For those looking to get off the beaten track and experience something authentic, the Togakushi Kodo Pilgrimage makes for a fantastic day-trip from Nagano. This lush, mountainous region is home to natural mineral springs, giant trees and rolling soba crops and is firmly embedded in Japanese Shinto folklore in the ancient myth of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. In the tale, she shut herself away in a cave in Takachiho, plunging the world into darkness; to entice her to emerge, the other deities danced wildly until she peeked out. When she did, the cave door was pried off and thrown far away, landing here, halfway across the country in an area that came to be known as ‘hiding door’, or Togakushi. Join us as we spend a day visiting these deities at a series of ancient shrines in pristine settings, also known as the Togakushi Kodo pilgrimage.
The Togakushi Kodo Pilgrimage
At the base of Mount Togakushi sits a rather special Shinto shrine believed to be over 2,000 years old with ties to the Shugendo Buddhist faith. Togakushi Shrine is made up of five small shrine buildings, spread across roughly six kilometres; Hokosha and Hinomikosha in the lower region, Chusha in the middle and Okusha and Kuzuryusha in the upper region.
The Togakushi Kodo pilgrimage allows you to worship the gods at all five sites and takes roughly two and a half hours to complete. The path is largely a two-lane road shared by cars and other vehicles, so please walk carefully. There is no right or wrong order to the pilgrimage—you can walk in either an uphill or downhill direction—but if you want to collect goshuin stamps, it’s best to start at the top (Okusha and Kuzuryusha) and work your way down. We will present the Togakushi Kodo in this top to bottom order; you can follow along with the route here.
For instructions on getting to Togakushi, head to the bottom of this post. There are bus stops and car parks located at the lower, middle and upper shrine areas so you can structure the day in any order and by any mode of transport.
Goshuin Stamp Rally
For those wishing to collect stamps at each of the five shrines, we recommend starting at the upper shrine area because the stamp book (1,000 yen) is only available at the shrine offices of Okusha (the top shrine) or Chusha (the middle shrine). If you start at the bottom, you can’t pick up the book until halfway through the pilgrimage and will have to backtrack downhill to get the bottom stamp. The shrine offices are open 9:00 am – 5:00 pm and you will need to worship before the staff will give you a stamp.
Approaching the Main Shrine
We start in the upper shrine area, heading down the road to the right of the ‘Okusha no chaya’ soba restaurant. Stepping through the large torii gate that signifies the entrance to the shrine grounds, we soon leave the real world behind, getting lost in the white noise of the forest. It’s misty and wet; water runs on either side of the path and drips from leaves the size of dinner plates.
After passing through the thatched-roof Zuijinmon Gate, the trees seem to become bigger and taller and we soon find ourselves in the ‘100-year-old cedar corridor’, a section of the path lined with over 300 Cryptomeria cedar trees, some believed to be around 900 years old. Though it’s only 500m to the shrines, the departure from the outside world feels immense.
After passing a rushing stream and a few small waterfalls, we come to the junction of the two top shrines; Kuzuryusha to the left and Okusha to the right. There is a small office here where you can purchase the stamp book and get your first two stamps.
Okusha is the main shrine of the Togakushi Kodo and sits at the highest point. Worshipped here is ‘Ame-no-Tajikarao-no-Mikoto’, the deity who threw the door in the Togakushi myth. As he is associated with brute strength, you can pray here for general luck and victory in physical endeavours.
Kuzuryusha, meaning ‘nine-headed dragon shrine’, is the oldest of the five shrines and home to the dragon spirit Kuzuryushin. This deity is strongly associated with water and rainmaking and ensures that Togakushi village always has plenty of fresh spring water to drink. As such, the locals love him dearly. He will also hear prayers about matchmaking, marriages…and even toothaches.
More to see in Togakushi
After visiting the first two shrines, we make our way back through the forest towards the main road. The area is full of beautiful seasonal trees and flowers, the Togakushi Forest Botanical Garden and the Kagami Ike pond. Back near the soba restaurant, we spot the Ninja/Folk Museum—a great spot to learn more about Togakushi’s human history.
After roughly thirty minutes of road-side walking, we arrive in the village of Togakushi. This is where you’ll find the Tourist Information Office, plenty of soba restaurants, pilgrim lodging and the middle shrine, Chusha. As one of the leading soba producing regions in Nagano, Togakushi has developed its own style of soba noodles. Presented in five small bundles, one for each of the five shrines, Togakushi soba is a must. Read more about it here.
Established in 1098, Chusha is the middle of Togakushi’s five shrines. One of the first sights in the grounds is the enormous Sanbon Sugi (Three Cedar Trees) which is said to be over 800 years old. There is a small platform leading up to the incredible fused trees; we tentatively place our hands on the trunk to feel its power.
After taking that in, we ascend the stone steps to the main shrine building.
The deity enshrined here is ‘Ame no Yagokoro Omoikane no Mikoto’, the god of Wisdom who, true to his name, came up with the idea to dance in front of the cave door in the myth. This is where you should pray for good luck, a peaceful home, a prosperous business and academic achievement.
The main hall contains a famous painting of a great dragon deity and there is also a treasure hall where you can learn more about Togakushi beliefs and history. If you’re collecting stamps, head to the shrine office where you can get the stamp for Chusha, as well as the next shrine, Hino-miko-sha.
The walk to the next shrine continues for 15 minutes downhill, past a number of soba restaurants and pilgrim lodgings. Stick to the right-hand-side of the street, and take the footpath just before the hairpin bend. This way, you can walk through a garden rather than traffic.
Hinomikosha is a small shrine with no office. At the main shrine building, you can pray to ‘Ame no Uzume no Mikoto’, the deity of entertainment, performing arts and matchmaking. In the tale, she is the one who danced on an overturned barrel, making the other gods laugh which ultimately led to the cave door being opened.
We head to the left of the shrine building and find the Spouses Cedar, or Fufu-sugi (夫婦杉). At 500 years old, this smaller, younger version of the Chusha tree is a good-luck spot for matchmaking.
Another ten minutes downhill and we finally arrive at the lower shrine, Hokosha. After stepping through the huge torii gate, we take the 270 steps up to the main shrine.
This is where you can pray to ‘Ame-no-Uwaharu-no-Mikoto’, son of the Chusha deity, who is said to preside over study, arts (particularly needlework), safe birth, disaster avoidance, relationships and family happiness.
It’s very still and silent around here; take some time to explore. For those collecting the goshuin stamps, you can get the stamp for this shrine as well as the previous one (Hinomikosha).
Fully relaxed and spiritually enriched, we decide it’s time to head home and start making our way back.
This day trip is a great way to explore Japanese mythology, nature and culture and definitely worth doing when you’re in Nagano. If it’s a longer pilgrimage you’re looking for, perhaps consider dedicating a week to the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage in Wakayama.
Getting to Togakushi
Togakushi is a 60-minute car or bus ride from Nagano City. For those driving, there is free, limited, parking at most shrines, however, parking near the upper shrines requires payment.
From Nagano Station’s Zenkoji exit, take bus 70 from bus stop number 7 towards Togakushi. They depart approximately once per hour, you can find the summer and winter timetables here. Depending on how you want to structure your pilgrimage, get off at one of the three stops in Togakushi.
- The lower shrine area “Togakushi-Hokosha” stop, approx 55 mins, roughly ¥1150 each way.
- The middle shrine area where you’ll find the Tourist Information Center as well as a number of soba restaurants. Get off at “Togakushi-Chusha” stop, 65 mins, roughly ¥1250 each way.
- The Upper Shrine area “Togakushi-Okusha Iriguchi”, 70 minutes, roughly ¥1450 each way. This is where our route begins.
To save a few yen, you can pick up a discounted round trip ticket between Nagano Station and “Togakushi Chusha”. It costs ¥2,300 for adults and is available from the ALPICO Kotsu Nagano Station Ticket Office.
Post by Japan Journeys.