Note: This article was first written during the early months of the pandemic. The info about the destination is still solid though…— Donny Kimball
“What the hell am I doing?!? This is absolutely crazy…” I thought to myself as I glanced down at the time. It was only 8:00 AM and I had already been traveling on a northward bound bullet train for over 90 minutes. My destination was Aomori Prefecture. Typically, such an adventure would be business as usual for me but this outing was slated to be only a day trip. You see, at the time, the Japanese government had just recently lifted its advisory to avoid crossing prefectural boundaries. Given that I am a Tokyoite (where most of the coronavirus infections were recorded), I figured it best to hold off on doing overnight trips for a little while longer to avoid scaring the locals.
Now, you’re probably wondering what the hell could entice me to spend a lot of money on train fare coupled with a total of two-hundred minutes riding the rails each way. After all, Aomori Prefecture is great and all, but as a day trip? While I’ll admit that my foray into one of my favorite locales in northern Japan was a bit on the looney side, the topic of today’s post had long lingered on my bucket list. Seeing as I had already essentially completed the rest of Aomori Prefecture on previous tours, this final hidden gem was something like a splinter in my mind. Without making a deliberate trek back to Aomori again, it was highly likely that I’d never get to cross off this remaining location.
Overly verbose intro aside, let’s get on to the meat and potatoes (can we make it a satsuma-imo instead?) of this article. Today, we’ll be taking a look at an ancient sepulcher that enshrines Mt. Iwaki. Originally erected over 1,200 years ago, this shrine technically lays claim to the entirety of the 1,627 meter-tall mountain. In Japanese, the sanctum is known as “Iwakiyama-jinya” which essentially translates to Mt. Iwaki Shrine. Most of the existing content opts to use the moniker Iwakiyama Shrine so I am going to follow suit. It may seem a bit confusing at first to read Mt. Iwaki when referring to the peak alongside mention of Iwakiyama Shrine, just know that they are synonymous.
Before going too far down the rabbit hole of Iwakiyama Shrine, I really ought to pause for a moment and introduce Mt. Iwaki itself. This nearly symmetrical volcano has long been iconic of the region that today comprises Aomori Prefecture. Rising out of the neighboring plains in total isolation from any other bluffs, Mt. Iwaki is quite the sight to behold. In fact, the mountain’s striking similarity to the far more famous Mt. Fuji has earned it the name “the Mt. Fuji of Tsugaru” over the eons (with Tsugaru being the former title of this part of Japan). Honestly, it’s easy to see why our forebears would revere such a mound as sacred.
How to Get There
This should be blatantly obvious by now but the journey to Iwakiyama Shrine necessitates that one first schlep their sorry arses up to Aomori. This is most easily accomplished by either taking a quick flight or by hopping one of the northern-bound bullet trains. As always, refer to our friends at Jorudan or a similar service for the most up-to-date information on departures. Once in the prefecture, you’ll need to make your way over to the former castle town of Hirosaki. Assuming that you’re coming via train, just take the JR Ou Line from Shin-Aomori Station to Hirosaki Station. I have never had the opportunity to fly into Aomori and I cannot comment on the logistics so do a bit of reading if you choose the flight option.
After arriving at Hirosaki Station, it will be time for the real fun to begin. Put simply, there are no trains that service the region around Mt. Iwaki. As a result, the only recourse for those relying on public transportation is to hop a bus from Hirosaki Station to Iwakiyama Shrine. Luckily, this isn’t all too difficult. All you need to do is exit the station and head on over to bus stop number six (pictured above). Here, you can catch a ride to the shrine but be careful not to get on the wrong bus. In all honesty, it’s probably safest to inquire at Hirosaki’s tourism info counter. This is located in the train station itself and is easy to find. Just mutter “Iwakiyama-jinya” and the helpful staff will help you out.
Note to the drivers out there. Aomori is a prefecture that is best explored by rental car. While it can be done via public transportation, departures are few and far between. If you can snag yourself a set of wheels and actually know how to operate an automobile, it would behoove you to do so. Unfortunately, I never learned to drive so this option is off the table for me.
Exploring Iwakiyama Shrine
Logistics now handled, let’s get back to discussing the shrine itself. Essentially, Iwakiyama Shrine is one of the most spiritually significant spots in Aomori. Since around the year 780, residents living in the region have worshiped the venerable complex. Prior to that time, the site was also revered by the local Emishi tribes. Given that this period of Japanese history largely pre-dates written records, we only have mytho-historical sources as points of reference. Assuming that these iffy accounts are actually true, Iwakiyama Shrine was originally founded by the folk-hero Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro in honor of his father.
Like with the Dewa Sanzan mountains slightly to the south in Yamagata Prefecture, Mt. Iwaki and Iwakiyama Shrine are dripping with the trappings of Shinbutsu Shugo (or the syncretic union of Shinto and Buddhism). The three clearly identifiable peaks of Mt. Iwaki are said to be associated with the Amida Buddha, the Medicine Buddha, and Kannon, the goddess of mercy. What’s more, the entire Iwakiyama Shrine complex features the vibe of a Buddhist temple. From what I can gather, this is because the site that became the present day shrine was formerly a subsidiary temple by the name of Hyakutaku-ji.
As you’ll see when exploring the grounds, much of Iwakiyama Shrine feels very much like a temple. Though certainly decked out with the typical torii and other Shinto paraphanalia that you’ll observe on consecrated Shinto ground, Iwakiyama Shrine also spotlights many Buddhist style gateways. Of these, the gargantuan two-story Romon actually dates from very early on in the Edo period (1603–1868). Along with the innermost sanctums of Iwakiyama Shrine, this gate is decked out with decorative wood carvings in a similar style to that of Nikko’s famed Toshogu Shrine. From what I gather, all of these structures have been registered as National Important Cultural Properties.
When happening upon the shrine, guests will begin their visit at the start of a lengthy ascent. As you meander up the cedar-lined path, you’ll stumble upon a number of ancient eerie torii gates. Pass under these and you’ll soon come across a gigantic vermillion edifice. This is the aforementioned Romon. To its right-hand side, you’ll find a water basin with a three-headed dragon spout for purifying yourself. The liquid that flows from the basin is sourced directly from the sacred Mt. Iwaki and is believed to bless those who imbibe it.
Once your soul is clean, pass under the Romon gateway where you’ll come upon the inner most areas of Iwakiyama Shrine. Here, you need to pay extra special attention to the gorgeous woodwork on display. Many of the buildings that encircle the Oku-no-In are difficult to gain a good vantage point however the glimpses you can behold are breathtaking. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a good angle so you’ll have to make do with the above.
By the way, if you’re feeling extra vigorous, know that you can actually ascend Mt. Iwaki via a path found on the left-hand side of the massive Romon. The entire trek will take you upwards of four hours each way so it’s not for the faint of heart. Should you elect to take on the challenge, be sure to bring a bell of some sort along to ward off any unwelcome encounters with Mt. Iwaki’s wildlife inhabitants.
Going Up Mt. Iwaki
Too lazy to actually haul your behind up Mt. Iwaki? Well, you’re in luck. You see, there’s a far easier way to reach the summit. Known as the Tsugaru Iwaki Skyline, this lengthy lane will transport you from the base of the peak to its eighth station. While I believe it’s possible to make this leg of the journey via public transportation, the Tsugaru Iwaki Skyline really appeals to those with rental cars. To reach higher levels of Mt. Iwaki, the road makes a total of sixty hairpin turns on the way up. Typically considered to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world, parts of the Tsugaru Iwaki Skyline have as much as a 10% gradient. Now that’s steep!
Unfortunately, for those who would like to zip their way down the mountain à la Tokyo Drift, the Tsugaru Iwaki Skyline doesn’t go all the way to the summit. From the eighth station, you’ll need to make your way to higher altitudes via a chairlift to the ninth station. Finally, after riding the chairlift to its terminal point, the last leg of the journey to the summit will demand a hefty hike of approximately thirty minutes. As arduous as this may sound, it certainly beats the four hour trek up from the base of Mt. Iwaki at Iwakiyama Shrine!
Other Nearby Attractions
My frenzied day trip to Aomori aside, know that those intrepid adventurers who make the journey up to this part of northern Japan would do well to spend more time in the prefecture. There’s just so much on offer in this neck of the woods. Seeing as I’ve covered the rest of Aomori in other guides, I am just going to opt to link to my former works highlighting the prefecture to keep this piece as brief as possible.
- Mt. Osore (Osorezan)
Venture Into the Buddhist Maw of Hell
- Autumn in Aomori
The North’s Breathtaking Fall Foliage
- Hungover in Hachinohe
Boozy Alleyways & the Morning Market
By the way, if you’re wondering, the shot above was taken at Mt. Osore which translates into “Fear Mountain.” To learn more, check out the first of the three works linked above. It’s one of my all time favorite attractions in Japan and definitely worth it if you’re on the hunt for a hidden gem (though it does require quite the commitment).
Finally, should you be visiting during the months of spring, definitely check out Hirosaki Park. This is one of the best spots to see the cherry blossoms and where a lot of chasers end their journey for the year. Do be sure to check the forecasts before you go though as the timing can be a lot different than down south.
Until next time travelers…