At 7:48, when the morning sun was still reflecting off Tokyo Station’s silver towers, the Shinkansen Max Toki 305 slid from the platform. Sleep deprived because I accidentally discovered Olympics badminton the night before, I went straight to napping.
Yahiko is about a 3-hour, super comfortable, train ride from Tokyo. Japan’s Shinkansen make me love long train trips.
My destination lay right under a mountain that faced the sea. It’s not what you think. Yahiko Village is on the fertile Niigata plains that stretch between the Japanese Alps and the Sea of Japan. On this flatland, a small mountain range forms a mini wall against the sea, and the holy mountain is none other than Mount Yahiko. I was visiting using travel tips from Odigo Japan, and you can see my itinerary at the end of the post.
First, arrival and food!
It’s one of those assuming shops, Bunsuido, but it makes a famous snack called panda-yaki, a panda-shaped stick-rice pancake with various fillings. The most creative one is the edamame flavour, which has a subtle, savoury soy flavour to compliment the sugar in this sweet. I also recommend their matcha green tea soft ice cream, which is also not too sweet!
In my eagerness to eat, I dropped my lense cap into the sewer and spent a good 15-minutes getting it back out. Thankfully, it didn’t have running water, or I’d have been quite despondent the entire trip.
I entered Yahiko Shrine, the main attraction of the town, close to noon. The shrine grounds, which is a well-tended expanse of cedars sprinkled with younger saplings, offered instant reprieve from the over-active sun. Most of the visitors aglomerated here.
Being used to small and even abandoned shrines, part of me reflexively cringes when I see more than 10 people. Still, the families, tour groups, young couples, and elderly pairs created a harmless air of bubbly ambience. The shrine approach is wide enough for several horses to march side by side and had plenty of space to accommodate the ebb and flow of traffic.
I wanted to find something about the shrine that was personal, whatever that meant. Shrines in Kyoto and Nikko are impressive feats of human skill gathered by wealth and power. I like studying that type of workmanship. The shrine at Miyajima commands attention, drawing the visitor inwards. Shrines like Yahiko are better for highlighting the surrounding area.
For photographers, dawn and dusk are the best time to photograph temples, in my opinion. The daylight creates too much contrast for photography. It doesn’t dampen the spirits of the visitors, though. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the families coming through the gates. This struck a balance of casual ambience and reverence.
After clapping my hands (mistakenly twice, instead of the special 4 claps for Yahiko Shrine), offering my coin, and saying a prayer, I moved off to explore the rest of the grounds.
The best way to enjoy them, in my opinion, is to find the perfect moment. Perfect moments are different for everyone.
I stumbled upon a lady who laid her wishes before a specific kami, spirit / god. Just 50 metres away, over a hundred people walked by the main boulevard while she prayed. Many major shrines (and temples) also have smaller shrines. These more modest structures are auxiliary shrines that act as conduits for spirits housed elsewhere.
Then, being a history junkie, I headed off into the Treasure Hall. Places have more dimension once I place them in history. History becomes more anchored when I can see artifacts and read stories.
I didn’t know what to expect at the Treasure Hall. A cursory skim of the items yielded a bland cataloguing of names and dates. However, when I arrived, paid my ¥300 and headed to the second-floor, I was quite surprised. Some of the blades on display were huge (I had to stand back 5 metres to fit 2 into my frame), while others were more pragmatic sizes.
Some people may find the admission fee a turn-off, but I feel that it’s a worthwhile investment for the maintenance of not only the artefacts, but the entire shrine grounds.
With that, I headed off to more temple-hopping.
I also didn’t know what to expect of the Hoko-in, having seen my fair share of temples. Old things can be big or small, impressive or underwhelming. That a building has survived half a millennia or just been erected two decades ago rarely changes our immediate, superficial, reactions. On the surface, this temple is a well-kept, simple structure. The altar is open and visible to visitors. But it would be a disservice to say it’s a typical temple, simply because typically authentic and old temples generally make great places to sit and just watch the afternoon go by.
This temple is about a 10-minute walk from Yahiko Shrine and could be easily missed on the undulating paved road. Small signs point to the Hoko-in and the Basho Monument behind the building.
Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) is the preeminent poet of Edo Japan, famous for taking the famous 5-7-5 syllable haiku form to new heights. His masterwork Oku no Hosomichi, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, one of my favourite literary travelogues (literary aside – Basho was influenced by the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu). The Deep North was the old Northern Frontier that loosely included places like Yahiko (you can see the full route in the map below).
Unfortunately, I didn’t find Basho’s monument. Or, perhaps I did and didn’t know it for there were many weather-worn stone graves behind the Hoko-in. The path behind the building led to a small cemetery that seemed to have grown up with the trees protecting the stones. Some were so worn they could be mistaken for boulders if it wasn’t for the shide and laurels placed carefully beside them. Some also had fresh rice laid on a leaf, a sign that a family member has visited for Obon, a summer festival to visit the dead.
This cemetery is the warmest I’ve ever visited, an unexpected highlight. There’s something about the mix of freshly carved tombstones mingled with the moss-covered nameless markers, although I couldn’t place my finger on what. I moved on to find the 1000-year-old Baba Sugi deeper into the grounds.
Again, it was just a place where I wanted to stop and stare. A fresh current came through the bushes without rustling the leaves. A beam illuminated the log bench where I could have sat. Looking up, this cedar’s branches seemed like they were the sky.
Jizo, protector of pregnant mothers and travellers. My time on Shikoku will always endear me to this protector and all those who take care of him. One of the things I love most about these rural places is how people continue to care for things, even as they accept the fading features and dissolving identities.
Within an hour of arriving, I was taking photos of people’s front lawns and gardens. The village is a small one, and some homes are still crammed into typically small Japanese lots, but people still take time to grow things. The families that do have space tend to keep their trees trimmed and their pots filled with blooming flowers.
My favourite street was an alley (I think that was once a stream) I wandered down in search of late lunch.
I spent so much time walking, I walked past lunch hour (typically 12-2pm in the inaka, rural parts). I had the option to try more Japanese sweets or settle down somewhere to rest my feet. I was fascinated with these traditional shops, which are frequented enough to afford their upkeep. The interiors are usually a subtle juggle of maintained wooden beams, Shinto worship items, modern signage and posters, and well-kept retro items (at least for us North Americans).
Anyhow, by now, I needed food, and my options dwindled to the cafe right across from the Yahiko Shrine torii gate.
I have to say, I was quite impressed with the kinako (roasted soy bean) parfait! It came with red bean, mochi (the chewy rice balls), cream, agar agar jelly, and a slice of fruit. It’s the perfect afternoon snack while waiting for sunset. And, because I brought my Fujifilm X100 this time, I could finally take a photo of my complete remote work station.
Shasaian had a great ambiance because the stairway up broke up the two seating areas and kept the ambiance lively, but not too loud. I lucked out by getting a window spot facing the Yahiko Shrine torii, so I could watch as visitors trickled out and the leaves turned into an orange-golden glow.
Sunset over the ocean was around 6:30, but by 5:00, the sun had already dipped below the mountain to the West. At that point, I walked down the Manyodo to the Yahiko Ropeway. The Manyodo means the Manyo Road and references the Man’yōshū 万葉集, Japan’s oldest text representing a period between roughly 600-800 AD. That Yahiko is mentioned in this poetic collection is a testament to the town’s age and importance, a great source of pride for its locals.
The ropeway took me directly to the top, where I could walk to the observation tower. In Japanese, the announcement told me sunset was at 6:50pm, so I had about an hour to spare. Everyone was flocking to the tower and the dining building, so I headed in the opposite direction to follow the footpaths that traced the ridges.
Geographically, Mount Yahiko is an anomaly. The mountain ridge line forms a small wall against the Sea of Japan, rising out of nowhere and sliding back into the flatlands on either side. It’s no wonder that the place has been sacred for centuries.
After walking along both peaks, I settled on a staircase, which frames the sunset better. On this mountain, I learned something: that the most beautiful sunsets are defined by their sound. First-class sunsets are over the sea and, in my opinion, made better with an island or two. The usual soundtrack is the soothing lap of waves.
The track I had that evening was the slow waking of crickets accompanied by single crow calls. Time slowed even as the ocean air continued to flow.
Two magenta brush strokes made up Sado Island in the distance.
With sunset over, I had a dinner to hurry to. The ropeway down brief, but fun, perhaps thanks to the family that accompanied me up and down.
At the base, a free shuttle took us from the station back to Yahiko Shrine. Since I had time, I couldn’t help but visit the grounds gain while the sky still glowed.
The lanterns were lit, lending an atmospheric glow to the cobblestone. By now, only a handful of people were making up the last visitors for the day. The laughs, shouts and clamour just hours before have been replaced by a hush.
By now I’m starving, but most of the village is closed. Of course, one or two establishments are still open, so my friends and I choose a restaurant on the main road. The place reminds me of the family restaurants across the street from me in Tokyo. They, too, have only a few tables on tatami mats and maybe one private room. Being able to walk past those places after dark, often with half-open doors and hearty laughter slipping out onto the streets, is what makes Tokyo homey. The menu items are handwritten and the sushi chef is just metres away behind the bar counter. At the end of a long day, spent enjoying all the things Tokyo doesn’t have, this familiar neighbourhood restaurant was the best way to feel at home on the road.
After dinner, I take my long-awaited shower and pass out. I have to wake up for seafood breakfast at Teradomari tomorrow!
Thanks for checking this out!
Here is my itinerary (made with Odigo Japan), look out for my upcoming post on my Yahiko Day 2 Trip.
In the meantime, you can check out my photo essay on Japan’s Lost Pilgrimage: Kunisaki.