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Legacy of the Wolves

A Guide to Chichibu’s Majestic Mitsumine Shrine

Legacy of the Wolves

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.

Getting There

Legacy of the Wolves

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.

The Approach

 Legacy of the Wolves
 
 
 

The bus will let you off at the entrance to the Mitsumine shrine area. From there you’ll need to hoof it five or ten minutes to the wolf-honoring sanctuary. As you make your way towards the shrine, you’ll first happen upon two soba restaurants that also serve as souvenir gift shops — yes mom, they do sell adorable little wolf figurines too. If you’re feeling hungry, I highly suggest you pop into either of these shacks as they both do things the old fashioned way and craft their own noodles by hand everyday. Trust me when I say that the soba at either of these two joints almost justifies the trip in and of itself!

Moving right along, after you pass by the two restaurant cum souvenir shops, you’ll come upon the impressive torii gate pictured above. The gate sports a very rare triple arch style and demarcates the profane world from Mitsumine shrine’s consecrated grounds. Once you pass under it, you’ll officially be on the shrine’s territory but just be sure not to miss the two fearsome wolf statues on either side. While most shrines would typically employ a pair of Komainu lion dogs to guard the entrance, here Mitsumine shrine uniquely stays true to its ancient wolven connections.

Note that to the left of the torii gate, you’ll also find a concrete building that contains a small treasure hall. This simple museum chronicles the long history of Mitsumine shrine. Inside you’ll also find an exhibit on wolves, a few wolf pelts, and documents that delineate the imperial family’s and its connection to the shrine. Entry will run you a couple hundred yen. Personally, I’d suggest skipping this for now as a quick perusal can be a great way to kill time later while waiting for the bus back to civilization.

Anyway, after passing under the torii gate, you’ll encounter a pathway lined with a number of aged stone epitaphs. These create a spiritual atmosphere that sets the tone for what’s to come. From here, it’s only a few more minutes to the main areas of Mitsumine shrine. Soldier on!

Zuishinmon Gate

Legacy of the Wolves
 
 

At the end of the path, you’ll come across a three-way fork in the road. While we’ll cover all of these in turn, for now make a hard left and then head down the stairs towards the massive gate pictured above. This structure is known as the Zuishinmon gate and it is quite the magnificent sight to behold. The entirety of the structure is engraved with wood carvings of all sorts of flowers and creatures. Each of these carvings are in turn colored with vivid hues that create opulence that can rival even that of Nikko’s famous Tosho-gu shrine. As with the aforementioned torii gateway, be sure not to miss the two wolf statues on either side of the Zuishinmon gate while admiring the craftsmanship!

Now students of Japanese culture might be wondering what the hell a gate is doing on a shrine’s grounds. After all, aren’t gates one of the main hallmarks of Buddhist temples? Oh boy, this is where things get messy. As with many such centers for the practice of mountain aestheticism, Mitsumine shrine was historically neither wholly a shrine nor wholly a temple. In fact, these distinctions are a relatively modern one. Just know that the two religions co-existed until they were forcibly separated by the Meiji government in 1868. As such, much of the historic cross pollination continues to exist today.

The Main Shrine

Legacy of the Wolves

Once you pass under the Zuishinmon, you’ll finally be on your way to reaching the main shrine. Head down the stairs and continue straight past another pair of wolf statues. Shortly thereafter, you’ll eventually come across another flight of stairs on the right hand side. With a last burst of effort and a short ascent, you’ll find yourself at last looking at the haiden (prayer hall) which is pictured above. Before approaching to pay your respects though, be sure to first purify yourself at the temizuya water absolution pavilion on the left. 

Now I have a word for the wise. According to local folklore, Mitsumine shrine has long had a reputation for blessing its visitors with good fortune in both the realms of romance and in the office. Many patrons report that their lives started coming together after they made the trek to this mountain top shrine. Just be sure to not miss out on the intricate wood carvings that adorn the haiden when praying for worldly success. Though I am of course partial to hidden gems like this one up in Chichibu, I’d wager that Mitsumine shrine can easily compete with any of Japan’s more notable attractions.

While it’s easy to spend an entire day just studying the master craftsmanship that went into the ornate designs, there’s a lot more to Mitsumine shrine. Right in front of the haiden, you’ll also find a series of three gargantuan cedar trees. Allegedly, these trees radiate a special energy and one is able to recharge their spiritual reserves simply by placing their palms and forehead on the immense trunks. In addition to these mighty timbers, you’ll also find an able collection of smaller family shrines on the right hand side of the central structures. Among these, there’s even an offertory to the Tokugawa family that ruled Japan for over 250 years.

If you continue on past these sub shrines, you’ll eventually find yourself back at the three-way fork that leads to the Zuishinmon. One of the divergent paths will lead to the lookout covered below. Alternatively, if you turn left as you leave the main shrine area and make a short climb, you’ll encounter a statue of Yamato Takeru. As described in the introduction, this fiery soul is credited with originally founding Mitsumine shrine in the early years of Japanese history. Truth be told though, the artist’s rendition of the warrior feels almost like it was ripped from the pages of a manga or something. Personally, I’m not a fan but others may like it.

The Lookout

Legacy of the Wolves

Note that if you’re lucky enough to be making the trek to Mitsumine shrine on an overcast day, chances are high that you’ll be treated to the sight of magnificent hillsides draped in mist. It’s an eerie scene that feels like it was taken directly from the pages of Lord of the Rings or something! As if this weren’t already cool enough, Mt. Mitsumine’s height often means that you’ll eventually break through the clouds when making the journey there. While this will give way to some really jaw dropping vantages, the real treat is a phenomenon known as unkai in Japanese (lit. the “sea of clouds”). This miracle of nature takes place when the area’s wispy puffs cannot escape the confines of their mountainous cages.

For visitors to Mitsumine shrine, by far the best spot to take in the otherworldliness of the sea of clouds is at the lookout pictured above. This can be reached by taking the opposite path from the fork that leads to Zuishinmon. You’ll find this prized, scenic viewpoint at the top of a short flight of stairs that leads away from the ornate gate. Though Mt. Fuji traditionally holds the title for best unkai spot in Japan, as can be see in my amateur iPhone shot above, Chichibu and Mitsumine shrine are no slouches either in this department.

Other Attractions

Legacy of the Wolves

Clamoring for a little bit more action? Don’t worry, there’s still one other place that I suggest you check out! If you head back towards the ostentatious haiden and keep going just a little bit further past the adjacent shrine office, you’ll find that Mitsumine shrine is actually strangely home to its own ryokan. That’s right, you can actually spend the night at this consecrated site (though you’ll need to reserve well in advance due to it being constantly booked out). Known as Mitsumine Shrine Kounkaku, this facility has its own natural hot springs which are thankfully also available for day use. If you are in the mood for a good, long soak after exploring, the ryokan’s onsen will cost you only a mere 600 yen.

Before concluding this article, allow me to give you a final word of caution. The last bus back to the Seibu-Chichibu train station leaves at no later than 4:30 PM. Be sure not to miss it while soothing your now-purified soul in Mitsumine Shrine Kounkaku’s calming waters. It’s a hell of a long walk back to civilization after all and you don’t want to end up in the belly of the wolves.

 
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