Today, we’ll be venturing back to Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture. Though this city is already somewhat of an off of the beaten path destination, the topic of this article is an even more obscure hidden gem (at least as far as inbound tourism to Japan is concerned). Known as Akihasan Hongu Akiha Shrine, this ancient sanctuary is located atop Mt. Akiha. Though technically still within the Hamamatsu city confines, Akihasan Hongu Akiha Shrine is about as far removed from the urban hustle and bustle as you can get. That said, so long as you don’t mind venturing out to this remote mountain location, this diamond in the rough is definitely something that repeat visitors to Japan should consider.
Now, there are a number of reasons why one might want to visit Akihasan Hongu Akiha Shrine. Historically, it was a popular pilgrimage detour for people traveling to and from Kyoto on the ever-important Tokaido highway. As was the case throughout history, Akihasan Hongu Akiha Shrine was (and continues to be) the head shrine of numerous branch shrines throughout the country. In fact, you’ll find a small Akiha Shrine in many towns and cities in Japan. Back in the days of yesteryear, these all belonged to a collective of mountain ascetics that were known as the Akiha cult and there are as many as 800 sub-shrines nationwide.
Though Japan technically classifies Akihasan Hongu Akiha Shrine as “a shrine” today, the ancient sanctuary actually has a complex and syncretic past. Like with Mt. Takao in Tokyo and Yamagata’s Dewa Sanzan, this mountaintop enclave once liberally mixed Buddhism and Shinto. Moreover, the site was even once classified as a Soto Zen buddhist temple at the behest of none other than Tokugawa Ieyasu. Regardless of its present or past religious denomination though, Akihasan Hongu Akiha Shrine is an entity that still enshrines Akiha Gongen, an analogous deity that is said to provide protection against fires.
How this hidden gem in Hamamatsu came to become as popular as it did is quite the tale. As per shrine tradition, the site was first established on the southern slopes of Mt. Akiha by a famed priest named Gyoki in the year 701. Back then, it was named Akiha-dera, a title taken from a poem written by one of the emperors of Japan. It wasn’t until much later during the Edo period (1603–1868) though that worshippers started to flock to the consecrated peak. You see, the shrine used to parade its mikoshi up and down the Tokaido but the government banned this riotous procession in 1685. As it turned out though, the ban conversely helped spread the Akiha cult.
As you’ll see the later sections of this piece, Akihasan Hongu Akiha Shrine is today popular for both its golden torii as well as its annual fire festival. Should you been hankering to see a different side of Japan, this is definitely one locale that you should add to your bucket lists.
How to Get There
Before we dive too far into the weeds, let’s quickly pause for a second and cover the details of getting to Mt. Akiha. Simply put, this peak is a bit of a challenge to reach but that shouldn’t stop my fellow intrepid adventurers from trying. Assuming that you’re beginning the journey in Tokyo, you’ll need to begin by taking one of the Kodama or Hikari-class bullet trains to Hamamatsu Station. From there, you’ll want to get yourself a rental car. Otherwise, this spot is just too difficult to warrant an attempt when you consider all of the other attractions you could be enjoying elsewhere.
Should you be limited only to public transportation but absolutely still want to give it a go, you’ll want to head over from Hamamatsu Station to Shin-Hamamatsu Station. Here, you can hop on the Tenryu Hamanako Railway. You’ll want to take this all the way to Tenryu-Futamata Station, the final stop. From there, you’ll need to hail a taxi to help you get up the 750-meter-high Mt. Akiha. From what I can see with online calculators, the fare will clock in somewhere around 15,000 yen round trip. While expensive, it’s your only real recourse if you’re not able to rent a car.
Note that train departures are less frequent on the Tenryu Hamanako Railway than what you might be used to in Tokyo or Osaka. Refer to Jorudan or a similar service for the most convenient connections to eliminate as much downtime as you can. Additionally, if there are no idling taxis to be had at Hamamatsu’s Tenryu-Futamata Station, just inquire with the attendants who can call one for you. Just be sure to get a phone number of the taxi company for that return trip.
The Lower Shrine & Upper Shrine
Akihasan Hongu Akiha Shrine is divided into a pair of reliquaries. These are popularly called the “Upper Shrine” and the “Lower Shrine.” Alas, visiting both is a bit of a challenge, even for those who have their own set of wheels. Truth be told, I elected to skip the Lower Shrine entirely since most of the main allures can be located at the upper shrine. Unless you’re going for some sort of self-defined achievement or are planning to hike to the summit of Mt. Akiha, I suggest that you do the same.
Speaking of attractions, below you’ll find a summary of all of the details for what I consider to be the “must see” spots…
- The Main Gate
While gates are normally something that one finds at a temple, this entrance is a homage to Akihasan Hongu Akiha Shrine’s syncretic past. It features the four guardian animals that represent the cardinal direction as a means of protection and warding off evil. You’ll find it at the top of some stairs right after exiting the parking lot.
- The Golden Torii
Pictured above, this relic is what brings cameramen nationwide to this shrine. It’s officially called the “Golden Torii of Happiness” and is said to bring joy and prosperity to all those who pass under it. As you can likely tell even without any data to reference, it’s extremely popular with both worshippers and Instagrammers alike so make sure that everyone has a chance to snap their pic.
- Plate Throwing
Below the iconic torii, you’ll find a spot where you can partake in a traditional ceremony known as. Here, you’ll purchase three unglazed, sun-dried earthenware plates for 500 yen onto which you’ll write a trio of wishes. Thereafter, you’ll have to chuck these into a ring suspended below. According to local folklore, if you get any of them into the target, the wish written on the plates will come true!
By the way, did you know that Akihasan Hongu Akiha Shrine is allegedly the origin for the name of Tokyo’s famed electronic district? That’s right, the moniker of Akihabara is a direct reference to the fact that this shrine used to be someplace where people prayed for protection from fires. In subsequent history, a sub shrine was set up in the vicinity of present-day Akihabara to ward off the very real threat of conflagrations.
The Fire Festival
Speaking honestly, I have not seen the Akiha Fire Festival myself yet so the following account was made with what information that I could dig up online. From my research, it seems that this epic celebration takes place on the 15th of December. In total, there are three dances that are presented to the enshrined deities. The first of these is called the Yumi-no-Mai (lit. “Bow Dance”) and involves the use of a longbow to shoot arrows skyward in the cardinal direction. The second performance, the Tsurugi-no-Mai (lit. “Sword Dance”), uses two swords to purge sin and impurity.
Finally, the last dance, the Hi-no-Mai (lit. “Fire Dance”) uses braziers that are lit with a sacred flame that supposedly has been burning for well over a millennium. Allegedly, these fires are said to keep away natural disasters and other ailments. As per some official sources for the city of Hamamatsu, the Akiha Fire Festival has a legacy that dates back to the Nara period (710–784) when this now-Shinto sanctuary was still a temple called Akiha-dera.
If you’re in town during mid-December, you absolutely need to add this celebration to your itinerary. Hopefully, I too can get there one day and witness this spectacle in person!
Other Nearby Attractions
If you’re going to make a pilgrimage to Mt. Akiha, you really ought to also budget some time to check out the rest of Hamamatsu. I recently had the opportunity to explore the city over the course of three days when I was tasked with taking photos for the local tourism board. While you need not spend as much time in the area as I did, you’ll find plenty of suggestions for what to see and do in my stand alone guide on Hamamatsu. At the very least, you should budget enough time to have some unagi (the Japanese word for freshwater eel) before continuing on as it is the local speciality of Hamamatsu.
In addition to the spots within the Hamamatsu city limits, one other location in Shizuoka Prefecture that I suggest you check out is Kunozan Toshogu Shrine. Found over in the capital city of Shizuoka, this rarely visited gem was where the first Tokugawa shogun’s body was enshrined before his spirit was transferred to the ornate complex in Nikko. It’s also located by Nihondaira, a place that has great views of tea leaf fields set against the backdrop of Mt. Fuji. It’s one of the most photogenic spots in all of the country!
Until next time travelers…