The area around lake Suwako is abundant with natural beauty, hot springs and historic sites, but for many the main reason to visit is the famous Suwa Taisha or the Grand Shrine of Suwa – one of the oldest and most interesting Shinto shrine complexes in Japan.
Similarly to the Grand Shrine of Ise, Suwa Taisha has two main sites, and within each site there are two separate shrines, which gives four shrines in total. If you’re travelling by public transit, visiting them all may take up the whole day. I had my own wheels, so in one day I did all four, plus Takashima castle and Manji-no Sekibutsu.
Kamisha, or Upper Shrine
Upper shrine is located south of the lake and consists of Maemiya and Honmiya, of which Maemiya (although it served as an auxiliary structure for Honmiya later) was founded first and is the oldest of all shrines of Suwa. This is where I started my visit from.
The buildings here are simple and few, and visually Maemiya is the least impressive of all the four shrines, but I liked it the most. It’s old and powerful – a good place to meditate.
Located two kilometers away from Maemiya on the same side of the lake, Honmiya is a bigger site and the buildings here are visually more appealing. As it is often the case with Japan’s oldest shrines, Honmiya doesn’t have a honden (the building that enshrines the main deity). This usually happens because some natural object or location (a mountain, a cave, a waterfall) embodies the deity instead. Presently the nearby mountain – Mount Moriya – is recognized as such an object for Honmiya shrine, but before the early Meiji era it was a living person, the shrine’s high priest (Ohori).
Ohori was chosen at a young age from the boys of Suwa clan and after being ordained was considered the physical manifestation of the god himself. Purification and ordainment rituals were held at Maemiya, which also served as a residence for Ohori from that point on.
The tradition completely died with the last Ohori of Suwa, who passed away in 2002.
Shimosha, or Lower Shrine
Shimosha is located on the opposite side of the lake and consists of two shrines: Akimiya and Harumiya. Historically there was little connection between Upper and Lower complexes, this is why the shrines of Shimosha feel very different from those of Kamisha – less mysterious, perhaps, but still very much worth seeing.
Harumiya is located one kilometer away from Akimiya and looks very similar to it – all the same buildings, just on a slightly smaller scale.
Any account of Suwa Taisha would be incomplete without mentioning the onbashira – four wooden pillars that stand on four corners of each shrine (other shrines in the region also feature the onbashira, but the pillars at Suwa Taisha are the most renowned). The original purpose of the pillars is unclear, but every six years (on the year of Tiger and Monkey) a new set of pillars is erected during the Onbashira festival, and this has been going on for about 1200 years.
The festival is very famous not only because felling, pulling, and erecting of the wooden logs is a huge spectacle, but also because of associated dangers: there’s a tradition among the locals to ride the logs as they are being pulled down the mountain and dragged to the shrines, so every time a number of people gets injured or even killed. Onbashira festival has a reputation of being one of the most dangerous in Japan.
The next Onbashira festival is to be held in 2022.