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Hiking in Nikko to Takinoo Jinja

Polish your boots, get your backpack and grab your camera. We're going hiking again, and this time we'll follow in the footsteps of a holy man.

Shōdō Shōnin (勝道上人) was one of the great monks of the Heian era. Not only the first person to explore the mountains of  Nikko, he also founded several temples in this area, including Shiunryū-ji (present-day Rinnō-ji) and Chūzen-ji.

The torii at Takinoo Jinja. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

It is said that when he wanted to cross the Daiya River, a flood cut off his access to the mountains beyond. A deity appeared on the opposite bank and threw two snakes across the raging river. The snakes turned into a bridge, and Shōdō could cross safely.

After his death in March 817 he was buried in Nikko. His statue stands at the entrance to the Nikko World Heritage Site in honour of his contribution to Buddhism in Japan.

The Sacred Bridge (神橋 shinkyō) where Shōdō Shōnin crossed
the Daiya River.

You can still walk along one of his routes, a meandering trail¹ that takes you behind the famous Tōshō-gū
, across the hills, past a famous waterfall and into a quiet gorge – no tourists! – that hides a shrine called Takinoo Jinja (滝尾神社). That was my goal.

If you want to follow this trail, start at Futarasan Jinja. Don't enter, but keep towards the left and walk past the shrine, hugging its outer wall. After that point it's fairly easy. You just follow the trail. Except where it splits. No worries: it's fun to get lost.

The entry to Futarasan Jinja

Futarasan Jinja

This is the path next to Futarasan Jinja. That red wall separates
the shrine complex from the start of the hiking trail.

Here we go!

I underestimated the trail slightly and set off at a gallop in an effort to escape the tourists, screaming kids, chattering bus loads and rapidly accumulating, flag-following senior gangs. That first part is steep. I was grateful to reach a small shrine where I could collapse with nobody but centuries-old cedars and koma-inu to witness my disgrace.

He's grinning because my knees were shaking.

When you reach the waterfall called Shiraito no taki (白糸の滝), you know you're almost at Takinoo Jinja, but first you pass through what is arguably its most famous feature, Undameshi no torii (運試しの鳥) or "try your luck" torii.

Shiraito no taki

The entrance to Takinoo Jinja

Yup, it's a bit steep.

The torii was contributed by Kaji Sadayoshi, a subject of the third shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa, in 1689. It has a round hole in the upper part, and it's believed that if you can throw three stones in succession through this hole, your wish will be granted. I didn't give it a go – I know my own limitations – but it was fun to watch as a group of young women tried their luck. They didn't succeed. I wonder how many pilgrims do.

Approaching Undameshi no torii

Throwing stones for good luck

Throw a stone through that hole three times in succession,
and good luck is yours.

Takinoo Jinja's buildings are hidden under giant cedars in a secluded ravine. Light doesn't enter: it is a realm of perpetual evenfall, of moss, myths and mysteries. A paved road stops at the main gate; thereafter you walk soundlessly on soft soil and fallen leaves. The footpath takes you past a shrine where you pray for love, a fountain with water that tastes like sake, and across a mountain brook to a massive stone that bestows its blessings on pregnant women² who worship here.

Takinoo Jinja's main gate is half-hidden behind cedars.

The main building at Takinoo Jinja

Most pilgrims stop at this point, but I noticed a barely visible path that followed the river and disappeared into the forest. Irresistible, and soon I was alone in an old forest with no companion but shadows and wind. I put my hand on a cedar that was high enough to touch the sun goddess herself, and felt three centuries tremble beneath my fingers.

I'll include short descriptions of the shrine's main points of interest:

Below is Yōgōseki (向石), the "shadow-facing stone", where gods are believed to take on a mortal form. It's said that Kōbō-Daishi, who originally founded the shrine in 820, saw a beautiful woman here. I don't know the rest of the story, but use your imagination.


I checked whether maybe a beautiful young man was hiding behind
Yōgōseki, but no such luck.

Enmusubi no sasa (縁結びの) is a shrine where couples can test their love: if you can tie a bamboo leaf (nowadays a piece of paper) around a branch using only the thumb and little finger of one hand, you'll enjoy a happy marriage.

Enmusubi no sasa

That's Enmusubi no sasa on the left

These cedars are called Sanbonsugi (三本), which simply means … well … "three cedars". Very profound. They're ancient, and are regarded as sacred trees. The original trees were associated with Kōbō-Daishi, but I've read that they fell in 1699, 1747 and 1749. The current trees are second generation, but the hollow trunk that's still lying at this shrine is one of the original trees.

The torii at Sanbonsugi

The ancient, hollow trunk is still worshipped at this shrine.
Japan, I love you.

Dru, this one's for you! It's called Sake no izumi (酒の泉) or "the fountain of liquor", and rumour has it that the water tastes just like sake. I was severely tempted, but I behaved myself. I did, however, do a bit of African breaking and entering when I clambered up the hill behind the well to get a decent photo.

Discarded, decomposing o-mikuji (strips of paper with your fortune
written on it, which you can buy at most shrines and temples)

May I add that's it dark in that ravine under those massive trees? If I were a better photographer, I would've taken better photos; but I'm not, so I didn't.

If you pray at Kodane-ishi (子種) or "prosperity stone", you'll enjoy an easy childbirth and will have many descendents. No prayers for me at this one, although above-mentioned breaking and entering was repeated in an effort to provide a good shrine guide.

Walking towards Kodane-ishi


There's a lot more more to tell about other places of worship in this area – not as well known as Tōshō-gū, but to me more interesting³ – but let's stop here for now.


1) You can also walk (or drive) to the shrine on an asphalt road along the eastern boundary of  Tōshō-gū.

2) If you're pregnant, you can drive to the shrine. You'll have to climb a few steep stairs, but if a 90-year-old obachan can do it with a backpack, a strapping young lass can do it with a tummypack.

3) Sorry, Sarah! I'm from Africa. Grin.

4) The pedantic copy-editor in me wants to write Nikkō instead of Nikko, but in English the diacritic is always left out. Ditto Tokyo, which should actually be written Tōkyō.

I could stand here forever, simply gazing upwards.

It's quite tiring to walk on these cobblestones for a long distance.

This dragon is at the entrance of the Nikko World Heritage Site.



If you look at the map (and zoom in), start at A at Futurasan Jinja, follow the trail to the left of the shrine and end at B at Takinoo Jinja. My next post will take you along the asphalt road from Takinoo Jinja to Tōshō-gū.

View Larger Map

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