Social icons

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Beautiful Walks in Japan: Togakushi Shrine Okusha


Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

It was already 8am when I woke up, buried under a pile of comforter and blankets. Outside it was white out, the streets covered in fog. It was so easy to be lazy and stay warm, but I had to catch a bus, a train, and another bus to see the path lined with giant trees going to Togakushi Shrine. It was this one photo from Instagram tagged #nagano that pulled me in and convinced me to make the day trip to Togakushi. It was a place you probably wouldn’t see in Japan’s wikitravel or in any of the popular travel blogs so there really weren’t much information written about it. But I knew I had to try to see it.

Japan has a very efficient public transport system, even in the ski resort village I was staying in – Nozawa Onsen. It follows a bus schedule that’s in tune and coordinated with the schedules of the local train (JR Iiyama line) and the shinkansen (bullet train).


New bus schedule effective Dec 1: here

So I had to catch the 8:41am (Shinden bus stop), so I can catch the 9:59am local train to Nagano where the buses to Togakushi are. I decided to take the local train (50 minutes vs 15 minutes via shinkansen) to Nagano to enjoy the scenery more. If I miss the 8:40am bus, I would have to wait another hour for the next one and then wait 2 hours for the next train to Togakushi. And yes, they are on time. If you ever fall asleep during the train ride and are scared to have missed your stop, just look at your watch to find out. Love the public transportation in Japan.

Iiyama Station
Iiyama Station, local line

It was freezing in Iiyama that morning, good thing there was a small waiting room with heaters on at the train station. It was a lovely train ride to Nagano where you can still see autumn in the landscape along the way. But Nagano was surprisingly a lot colder that morning. I was forced to buy a thermal top at the TNF shop in the train station mall. I just thought I could use it again when I trek in Nepal. Aside from that, I also had to find out the train schedule going back to Iiyama so that I’d know which bus I’m going to take from Togakushi. Didn’t notice that it was almost 11:30 already, so I rushed out of the train station and looked for bus no 7. The problem was, the bus stops outside were only up to no. 6 and I started to worry since I had to wait another hour for the next bus. It took me a while to spot bus stop no. 7 across the street and saw that the 11:30am bus was already there, but I had to wait until I can cross the street. I thought that was it, I was headed to Togakushi. But no. Once I reached the bus, I said Togakushi and showed my money to the bus driver ready to pay for my ticket. But for some reason he was shaking his head. This went on for a few more minutes – me asking what’s wrong in English, the driver explaining in Japanese. But he was nice though, just a lot of confusion that happened that time because of the language barrier haha Anyways, I decided to step off the bus because the traffic lights already turned green and thought that maybe I should have bought a ticket first.

Went back to the train station and asked the gentleman manning the entrance to the tracks where I could buy the bus ticket to Togakushi. But I was failing, I wish right then that I knew how to speak Japanese. Until eventually he said ‘tourist information’ and pointed to a huge room. For a backpacker who’ve only traveled extensively to third world countries (read: India, Nepal, Burma, etc.) where tourist information centres rarely exist or are very unrealiable, Japan showed me the opposite. The lady at the information centre gave me maps and bus schedules, and even planned an itinerary for me so I can still catch the early evening bus back to Iiyama. She was beyond helpful. She also told me that the snow from the day before dumped more than a foot of snow on the trail, but it was still doable, and that I just had to be more careful as the steep ascent/descent on the last part might be slippery. I was a bit worried given how I only had my basic outdoor trekking shoes and I was wearing jeans, I was very unprepared for the snow and weather. But I decided to push through and see how it goes.

Fare machine in typical Japanese local bus
A. Fare Box
B. Insert coins for change
C. Insert bills for change
D. Change dispenser
Source: Tabane City Tourism Bureau

Also, the lady explained/taught me how the bus works where I get a ticket at the back door, and pay the exact fare when I get off the bus at the front door. She said that the driver may just have been explaining to me that he didn’t have change. Or that I shouldn’t be paying yet. That’s all. I felt so bad for the bus driver then, but it was still, for me, one story to tell from my travels in Japan. I also learned during the bus ride back from Togakushi that there’s this slot in the fare machine where you can change your big bills to coins. I mean, come on Japan. You are seriously amazing. That small fare machine beside the driver was quite something. Here's a guide and illustration, if you're interested to know more about it. 

Since I had an hour to kill, the lady suggested that I should go to Zenkoji Temple first and just take the bus to Togakushi from there. And that I did. Went to bus stop no. 1, got my ticket from the back door and was ready to pay once we alight. Did it go smoothly after the bus 101 lesson I was given at the tourist information centre? No. Because I put my money in the wrong slot (B-for change instead of A-fare box) in the machine. But the driver was nice enough to forgive me and smile and said that it was okay.

Nagano, Japan
Nagano, Japan

I had no idea Nagano was such a lovely small city with small restaurants and boutique shops that line up its streets. It is after all a famous vacation place for the Japanese. It was also a beautiful crisp and cold winter morning to walk around the temple.

Zenkoji Temple, Nagano, Japan
Niomon Gate

Zenkoji Temple, Nagano, Japan
Nio. Guardians of the Buddha, common in most temples in Japan

Zenkoji Temple, Nagano, Japan
Rokujizo

Zenkoji Temple, Nagano, Japan
Zenkoji Temple

Did I tell you that I almost missed the bus going to Togakushi again? Yes, I did. haha You see I thought that all the buses passing by Zenkoji Temple stop at the same bus stop, because almost all the buses pass there. But when I left Zenkoji, I decided to go down the opposite street of the bus stop just to see the shops on that side. Then I started to worry when I saw another bus stop on my way down. I knew I couldn’t miss another bus, good thing that there were two people waiting at the stop. I asked the younger one if it was the stop for the buses going to Tamagoshi (yes, fellow 80's babies, I confused it with the toy tamagotchi). She had that confused look on her face. I think I said Tamagoshi a few more times, until I realized my stupidity. Then I asked ‘Togakushi?’ and then she smiled and said ‘Yes, yes. Togakushi. My aunt and I are also going there.’ My saviors.

The bus to Togakushi takes a little over an hour from Nagano. Slowly it goes out of the valley and up into the mountains. The snowfall the day before covered the ski resorts on the way up. It was beautiful. Houses, ski lodges, and the forest covered in snow. Togakushi Shrine is located at the foot of Mt. Togakushi and consists of three major shrines built for different Gods. I decided to just visit Okusha since I was already starting late in the day.

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan
Togakushi Shrine Chusya

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan
bus stop for Okusha

From the bus stop was a short downhill walk to the start of the trail going to the shrine. Then you’ll see the trail from the torii (gate) and it really took my breath away. I think it was the snow that made it beautiful, as most people who’ve been there (not during the winter) described the start of the trail as unremarkable. 

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

Walking on it was a bit challenging as the path have turned into ice which made it quite slippery. So slow and steady I walked, taking photos and just enjoying the beautiful trail. If you google photos of the trail without snow, it just really looks so different.

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

The trail going to the shrine is around 2 kms with the last third a steep climb leading to the small shrine. From small trees that line up the path leading to the red Zuishinmon gate, the trees got bigger and bigger. 

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

Past the gate is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, giant hundreds-of-years old cryptomeria trees line up the path going to the shrine. It started to snow then, lightly, which just made the whole thing more beautiful. I stopped there for a while taking photos and videos, and just looking at it soaking it all in, acknowledging my insignificance in this universe.

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

IMG_4804
press play

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

The past few years haven’t been great for me and I’ve been wallowing in self-pity and focusing too much on the people and relationships I’ve lost, even myself. But the latter part of this year has been incredibly great, I believe a result of my efforts to try new things and focus on the things and the people I love. And then things just started to turn around for me. Japan was definitely the most wonderful surprise. I only knew less than three weeks prior that I was going to Japan for work. I mean it was a country I’ve talked about frequently this year, all because I learned to love Japanese food. haha But seriously, it was just really one of those countries I’m so curious about. And imagine my smile and excitement when they told me that I was going to Japan, not minding the extra work I had to do. I decided to extend for only a few days since I had to go back for another trip with a friend the week after. I looked for nearby mountain areas I can visit outside Tokyo and found Nagano, then Nozawa Onsen and then eventually Togakushi, a shrine in the mountains. The first day of snow for this year’s winter was the day I left Tokyo for Nagano, the day before I visited this place. The snow and the snowfall during my visit really made the whole experience magical and more beautiful.

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

It was a steep climb after going to the small shrine at the top where people offered prayers. Going down was more challenging, with people falling and slipping off. I walked like an old grandma, not like Japanese grannies because they are still very strong, but really slow. I walked on the fresh snow instead of the path that was walked on by most because it was already very slippery. This meant cold and wet feet and socks after.

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan
My plastic umbrella as my 'trekking pole', I had to improvise.

Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan
Okusha Shrine

The bus ride going back was much more comfortable, since they have heaters below the seats! But getting off the bus back in Nagano was torture. I was already freezing and I had to wait for an hour for the train back to Iiyama. I saw a 7-11 and bought two pairs of thermal socks.

  Togakushi Shrine Oshuka, Nagano, Japan

I didn’t sleep well at all that night and suffered from colds and a bad dry cough. I blame being unprepared for the hike to Togakushi, but it was so worth it. I’m so glad I decided to go visit the shrine.