A sea of clouds rushing in, pebbles with stories behind them, a 3,000-year-old ancient cedar tree, and secret sliding screen paintings in a shrine surrounded by nature and gods.

If you look up Tamaki Shrine on the Internet, it will likely come up as a “power spot”. Some sources even say “Only the chosen can visit Tamaki Shrine.” Legends say that it was built in 37 B.C.E., during the time of Emperor Sujin, to drive demons out of the area. In the Heian period, it was designated as a branch shrine of one of the Three Main Kumano Shrines. Most recently, as one of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, it was designated as a World Heritage Site in 2004.

To get to Tamaki Shrine, which is south of Totsukawa, you have to drive up the steep road that climbs Mt. Tamaki, which is 1,077 meters tall. As we made our way up, we came to a place that made us shout in awe. A sea of clouds filled our vision. The contrast of the unbroken white clouds on the blue sky was dazzling.

The sea of clouds usually appears in the morning, though it can depend on the weather and the meteorological conditions. It’s well worth getting up early in the morning to see this amazing scenery.

From the parking lot, there’s a path that weaves through the mountain forests towards the main shrine building. This is a sacred land where it is forbidden to cut down any trees, so there are some enormous cedar trees of a size you’ve probably never seen before lining the path. Some of them are estimated to be over 1,000 years old.

It takes about 10 or 15 minutes to reach the shrine. The ancient cedar tree in the shrine complex is said to be 3,000 years old. With a trunk that’s more than eight meters thick and branches that look like hands reaching up to the sky, this tree has lived here for thousands of years. Standing before it, you can’t help but be impressed by its majesty and vitality.

The main shrine building also gives a sense of history and personality, so everything feels very solemn here. After putting our hands together in prayer before the gods, we spoke with the interim chief priest Takeshi Masutani and senior priest Yoshihiko Kamiyo.

Chief Priest Masutani was born and raised in Totsukawa. When he was a child, there was no road up to the shrine, so he remembers that when there was a festival at the shrine they had to hike three hours up the mountain to get to it. He became Interim Chief Priest in 2008.

“I left the village after high school, though. When I left my job I decided to go to school to become a priest. At that time my cousin was the head priest here and invited me to come back, and I missed my hometown, so I did. Right after that I started working here.”

When we asked Chief Priest Masutani about how Tamaki Shrine was founded, he surprised us when he smiled cheerfully and said, “There is no literature about it, and no clear records.”

“According to legend, this shrine’s history goes back to before the Common Era, but personally I think it’s fine for it to not have any certified history. The ancient cedar tree makes people feel small in comparison when they stand in front of it, and that’s the way I want people to experience the history of this place. However, we do know that this place lies on the path that Shūgendō practitioners would take on their pilgrimages between Kumano and Yoshino, at an intersection with the Kumano Road, so a lot of visitors stopped here.”

One thing that is for certain is that the residents of Totsukawa were generally parishioners of this shrine, and for a long time it's been a gathering place that they adore and protect.

A woman we met who was born and raised near Tamaki Shrine, and who now works there said,
“When I was growing up, there were nine elementary schools in Totsukawa, and one of them was in the south, close to Tamaki Shrine. The shrine staff would come to perform rice pounding dances and lion dances for us. In October they would have a huge festival and all the schools would take their students on a field trip there. We’d meet at 5 a.m. and climb the mountain together, stopping part way to eat lunch. We were told that it was a good thing if the Tengu goblin running around the shrine grounds smacked us on the head, but the hit would come suddenly and hard, so we were scared of it.”

The appearance of Tengu goblins, which are closely connected to Shūgendō, is probably a remnant of the era when Buddhism and Shinto became closely intertwined. In the Heian period, Tamaki Shrine also prospered as a holy place for Shūgendō. In 1727, the head temple of Shūgendō, Shōgo-in, seized major power in the region, and it is believed that 200 monks lived here during that time.

However, when the Meiji Government ordered that Buddhism and Shinto be separated in 1868, a movement to abolish Buddhism began in Totsukawa, and Shōgo-in had no choice but to let Tamaki Shrine go. But there are some magnificent fusuma sliding door paintings left behind from that era in the shrine office, and visitors can pay a fee to see them. Fusuma paintings are a common decorative element in temples, but they’re very unusual in shrines.

“These paintings were done by Yasukuni Tachibana of the Kanō School, who was the artist in residence at Shōgo-in. He painted them directly onto wood from a 600-year-old cedar tree, cut and laid to dry for five years. The humidity is really high here, so even though they were painted around 200 years ago, the pressed gold leaf of the paintings is still really beautiful. All of the paintings form a series. In the first room, there’s one each of the ocean, a shore, plains, and then mountains, and then in the inner room, the painting is of the view of the ocean from the mountains. Tamaki Shrine, on top of this mountain, was like a lighthouse to the fishermen. Isn’t it interesting how the painting depicts what you might have seen from this mountain during those times?” said Senior Priest Kamiya. They don’t allow visitors to take photos of the fusuma paintings, so you can only see them here at Tamaki Shrine.

At some point, Tamaki Shrine became known as a “power spot,” a place of mystical energy, and it was rumored that if you aren’t chosen, you won’t be able to find it. “Who started those rumors?” laughed Chief Priest Masutani.

“There have been some people who’ve made it partway up the mountain, only to have their car engines stop suddenly, or their wheels slide into a gutter. There have also been accidents where the driver hit a deer and the car flipped over. In winter it’s hard to drive up the mountain in the snow, and when there are typhoons in summer the rain can wash away the street, which makes it impossible to access the shrine by car. Maybe that’s why people came up with those rumors. The gods of Tamaki Shrine are very kind, but some say they are very strict, so people think that if you aren’t someone with whole-hearted devotion, you’ll be met with misfortune. But, it seems surprisingly true. It’s pretty mysterious, isn't it?”

That’s true. If you were on your way to the shrine and your car suddenly and mysteriously stopped, or you ran into a deer, you might start to think that maybe you’re not meant to go there. Even so, something about “meeting with misfortune” and the rumors being “surprisingly true” was a little eerie. It’s a shrine that’s supposed to dispel bad spirits, which is rare in Japan, so if there’s something suspicious about it, we can’t help but think maybe it’s better to stay away.

If you want to know a lot more about Tamaki Shrine and experience its culture, we recommend you try a prayer retreat, which is offered several times a year. You’ll stay overnight at the shrine’s pilgrim lodgings and participate in the priests’ daily worship. You probably wouldn’t be able to experience Tamaki Shrine early in the morning or late at night otherwise, and this way you’ll get to enjoy the wonderfully clear view of the starry night sky and the hazy view of the grounds in the morning. Surely there will be some amazing scenery beyond your imagination.

After we thanked Chief Priest Masutani and Senior Priest Kamiya for their time, we headed up to the top of Mt. Tamaki. On the way, we came upon the Tamaishi-sha, or pebble shrine. There are no shrine buildings here, just the remnants of an ancient religious belief that worships round pebbles. It’s believed that this was the origin of Tamaki Shrine, and that’s where its name comes from: “tama”, or “round”, and “ki”, “to place”.

There are lots of small white pebbles all over Tamaishi-sha, but the origins of the shrine lie in the giant black stone buried among the roots beneath them. Wondering how many other people have come here to pray over the years, we put our hands together and bowed our own heads in prayer.

It takes about ten minutes to get to the top of the mountain from Tamaishi-sha. The peak is clear, and on sunny days you can see the open seas of Kumano stretching out before you. Once we climbed to the top, we took a deep breath. Suddenly it felt like we had returned to reality from a mystical world.

In recent years, many more people from Totsukawa say they have never been to Tamaki Shrine. It’s outside of the town limits, so sometimes travelers miss it too, which is a shame. By traveling along the pilgrimage path past the giant, ancient cedar tree through the main building and the shrine office, up to Tamaishi-sha and the top of the mountain, you’ll probably feel something special. And even if you don’t, you’ll feel great for having explored someplace new.

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