Japan’s Love for Walking and Shintoism

Based on its native Shinto religion, Japan has a particularly devout love for walking and nature. A largely animistic belief system,  Shintoism embodies an intrinsic value of natural areas. In effect, everything in the natural world has its own spiritual essence; including trees, rocks, and rivers. It follows that humans are connected to nature’s elements, and these natural objects are dwellings for the divine. As many of us have experienced, spending longer periods of time in nature begins to fulfill our biophilic tendencies, or rather our subconscious need for nature.

Enryakuji Temple

Mount Hiei Walk

Home to World Heritage UNESCO site Enryakuji Temple, the 4.9 mile Mount Hiei hike is our favorite hike in the general Kyoto area. Set about 2500 ft. in elevation, the intermediate level trek is well-marked, offering spectacular mountain scenery, with azaleas in the spring and Japanese maples in the fall. The inspiring end of the hike is the noteworthy Enryakaji Temple, where the Tendai sect of Buddhism was founded in 788 CE. As many of our Buddhist aficionados know, Enryakuji was the home of the legendary “warrior monks”: whose raids into Kyoto terrified the city. They were ultimately defected by Shogun Oda Nobunaga who burned the complex to the ground in 1571. The temple was later rebuilt and is today home of the Tendai sect.

Red Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine
Red Torii Gate

Fushimi Shrine

Fushimi is perhaps our favorite shrine in Japan, the Fushimi Inari Taisha! (Fushimi is featured in the beginning of the film, “Memoirs of Geisha”) Dating back to the 8th century, the shrine includes a wandering pathway around 3 miles up the mountain lined with hundreds of beautiful red torii, now faded to look orange. Fushimi is the most famous of several thousand shrines dedicated to Inari across Japan. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and foxes are believed to be his messengers, hence the many fox statues found along the pathway. Many of the menacing kitsune statues have a symbolic key to a rice granary held in the mouth, and most of the statues are adorned with a red votive bib called a yodarekake. The ten’no no yodarekake, or “drooling bib for the Emperor” was a scarf worn inside the kimono, but the ‘yodare-kake’ or ‘suga’ used at Inari most likely symbolizes a Samurai throat protector of lamellar armor, scale plates or chain mail.

Depending on how high you walk along the pathway, this can be a long, somewhat taxing trek. Much less crowded than the other shrines, Fushimi’s natural surroundings seem serene and mystical. Walking up the pathway early in the morning is an ideal time to visit this wonderful place. Bev, Zen, and I very much enjoy the eerie, magical ambience of Fushimi.

Tsubaki Grand Shrine in the Mie Prefecture

Though not widely known outside Japan, Tsubaki is the Head Shrine for over Shinto 2000 shrines across Japan, dedicated to the Shinto god Sarutahiko. Sarutahiko Nookami is the Shinto god of courage, strength, and righteousness, and is considered the greatest of six earthborn gods. Located outside Suzuka city, in Mie Prefecture (approximately 80 km./50 mi. from Kyoto), the shrine is surrounded by striking trees set in a thickly forested area. There are six main shrines within the complex, with an ascending walk up the main hall. Just behind the Honden (the prayer room) is the grave mound of Sarutahiko. There is also a site where legend says that Sarutahiko welcomed the God Ninigino Mikoto to earth from heaven.

During the Sakura Cherry Blossom season, Tsubaki is especially picturesque, as you see the cherry blossoms line the river alongside the shrine grounds. The wide precincts house the Reishoan (tea room) opened to the public and donated by the founder of Matsushita Panasonic Group, Matsushita Konosuke. You may also enjoy a bowl of green tea and cake for a small fee! Today the Tsubaki Shrine provides special ascetic practices such as a “purification practice by sitting under a natural waterfall.” Kinryu-Myojin-no-Taki waterfall is said to have cured all kinds of sickness, making the area a “powershot.” Enjoy!

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