The Suwa region at the foot of the Yatsugatake Mountains is a land of myth and legends. Four complexes around Lake Suwa make up the Suwa-taisha Shrine, a living repository of Shinto ritual lore and the spiritual heart of the area.
The Suwa-taisha shrines are accessible from the regional hub of Kami-Suwa. Kami-Suwa is approximately two hours on the JR Azusa from Shinjuku.
Honmiya Shrine and Maemiya Shrine are within walking distance of each other. From Kami-Suwa, take a 10-minute local train to Chino Station. From there, several buses throughout the day will bring you to the shrines in about 12 minutes. Kami-Suwa hotels and ryokan arrange transport to the shrines, so feel free to ask.
Akimiya Shrine and Harumiya Shrine are relatively close to each other. From Kami-Suwa Station, take a local train for five minutes to Shimo-Suwa Station. Both shrines are about a 15-minute walk from there.
Alternatively, you can rent bicycles and explore the area with ease using Lake Suwa's bike path.
No one knows exactly how old Suwa-taisha Shrine is, but its first mention in Japanese literature was in the seventh century
The deity enshrined at Suwa-taisha Shrine is Tateminakata-no-Mikoto, formerly known as the god of hunting and agriculture and recently as the god of national security
While Lake Suwa is at the geographical center of the region, Suwa-taisha Shrine is its beating heart. It's one of Japan's oldest and most prominent Shinto shrines, with over 10,000 branches nationwide.
Buddhism never caught on in Suwa the way it did throughout much of Japan, and Suwa's unique culture and brand of Shinto with its splendid festivals is one result. A visit to Suwa-taisha can feel like entering the mists of Japan's deep past. All of the four Suwa-taisha Shrines have unique layouts and atmospheres.
Honmiya Shrine is the largest complex; for many Japanese, when they speak of Suwa-taisha Shrine, this is the structure they are referring to. This shrine holds a variety of essential rituals throughout the year. Many are shrouded in secrecy and are off-limits to the public. However, compared to the other Suwa shrines, there's a good chance you'll encounter Shinto priests and miko (shrine maidens) performing their daily duties. Ceremonies for the benefit of shrine patrons are also common and involve flutes, drums, and chanting.
Honmiya is located in the woods at the base of the sacred Mt. Moriya. Take time to view the intricately carved shrine buildings, the massive drum beneath its own pavilion that's only used at New Years and the enormous pillar reaching skyward near the entrance to the inner shrine. This is the largest Onbashira of them all, dragged down from the mountains by hand during the exciting Onbashira Festival.
Maemiya is likely the oldest of the complexes, with shrines dedicated to the native Suwa gods that predate Suwa-taisha Shrine by thousands of years. Its buildings scattered about the hillside feel like they've popped up organically, and there are good views across the basin to the Yatsugatake Mountains.
Across the lake in Shimo-Suwa, visitors can check out Akimiya Shrine and Harumiya Shrine. They're both on the historic Nakasendo Merchant Trail that passes through the Kiso Valley further south. Akimiya has the most “in town” feel of the four shrines but still has some incredible shrine architecture. Harumiya is another woodland shrine with intricate wooden designs. It's also the closest shrine to the mountain slope used during the Onbashira Festival.
All four of the Suwa-taisha shrines play host to the unhinged pillar festival known as Onbashira, which is held once every six years. During the festival, participants haul mammoth pillars by hand from the mountains down to the shrines and stand them in the four corners. Check out any of Suwa's shrines, and you'll easily find the pillars pointing skyward.
Onbashira has become infamous for the devotees who ride these many ton-pillars down a steep section of mountain slope along the way. That slope is just a few kilometers up the road from Harumiya Shrine. If you've rented bicycles, you can get there in about 20 minutes. That is if you don't pause to take in the Zen temple Jiunji or stop for a bath at Dokuzawa Onsen along the way.
At the slope, a pillar from a past Onbashira hangs over the edge of the 100-meter drop. Peer over and imagine yourself barreling down.
The Onbashira Festival is an integral part of Suwa's culture, and participants engage with an energy you have to see to believe.