The Magic of Togakushi is Just a Day Trip from Matsumoto

Fri, Mar 4, 2022
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Poke around Matsumoto – with the help of the locals, perhaps – and you’ll find plenty to keep you busy and happy for days. But a stay here in our castle town need not be limited to the places within walking distance. Just north of town in Azumino there’s Daio, Japan’s largest wasabi farm. A bit south is the old Nakasendo post town of Narai, which can include a hike along part of that old Edo Era road.

But for a truly exceptional out-of-town experience that can be done in a day, jump on an early train and head for the magical forests of Togakushi.

Quick History Lesson

1,200 years ago a Buddhist monk named Gakumon established a temple at the feet of the Togakushi mountain range. Called Kenko-ji, this temple and the surrounding, sometimes extremely unforgiving environment, would serve as a place for mountain worshipers called yamabushi to come test their physical and mental will in the ascetic practice of Shugendo.

Over the centuries additional temples were built, along with shukubo inns where pilgrims and ascetics could sleep and eat. And, as one of the most striking and picturesque surviving aspects of Togakushi, hundreds of Cryptomeria japonica – commonly known as Japanese cedars – were planted along the path leading to Kenko-ji.

Today we’re going to check it all out, on a wintertime day trip from Matsumoto.

The Togakushi Kodo

There’s no shortage of articles on the Net touting the Five Shrines of Togakushi. What is interesting to note is that three of these shrines were originally Buddhist temples. Only two, Hinomiko-sha and Kuzuryu-sha, have been Shinto shrines since their inception.

The Togakushi Kodo is a 7-kilometer path (give or take) that connects the three shrines that were once temples. As a bonus, Hinomiko-sha sits just off the first stretch of the trail, making it easy to visit. Meanwhile Kuzuryu-sha sits at the end of the path, right next to Oku-sha, the shrine formerly known as Kenko-ji.

It’s easy to spend several hours walking the Kodo, slowly taking in Togakushi. It’s hard not to spend several hours out here when you’re trudging through the knee-deep snow.

But hey, if those yamabushi dudes can do it in straw sandals…

Hoko-sha

This shrine marks the start of the day’s walk, and is a beautiful way to begin. With an exterior of intricate wood carvings it is the most ornate of the five shrines. Rebuilt in 1861, it is also the oldest. The two hundred and seventy stone steps leading up from the road offer a chance to start exerting yourself like a real yamabushi. Moreso If the steps are covered in snow.

 

 

Here also is our first up-close glimpse of the towering cedars that lord over the shrines of Togakushi. Tall, straight and picturesque, it’s easy to fall into a trance staring up at them – or fall on your ass trying to take a selfie with them. Watch your step.

 

Hinomiko-sha

To the right of Hoko-sha there is a path into the woods. This is called the Kanmichi, and comprises the first part of the Kodo. Along the way look for this sign, pointing down toward Hinomiko-sha.

Originally and always a Shinto shrine, Hinomiko-sha was founded in 1089. It may seem odd that the path approaches the shrine from the backside until you consider that the pilgrimage path the yamabushi walked did not include Shinto shrines, only the Buddhist temples of Togakushi, so there was no spiritual reason to include Hinomiko-sha in their trek. I recommend giving the yamabushi in you a break and including Hinomiko-sha in your hike.

 

Chu-sha

From Hinomiko-sha you can walk up Route 36 to get to Chu-sha, but I highly suggest backtracking and continuing on along the Kanmichi, knee-deep snow or not. Either way, you’ll get a taste of the town as the stone steps and the large torii gate of Chu-sha face a sort of triangular village plaza.

Across from this entrance to Chu-sha is a visitor center where you can get information for free and snowshoes for \1,000 yen – though if you’re sticking to the Kodo you’ll hardly need them now.

 

Chu-sha, like Hoko-sha, was originally a Buddhist temple, Like all the other shrines, it sits surrounded by those massive, majestic cedars. Some are believed to be seven hundred years old. Three are estimated to be over eight hundred. If you can, check out the interior of Chu-sha; on the ceiling is a fantastic painting of a dragon, the work of Kawanabe Kyosai, a free-spirited son of a samurai whose political cartoons landed him in jail several times.

While its name means “Middle Shrine”, Chu-sha does not sit at the midway point of the Kodo. We’ve still got more than five kilometers to go. Then of course we’ll have to walk back! Last chance to go rent some snowshoes.

 

From Chu-sha head left. There’s a trail that runs behind the parking lot. Snowshoes are helpful for this next stretch, but if you’re main concern is keeping the snow out of your boots I’d say that horse left the barn a while ago.

The path follows the road – or in some cases is the road. The map that (I hope) you picked up at the visitor center might help you along, but really, as long as you keep the Togakushi Mountains in front of your left shoulder you’ll be fine.

 

The Oku-sha Sando

This path leading straight through the woods toward Oku-sha brings us to the scene on every pamphlet and brochure about the Shrines of Togakushi. The forest on either side of the path is a designated protected area. Halfway along is the distinctive red Zuijinmon gate. Once housing Nio, the twin guardian deities of Buddha, this structure with the mossy thatched roof is now home to the Shinto guardian warriors called Zuijin.

 

Beyond this gate three hundred giant cedars line the path. Planted four hundred years ago, they have since, like the rest of the forest, been left alone, to be tended to only by Nature and the gods.

 

Oku-sha & Kuzuryu-sha

Near the end of the sando the path rises rather sharply, leading up to the site of the 9th Century temple of Kenko-ji, occupied now by the Shinto shrine of Oku-sha. (I might as well add that after walking among those amazing cedars this tiny little shrine is a big visual let-down.) Just to the left of Oku-sha is Kuzuryu-sha, which like Hinomiko-sha was a Shinto shrine from the beginning. Interestingly, no one knows when that beginning was.

Kuzuryu is the Shinto god of water and rainfall; for centuries people would come here to pray for plentiful rain during the growing season (and, perhaps, for an occasional break from the winter snow). The shrine used to stand inside the cave where Kuzuryu, the “nine-headed dragon”, was believed to reside. Now it stands out in the elements, pelted by the rain and snow of his own creation.

 

Kagami-ike Lake

If you’ve got enough daylight – and enough energy still in the legs – I’d recommend turning right after you pass back through the Zuijinmon and heading down the trail winding into the woods. Aside from being a beautiful, peaceful addition to the day, the view of the Togakushi Range from across the lake is not to be missed. In autumn the colors are spectacular. In winter the lake freezes over, offering a different kind of beauty.

 

From here there are several ways you can go. Head back to Hoko-sha if you want to catch the bus back to Nagano Station. Walk the path to Chu-sha and the center of Togakushi Village to check out the shops where craftsmen make and sell bamboo products, made in a takezaiku art form particular to Togakushi. You can also take a stroll around the old shukubo district where some of the inns still operate. Look carefully at the thick straw rooftops; they are in themselves a piece of Japan’s cultural heritage. And when you get hungry, look for one of Togakushi’s thirty-odd soba shops. It is said that soba actually originated here in Togakushi – though not in the noodle form most people recognize today. Back in the day soba was served in clumps. The noodle idea was apparently brought up from Edo. Tasty stuff either way.

 

Get Up There!

From Matsumoto, Togakushi looks far and rather inaccessible. But really, getting there is a breeze. Jump a train for Nagano Station (use your JR Pass or get a round-trip ticket for 1,500 yen), go out the Zenkoji Exit, grab a bus ticket in the ticket office next to Bus Stop #7 across the street (2,200 yen round-trip to Hoko-sha, 2,400 yen to Chu-sha and beyond), and you’re off.

Nagano Station – Togakushi Bus Schedule (English)

And do get an early start. Even in summer, when the days last much longer, you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to take in the shrines, the cedars, and the magic that come with a day trip to Togakushi.