Legacy of the Wolves
A Guide to Chichibu’s Majestic Mitsumine Shrine
Today we’ll be taking a look at one of my all-time favorite hidden gems that is rarely, if ever, featured in the English language media. Known as Mitsumine shrine, this mountaintop sanctuary can be found in the densely forested ridges of western Saitama prefecture. Situated atop the summit of the sacred Mt. Mitsumine in the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, Mitsumine shrine has long been associated with the practice of mountain aestheticism. Whether you’re an intrepid adventurer who is itching for a good hike or are otherwise in search of some quiet solitude, Mitsumine shrine is certainly well worth the effort it takes to get there.
As with most centers of mountain worship, Mitsumine shrine predates written history. Documentation from the early mists of time can be found in the Kojiki, Japan’s ancient record of mythohistory. First compiled in the year 712, the Kojiki asserts that Mitsumine shrine dates all the way back to around the year 150. Supposedly, the shrine was founded by Yamato Takeru, the son of an emperor in the second century. Allegedly, Takeru had a terrible violent streak and killed one of his brothers. Thereafter, the rambunctious youth was sent off to the empire’s budding frontier where his penchant for bloodshed could be put to better use.
In addition to its ancient historical legacy, there’s one more oddity that sets this alpine sepulcher apart from others of its kind. You see, in a major break with tradition, Mitsumine shrine actually pays homage to the “okami” or Japanese wolves. Though these beasts are now long extinct, they were once historically considered to be spiritual guardians against a whole slew of misfortunes. Thanks in no small part to this peculiar lupine connection, Mitsumine shrine has consistently held the honor of being an important pilgrimage site. In fact, during the Edo period (1603–1868), many residents of what is now Tokyo would make the trek all the way to Chichibu on foot to pray for protection.
As alluded to before, Mitsumine shrine is stationed atop a towering crag on the western border of Chichibu. Though technically located in Tokyo’s neighboring prefecture of Saitama, Chichibu is by no means in close proximity to Tokyo. In fact, Hakone and Narita are far closer to the capital than Chichibu at least as the crow flies. As such, a trip to Mitsumine shrine will require that you devote almost a whole day for your adventure. If you’d like to see more of Chichibu, consider overnighting in the area. If not, you’ll want to make a concerted effort to get up early so that you have enough time to explore the shrine.
By far, the fastest way to reach Chichibu from central Tokyo is to hop on any of Seibu’s Red Arrow Limited Express trains. You can pick one of these up at the Seibu Ikebukuro station which is located right next to the JR hub. Though you’ll need to pay a few hundred extra yen for a reserved seat, these handy trains will get you all the way up to Chichibu in approximately an hour and a half. Considering the region is located at the furthest extremes of Saitama prefecture, the Red Arrows really expedite the journey. As always, check with Hyperdia or a similar service for the latest train schedules. Note that your destination will be the Seibu-Chichibu station.
Once you’re in Chichibu, the next step involves taking a bus. Older travel guides might note that Mitsumine shrine can be reached via a ropeway but alas, this is no longer an option. The venerable Mitsumine Ropeway finally gave up the ghost back in 2006 following 65 years of reliable service. Luckily though, the bus will take you past some amazingly scenic vistas as it snakes its way up Mt. Mitsumine. These lookouts are especially stunning during the fall season when the trees come alive with vibrant hues of autumn. As such, if you’re planning a visit to Japan during October or November, you really can’t go wrong taking in Mitsumine shrine!
Anyway, to reach the towering 1,100 meter-tall peak you’ll need to take one of Chichibu’s numerous buses. The ones bound for Mitsumine shrine can be picked up at bus stop number five which you’ll find directly in front of the Seibu-Chichibu station. The trip takes about an hour or so depending on the road conditions and will cost you 930 yen. You’re not going to be able to use anything larger than a 1,000 yen bill so make sure you have enough small money to pay the fare. Alternatively, do the sensible thing and get an IC Card like a Suica. The cards are a real lifesaver as the very last thing you want to do is be THAT tourist who can’t pay his or her fare!
Note that Chichibu is nothing like central Tokyo. There are only a handful of departures per day at 9:10 AM, 10:05 AM, 12:15 PM, 2:00 PM and 3:00 PM with an additional 8:30 AM bus on Saturdays and Sundays. Unless you like waiting, be sure to get your behind to Chichibu in time for your bus. I suggest aiming for the 10:05 AM bus so that you’ll have more than enough time to enjoy Mitsumine shrine.