical Gardens (Japan Visitor website)

Environmental Education Rooted in the Local Area of Kashiwajima Island, Otsuki, Kochi Kuroshio Science 2-1, 111-116, 2008 Masaru Kanda*

Kochi Prefecture (Japan Times article) Find out about Kochi’s natural and scenic retreats, such as the Muroto Geopark and Shimanto River, while learning about its renowned hospitality

Kochi, Japan a short visit

Getting to Kochi castle and J Castle guide on Kochi CastleKochi Castle (Wikipedia)

The Great Nature along the Shimanto River” on journeys in japan (Jib-kun’s Diary)

Images: Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons, Shikoku Tourism

By A. Kawagoe


Posted December 9, 2011 by japanexplorer in Uncategorized

Visiting Hiroshima: Genbaku Dome, Itsukushima Shrine and Shukkeien Garden are not to be missed   1 comment

Hiroshima tends to be famous mainly for its Peace Memorial Park site where the atomic bomb was dropped during WWII. In 1996, the Genbaku Dome was designated by the UNESCO, despite the strong objections of the United States, as a World Heritage Sites and is one of Japan’s most visited tourist locations.

180° view of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The Genbaku Dome can clearly be seen in the center left of the image. The original target for the bomb was the “T”-shaped Aioi Bridge seen in the left of the Wikimedia image.

Another not-to-missed spot is the second World Heritage Site at Miyajima, — the Itsukushima Shrine, and regarded as one of the “three most scenic spots” in Japan. This location has one of Japan’s most splendid and photogenic tori gateways and the shrine itself, standing farther out in the waters of the Seto Inlan Sea.

For the visiting culture-vulture, he or she may choose to from these visual treats:

– the Lantern Floating Festival, where the participants wishes are written on colorful cuboid paper lanterns and which are then floated down the Ota River, creating an enchanting scenic sea of bright lights. This is a Japanese custom called Toro nagashi that has been practised since the Nara Period…elsewhere in Japan, it is mainly carried out in varied forms on the last evening of the Bon Festival festival based on the belief that this guides the spirits of the departed back to the other world.

– The summer fireworks display, a national institution since the Edo Period — the Miyajima Suichu Hanabi Taikai; (other equally snap-worthy festivals are the Yukata Matsuri or the Sumiyoshi Festival).

photoSumiyoshi Festival, Onomichi city, Hiroshima

– For the art lovers seeking the picturesque, they may satisfy their senses at the Shukkeien Garden, or a day at the well-known  Hiroshima Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Prefectural Art Museum.



Posted March 4, 2011 by japanexplorer in Uncategorized

Close encounter with the gods of Jyokeiji   Leave a comment


The gods were encountered during this morning’s walk in the Asao ward of Kawasaki city, Kanagawa Prefecture (Japan). Click on the pictures to see the whole gallery.  They appeared to be busy … some engaged in modern pursuits like talking on their mobile phones, working on their laptops …others were engaged in more traditional pursuits like drinking, dancing or wrestling.

See my Tabblo>

Posted August 29, 2010 by japanexplorer in Uncategorized

Welcome to the Japan Explorer   Leave a comment

This blog is the repository of a personal as well as vicarious exploration of Japan in all ways … through travel, photography, readings (books as well as internet), chronicled experiences. Arm-chair explorers are welcome too!

Posted April 7, 2010 by japanexplorer in Uncategorized

Far From The Madding Crowd | SUKI LOR finds peace at the top of the mountains in Japan’s Wakayama prefecture   Leave a comment

Far From The Madding Crowd

SUKI LOR finds peace at the top of the mountains in Japan’s Wakayama prefecture

The Banryutei Rock Garden on the grounds of thernKongobuji Temple is the largest rock garden in Japan.

Suki Lor

AFTER hours of walking and exploring the sights of Koyasan, a mystical town in the mountains of Japan’s Wakayama prefecture, I was looking forward to sampling hojin ryori — a Japanese vegetarian cuisine that originated from Zen Buddhist temples. At Koyasan, part of a wider Unesco World Heritage site, visitors can enjoy the unique experience of shojin ryori while staying at a comfortable shukubo (temple lodging). Koyasan is located on a 900m high plateau surrounded by eight low peaks like lotus petals. The little town with its picturesque setting and pristine environment was founded some 12 centuries ago by the multi-talented and revered monk Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi, as a centre for Shingon Buddhist training.Koyasan spreads along a main road about 3.5km long running from east to west, and is home to close to 120 temples, of which slightly more than 50 offer temple lodgings. It offers a cool respite during summer, as temperatures are a few degrees cooler at Koyasan than down in the plains.After touring the sights in town, it was time for a shower and a soak in one of the spacious communal baths at Jimyoin Temple, where I had booked to spend the night. Letting the hot water soothe my tired limbs was heavenly.

Zen cuisine

Part of the sumptuous dinner done shojin ryori style — vegetarian andrnwithout the use of garlic or onions — offered at Jimyoin Temple.

Then came dinner served in our rooms. And what a sumptuous meal it was. There were several dishes such as tempura, soup and pickles made with seasonal ingredients ranging from vegetables and seaweed to mushrooms and freeze-dried tofu, a local delicacy. In shojin ryori, which forms an aspect of Zen training, garlic and onions are not used. The ingredients may seem simple, but shojin ryori draws out their natural flavours to yield a wholesome feast that certainly kept my palate happy.

Memorable sites

The next day, I was up bright and early with the other guests to join the morning prayers beginning at 6.30am. I spent about 24 hours in Koyasan, which enabled me to cover most of the important sights in town, but a two-night stay would be more ideal.

Some of the must-see attractions include: Kongobuji Temple
This is the head temple of Koyasan and nearly 4,000 branch temples of the Shingon sect nationwide.Beautiful paintings of willow trees and cranes adorn the sliding panels in the rooms of the main temple. On the sprawling site is a quintessential Japanese rock garden, the largest such garden in the country.

Danjo Garan Complex

The Daito, or Great Pagoda, is one of the most prominent temples in the Danjo Garan complex.
The Kondo Hall and the Daito, or Great Pagoda, are the two most important temples in the complex of nearly 20 structures located in the western end of the town.


The bridge that marks the entranceway to the 2km pathway that leads to Okunoin, with ancient cedar trees towering above.
To the east of the town, from the main road, a 2km cobblestone walkway leads to Okunoin — Kobo Dashi’s mausoleum — which is regarded as the most sacred site in Koyasan.Along this winding path is an atmospheric forest cemetery, with many tall and ancient cedar trees standing watchful guard over more than 200,000 tombs and monuments. I visited at dusk on the first day and in the following morning, and was fascinated by the myriad of tombstones of various styles, all with a story to tell. Many Japanese actually wish to have their ashes buried here.

Some of the tombstones along the walkway leading to Okunoin.

Getting there
The nearest major city to Koyasan is Osaka. From Osaka’s Namba Station, the fastest train to take is the Nankai Koya line that terminates at Gokurakubashi Station at the base of the mountain. The ride takes about 80minutes. Then board a funicular railway for a five-minute ride up to Koyasan Station, followed by a bus ride into town.
A useful ticket to buy is the Kansai Thru Pass, which enables holders to ride on subways, private railways and buses throughout the Kansai district,which covers places like Osaka, Nara and Kyoto besides Koyasan. A two-day pass costs 3,800 yen (S$61) and a five-day pass 5,000 yen.
Traveller’s tips
A tatami room for one person at Jimyoin costs about 6,300 yen a night. Dinner is about 3,675 yen and breakfast 1,575 yen. I highly recommend the dinner. If you prefer, you can have breakfast at one of the cafés andrestaurants in the little town.
The Koyasan Tourist Association website (www.shukubo.jp/eng) has a full list of shukubo available, where online bookings are possible.

Posted August 24, 2012 by japanexplorer in Uncategorized

Winter kept us warm in Kamikochi’s silence   Leave a comment

Sunday, March 4, 2012



News photo
Drowned trees rise eerily out of Taishoike Pond, as mountains tower over Kamikochi.


Winter kept us warm in Kamikochi’s silence


Special to The Japan Times


News photo
A crag near Kappabashi Bridge in Kamikochi.


Emerging from the 1.3-km darkness of the Kama Tunnel, our footsteps echoing eerily, we step into the white silence of Kamikochi’s upland basin at the heart of the Chubusangaku National Park, which itself marks the center of the Hida Mountains, long ago dubbed the “Japan Alps.”

Hush. Hush. Hush. Fresh snow compresses underfoot with gentle sighs. The air is full of falling snow, and we’re alone in a world of white. Mountains and trees disappear around us, and apart from the sound of our footfalls, everything is silent.

But the alpine weather here in Nagano Prefecture moves quickly. Suddenly, high peaks again rise up above — then just as suddenly vanish behind a swirling snow squall. It is cold, but walking keeps us warm as our breath merges mistily into the pure air.

It’s not a hard walk up from the end of the rising tunnel we’d entered by a tiny shop perched, cliff-top, at Nakanoyu Spa to a broadening plateau where the Azusagawa River slows so much as to be called Taishoike Pond.


News photo
A young macaque nibbles at sasa bamboo grass in Kamikochi’s upland basin.


In summer, the road is thick with taxis and buses, but today there are only the quickly vanishing footprints of the few hikers to have arrived before us. The wind eddies through the valley, lifting and spiraling the snow along the edges of the water, white behind the blush-red branches ofkeshoyanagi willows(Salix arbutifolia) — unusually, a single species which also constitutes a genus.

At the pond, the remains of a forest that was flooded when Mount Yakedake erupted in 1915 and lava dammed the river and drowned the trees rears eerily from the water.

Around the steel-gray expanse, brightly clothed photographers, wrapped up against the cold, point impressive medium-format cameras at the mountains behind, where on a clear day you can see 2,455-meter Mount Yakedake smoking and also glimpse the high peaks of the Hotaka Mountains, including Japan’s third-highest summit, 3,190-meter Mount Oku-Hotakadake.

Today there are only the plumes of blowing snow from the peaks to be seen in the brief glimpses between clouds.


News photo
bamboo grass stained red by iron oxide near Taishoike PondKamikochi sasa.


At first, we talk as we walk, catching up on the last couple of months. My friend showed me the Northern Alps years ago, and we’ve been hiking together on and off and in all seasons ever since. After a while we fall into a steady rhythm, our old pattern of walking: My friend walks ahead, while I lag behind taking pictures. When I round a corner she’ll be patiently and happily waiting, absorbed in the view. We point things out to each other: the iron-stained water that has coated the sasabamboo grass rusty red, birds flitting away into the white woods, animal prints in the fresh snow.

Following the edge of the river, where the Azusagawa runs clear and fast between white snowy banks, we stop for lunch at the deserted picnic tables 1,500 meters above sea level, by Kappabashi Bridge. Around us, there are walls of mountains rising up into cloud, vanishing.

I pour hot tomato soup from a flask into our insulated mugs, and though it’s a cheap package mix, it tastes incredibly rich and warming. We chase the soup with sticky slices of cake, fingers quickly stiffening in the cold air. The snow, swirling above the river and hiding the peaks in clouds, parts enough to again briefly expose the summits, white and sharp as teeth.


News photo
Mount Yakedake on the horizon behind Taishoike Pond.


Walking back through the forest, muffled under its white blanket, past the deserted Imperial Hotel, I wonder why people don’t come here in the winter, to pad soft-footed through the snows of officially “closed” Kamikochi. It is so beautiful. But it’s partly the silence that makes it magical: There is nobody here but us. It is almost as if we’ve somehow booked the whole valley for our sole pleasure — a retreat, in the truest sense of the word.

Snow thickens the air with fat white flakes as we walk onward through the woods. My friend stops suddenly and points at the low fir branches overhanging the trail just ahead. A young Japanese macaque peers out at us from among the needles, calling out a low hooting moan. We look around more carefully. A whole troop of perhaps a dozen monkeys is foraging in the bamboo grass on the forest floor. The lookout stops calling, seemingly satisfied we’re not a threat, as we linger to nature-watch.

I pull my down jacket closer around me against the cold. The macaques look warm enough in their thick fur coats as they move effortlessly through the wintry forest.


News photo
Kamikochi fir woods quiet under snow.


When we stop again by Taishoike Pond for hot tea and oranges, the photographers have gone, and we are entirely alone with the wind and the water and the snow and the mountains. Looking out across the pond’s dark surface, I think how this season is entirely unlike the others up on this high plateau.

I’ve been here in spring, after the road with its countless tunnels has opened again following the heavy snows of winter. At that time, tourists and hikers spread out across the valley, even as snow flurries still hide the hillsides and the monkeys feast on the butterbur buds below the bare trees. Then in summer I’ve seen the mountains all green and lush, their peaks invisible in cloud as rain flattened the surface of the pond like beaten metal and mist rose from the green-blue water.


News photo


In autumn the mountains turn russet and the air is as crisp and clear as water. That’s when brightly colored tents spring up around the mountain huts like mushrooms after rain. But it is the winter beneath the high peaks that most captivates me. It is only in winter that you are really alone in Kamikochi, and the place — so visited in other seasons — feels like a true wilderness under its cloak of white.

Winter here is silent, and it is the silence, more than anything, that I remember. There is the soft squeak of snow underfoot; there are gusts of wind blowing the snow up behind the trees against the mountains; and sometimes, too, there are the low moans and chirps of gregarious macaques. Otherwise, all is quiet. And it is the quiet that stays with me long after I return home to the city.

Kamikochi, so easily reached by public transport much of the year, is much harder to access between November and April. Taxis can be booked from Matsumoto City, or from the parking areas at Sawando, to take you to the mouth of the Kama Tunnel at Nakanoyu Spa. From there, it’s shank’s mare. Your driver will arrange a time to pick you up again toward the end of the day. A round trip from Sawando costs about ¥6,000. There are a number of guest houses and inns at Sawando. Heavy snows and mountain weather mean that, despite the easy gradient of the walk, it’s essential to come prepared with ample warm-weather gear, water, food, maps, a flashlight, a whistle and a compass. None of the facilities normally open at Kamikochi operate in winter

Posted March 6, 2012 by japanexplorer in Uncategorized

Sleeping Buddha of Nanzo-in Temple   Leave a comment

The Sleeping Buddha at Nanzo-in Temple.

Another worthwhile trip is to Nanzo-in Temple in Sasaguri.

The path uphill to the temple winds through koi ponds, Buddha statues of different sizes and in the spring, cherry blossoms burst on all sides.

Also take advantage of shops offering free tea to visitors and pilgrims trekking between the 88 temples in Sasaguri.

The 41-meter sleeping Buddha statue is said to be the largest bronze statue in the world. Nestled in the mountains and trees, it’s a hidden treasure.

1035 Kasuya-gun, Sasaguri-cho, Sasaguri-shi Kidonanzoinmae station on the Fukuhoku line, 20 minutes from Hakata station; ¥500 to go inside the Buddha; http://www.nanzoin.com/ Source: Yahoo Travel

Posted May 25, 2011 by japanexplorer in Uncategorized

Kashima Jingu enshrines the god of quake prevention, Ibaraki Prefecture   1 comment

Sunday, May 8, 2011 Japan Times

News photo
Rock steady: Guide Masayoshi Tsuda beside a statue of Takemikazuchi

Kashima’s ancient rock of faith

The god of quake prevention offers some age-old comfort in these unsteady times

Special to The Japan Times

Long before the theory of plate tectonics emerged in the 20th century to explain the mechanism behind earthquakes, Japanese folklore had attributed the terrifying phenomenon to the thrashings of the o-namazu — a giant catfish that inhabited the bowels of the Earth.

News photo
Shrine sights: The 400-year-old Oku Miya Shrine. JON MITCHELL PHOTOS

And the sole power that prevents this fish from bucking the country to pieces is, according to ancient lore, Takemikazuchi — a Shinto deity living in Kashima, in present-day Ibaraki Prefecture — who balances rodeolike atop the o-namazu and holds down a massive “pivot stone” on the fish’s head.

“As long as Kashima’s deity is with us,” says a verse from the eighth-century book of Japanese poems, the “Manyoshu,” “the pivot stone may wobble but it will not break.”

While the Shinto gods are invisible to mere mortals like us, the stone is thoroughly temporal — and is located in the grounds of Kashima Jingu, one of Japan’s largest shrines.

With the devastation of March 11’s megaquake and tsunami having tested the faith of many, I decided to pay a visit to the stone to see how it had weathered the past few weeks since catastrophe hit the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu.

As the bus approached the outskirts of Kashima, things did not look hopeful. Here, six weeks after the event, damaged residential rooftops were still draped with tarpaulin sheets and large shipping containers sat askew in fields where they’d been carried by the two-meter tsunami.

Situated on higher ground, Kashima Jingu had escaped the wave, but two mounds of sand were now piled where once the pillars of its 10-meter-high torii gate had stood.

“The first quake (on March 11) cracked the granite torii,” explained 71-year-old Masayoshi Tsuda. “Then a few minutes later, a large aftershock brought it down. Luckily nobody was injured.”

Ibaraki-native Tsuda, a volunteer guide at Kashima Jingu for almost a decade, said that he was accustomed to showing dozens of tour groups around the shrine. “But now nobody comes. Everybody is too afraid of the aftershocks — not to mention the fear of radiation.”

News photo
A Kashima visitor shows off a sign for catfish dishes.

As his fellow guides despondently packed away their maps and flags for the day, Tsuda seemed happy to be able to show somebody around.

Walking me beneath the towering cedars and Japanese cypresses in the shrine’s grounds, he explained that Takemikazuchi, in addition to subduing the ill-tempered catfish, was also the guardian deity of thunder, swords and warfare. Over the centuries, he said, countless warriors have called upon the god to help them to win battles.

“It’s believed that Jimmu Tennou (the first Emperor of Japan) asked for Takemikazuchi’s help when he attempted to seize power in Yamato (present-day Nara Prefecture),” explained Tsuda. “The god sent a magical sword which enabled Jimmu to defeat his enemies and establish his rule. In appreciation, Jimmu ordered Kashima Jingu to be built — which would make this shrine more than 2,600 years old.”

Although Tsuda is the first to question the historical accuracy of the account, the donations of other grateful followers of Takemikazuchi are irrefutable.

Among the shrine’s seven buildings currently listed as important cultural assets is Oku Miya — a small wooden, worship hall. Dating back to 1605, the building was bestowed by the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu (1543-1616), to thank Takemikazuchi for his help in defeating Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s forces at the epic Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, so enabling him to become the first ruler of a unified Japan. Indeed, so grateful was the new shogun that over the next 85 years, his Tokugawa clan donated many other buildings to the shrine.

Such powerful patronage hints at devotees’ deep-seated respect for Takemikazuchi, and as I approached the Oku Miya hall, jovial Tsuda turned momentarily serious. “Be careful. Takemikazuchi is at his most savage here,” he cautioned. “When you clap, do so quietly. And lay your coin gently in the offertory box so as not to incur his wrath.”

News photo
The pivot stone seen protruding from the ground.

Following Tsuda’s advice, I said my prayers as docilely as possible and then I was led by the guide to a statue of this fearsome god. Based on a 19th-century woodblock print, the statue presented Takemikazuchi dressed in samurai armor, drilling a sword into the head of the ill-tempered catfish.

Images such as this became much sought-after in the immediate aftermath of a November 1855 earthquake that partially leveled Edo (present-day Tokyo). In the ruins of the city, dozens of artists churned out talismans depicting Takemikazuchi’s struggles with the o-namazu. These prints quickly went viral among the traumatized Edoites, who were desperate for some comfort during the subsequent months of teeth-rattling aftershocks.

However, it was beyond the statue of Takemikazuchi that the goal of my pilgrimage was to be found — the so-called pivot stone itself.

My first impression was disappointing. Rather than the linchpin that stopped Japan from splitting, the stone emerged from the ground like a dimpled bowling ball. Despite its underwhelming appearance, though, a steady stream of visitors lined up at the stone — making it by far the busiest spot on the deserted shrine grounds.

One young man explained that he’d driven nonstop from Saitama City just north of Tokyo as soon as he’d read about the stone on the Internet. “I wanted to reassure myself that it was still here — and that it hadn’t cracked,” he earnestly declared. Then, leaning over the fence, he squinted at the rock for a long moment before, seemingly satisfied that it was intact, he smiled with relief.

News photo
A worshipper reflects on the pivot stone.

Many of the other visitors were local residents who, when asked whether the recent tremors had led them to doubt Takemikazuchi’s powers, unanimously declared that the past six weeks had only served to validate their faith. “It’s true that this area was badly shaken by the quake,” said one housewife. “But compared to other places, Kashima escaped very lightly.”

As though to emphasize her point, just then early-warning earthquake alarms sounded on some of the visitors’ mobile phones.

Pavlov-conditioned, I dropped to the ground and clasped my notebook over my head — but nearby, the worshippers continued their prayers regardless. When the tremor struck a second later it barely swayed the branches of the tall cedar trees.

Embarrassed, I brushed the dirt from my knees and asked Tsuda the question that had been on the tip of my tongue all morning: Whether he really believed in the tales of Takemikazuchi and the catfish.

The guide gestured to the shrine’s wooden buildings. “Most of these structures are over 400 years old, but none of them were seriously damaged in the (March 11) quake. Credit the gods if you want, but what’s certain is that Kashima Jingu has a great deal of natural power.”

Tsuda must have noticed the skeptical expression on my face, because he invited me to walk with him back to the main entrance of the shrine. There, he paused outside Suzusho — a restaurant that has been in business since 1897. For a moment I wondered why Tsuda had stopped, but then he showed me the menu in its window boasting hotpots, grills and tempura — all made from freshly caught catfish.

“I recommend the namazu sashimi,” said Tsuda. “Washed down with plenty of local sake, it’s guaranteed to calm your nerves.”

Takemikazuchi’s formidable power aside, it seems that the residents of Kashima have developed more than one way to deal with troublesome catfish.

Getting there: Highway buses leave Tokyo Station approximately every 20 minutes from 6:30 a.m. to 10:50 p.m. on the 2-hour trip to Kashima. Disembark at the Kashima Jingu bus stop, and the main gate of the shrine is a 5-minute walk away. Volunteer tour guides (including Masayoshi Tsuda) are available from the main gate between 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. For more information (in Japanese) visit the shrine’s website at:www.bokuden.or.jp/~kashimaj/

Posted May 9, 2011 by japanexplorer in Uncategorized