Hiking Asama Onsen – Part 2: At the Foot of Daionji-yama

Thu, May 28, 2020

In Part One of this series we took a hike into the hills on the south edge of town, up a mountain with no name to a shrine with no notoriety (albeit with a bit of intrigue for its lack of clear history).

In Part Two we’re taking it straight east, to the sights at the base of Mt. Daionji, a name which means Big Sound but is quite antithetical to the atmosphere.

From the bus stop on the north side of Hot Plaza, the town’s big public bath house, your first impulse might be to walk east and up the hill. And that’s cool, going this way gives you a nice close-up of the character of Asama. Just note that you’ll have to make a few turns to get to the concentration of sublime sights at the foot of the trails leading up Daionji-yama.

For a more direct route to those sights, walk over to the south side of Hot Plaza and turn left on Suzuran-dori, also known as Route 282. It’s the main road, you can’t miss it!


The South Side of Hot Plaza.

After a few quick minutes, assuming you haven’t gotten lost already, you’ll see this peculiar stone statue of an elderly couple. Statues like this can actually be found all over the Shinshu (Nagano) region. They are called Dosojin, and are traditional patron protectors of travelers, pilgrims and the members of the community where they stand. Find out more about Dosojin in this post.

By the way, there is another Dosojin along the way between Hot Plaza and this one. Look for it for extra fun and bonus points.

Keep to the right of these stony little lovers and continue straight to where the road splits. Keep to the left (i.e. ignore the blue and white sign pointing you to the right). A little further up where the road takes a hard left stay straight and go up the steep cement driveway-looking lane. After a dozen steps you’ll come to a small lot and a big cemetery. This cemetery is related to a temple called Daionji (yes, that Daionji) that once stood nearby.

The Japanese juxtaposition of death and new life: the cemetery of the old Daionji Temple.

Daionji was a temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. A large temple complex comprised of seven structures, all that remains is the name of this spot: Seven Towers. No foundations have ever been discovered.

In the Edo Era, Daionji became a part of Asama’s Shinkanji Temple of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. At that time the temple grounds included a three-story pagoda, until Matsumoto Castle Lord Ishikawa tore it down to make a tea oven of some kind from one part of the pagoda. After that a hall for Kannon, the goddess of mercy, was built. Called the Dainichi-do, this hall became number twenty-nine of Matsumoto’s thirty-three Kannon-do circuit.

The temple was abandoned in 1868, the first year of the Meiji Era.

The path to the Yakushi-do.

From this spot where Daionji Temple may have stood take the narrow dirt path up the short set of cement steps on your left. Walk past the cemetery to a small and rather unimposing temple called Yakushido, dedicated to a deity known as Yakushi Nyorin.

The Yakushi-do, flanked on the right by two monuments to two poets.

Yakushi Nyorin is one of the oldest and most widely-venerated Buddhist figures in Japan, with evidence of his existence dating back to the late 7th Century. Yakushi is a deity of healing, and can be found throughout the country. Asama Onsen alone has at least three temples (or halls, perhaps, strictly speaking) dedicated to Yakushi. This one is the most recent, having been built in 1993. There was a much older Yakushi-do Hall just to the north, but that one was washed away, eventually to be rebuilt further down in town. The other is located at the foot of the hike up Gotenyama. That one was built in 1659, was lost to fire in 1891, and was rebuilt exactly one hundred years later.

To the right of the Yakushido you’ll see a couple of big rocks with characters carved into them. One is a poem written by that most famous of Japanese poets, Matsuo Basho. It reads, as best as I can translate, “Under a tree of glass noodles, a drop of water.” My not-very-thought-out guess is that the “glass noodles” are icicles hanging from the tree, with the drop of water representing the slow melt of the coming spring.

The other stone is carved with a poem by Rosodo Ki-ichi, a poet who lived in the latter part of the 19th Century and is known to have written – maybe extensively, maybe not – about the weeping cherry blossom trees in the area. His poem translates as “The flowers that have bloomed and scattered; I wonder if they are cherry blossoms.”

Or something like that.

Monument to Rosodo Ki-ichi’s poetry.

The big stone torii gate standing tall just past the Yakushi-do marks the entrance to Nishinomiya Ebisu Jinja. Ebisu, one of Japan’s Seven Gods of Fortune, is the traditional patron deity of fishermen, merchants and farmers. Nishinomiya Jinja in Hyogo is one of Japan’s three main shrines dedicated to the deity Ebisu, and Asama Onsen’s Nishinomiya Ebisu Jinja is one of the estimated 3,500 shrines across Japan dedicated to this pauchy, jovial god. As with the others, this shrine was built in hopes of bringing prosperity to Asama.

The “tamagaki” – the stone pillared fence running along the southeast edge of the shrine grounds – dates from 1917. The main shrine building, on your right once you pass under the torii gate, was erected in 1950. I know, not exactly ancient stuff, but hey, it’s never too late to pray for success.

Just before the main building is a large stone monument half-hidden behind a tree (except perhaps in winter). This is dedicated to another of the Seven Gods of Fortune, Daikokuten, who evidently has a range of personalities. He is considered the god of darkness, but also the god of the five cereals (which seems to be about right considering the sadly limited selection at the supermarket). Probably not real thrilled with either of these assignments, Daikokuten took on the additional role of the deity of prosperity and fortune. This often puts him in close proximity to Ebisu, as is the case here.

Daikokuten: Mallet of Fortune in one hand, standing on two bales of rice.

Furthermore, Daikokuten is regarded as the god of the household, specifically the kitchen. He is often depicted as he is here, with his Mallet of Fortune in one hand and two bales of rice under his feet (or his butt, as he is sometimes seen sitting on them).

This image of Daikokuten was carved by sculptor Ota Nankai, according to the sign one of Matsumoto’s homegrown greats.

The path running up into the trees from just outside the shrine gate leads to the Buddhist temple of Fudo-in. In the Edo period, this temple was located along the path leading up nearby Misa-yama. In 1871, the third year of the Meiji Era, the temple was shut and left to the elements. It was rebuilt here in 1940.

Long ago the Dosojin protected those walking the path up Misa-yama to where Fudo-in stood. Now they stand along the short path to where Fudo-in stands today.

The deity enshrined here is known in Japan as Fudo-myo, or sometimes simply Fudo. Introduced to Japan in the 9th Century, Fudo-myo is one of Buddhism’s Wisdom Kings. Looking eternally pissed off, he is said to assist pilgrims and worshipers by burning into oblivion all impediments to enlightenment. Venerated across the various sects of Japanese Buddhism, Fudo is associated with rituals of purification, and is often placed near a waterfall. He is also popular among the Japanese yakuza, who apparently think his angry demeanor is worth emulating.

Along the path to Fudo-in are a couple more stone monuments. The first commemorates the 1917 completion of the waterfall here at Fudo-in. (The waterfall here was artificially created by diverting some of the water from the adjacent Yokoyazawa River.)

The second monument commemorates the poet Matsuzuru Seiichi Shigeru, third son of someone from nearby Hongo Village, propagator of the family name, and a student of someone before becoming a teacher of poetry to a bunch of other people. Beyond this I honestly don’t know what is going on here.

From the spot in front of this indecipherable monument you can take the stone steps directly up to Fudo-in, but taking the narrow path to the left is the better way to go. Because down this path you’ll find mean Mr. Fudo-myo, carved in stone, painted red and blue, frowning down from his perch next to his waterfall.

To the right of the falls is a stone monument (of course). The inscription in the stone is a poem by Hana-no-moto Choshu that speaks of a summer rainbow created by the waterfall.

Or, you know, something like that.

Follow the steep steps up past Frowning Fudo and around the falls to reach the main hall of Fudo-in.

And to the side, marked by (you guessed it) another stone marker, lies the trail going up Daionji-yama.

From here things are pretty much self-explanatory but we’ll get into it anyway, in Part 3 of this series on Hiking Asama Onsen.