Every single time that I think I’ve completed a prefecture, Japan turns around and hits me in the face with evidence that I’ll never be able to fully write somewhere off. Just recently, this reminder happened while I was down in Nara. As part of a tour arranged by the prefectural powers that be, I was to spend the night at a shukubo pilgrim lodging on Nara’s Mt. Shigi (Shigisan in Japanese). It didn’t dawn on me until I arrived at the mountaintop Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji temple compound that I had somehow managed to miss out on this amazing hidden gem for all these years.
If you haven’t heard of Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji before, I suspect that you’re not alone. Despite dating from the earliest eras of Japanese history, Nara’s Mt. Shigi and its Buddhist temple somehow have evaded the attention of international tourists thus far. Legends state that Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji and its tiger connection got its start back in the 6th century. Allegedly, the benevolent Prince Shotoku came here to pray to Bishamonten, a fierce protector deity of Buddhism. If you believe what they say, he prayed in the year of the tiger, on the day and hour of the tiger for victory.
Given the existence of Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji, it will come as no surprise to hear that Prince Shotoku won his campaign. Following his victory, a temple was erected atop Mt. Shigi and this proto incarnation from many years ago grew into the present-day Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji. Moreover, the connection with the tiger and Bishamonten has also survived the years as well. All throughout the complex, visitors will encounter all sorts of other imagery of the Buddhist god as well as tons of tiger paraphernalia.
Aside from it being a center for mountain ascetics to train, Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji also played a role in all sorts of other legends from Nara Prefecture too. For example, the temple was supposedly home to a mystical monk during the 9th century. According to local myths, this mysterious figure would fly down from the mountain to the storehouses of wealthy merchants and fill up their warehouses with rice. This tall tale and other similar stories have been immortalized in an illustrated scroll known as the Shigisan-Engi-Emaki.
All in all, Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji is a great add on to any standard itinerary for Nara Prefecture. As longtime readers will already know, I am a big proponent of overnighting in this part of Japan. At the end of the day, there’s just too much to see and do in the prefecture for one day. While you’ll need to get to the top of the mountain following your first day in Nara, a stay in one of Mt. Shigi’s shukubo pilgrim lodging is a great means of solving for the comparative lack of evening allures in the prefecture.
How to Get There
I am not going to lie. The trip to Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji is not easy if you don’t have a rental car at your disposal. By far, the simplest way to get there is to bite the bullet and take a taxi from Oji Station. Though this will be a bit more expensive round trip, it more than makes up for the headache of otherwise getting to the top of the mountain. At the end of the day though, if you’re splitting the bill with other members of your party, it shouldn’t come out to too much, all things considered.
If you’re looking to save a bit of cash, know that Mt. Shigi can actually be reached via public transportation. Like with the aforementioned taxi option, you’re going to want to first head to Oji Station. From there, you can hop a bus over. The downside of this is that the final bus is around 6:30 PM. I’ll leave a link to the bus schedules here as they are subject to change but do note the time of that last departure is. Assuming that you’re trying to see some other spots, this is painfully early and will greatly curtail your freedom.
Now, some of you may want to consider doing Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji as a mere day trip. If you elect to not lodge on the mountain in a shukubo though, you really ought to consider whether or not the destination makes sense in the first place. There’s not a whole lot to do after sunset in Nara so if you do elect for a day trip, I’d suggest that you head back to Kyoto or Osaka after. For example, you could do Nara Park and its attractions on day one then head on over to Mt. Shigi on the following day.
In either case, the following is the address for the temple complex in both English and Japanese…
2280–1 Shigisan Heguri-cho Ikoma-gun
Should you heed my advice and take the taxi, just show this to the driver and they’ll be able to figure out the rest. While I get why some of you might want to keep costs down on your trip to Japan, trust me when I say that you’ll be able to enjoy Nara a lot more if you’re not beholden to that last bus when staying in a shukubo. Even when you consider that most places will serve dinner around 7:30 PM, having the added flexibility is a godsend.
The Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji Temple Grounds
Lovingly referred to as the “Tiger Temple,” Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji is a sprawling complex that takes up the majority of Mt. Shigi. Upon arriving, the first thing you’ll be greeted with is a giant papier-mâché tiger. This artsy guardian is known as Fukutora and is officially the largest concoction of its kind in the whole world. When set against the backdrop of the main hall up on the bluff high above, Fukutora makes for a great pic for the Gram.
Just beyond the papier-mâché tiger you’ll encounter a vividly painted tunnel in the shape of a tiger. Known as the Santora-no-Fuku Tainai Meguri, this structure actually exists to test visitors. Upon entering, you’ll be engulfed in darkness and need to find your way through to the other end where there’s a small inari shrine. According to local folklore, only the strong and brave are able to make it through Santora-no-Fuku Tainai Meguri but it’s honestly not too scary. While immersed in the blackness, try to find a large iron lock as doing so will make your wish come true.
As you venture deeping into the Buddhist enclave, you’ll find a number of sub temples and other such structures. A significant number of these are either shukubo lodgings for pilgrims or the ancillary infrastructure related to them. Additionally, you’ll also find the Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji temple compound’s principle hall. This building sits atop a series of study pillars and juts out from the cliff face. From here, you’ll have a panoramic view of most of Nara Prefecture down below.
In addition to the main hall, there are a number of other spots worth mentioning. The most photogenic of these are a pair of multi-tiered pagodas and a large Buddhist effigy. Nearby, you’ll also find a pathway that leads higher up to the uppermost reaches of Mt. Shigi. Though it is indeed a bit of a hike, you’ll be greeted with a breaktaking vista from the lookout at Kuhachi Gobo-do. What’s more, the later sections of the path are lined with torii gates which make the climb quite atmospheric.
By the way, Mt. Shigi is part of a mountain range that sits between Osaka Prefecture in the west and Nara Prefecture in the east. Because of this, you’ll be able to see both of the two from the observation deck at Kuhachi Gobo-do. Try to time your trip up to this part of Mt. Shigi so that you can catch the sunset. Trust me when I say that it is extremely beautiful and a great way to end your day before heading to your shukubo for dinner.
Stay at One of Mt. Shingi’s Shukubo
Speaking of shukubo, I absolutely insist that anyone who wants to have an authentic experience of Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji stay at one of the several lodging for pilgrims. When doing so, you’ll get a chance to try out some of the Shojin Ryori that is served when staying at Buddhist temples. Additionally, you can also enjoy and partake in the morning services such as the Goma Fire Ritual. Though you’ll need to get up super early, there isn’t really much to do on Mt. Shigi at night so definitely set an alarm.
From what I can gather, there are the following three shukubo to choose from…
When I spent the night on Mt. Shigi, my squad and I stayed at Gyokuzo-in. It’s highly rated and has enough English for overseas visitors to Japan to easily navigate the place. What’s more, the head monk also is quite proficient in English and was able to offer the easiest to understand explanation of the Goma Fire Ritual that I’ve heard to date.
Other Nearby Attractions
Mt. Shigi and the Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji temple compound are located on the western extremes of Nara prefecture. Here, on the border of Nara and Osaka, you’ll find the thrilling Ikoma Sanjo Amusement Park which is great for those of you who are traveling with kids. While I cannot comment on the logistics for public transportation, it might be a good option following the morning prayer session. Alternatively, you could also check out Ikoma Taisha and Hozan-ji if you prefer something a little bit more solemn. You’ll find all of three of these to the north of the spot I’ve introduced here today.
In terms of more well known spots, Horyu-ji (pictured above) is also located in Nara’s Ikoma District and is therefore quite close to Mt. Shigi. This locale is one of the most venerable temples in all of Japan and is officially home to the oldest wooden buildings in the world. Assuming that you’re doing the standard Nara Park itinerary on day one and then spending the night at Shigisan Chogosonshi-ji, Horyu-ji may very well be the best add-on to consider, at least insomuch as sightseeing is concerned. What’s more, it can be reached relatively easily via the trains if you’re willing to walk a bit to the ancient Buddhist temple.
Finally, should you find yourself in this section of Japan during June’s rainy season, you might want to swing by Yata-dera. Situated near Horyu-ji, this hilltop temple is known for its garden of thousands of hydrangeas and is especially beautiful during the early months of summer. Don’t miss it if the timing works out for you!
Until next time travelers…