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May 26, 2013

Tokyo's Mountain Shrine - Mitake Shrine (Tokyo, Shrines)

The Mitake Shrine which sits on the top of Mt Mitake (929 m) west of Tokyo, just inside the Chichibu and Tama National Park, traces its origins to an unbelievable antiquity that never was, except in myths. The mythical hero Yamato Takeru visited here and buried a cache of arms. The country around it was therefore called Musashi (written with characters meaning "military storehouse"). The next visitor was not mythical, but highly legendary: the peripatetic priest Gyoki, who is credited with setting up a statue of Zao Gongen here in 736. What this shows is that the shrine was a syncretic establishment (both Shinto and Buddhist, with the latter element perhaps even stronger) of the shugendo priests, ascetic priests who practiced in the mountains.

Watching over the wide plain, Mitake Jinja
[Lion-dog statue watching out over the Musashi plain]

This shrine of the mountain cult was supported with gifts by various shoguns. Later, the shrine came to be regarded as a patron deity of the Edo/Tokyo area. In Meiji, when gods and Buddhas were split by the new government, the syncretic establishment was turned into a Shinto shrine. The Haiden (Prayer Hall) was donated in 1700 by the Tokugawa shogunate and is in the ornate Gongen-style of the Nikko shrines.

Mitake Shrine, Tokyo
[The Shrine Hall on the mountain top]

That the shrine was highly regarded by those in power is attested to by the many gifts they donated. Part of these are on view in the two-story Treasure Hall. The shrine owns two national treasures: a piece of gorgeous armor (yoroi) with lacing of red thread (12th c.) and a saddle decorated in mother-of-pearl inlay with a design of circles (13th c.). The armor is counted among the three best pieces of armor in Japan and was donated to the shrine in 1191 by the military man sitting on horseback (and in bronze) in front of the museum: Hatakeyama Shigetada. The saddle is regarded as an exemplary item of horse gear from the Kamakura period.

Other items in the museum include a portable shrine (mikoshi) from 1700; a metal plate with an effigy of Zao Gongen on it (these plates called kakebotoke were hung on the walls of temples); and a set of large cups to toast with before going into battle. In short, this is a cache of armor and Buddhist art worth to climb the mountain for.

Mitake Shrine, Tokyo
[Shrine Museum with statue of Hatakeyama Shigetada]

The most interesting way to visit is to hike from Mitake Station. Cross the bridge over the river and go up a steep road under a red torii. Skip the cable car and instead take the footpath leading away to the left. This is the original pilgrim's path and recommended if you want to get a taste of the ancient atmosphere. The wide path zigzags up the mountain slope under enormous cedar trees. It will be quiet - almost all other people take the cable car. After about an hour the path merges with a paved road and you will suddenly be joined by the crowds who have been carried up by cable car.
Where: Take the JR Chuo Line from Shinjuku and transfer 
in Tachikawa to the Ome Line to Mitake Station (on Sundays there are some direct trains as well). If you don't feel like walking, take a bus from the car park opposite Mitake Station to Takimoto at the foot of Mt. Mitake, where the cable car starts. 
How much: Grounds free. Museum 300 yen, 9:30-16:00.