(Click here to start from Part 1 of this series on hiking Mount Mitake.)
High atop Mount Mitake, northwest of Tokyo, Musashi-Mitake Shrine offers gorgeous views of Chichibu Tama-Kai National Park, home to a number of sacred peaks (including Mitake).
The entrance to the shrine looks much like many other Shintō holy places, with a purification fountain:
and a torii marking the formal entry to the sacred space:
Carved stone lanterns (toro) and ceremonial stones flank the flight of steep stone stairs leading up to the shrine’s main gate.
On the day I visited, cool breezes fluttered the flags beside the stairs. Although the clouds obscured my view of the other sacred mountains in the area, overcast days mean cooler temperatures for hiking, so I wasn’t disappointed.
I climbed the stairs, eagerly anticipating the sight of the guardian statues watching over the worship hall and sub-shrines built around the mountain’s peak. Most Shintō shrines (and many Buddhist temples) have guardian statues, but the ones on Mount Mitake are unique–and I couldn’t wait to see them.
I reached the top of the stairs, turned left . . . and discovered I hadn’t reached the top at all.
Yet another flight of stairs curled away up the mountain, this one even longer, higher, and steeper than the first. However, I noticed another torii ahead, half-hidden in the trees (you can see it in the photo above), and suspected the worship hall lay just beyond it.
Bypassing a stone bench with finials in the shape of owls, I kept on climbing.
Unfortunately, when I reached the second torii, I realized my climb was just beginning.
At least ten more flights of stairs wound upward through the trees, past decorative benches, carved memorial stones and many, many red and blue flags.
The breadth of the walkways suggest that thousands of visitors climb these stairs on festival days, though on the day I visited I saw only about a dozen others there. I’m not sure whether the stairs or the morning rain had scared them off (most likely the latter) but the mountain, and the temple, were silent enough for me to appreciate the singing of birds overhead and the gentle rustling of wind through the trees that lined the mountain’s upper slopes.
Just as I started pondering a rest on one of the nearby benches, I noticed buildings up ahead. I had almost reached the summit.
Rounding a corner, I looked up the final flight of stairs and saw the worship hall. Huzzah!
As promised, a pair of beautifully-carved guardian wolves stood watch on either side of the worship hall.
Their snarls are meant to frighten evil spirits away from the shrine and the mountain–visitors with noble intentions have nothing to fear!
According to legend, wolves led Prince Yamato Takeru back to safety after a mountain demon (in the form of a stag) led him astray on the slopes of Mount Mitake. Thereafter, he declared the wolves divine, and they have been the special guardians of the peak. (I recently wrote another article about the wolves for Murder is Everywhere.)
Behind the worship hall, a number of sub-shrines dot the summit, including an Inari shrine (one of over ten thousand Inari shrines in Japan) which also has guardian wolves in place of the usual foxes.
I spent almost an hour at the summit, enjoying the (admittedly cloud-limited) views and wandering through the shrine. I also visited the treasure house, which holds a variety of important artifacts, including suits of armor, swords, and horses’ barding.
Videos inside the treasure house explain the history (and, in some cases, uses) of the various items on display. However, the videos and displays are all in Japanese (with no English translations), something visitors should know before paying the $5 admission fee.
(There is no admission fee for the shrine itself, only for the treasure house, and then only if you choose to go inside.)
Despite the clouds that obscured the supposedly fabulous views from the summit, I found Musashi-Mitake Jinja well worth an hour on the train and an hour’s walk from the cable car to the summit. While the stairs make access difficult for people with mobility issues, abundant benches along the way make it an easy climb, with places to rest in case you can’t manage all the stairs in a single go.
Have you ever visited a Japanese mountaintop shrine? If so, which one is your favorite?
(Click here to continue the journey on Mount Mitake, with a visit to the Tengu’s Seat.)