Hiyoshi Taisha

Posted on Friday, October 06, 2017, under , , ,

The first thing that catches one’s eye are two wooden structures nestled high up the hill in the midst of a thick, lush forest overlooking Biwa lake. The sight alone is intriguing enough to make one wish to visit the temple in the first place. A map by the footpath suggests large temple grounds. What sticks out is an odd-looking position of three bridges, situated in the very close proximity to each other. Our visit will show that bridges are not the only unusual feature at Hiyoshi Taisha.

At the south gate we are required to pay entrance fee, somewhat surprising as Shinto shrines in Japan are usually visited free of charge. I later learn that in the Middle Ages, the nearby Enryaku-ji temple influenced the shrine to include some Buddhist ethos: could this be the reason for fee inclusion? A middle-aged woman with an overly serious expression hands us the printed guides: the English version, being a single sheet of typed text on A4 sheet of paper, looks a poor cousin to its fancy Japanese counterpart. No complaints though, good intentions appreciated.

After climbing up a longish set of stone steps, we find ourselves in front of a vermillion gate (torii). The torii is built in Sanno style, unusual in that its two top lintels are crowned with a triangular attachment, a sort of gable, thus creating a ‘rooftop’, or perhaps an ‘arms-in-prayer’, effect (Wikipedia suggests Hiyoshi Taisha has the best example of Sanno torii in Japan).

After the obligatory bow, we continue sauntering up a wide gravel path. It is a beautiful, crisp autumn day. After a few minutes another surprise: inside a metal cage two snow monkeys! It strikes us immediately how small and dark the cage is. Poor fellas, they could certainly do with some exercise. Give them more elbow room for pity’s sake!

                    Messengers of God
                    behind metal bars:
                    a pair of macaques

We leave the caged creatures behind and soon come upon a rock apparently of certain import. My companion Y. kindly translates the adjacent notice, which states the rock is considered medicinal. It has a slight depression in the middle, allowing for rainwater to develop on rainy days. Thus formed, the water inside this puddle is believed to be therapeutic, for the ailing eye in particular. Should one then splash one’s eyes with puddle water and expect a miraculous recovery?!

Climbing up the Hachioji hill to reach the aforementioned ‘twin’ shrine halls proves a minor miracle itself. Y. is wearing flat shoes which invariably threaten to fall apart. It does not help that we are sweating like pigs with no towel at hand, that the path is steep and dotted with sharp rocks. It takes us forty or so minutes to reach the two shrines, Sannomiyagu and Ushiogu. The view of lake Biwa is spectacular and for it alone the climb was worth it. We sit down on the steps and take a few panoramic photos. At one moment the breeze carries a strong herbal fragrance over to our nostrils, so strong in fact that for a second I think I have just entered an essential oils store!

                    Hachioji hill:
                    smitten by the essence
                    of an unknown herb
We climb a few more steps to pay respects to a famous Great Golden Rock situated between the two buildings. The rock derives its name from the fact that the sunlight is reflected off it on sunny mornings. The rock is even mentioned in the Kojiki, the oldest written record of Japanese history. I imagine the golden sun reflection must be quite a sight. If I ever decide to come back here on some sunny day, it will only be me in full hiking gear, and with plenty of water!

It is time to walk back downhill. Y. wishes she had a pair of wings to put on then glide back to the lower altitudes! Walking, or more accurately, staggering toward the shrine exit we pass the three stone bridges we saw earlier on the map.  Why are they so close to each other? Y. and I venture a few guesses. Perhaps they were made to serve different social stratums: one for nobility, one for priests, one for peasants. Or were they built for aesthetic effect, as a kind of medieval take on conceptual art installation? The truth, we later find out, is more prosaic than that. After Oda Nobunaga’s army burnt the shrine around 1571, the new buildings were erected soon after. The rebuild included old wooden bridges, which were replaced by the fireproof stone ones, which stand to this day. But why three bridges? The more the merrier, we dare presume.

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