Suwa Shrine consists of the four separate shrines around Lake Suwa in Nagano Prefecture. When you have arrived in the Suwa area, you’re wondering how to see around. I spent a whole day in Suwa to visit the four sacred shrines. Here’s a quick guide to Suwa Shrine that will make visiting the four shrines a piece of cake for you.
Suwa Shrines were featured in Kojiki, a chronicle dating back to the 8th century and it is the head shrine for a network of over 10,000 related Suwa Shrines nationwide. Suwa Shrines consist of a four-building complex grouped into two sites: The Kamisha (Upper) Shrine, and the Shimosha (Lower) Shrine. Suwa shrines consists of two main shrines with four shrines.
- Upper Shrine with former shrine, Kamisha Maemiya (上社前宮)
- Upper Shrine with main shrine, Kamisha Honmiya (上社本宮)
- Lower Shrine with Spring shrine, Shimosha Harumiya (下社春宮)
- Lower Shrine with Autumn shrine Simosha Akimiya (下社秋宮)
Four Sacred Tree Pillars
Each shrine is surrounded by four fir tree pillars called “onbashira” acting as shrine markers of the holy area. Onbashira four wooden pillars are replaced every 6 years of Monkey and Tiger years according to the Chinese Zodiac and this event is called the Onbashira festival. In the Suwa area, even very small shrines have the four sacred tree pillars, so there are thousands of such pillars in Suwa.The pillars are made from over 200-year-old trees. The height of the pillar is about 18 meters, the diameter is 1 meter and the weight is 10 tons. The biggest and tallest pillar is raised in the front right of the holy area and they get thinner going clockwise to the fourth pillar. You can tell the difference of the size of the four pillars at a glance at Kamisha Maemiya.
A Little bit of History
The Suwa area has been populated since at least the Japanese Paleolithic period (B.C. 15,000 – 2,300). The Suwa area had prospered due to Kokuyou stone. This stone is made of rapidly cooled lava and can be easily processed. People used Kokuyou stone to create hunting tools in the woods. Kokuyou stone was traded to other regions and even the Kokuyo stone tools were found in Hokkaido (the northern edge of Japan).
Over 900 village communities were excavated around Lake Suwa. People at that time collected acorns and chestnuts and hunted deer and Japanese boars in the woods for meat and to make fur clothes. Blessings of nature from the forest should be shared in the community. It might be natural that people develop belief in gods in the forests, mountains, earth and water. People sought for the holy objects and giant trees became symbols of belief.In the transition from the Jomon (B.C. 15,000 – 2,300) to the Yayoi (B.C. 10,000 – 300) periods, people’s lifestyle changed from hunting in the woods to cultivating rice fields. Suwa people kept worshiping nature in the woods while adapting to the new culture of agricultural cultivation. Religious practices were combined during the transition from Jomon to Yayoi. Onbashira festival represents the combination of the animism and the God of harvest in Japan.
The Onbashira festival is recorded as a historical event since the Kamakura era, but the origin of the festival is said to have begun before the Heian period (the 8th century).The sacred tree trunks that are over 200 years old are brought down from the holy mountain for the Onbashira festival. These trees are transported for 12 km by 3,000 local people to Suwa Shrines. Each local district has its own responsibility to carry the trees. Locals need to turn the sharp corner, to carry over railroads, to cross the river for 40 meters, and to drag them down a 30-degree steep slope for 80 meters length during the festival.After cultivation started in the Suwa area, people continued to admire the nature of the woods and appreciate giant trees as a symbol of the festival. A custom to raise a giant tree pillar has been found all over Japan in the ruins of the Jomon era. Human-shaped clay figures were found near the giant tree pillars and the space was conceived where departed bodies were buried. The space gradually became a ritual place to communicate to gods and ancestors.
Carrying giant trees acts itself as an event to band family members and communities together and to strengthen the unification of the community. During the Jomon era, people had to cooperate with others to hunt animals and collect acorns. In Japan, we still shoulder portable shrines and carry festival floats together at summer festivals. Those activities create a sense of unity and enthusiasm.
How to get there
Get on the Super Azusa Express from Shinjuku to Chino. Next head to Kamisha Maemiya by taxi (10mins) and Kamisha Honmiya (7 mins from Kamisha Maemiya). It’s a good idea to ask your taxi to wait during sightseeing. Next, go back to Chino Station and then to Shimo-Suwa Station by Chuo Line and then head to Shimosha Akimiya (15 mins) and Shimosha Harumiya (20 mins from Shimosha Akimiya).
If you plan to visit Suwa Shrines during weekends, doing a tour would be nice sometimes. Joining an organized tour is the easiest way to visit the four shrines. Some companies offer a tour to visit the four shrines in a day. Typical tours depart from 7:30am and get back to Shinjuku around 19:00. So you can enjoy the nightlife around Shinjuku Station after visiting Suwa area in Nagano Prefecture.