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Nara’s Omiwa Shrine

The haiden of Nara Prefecture’s ancient Omiwa Shrine

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Omiwa Shrine, a spiritual sanctuary that has long been on my bucket list. Found in the southern portions of Nara Prefecture, this ancient sepulcher is regularly considered to be Japan’s oldest shrine. The site sits at the base of the consecrated Mt. Miwa and has played an incredibly important role in the development of Japanese Shinto. Though located a bit out of the way, making a pilgrimage to Nara’s Omiwa Shrine is something that I couldn’t more highly recommend for those who are looking to add something unique to their itineraries.

While the exact age of Omiwa Shrine is unknown, we do know that it predates written history in Japan. This means that the complex’s layout dates back to before the arrival of Buddhism in Japan. Like with many other similar locales that predate the religion, Omiwa Shrine is completely free of the typical syncretic influences that are apparent at many other shrines. Most notably, Omiwa Shrine lacks the honden (main hall) that you’d find elsewhere. In place of this, Japan’s oldest sanctum instead borrows the entirety of Mt. Miwa which stands behind the shrine grounds.

Despite the fact that Omiwa Shrine actually has a haiden (prayer hall), the proper way to pay one’s obiscience to Omononushi, the eminent deity enshrined on Mt. Miwa, is to make an ascent to the summit. More so than a leisurely hike, this climb is thought to be something of a pilgrimage and it comes with a strict set of rules. For starters, know that no eating, drinking, smoking or photography is allowed once on the mountain. Additionally, those looking to challenge Mt. Miwa actually must apply at the shrine first in order to get permission as entry to the primeval grounds is otherwise forbidden.

Not looking to join the other pilgrims on their way up the steep slopes of Mt. Miwa? Fret not! There is actually a spot behind the haiden where you can pay your respects to Omononushi. Here, the mountain is worshiped through a triple torii gate that boasts a style that is both ancient and extremely rare in Japan. Unfortunately, to reach this hallowed sport, you’ll need to inquire at Omiwa Shrine and be guided by one of the Shinto priests. Note that whether you opt to climb Mt. Miwa or go to the triple torii, you’ll need Japanese to be able to communicate.

How to Get There

The huge torri at the entrance to Nara Prefecture’s ancient Omiwa Shrine

As noted in the above section, Omiwa Shrine is found within the confines of Nara Prefecture. Though not exactly what I’d call hard to get to by the standards of this blog, this fact alone basically necessitates that you first head to Nara. Since you need to make your way down to the prefecture anyway, this means that Omiwa Shrine combines well with a visit to Nara Park. During my visit, I spent the better part of a day playing with the deer in Nara Park then took the train down to Omiwa Shrine the following morning.

Assuming that you’re already around Nara Park, all you’ll need to do to reach Omiwa Shrine is take the JR’s Manyo Mahoroba Line to Miwa Station (as always, refer to Jorudan or a similar service for departure schedules). From there, Omiwa Shrine can be reached on foot relatively easily. While en route, you’ll pass a number of small shops as well as one of the strangest vending machines that I’ve ever seen. This oddity sells both baked sweet potatoes as well as savory crepes. Weird…

Note that the “correct” way to approach Omiwa Shrine is from its massive torii gate pictured above. Considered to be the second largest of its kind in all of Japan, this archway demarcates Omiwa Shrine’s outer boundary. Unfortunately, seeing it up close and personal isn’t exactly convenient for those coming by train. If you want to go and take a look, you’ll need to backtrack a little bit. Alternatively, if you happen to have your own set of wheels, you’ll get to drive beneath the torii.

The Omiwa Shrine Grounds

The second torii gate at the entrance to Nara Prefecture’s ancient Omiwa Shrine

Frankly, the Omiwa Shrine grounds are quite expansive. All in all, you’ll find around 40 auxiliary shrines on site in addition to the main infrastructure. Though it can be a bit overwhelming, just know that all of these officially fall under the jurisdiction of Omiwa Shrine. Assuming that you’re coming from the train, the first thing that you’ll encounter is the scene pictured above. This is the second of the tree torii gates that lead up to Omiwa Shrine’s primary areas. From here, all you’ll need to do is head straight and eventually you’ll come to the temizuya (a water ablution pavilion).

After you’ve purified yourself at the temizuya (refer to this guide if you don’t know the procedure), you’ll want to continue on until you reach Omiwa Shrine’s haiden. This structure dates from the late 1600s and was commissioned by the fourth Tokugawa Shogun. From what I’ve read in Japanese on Omiwa Shrine’s official site, the structure is designated as an Important Cultural Property. While I have seen a number of shrines during my time traversing the prefectures, this one was easily one of the most stunning.

Most visitors to Omiwa Shrine offer to pay their respects to the deity enshrined on Mt. Miwa both at the haiden and again at the triple torii behind it. Unfortunately, my visit to the sacred site coincided with the coronavirus pandemic meaning that the priests were not allowing access to the trio or torii. As a result, I am unable to comment on how one would go about gaining access. Likely, you’ll need to consult someone at the shrine but this almost certainly will require the use of Japanese as noted in the introduction.

Those looking to maximize their experience of Omiwa Shrine are highly encouraged to take on Mt. Miwa. Though I sadly didn’t have the time to do so during my most recent stint in Nara Prefecture, I definitely intend to return sometime to properly complete the pilgrimage. From my research, it seems like the hike is quite steep in some places but otherwise not too difficult. You shouldn’t need any special gear or equipment to make the ascent. In fact, I’ve come across sites claiming that many people make their climb barefoot to better absorb Mt. Miwa’s spiritual power.

Like with the aforementioned trippel torii though, you’ll need to have some degree of Japanese ability to navigate your way through the application process. This can be done at Sakai Shrine, one of the ancillary shrines found on the Omiwa Shrine grounds. Here, you’ll need to offer up a few hundred yen and fill out a form. Thereafter, you’ll be given a white sash known as a tatsuki that you’ll need to wear at all times. It’s color symbolizes purity and the waistband itself serves as proof that you have permission to enter Mt. Miwa’s consecrated slopes.

If you’re interested in actually making a pilgrimage to the top of Mt. Miwa, I’d highly encourage you to do so. Just remember that you’ll need to navigate a rather unforgiving situation entirely in Japanese. As can be seen by Google Translating the page on climbing Mt. Miwa, they aren’t kidding around here. Either bring along a native speaker or study up before making the attempt. Additionally, be sure to also make a mental memo of both the weather and the days where scaling Mt. Miwa is forbidden.

Other Nearby Attractions

The legendary Emperor Jimmu near where Nara Prefecture’s ancient Omiwa Shrine is located today

Omiwa Shrine is conveniently located near a number of other great attractions. First and foremost, know that Japan’s first shrine sits on what is known as the Yamanobe-no-Michi, this trail is one of the most ancient in all of the country. While today it is little more than a pleasant stroll through the countryside, it used to be an important road for the region. Along this 11 kilometer stretch to Isonokami Shrine in Tenri City, you’ll encounter a number of minor temples and shrines as the Yamanobe-no-Michi meanders through small villages.

One spot to keep an eye out for on the Yamanobe-no-Michi is one of Omiwa Shrine’s many subsidiaries. Known as Hibara Shrine, this locale is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami and is often hailed as the predecessor to Mie Prefecture’s Ise Jingu. Seeing as that shrine is basically as old as history itself, this should highlight just how truly ancient Omiwa Shrine and the nearby area is. Like with its tutelary establishment, Hibara Shrine has no honden. Instead, like as is the case with Omiwa Shrine, it borrows Mt. Miwa as the object of worship.

If you’re going to go as far south in Nara Prefecture as Omiwa Shrine, I’d also urge you to also budget enough time to check out the Asuka region. Back in the early mists of Japanese history, this cradle was the birthing pod from which the Yamato polity sprung forth. Over the years, this loose collective of clans eventually coalesced into the imperial family and tertiary nobles that would characterize later periods of Japanese history. Though normally a bit of a stretch for those following standard Nara itineraries, this unique part of Japan is a great addition to Omiwa Shrine.

Finally, in addition to the Asuka region, there is also the nearby merchant town of Imaicho to check out too. Though not as commercialized as a place like Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture, Imaicho offers an authentic glimpse of what the Edo period (1603–1868) would have looked like. Alternatively, Mt. Yoshino is also quite close too. Though widely known as the top spot in all of Japan for cherry blossoms, the peak is home to many allures that can be enjoyed regardless of when you visit. Don’t write it off because the cherry blossoms aren’t in season!

Until next time travelers…

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