Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine at Yawata
Take a day-trip to a national treasure shrine nestled in a hilltop sanctuary and connect with tranquil nature, sacred Shinto beliefs and 1,000 years of history
Located just 30 minutes south by train from central Kyoto, the city of Yawata offers travellers the chance to momentarily step back from their busy sightseeing routine and enjoy a special slice of history and nature without the normal tourist crowds.
Historically Yawata played an important role in the development of the Kansai region due to its geographic location half-way between Kyoto and Osaka. A key transportation hub, it also served as a political base during the 14th century as rival forces contested control of the former capital and engaged in relentless warfare. Its topography is also quite unique, sitting on a river plain where three rivers converge – the Katsura, Uji and Kizu.
Rising above the river-side city is Mt Otokoyama, a lushly forested nature reserve. It’s here you will find magical Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine, one of the country’s best. Now a designated national treasure, it has been worshipped for over 1,000 years. It was built at this site, which forms the southwestern point of Kyoto, to protect the capital from the bad spirits that flow from the southwest (known as urakimon). In this way it is directly linked with Enryaku-ji Temple on Mount Hiei-zan in Kyoto’s northeast, which similarly protects the city from the spirits which flow from the northeast (kimon). To this day, Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine is regarded as a spiritual “power spot”. There are many such power spots throughout Japan, and many Japanese make it a point to visit such sites, believing they can harness the site’s energy to heal or recharge their body and mind or generate good luck.
If you’re looking for a peaceful getaway where you can learn more about Japan’s Shinto culture and history, and at the same time feel uplifted by the abundant nature and tranquillity of the mountain and its riverside setting, then Yawata may just be the perfect destination!
The path to Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine
The closest station to the shrine is Iwashimizu Hachimangu Station on the Keihan Line, easily accessible from both Kyoto and Osaka. Upon exiting the station and heading east, you’ll soon notice a large torii gate (known as Ichi-no-Torii, or first shrine gate) at the entrance to the Tongu-den pavilion. Continue pass Kora Shrine and then through the second gate (Ni-no-Torii), and from here it's a pleasant 30-40 minutes’ walk up to the shrine along a paved stone path known as “Omotesando”. This will take you through a dense forest of coniferous trees such as camphor and maple. As you pass through the third gate (San-no-Torii) look out for the large “Hitotsuishi” stone laid in the middle of the path, which is known as a victory stone and a power spot for improving one’s luck. Just further on, you’ll find a monument to the American inventor Thomas Edison who used the special bamboo found at Mt Otokoyama as filaments in his electric light bulb. You’ll then pass through magnificent Nanzomon Gate to arrive in the main shrine precinct.
If you take the back approach or “Urasando” (which starts just before Ni-no-Torii), you can also stop by the sacred spring known as Iwashimizu, from where the Hachimangu got its name. Water pumped from this well is offered to the gods during formal shrine ceremonies. It’s also another popular power spot, as the spring water never runs dry even in the hottest of summers, nor freezes during the harshest of winters.
Architecture of Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine
Regardless of whether you take the Omotesando or Urasando route, you will eventually reach the main shrine complex. The shrine’s buildings feature elaborate transom carvings of flora and fauna, and are finished in a brilliant vermillion set off by hanging gilded votive lanterns.
Since its establishment over 1,160 years ago during the Heian period (794-1185), the shrine has been rebuilt several times and the current buildings were renovated in 1634 by Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun. It is the oldest and largest of Japan’s hachiman-zukuri shrines, an architectural style consisting of two buildings which are built to look separate but are in fact linked and enclosed by an inner and outer hall. With only a few remaining hachiman-zukuri shrines left, it is therefore particularly precious.
Pigeons – messengers of the gods
Pigeons are considered to be the messengers of the deities enshrined at Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine and you will find pigeon motifs throughout the complex. There are also pigeon-inspired mementos and souvenirs for sale, including goshuin (red stamps with hand-written calligraphy), amulets and tenugui hand-towels.
Cable car for an easy descent
You may like to use the cable car to get back to the bottom of the mountain – just a 3-minute ride from the top station to the station at the bottom, which is conveniently right next to Iwashimizu Hachimangu Station. Before you get on the cable car, make sure you take a look at the view from Mt Otokoyama observatory. If you happen to be visiting at the right moment in spring, you’ll get a stunning view of the cherry trees along the river. In fall, the rich autumn foliage colors on the mountain-side are equally impressive.
Recommended walking spots in the area
If you have the time to linger longer and enjoy the nature of the Yawata area, head to the Sewaritei recreation park on the north side of the Kizu River. You’ll find lots of wild river birds here, and in spring the 1.4km-long river bank is covered in pink as hundreds of cherry trees burst into blossom. Further south along the river, you will also find the simple but beautiful Nagare-bashi Bridge, one of the longest wooden bridges in Japan. It’s been ingeniously designed so that the planks of wood can be loosened in case of flood. Built over stretches of native rushes, white sandy riverbanks and clear-running water with no modern buildings or electric power poles in sight, it’s frequently chosen as a film location site for Japanese period dramas.
Take a stroll along this enchanting bridge, enjoy the fresh breezes and nature away from the crowds, and connect with 1,000 years of history at one of Japan’s most magnificent shrines, a real hidden gem. And with its wealth of power spots, who knows, you might just come away from your day-trip utterly rejuvenated and re-charged!
From the Osaka area:
From Yodoyabashi Station or Kyobashi Station, take the Keihan Main Line (express or sub-express) bound for Demachiyanagi and get off at Iwashimizu-hachimangu Station. You can also take the limited express or rapid express to Kuzuha Station, and then change to an express, sub-express or local to Iwashimizu-hachimangu Station.
From the Kyoto area:
From Sanjo Station or Gion-Shijo Station, take the Keihan Main Line (express or sub-express) bound for Yodoyabashi and get off at Iwashimizu-hachimangu Station. You can also take the limited express or rapid express to Chushojima Station, and then change to a sub-express or local to Iwashimizu-hachimangu Station.
From JR Kyoto Station, take the JR line to Tofukuji Station and then change to the Keihan Main Line (sub-express or local) bound for Yodoyabashi and get off at Iwashimizu-hachimangu Station.
From Iwashimizu-hachimangu Station:
It takes about 30-40 minutes to walk up Mt Otokoyama from the station, or 3 minutes by the Iwashimizu-hachimangu-sando cable car (located near the station).
Louise Fraser is a freelance writer based in Kyoto. From Australia originally, Louise loves exploring the Kansai area, both the quiet backblocks of its countryside with its web of hiking trails and hamlets as well as its fascinating cities layered with over one thousand years of history and contemporary culture.