Land of the Sacred

Ordinary people still honor rare, ancient rites in Aomori Prefecture: a land where grandparents still pass down unique traditions. The isolated northernmost prefecture of Honshu, Japan, enfolds spiritual aspects so rare in contemporary Japan that most Japanese view Aomori as a mysterious location. Many locals still believe in and express respect to the kami ― gods or spirits ― who reside in trees, rocks, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, bears, and other elements of nature. Culturally considerate visitors are welcome to stay, watch, and, often, join the locals. Meet the people and spirits of Aomori, walk barefoot on fire, meditate under waterfalls, chant with Shintoists and Buddhists, and engage in rituals hundreds to thousands of years old.

The Holy Sunrise from Mt. Iwaki and Oyama-Sankei

Aomori’s highest mountain (1,625 meters), Mt. Iwaki, is as sacred to nearby residents as Mt. Fuji is for all Japanese. In fact, the people of the Tsugaru region refer to their volcanic mountain as Tsugaru Fuji. Tsugaru Fuji is godlike, according to traditional beliefs. Pure white in winter, verdant in spring and summer, and flaming in fall, Mt Iwaki rises majestically from a vast plain of small farms.

Over 1,240 years ago, the people of Tsugaru built Iwakiyama Shrine on Mt. Iwaki’s slopes. This ancient architectural masterpiece became on of Aomori’s most revered shrines and is still serving the spiritual needs of parishioners, pilgrims, and visitors. Join them during the sacred Oyama-Sankei event. It is a three-day-deep-cultural experience that ends on the first day of August in the lunar calendar. Check the Iwakiyama Shrine website for specific dates. The japanese government, in 1984, designated the joyful, prideful regional ceremonies as a Nationally Intangible Cultural Asset.

On the first day, worshippers stroll along a long cedar-lined stone path to the shrine and pray for health, safety, and an abundant harvest. The second day’s main event is a procession of festival-garbed locals marching about six kilometers from the Hirosaki City Iwaki Office, past rice fields, apple orchards, and cornfields, to the shrine. Tourists are invited. Some marchers beat drums and play flutes, while others chant with passion or carry five-to-ten-meter-long bamboo poles with straw and cloth banners blowing in the wind. Mt. Iwaki watches. On the final evening, local hike four hours in the dark ― flashlights allowed ― from the shrine to Mt. Iwaki’s peak to bathe their faces in the glow of the next morning’s holy sunrise.

Mindfulness Via Waterfall Meditation/Training

For hundreds of years, it was not uncommon for monks and samurai to meditate and train under sacred waterfalls. This ancient practice called Takigyou develops self-control, mindfulness, and confidence. Find your way to the forest-enclosed Ishigami Shrine’s off-the-grid location. A Shinto priest provides purification ceremonies and authentic waterfall training/meditation sessions.

Before takigyou, participants climb a stone staircase to pray at one of the shrine’s holiest spots, Ishigami (meaning stone spirit), a giant stone shaped like a mythical giant-eyed being. Then, wearing white robes and headbands, they return to the main shrine building for a Shinto ceremony. Next, everyone moves to the top of a verdant gorge. The priest tosses salt on the ground for purification. After that, they all descent a switchback trail to the cliff’s base, where the reverberations of three waterfalls shake the air. The priest again tosses salt while chanting sonorously. Sunlight filters through the forest canopy and mist. Concentrating on breathing, the meditators stand barefoot beneath the cold torrents for as long as possible. Afterward, participants invariably exclaim that takigyou was transformative and enriching.

Overnighting in simple tatami rooms at the main shrine allows more time to explore the natural and spiritual environment. Trails wind through the woods to dozens of kami deified in odd-shaped rock formations, trees, and caves. A stream in front of the main shrine provides water for bathing. These accommodations are for visitors who appreciate contemplation and nature more than fancy hotels.

Spiritual Accommodations (Shukubo) at Buddhist Temples

Some Buddhist temples have a rich history of providing lodging, called shukubo in Japanese, to pilgrims and visitors traveling to holy locations. Nowadays, such accommodations are becoming rare. However, Aomori has two highly recommended shukubo, distinct from others in Japan.

Monk Yudai Kikuchi, the ever-smiling grandson of the founder of Fugen-In Temple, blended modernity with traditional Japanese sensibilities when he designed Shukubo Bukkoan. This distinctive shukubo is a WiFi-less suite-like cottage for one couple who receives personalized blessings and instruction in Zazen meditation, hand-copying of sutras, and Buddhist philosophy. A world-class tuna-based dinner and a Japanese Buddhist vegetarian cuisine breakfast are included. The woods, the lodging, and the traditional temple exude serenity.

Twelve-hundred-year-old Osorezan Bodaiji Temple provides lodging for those who come to send off, communicate with, and bless the spirits of the dead. The impressive temple is located within Osorezan, a volcanic landscape of bubbling green, white, grey, or yellow thermal mud pots, an acidic lake, and sulfur mists drifting around stone and wooden statues of legendary monks and religious monuments. Osorezan is said to be the borderland between the worlds of the living and the dead. Sandals, pinwheels, flowers, and toys left for the dead testify to the locals’ depth of beliefs for Osorezan and its mysteries. Shukubo guests are entitled to join morning services, eat two Buddhist vegetarian meals, contemplate the pilgrimage routes through the volcanic grounds, and cleanse their bodies and souls in ancient hot springs within the temple.

Fire Walking Ritual on Snow and Ice

A holy festival takes place in an awe-inspiring, forest-surrounded cavernous cliff between the Shirakami-Sanchi Natural World Heritage site and Nishimeya Village, Aomori. During the depths of winter, the Niogataki Waterfall freezes into a 33-meter-high pillar of solid bluish ice. Locals and holy men and women gather to foretell the year’s harvest by the shape of the frozen falls. Logs are burned on the snow and ice for a fire walking ritual. Barefoot walkers tread over the cracking embers in this setting that is sacred to Buddhists and Shintoists. Here, too, visitors are welcomed.