As I sit down to write this article at a Starbucks in Tokyo, it’s finally the first day of 2021. In all honesty, the city feels a bit like a ghost town as many residents are out in the countryside visiting their loved ones. Though we’re only a day into the new year, and the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic looms ever-large, I am happy to have the worst 365-days in recent history behind me. Alas, there remains a number of places that I visited last year that still deserve their own standalone pieces. So, in the interest of crossing off 2020 once and for all, today we’re going to take a look at Tochigi Prefecture’s Furumine Shrine.
If you’ve never heard of Furumine Shrine, know that you are definitely not alone. While located a mere stone’s throw from the popular spiritual enclave of Nikko, few foreign and Japanese travelers make the trek to Furumine Shrine. In fact, it was only last year when doing bucket list research that I stumbled upon this hidden gem. The shrine’s grounds are spectacularly breathtaking during the autumn months and I find myself a tad disappointed that it took me THIS long to appreciate Furumine Shrine.
As a sacred sanctum, Furumine Shrine embraces a lengthy history. Allegedly, the shrine originally popped up over 1,300 years ago. If we are to believe the local legends, the shrine was established by none other than the monk Shodo Shonin who is credited with being the founder of Nikko (see this exposé for more info). Furumine Shrine pays homage to the quasi-mythical hero and prince, Yamato Takeru. First appearing in Japan’s earliest written records, the story of this warrior of legend is often compared with that of King Arthur due to the striking similarities.
Given the strong connection with Yamato Takeru, Furumine Shrine is fully decked out in Tengu paraphernalia. Often rendered as “long-nosed goblins” in English, these mythical creatures were said to be messengers of Yamato Takeru and are thus worshiped alongside him. Much like other mountaintop compounds such as Tokyo’s Mt. Takao, depictions of Tengu often appear in locations that are sites for ascetic practice. In this regard, Furumine Shrine is no exception to the rule.
If you’re planning on going to Nikko and are on the lookout for a good hidden gem, I highly recommend that you visit Furumine Shrine. Though a bit out of the way, it’s a great half-day addition to any standard Tochigi Prefecture itinerary. What’s more, there’s even a guest house on the Furumine Shrine grounds where you can spend the night if you so desire. Keep in mind that limited English language support is available so plan on bringing along a Japanese friend for the ride if you consider staying overnight.
How to Get There
Unfortunately, as with many other mountaintop spiritual centers for asceticism, the journey to Furumine Shrine isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Though the shrine sits nestled amongst the mountains to the south of Nikko, this sanctum is not well serviced by any major train line. To get there, you’ll need to first make your way up to Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture. This leg of the trip can be done either via local trains if you’re trying to save money (and don’t have a JR rail pass) or alternatively, by the bullet train. The decision is up to you.
Once you’re in Utsunomiya, you’ll need to transfer to the Nikko Line. From there, your next destination will be Kanuma Station which should be only a few minutes ride away. Note that Kanuma Station is a very local stop and there’s nothing really to do there other than just wait for the bus you’ll need to take to Furumine Shrine. Because of this, you’ll want to pick up any needed supplies like beverages and snacks at Utsunomiya Station before boarding the Nikko Line.
After arriving at Kanuma Station, you’ll want to exit and look immediately in front of you. Here, you should find the bus stop. Unfortunately, for overseas tourists, everything is in Japanese so you’ll need to find some way to overcome the language barrier. To make things a bit easier for you, I’ve included the bus schedule above but departure times may change at some point following the publication of this article. With that said, you’d do well to double confirm before boarding. Just keep your eyes out for 古峰神社 as this is the kanji for Furumine Shrine.
What to See at Furumine Shrine
When compared to sprawling complexes such as Fushimi Inari Taisha, Furumine Shrine isn’t actually all that complex. Nevertheless, there are a number of spots that you absolutely cannot miss so keep your eyes peeled for the following highlights. For starters, note that the bus will leave you off in a parking lot that sits at the end of a long approach to the shrine. From there, you’ll need to make your way past several rustic souvenir vendors that also double as restaurants. Before going too far though, I suggest that you plan out which bus you’ll return on as they are set rather far apart.
After walking the length of the approach and passing under an initial set of torii gates, you’ll find the main shrine buildings to your immediate right. Perched upon an elevated bluff, you’ll need to haul your behind up a final flight of stairs before you encounter the heart of Furumine Shrine. Now, unlike many other shrines, you can actually go inside this facility without needing anyone’s permission. Given that the best allures of Furumine Shrine reside within, you’d be a fool not to take this opportunity to explore the interior.
After entering into Furumine Shrine, you will find a large room within the haiden (prayer hall). Here, you can make your obeisance to Yamato Takeru, the legendary prince who is enshrined at Furumine Shrine. Additionally, you’ll also find a number of depictions of tengu. What you really want to keep an eye out for though are the impressive 1.5 meter-long pair of masks in an adjacent room. Said to be artfully crafted by hollowing out a behemoth tree trunk, these fierce tengu visages have a countenance that is frightful enough to terrify children. Moreover, from what I could piece together, the two masks were created over 400 years ago.
Of course, no visit to Furumine Shrine would be complete without venturing over to the room next to the main hall area. Here, you’ll find a whole host of tengu masks. As can be seen in the shot above, each of the 200 masks or so is unique and sports its own distinct features. You’ll find the shaden right next to the main room noted above within the haiden. With all of those tengu masks on display, you really can’t miss it. It honestly feels like it is an inn for the long-nosed creatures. Just be sure not to get in anyone’s way while gasping in awe at the fearsome guises.
Other Nearby Attractions
If you’re going to visit Furumine Shrine, you’ll want to be sure to also check out the Furumine-en traditional gardens. Located directly next to Furumine Shrine itself, this 82,500 square-meter sanctuary is one of the largest of its kind in all of Japan. Dating from the Showa period (1926–1989), this space is utterly magnificent during autumn when the garden comes ablaze with the vibrant hues of fall. Given that entry to Furumine-en will only run you a mere 300 yen or so, you’d be a fool to pass up this epic spot!
Additionally, you might also want to stop by the Jinzen Tomoe-no-Shuku. Located a mere 10 minutes away from Furumine Shrine by car, this site was said to be the former training location of Shodo Shonin. Though I had to skip it due to not having my own set of wheels, I’ve read that the grounds feel both solemnly sacred and curiously mysterious. If you have access to a rental car, check it out and let me know of your adventure!
Until next time travelers…