Hiking Asama Onsen – Part 4: The Four Doorways to Gotenyama

Fri, Jun 19, 2020
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If you’re following this Hiking Asama Onsen series closely (and who isn’t?) you’ll know that in Part 3 we left off at a concrete dam – one of thirteen keeping the river from turning Yokoyazawa Ravine into the Yokoyazawa Grand Canyon. Walking downstream takes you to a paved road that bends and winds and leads back toward familiar ground (assuming you’ve been paying attention). If you’ve had enough hiking, if you’re ready for a soak in an onsen, then this is the way to go.

To hike up Gotenyama, you still want to head downhill. Yes, I know, there’s a trail to the left of the dam that goes up. But kind of like my kid every time I take him hiking, that path gets bored halfway up the mountain and quits.

You only have to walk a minute or two down the path to reach the paved road and, on your right, Doorway #1 to Gotenyama.

Though that big map is all in Japanese, it’s easy to make your way around. The red circle at the bottom right corner marks where you are. From this point there’s only one way up the mountain. Hang a right at the little yellow circle up there and head for that red circle above it – that’s the lookout point. Keep right at that yellow dot on your way down to check out the vestiges of history at the bottom of Gotenyama.

If you are walking up the bendy windy road from Nishinomiya Shrine and Fudo-in Temple you’ll find yourself arriving at Gotenyama Doorway #2. Check the mini map behind the fake Plexiglas – you’re at the little yellow circle next to the blue square with the “C” in the bottom middle. A few steps along the path you’ll see a trail on your right. That’s the shortest route up to the lookout. Or go straight and – surprise! – you’ll start going downhill. But that’s cool, because that’s where all the historical action is.

It doesn’t take a downslope minute to come to an orange torii, the unmistakable gateway to a Shinto shrine. This one marks the path leading to Tenmangu – and doubles as Gotenyama Doorway #3. Walk down through that gate and around to check out small but significant Yuyakushi-do.

Yuyakushi-do

Written records of hot springs in this immediate area date back to the 10th Century. There seems to be no clear indication as to when this Yuyakushi-do temple was established, but Yakushi the deity has been hanging around Japan since the 7th Century. As Yakushi is the Buddhist deity of medicine and healing, it is quite fitting that he (she?) should be found at the source of pure and therapeutic waters.

It does seem clear that Yakushi has been venerated here since at least as far back as the 16th Century. The story as told to me by Nomoto-san at the Asama Onsen Visitor Center went like this:

At the dawn of the Edo Era this Shinano region was given to the Ishikawa clan to rule, and when the son of Kazumasa, the first Ishikawa Lord of Matsumoto Castle, injured his leg in a skirmish, the hot spring retreat of Goten-no-yu was established here in Asama, close to the already-extant Yakushi-do (as it was known at the time).

To keep a low profile subsequent Ishikawa keepers of this retreat went by the name of Oguchi. To this day the Oguchi-Ishikawa familial line has kept up this hot spring establishment, now known as Biwa-no-yu. The Ishikawa clan did not, however, remain as lords of Matsumoto Castle, and in 1659 the resident Lord Mizuno came to Asama to renovate the Yakushi-do and rename it the Yuyakushi-do.

The temple was lost in the great Asama Fire of 1891, and was rebuilt one hundred years later.

The Yuyakushi-do stands at the very edge of town, accessible from the bus stop outside the Hot Plaza, Asama’s public onsen. From the bus stop you can head straight uphill, hang a left at the T, and then right after about 150 meters, up a narrow side road. If you see this sign you just passed it.

Through the orange gate behind the Yuyakushi-do and up the path you’ll come to a split (which you’ll have passed if you got here through Doorway #2). Keep left for more history along your way toward the Gotenyama lookout.

Gotenyama Bamboo bush

The mountain behind the Goten-no-yu built by the Ishikawa clan is named, appropriately, Gotenyama. These mountainside slopes belonged specifically to the Lord of Matsumoto Castle until the Meiji Era when it became a nationally-protected forest. The bamboo growing here – a species reaching six meters or more in height – was favored by the samurai from the time of the Ishikawa clan’s rule forward in the fashioning of their arrows.

Follow the path through the samurai bamboo grove up and around to…

Tenmangu Shrine

In 1659 Matsumoto Castle Lord Mizuno Tadashi was so excited at the news of the discovery of mass quantities of lead on Mt. Ohi in nearby Azumi that he not only renovated the Goten retreat but also had this shrine built for the god who would protect these mountains. Except for the roof and base, the main shrine is the same as it was at the time of its construction.

Continuing down the path you’ll come to this bridge…

…and soon enough come to a surprising – and surprisingly hidden – plot of history.

The Ogasawara Byosho

The Ogasawara Clan ruled over this Shinano area (albeit tenuously at times) from the tail end of the Muromachi Era when Ogasawara Kiyomune established Igawa Castle in 1334 through to 1548 when Takeda Shingen brought his conquering forces to town and took over.

The Takeda clan’s reign didn’t last long, however, and the region fell into disputed control until Tokugawa Ieyasu, eventual unifier of Japan, took control in 1582 and placed Ogasawara Sadayoshi in charge of Fukashi Castle, renamed Matsumoto Castle.

For a time the Ishikawa clan ruled over the Matsumoto Han region. Sadayoshi’s son Hidemasa was appointed Lord of Matsumoto Castle in 1613.  Two years later Hidemasa and his son Tadanaga went to Kansai to fight – and die – for Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Summer Siege of Osaka.

Here at the end of the trail is the Ogasawara Byosho, built by Lord Mizuno Tadanao in the late 17th Century. The three stone monuments memorialize Sadayoshi, Hidemasa, and Tadanaga. Mizuno also built a mausoleum here, though it would burn down and never be replaced.

Note that the Ogasawara Byosho may be roped off, due to the instability of the centuries-old rock walls or the more recent discovery of a nest of suzumebachi – Japan’s dangerous and potentially deadly Giant Hornet. The stone-walled entrance to the Byosho may be all you are (officially) allowed to see:

 

Like the Yuyakushi-do, the Ogasawara Byosho stands at the edge of the forest that covers Gotenyama. This makes it Doorway #4, the closest access point to the mountain for those visiting nearby Misha Shrine.

To make your way up Gotenyama you’ll need to backtrack from the Byosho, albeit just a bit. Here at this split you can go left and up or head back to the Tenmangu and start your climb from there. Either way, it’s a thirty or forty minute hike up to the lookout.

While you gaze out over Asama Onsen, the Shinano Plain, and Japan’s northern Alps, note that you are one of countless people who have done so throughout unknown centuries. From the Meiji Era this spot, known now as Mibarashidai (Place of Excellent View), was for some children a point along the way to and from school. Since before the Edo Era began it served as a resting place for people traveling the path from Asama up over Misa-yama and down to Ueda.

In the Kamakura Era the term Asama-sha was in use, the old name for Misha Jinja, down at the bottom of this mountain. The names Asaba-mura (浅葉村, clean leaf village) and Asaba Onsen (麻葉温泉, hemp leaf hot spring) have also been found to have been recorded. This place was mentioned in the Wakashu, an anthology of Japanese poetry dating from the year 905, and in written records from the 7th Century.

And there is evidence of habitation from the Jomon Era, which reaches back thousands of years.

Enjoy the view.