To the east of Kyoto lies one the Kansai region's best kept secrets: Shiga prefecture (prefectures are the Japanese version of states). Just a few minutes on the train gets you out of busy Kyoto city and into the more countryside Shiga area. Home to Japan's largest lake, there's lots to see in Shiga that you can't find anywhere else, and the prefecture is a perfect day trip destination from Kyoto for visitors who want to experience a different side of Japan.
I recently visited Otsu city in the southeast corner of Shiga with some guests on a tour of one of the largest mountains in the region, Mt. Hiei. You can read more about this tour offered by KyoTours Japan by clicking HERE. The guests opted for the full route that took us through Shiga and up the eastern slope of the mountain before descending on the western side facing Kyoto. Before we started our ascent, we stopped at some beautiful and interesting spots in the shadow of the huge mountain.
The first location we visited was Mio Jinja, a small Shinto shrine located a short walk from the shores of Lake Biwa. As soon as you approach this shrine, it's immediately clear what this shrine is famous for... Rabbits! There's a old story about the founding of this shrine and the holy object enshrined within that explains the rabbit connection, but I'm not going to spoil it for you here. When you visit, make sure to purify your hands in the rabbit-shaped fountain and buy a ceramic rabbit with a paper fortune inside or a cute rabbit charm. Also, for those of you collecting goshuin temple seals, this shrine has a very unique stamp! More info on goshuin temple seals HERE.
Just around the corner from the rabbit shrine is the entrance to Miidera Temple Complex. This place is a massive hillside grouping of temples with tons of unique things to see. Personally, I think the quiet forested paths and sweeping views are some of the best I've seen in Japan.
The main hall at Miidera houses a really impressive collection of wooden statues the likes of which I've never found anywhere else. Different artistic styles are on display, including a very rough "mountain priest" technique of carving minimalist/cubist figures out of wood. I even saw a few gods that I've never encountered before and had to do some serious research to figure to who they were.
Another unique treasure of Miidera is the Benkei Bell. This massive bronze bell played a central role in the legend of Benkei, a warrior monk who is said to have singlehandedly carried the bell up Mt. Hiei (or thrown it down, depending on which version of the story you read). This is a ukiyoe woodblock print of Benkei and the bell, but at Miidera you can see the actual bell itself!
At the top of the hillside, visitors are treated to a great view of the southern portion of Lake Biwa and the city of Otsu. The view has changed a bit over the years, but it still manages to impress.
To the surprise of most vistiors (Japanese as well as foreigners), the beautiful Miidera is home to two very strange and famous monsters. The red demon pictured below is called an oni, which is often translated as ogre or goblin. Several hundred years ago, this style of art used to be a very popular souvenir for travelers moving between Tokyo and Kyoto, but drawings of oni dressed as a Buddhist priests are still seen all over southern Shiga Prefecture to this day. Why is this ogre dressed up like that and what made it such a popular souvenir? Visit Miidera yourself to find out!
The other famous monster connected with this temple is a very famous one. Yokai are monsters from Japanese folklore, and one of the most famous yokai from Shiga is Tesso, the giant rat. He wasn't always so monstrous, though, and - regardless of if you believe this yokai is real or not - he is based on a real priest named Raigo who once lived at Miidera. Vowing revenge on an emperor who wronged him, Raigo returned after his death as a giant rat named Tesso and led an army of rat minions up Mt. Hiei in an swarm of destruction. Check out this traditional ukiyoe art of Tesso and the last remaining shrine dedicated to him below.
Nowadays, Tesso the rat is not as well known as he once was centuries ago, and most people pass the unique shrine dedicated to his spirit on hillside. But on quiet moonlit nights, the priests say you can still hear Tesso scurrying across the temple's wooden floors and muttering about his plans for revenge. (ok, I made that last part up.)
One more bonus picture: What the heck is this thing and what was it used for? I don't think you can guess this one... Find out when you visit Miidera with KyoTours Japan!
Continuing on with Mt. Hiei looming above us, we made a final stop at Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine deep in the forest at the base of the mountain. This shrine has been around since at least the 8th century, and is actually quite important because of the gods that it houses. The Shinto gods of Mt. Hiei used to live at the top of the peak, but as the Buddhist temples began to spread on the mountaintop, the gods were moved down to Hiyoshi Taisha in the foothills. In the late 1800s when the Meiji emperor organized shrines into groupings supported by the government, Hiyoshi Taisha was included the top ranked group.
Did you know that Japan has wild monkeys? Most visitors are shocked to hear this fact, but monkeys roam free among the mountains surrounding Kyoto and often come down into the edges of the city (mainly to pick through trashcans and make a mess). Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine embraces these monkeys as messengers from the Shinto gods, and reveres them as holy animals. Depictions of monkeys can be found all over the shrine in both art and architecture. Small wooden monkeys are even found hiding under the eaves of the main gate! Maybe you can even see some real monkeys in the woods as you walk through the shrine?
Every year in April, there is a major fire festival held at Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine. If you are in Japan in mid April, this is a must see event! Groups of local men run with huge flaming torches through the streets, and massive golden shrines are carried down from the mountain top. Check out the video below for a glimpse at this amazing event.
After these beautiful temples and shrines, we departed Shiga prefecture and headed up the mountain via the antique cable car that runs up the eastern slope. The views of the lake and the mountains beyond were unreal and have to be seen to be believed. But our day was just beginning! A full tour of the temples, shrines, and forest paths at the top of the mountain was still waiting ahead of us, as well as a decent of the western slope via ropeway and another cable car.