The historical shrines of Nikko (日光) are world-famous, as are the temples of Kyoto (京都) and Nara (奈良), yet the mountain shrines of Gunma (群馬) have been sadly ignored by many. These shrines, each attached to a mountain range, form the “Three Mountains of Jomo (上毛三山)” and boast a history dating to early Asuka (飛鳥; 500 AD). They have the charm and grandeur equal to that of Nikko or Kyoto and they allow visitors the opportunity to truly experience mountain tranquillity – something that is lost in other places as you “rush” from one monument to another. Find out about two of Gunma’s mountain shrines in this article!
The first of Gunma’s mountain shrines is Myogi. Myogi is amazing. There really is no other word for it. While people talk about Nikko, to me, Myogi symbolizes the best of nature, prayer, and magnificence. The wonderfully large structures complement the wild landscape that surrounds the shrine, with an air of peace that cannot be put into words.
Instead of the usual rush of tourists clambering around, in Myogi, you can casually walk and soak up the serenity. The shrine is located within the beautifully rugged Myogi Mountains. There are several walking trails – higher peaks for more experienced hikers, and lower areas for amateurs who want to explore nature without the need for professional gear. Worth the walk, the paths are clearly defined and accessible.
Myogi was established in 537 AD during the reign of Emperor Senka (宣化天皇); however, most of the buildings were built in the 1700s. The main shrine and several smaller shrines are dedicated to the mountain, earth, and nature.
During the Edo period (江戸時代), the shrine gained prominence as a significant cultural site. Recently, the shrine and its surrounding area were used as a movie location and it’s easy to see why – surrounded by nature, you lose all sense of perspective. The trees are wonderful, especially in spring (sakura), and in autumn, a coat of red colors the landscape.
The highlight of the shrine is the main sanctum which is located above the sub-shrines, up more stairs. This beautifully decorated karamon rivals that of Nikko with its black lacquer and artwork. The shrine itself is an important cultural property and features an impressive statue and golden dragon (in contrast to the more austere dragon motif that covers the Haruna Shrine’s main gate). The shrine also houses some of Gunma’s cultural treasures including paintings, sculpture, gold crafts, and stone tools.
Back towards the entrance, there is a traditional prayer area that people can walk through. On special occasions, the main part is also opened and you can wander through the well-maintained garden, with its lovely sakura tree, overlooking the township.
To get to Myogi, you will need a car. It takes about an hour from Takasaki Station (高崎駅) along the Joshin-etsu Expressway (上信越自動車道), or a little longer if you use Gunma’s backroads, which takes you past some wonderfully quaint countryside. There is also a bus from Takasaki or you can get a taxi from Matsuida Station (松井田駅) on the JR Shinetsu Line (信越線).
Myogi Shrine can be accessed from street level via a small Omotesando, which has shops selling sweets, coffee, and souvenirs. At the top of the Omotesando, you are welcomed into the shrine by a 40-feet torii, one of the largest in Kanto (関東).
Dedicated to the gods of harvests, fertility, and marriage, the Haruna Shrine is the most popular of the Jomo Mountain Shrines. Set within the rugged Haruna Mountains, it is located near Lake Harunako (榛名湖) and surrounded by forest and river streams. Well catered for, the township can be accessed by bus and has numerous shops and eating places, as well as some lovely local ryokans and guesthouses.
This mountain range has a more eerie feel than Myogi, which is reflected in the design of the Haruna Shrine. Unlike Myogi, which is constructed within an open space of the mountain, Haruna was built using the mountain itself. Walking the pathway to the main shrine, you will pass some cedar wood, running water, and life-size statues of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune (七福神). Many visitors stop and pray at each statue – Bishamonten (毘沙門天) welcomes you, followed by Jurojin (上老人), Hotei (布袋), Fukurokuju (福禄寿), Ebisu (恵比寿), Benzaiten (弁財天), and Daikokuten (大黒天).
Like Myogi, Haruna has a wonderful calm and stillness. Added to this is the sound of the gentle running stream – culminating in the Misuzu Falls (瓶子の滝), which can be seen before entering the main shrine. At the second torii, a traditional pagoda greets you. While the Haruna is a shrine, it was also a temple affiliated to Ueno’s famous Kan’ei-ji (寛永寺) prior to the shinbutsu bunri (神仏分離; separation of shrines and temples). The similarities between Ueno’s pagoda and this one is striking.
A two-dragon (Shuanglong) gate signifies the entrance to the main shrine and is further evidence of the shrine’s 1,500-year-old past. Beyond this point lie six cultural buildings to explore. The Nusa Hall is the headquarters for the Zo Kasuga (春日造). With its copper roof and colorful pillars, it is an amazing sight. It backs the sacred Misugata-iwa (御姿岩), a large rock which is also an object of worship.
The Amount is a fascinating series of structures. Used as the original worshipping site for the mountain God, Toyoki Irihiko (豊城入彦命), it now enshrines a bodhisattva statue.
There are also small pathways to smaller shrines dotted along the mountain. The paths are usually signified by a small torii and their natural, sometimes uneven, surface adds to the sense of adventure you get using them to explore the forest.
Hopefully, I have given you an appetite to explore some of Gunma’s wonderful mountain shrines. Both Haruna and Myogi are a haven for those who wish to be immersed within the ancient. Accessible and well presented, they are perfect for photographers, naturalists, and historians. Untapped and unspoiled – they’re a must to visit.