I had never visited the Togakushi area located in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture and in fact, it was one of the few Japanese shrine cities I hadn’t been to. Then, a few years ago, my friend convinced me I must bring my kids to experience Togakushi Ninja. She was transferring abroad and visited the Togakushi area for her last Japanese experience before departing. There’s no denying there is one month of the year that is best to see autumn leaves in the Togakushi area, so we visited then. Here’s a quick guide but you can find out more to help plan your own visit.
A little bit of History
Mount Togakushi (1,904 m) used to be one of the training fields for monks. According to a legend, one monk originally constructed a temple in 849 and mountain ascetics and worshipers gathered. By the 11th century, it was prospering as the largest religious site for mountaineering ascetics. Togakushi Shrines consist of 5 shrines, Okusha Shrine, Kuzuryusha Shrine, Chusha Shrine, Hinomikosha Shrine and Hokosha Shrine. When you enter the main approach to Okusha Shrine, you might be surprised as where there used to be a lot of hermitages for monks, now we only see undergrowth and bush. It was very calm and only a huge gate tells you this was once a large temple town.Being fond of Japanese history, I have always enjoyed the chance to step back into an ancient time and enjoy another experience. When you visit the Togakushi Shrines, you might have the same enjoyment as we are stepping back hundreds of years.
Togakushi is said to be one of the major sites where Ninja trained. Ninja were covert agents and mercenaries who played significant roles during the period of the warring states. You can see weapons and training methods at a complex of Togakushi Folk Museum and Ninja Trick House located opposite the entrance path leading to the Okusha Shrine.
Ninja Trick House
You can experience Ninja’s lifestyle with many tricks at Ninja Trick House. I underestimated that it was just for kids and thought it might contain very 70’s and 80’s types of attractions. The site itself seemed not huge, so I expected a less than 15-minute adventure.I will not mention the details of the tricks, but I thought we would never get out of there. Even at the entrance, I couldn’t enter the house by myself. At the entrance, you have an instruction explaining that there is a telephone to ask for help in case of emergencies. Even I couldn’t find the telephone if it was my last hope. If you visit there by bus, please confirm your schedule. It takes more than 30 minutes to one hour and some of the visitors tried calling from the Ninja Trick House several times.
There are many tricks which we couldn’t solve by ourselves, but we were lucky to be accompanied by other visitors from abroad who spoke German. They checked, pushed, pulled and slid every part and found tricks. I think we could contribute 20% at least to finding our way out, but we couldn’t have survived without them. It is open from 9:00 to 17:00 and entry costs 600 yen per person.
Togakushi Folk Museum
Togakushi Folk Museum was established to preserve the existence of Ninja. It has an extensive introduction of the Ninja tradition including weapons, clothes and other devices. The museum also introduces the local village life with traditional dining utensils, straw shoes and old furniture.
Okusha Shrine is the main attraction of this area. From the parking and bus stop of Okusha Shrine, a 2km-hike leads you to the shrine at Mount Togakushi. The main approach is lined by 400-year-old ancient cryptomeria trees.
The first highlight is the Zuishinmon Gate located in the middle of the main approach and it has a thatched roof and vermilion-lacquered pillars. The approach is long, so you will feel relieved to see this gate. The sun rises along the main approach during the first day of winter around the beginning of November and the first day of spring around the beginning of February based on the lunar calendar. This might be an example of nature worship by ancient people.
Okusha Shrine main hall and Kuzuryusha (nine heads dragon) Shrine
The Okuno Shrine main hall and Kuzuryusha Shrine are standing on the steep mountainside of Mount Togakushi. Kuzuryusha Shrine originally enshrined the deity associated with the area and although the foundation year is unknown, it is the oldest of the five Togakushi shrines.
Trekking Mount Togakushi
On the way to Okusha Shrine, you’ll see the huge mountain range towering in front of you between cedar trees. You can go along the side hiking trails that head all the way up the forested and rock mountains. This is en route to the top of Mount Togakushi Ranges. However, you need to climb with the correct equipment and gear and I recommend to ask a hiking guide to accompany you. Mount Togakushi Ranges are the most famous place for slipping down accidents. If you’re a serious hiker, you will love the hike to the top of Okusha Shrine from Hokosha Shrine. The climb itself is not strenuous by any means, but the combination of the path covered with tall trees and refreshing air of the highlands at 1,200 meters elevation makes for a unique experience. The entire climb takes about five hours return, so be sure to start early from Hokosha Shrine.
On the way to Okusha Shrine, you can drop off at Kagamiike Mirroresque Pond which reflects the Togakushi Mountain Ranges and the surrounding landscape. You can drive or walk through the forest from the Okusha Shrine entrance. From the parking area near Okusha’s main approach, there is a circular route to visit Kagamiike Pond which takes about 3 hours. The trail to Kagamiike is a well-maintained boardwalk with easy-to-follow signs.
How to get there
A great way to see the Togakushi area is by road tripping it. If you check a guide book or website, it says 65 mins from Nagano Station, but I drove it in about one and a half hours. The road is well maintained and traffic signs are well placed, though. From Nagano Station or Zenkoji Temple, make sure to use the Asakawa Loop Line. If you take the Togakushi Bird Line it has 7 large curves which big cars are forbidden to drive on, so you would make the journey more difficult. If you follow the signs, you will be fine. In autumn leaf season (from the end of September to the beginning of November), you would most likely get stuck in a heavy traffic jam, so a one night stay would be safer to catch your Shinkansen bullet train or to head to other destinations.
You can also take the city bus with Togakushi Kogen Free Tickets for 2,600 yen. This ticket includes a round-trip bus between Nagano Station and Togakushi, free to ride on buses in the Togakushi area and a round-trip bus between Nagano Station and Zenkoji Temple in a period of up to five consecutive calendar days. Please purchase in advance at Nagano Station Tourist Information Center or Nagano Bus Terminal. Bus connections throughout Nagano Prefecture are extremely frequent and reliable.