Reaching For Heaven – The Tateyama Range
Tateyama is a famous symbol of Toyama, and one of the three most sacred mountains of Japan. The picturesque landscape of the Tateyama range in the Northern Japan Alps draws people for many reasons - hiking in summer, snow sports in winter, onsens, food, local festivals.
Today I would like to share a little of the region's history and introduce the famous Oyama Jinja, the reason why people began making the pilgrimage through Tateyama's foothills to the summit, over 1,300 years ago.
The Tateyama Range is located on the southern side of Toyama Prefecture. It is unique as a mountain range of over 3,000m elevation, yet can be seen from the coast. Tateyama’s status as a holy mountain, along with Mt. Fuji and Hakusan, dates back to ancient times of mountain worship in Japan.
“Oyama” means “great mountain” – as in revered, wonderful, exceptional. Oyama Jinja is located in three places, not uncommon with Japanese Jinjas (shrines, or holy places of Shinto, or “way of God”). The jinja at the lowest elevation is called the Gegu (下宮), and for Tateyama this is located in the small town of Iwakuraji.
The midpoint shrine is the Chugu (中宮), at Ashikuraji, just south of Iwakuraji, and the highest point, the Hongu (本宮), is on the summit of Tateyama.
Oyama Jinja once flourished as a base of the Tateyama mountain worship, from around the 7th century to the Meiji Period (1868-1912). There s a lovely story behind Oyama Jinja linking it to the mountain religion, and explaining its origin. It happened long ago and I have heard some slightly varying versions, but basically, this is what happened…
It is said that in 701 CE, a youth, Saeki Ariyori, was hunting in the forests near Ashikuraji. Following his father’s hunting hawk (or a dove, I have heard too), all over the mountainside, he is suddenly confronted by a bear. He shot the bear in the heart with an arrow, but the bear ran away, injured. Ariyori chased the bear, through the forests, up the mountain, and eventually, found a cave, high on the plateau below Tateyama. He followed blood and bear tracks leading inside the cave and the bear stood before him – and then the bear’s image changed into a golden Buddha. Ariyori was distraught, preparing to kill himself, but the holy one told him to stop – there was an important mission for Ariyori, to begin a new time of peace and hope. This is the origin of Oyama Jinja and its faith. The beliefs that ensured were a harmonious, co-existing amalgamation of local and Buddhist ideas.
As the devotion of Tateyama unfolded, it was believed that should someone make the pilgrimage to the summit, they would be resolved of their life sins, and be able to enter a heavenly afterlife, avoiding hell. It was believed that Tateyama itself was a location of both heaven and hell. Years, decades, centuries passed. Oyama Jinja became a flourishing centre. Pilgrims travelled from all over Japan to find salvation. The towns of Iwakuraji and Ashikuraji became bustling centres supporting the faith – there were lodgings for pilgrims, places of worship and trek preparation. One could find a guide to help them travel first up to the high plateaus, and then to ascend Tateyama, or you could purchase maps, and other amulets. Missionaries also travelled Japan raising awareness of the philosophy, and urging others to come purify themselves in order to enter paradise after death. They carried with them famous scrolls, known today as “mandalas,” which tell the story of Ariyori, heaven, and also some gruesome images of hell! They sold a range of goods such as amulets, prayers, and even death robes. Many of these artifacts can be seen today in Tateyama Museum, beside Ashikuraji Oyama Jinja.
Prior to the Meiji era (1868-1912), women were considered “impure” and not permitted to travel in the mountains or, to the Hongu atop of Tateyama. Women, plus any man unable for any reason to not take the trek personally, came from all over Japan to attend a ritual held at Ashikuraji, called Nunobashi Kanjou, held every year on the autumn equinox. Attending this ritual ensured one of entering Paradise after death.
People are still making the trek to Tateyama! It is a popular trip that most Toyama children make at least once during their school days! The area is a popular destination all year round, for many activities such as hiking, camping, picnics and barbecues, sightseeing and winter sports. Iwakuraji and Ashikuraji are small towns on the outskirts of Toyama City, and are quiet, peaceful locations – a perfect escape from city life. You can enjoy local foods, visit the museums (there are three), explore Mandala Yuen, an interesting outdoor modern interpretation of the old religion, and enjoy tea ceremony, and other seasonal festivals. And of course, you can enter the beautiful Oyama Jinjas! Would you like to know more? I have individually written articles for each shrine; please have a look! You will find more information, including access! Also please read about the Nunobashi Kanjou festival, the museums and other interesting aspects of the Tateyama foothills! This place is my home and I’d like to share it with you! The mountains are calling you!
All locations can be reached by car, bus and train, though Oyama Jinja Hongu also requires a 2-hour hike from the final bus set down.
Iwakuraji is about 40 minutes by car from Toyama station, following main road number 43. Ashikuraji is a further 15 minutes’ drive south-east. Continue from Ashikuraji to Tateyama Village for access to the mountains. Form here one must catch a bus, or the interesting ropeway and bus to Murodo. Murodo to Oyama Jinja is 2.5 km. The ascent will take about 2 hours and decent approximately 1.5 hours.
Trains and buses
Iwakuraji Oyama Jinja is also easily accessed by train, on the Dentetsu line. The Dentetsu private train lines all go from Dentetsu Toyama station, adjacent JR Toyama station. There are four lines, and to get to Iwakuraji you take the line for Iwakuraji via Minami Toyama (岩峅寺方面,南富山経由). The trip takes about 30 minutes, and there is roughly one train every hour.
From the station it is just a short walk. There are signs in Japanese but they are explicit. From the station exit turn right and walk to the level crossing on your right. Take a right over the crossing and just follow this windy little road until you come to a T-intersection and turn right - at which point you will see the back torii gate. This walk is only about 500 m and the whole area is very pretty to stroll through.
For Ashikuraji, catch the train to Chigaki on the Dentetsu Line. Take the line for Tateyama, via Terada. The trip takes about 48 minutes, and there is roughly one train every hour. From Chigaki there are two options. A local bus runs along the valley from right outside Chigaki station and there is a stop right across the road from Oyama Jinja.
Buses are only about one an hour. It is actually only about 2km and it is a very pleasant walk along the road number 67. It is slightly uphill but the gradient is low.
For Tateyama Station, continue a further three stops and it is the end of the line!
Check the Hyperdia Timetable and Route Search website for all public transport trips ANYWHERE in Japan! It will tell you a myriad of details including costs, transfers, distances…
The following link shows various means for getting to Toyama and then to reach each of the reviewed locations:
The three Jinjas are open in daytime hours – there are no gates or entrance fees. However the actual buildings will generally be open until 5:00pm. Oyama Hongu Jinja can only be accessed From May to November, and this also depends on snow conditions. For checking, the visitor centre can be contacted (see above website).