Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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Celebrating spring at Lake Suwa

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By Vicki L Beyer

Lake Suwa is nestled in the mountains of central Nagano Prefecture, about three hours by train from Tokyo or just over two hours by train from Nagoya. This makes it a great weekend getaway for residents of those cities, or a nice stopover for tourists. In fact, Lake Suwa has centuries of history as a traveler’s stopover, since the Nakasendo, a feudal period route between Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo) also passes along the lake’s shore.

The Suwa area has lots to see and do in all seasons, but in 2022, spring may be the best season, since in addition to the usual sightseeing options, the Onbashira Festival will be held at the Suwa Grand Shrines on select days in April and May (details below). Although the festival this year will be scaled back, as a festival that has been held every six years since the Heian Period (794-1195), it was impossible to cancel or postpone.

Kami-Suwa: Onsen and Leisure Center

Kami-Suwa is situated on the lake’s southeastern shore. It is especially known for its onsen hot springs and various art museums, with plenty of other activities and entertainment as well.

One curious feature of Lake Suwa is that there are hot springs in the lake bed, especially in the Kami-Suwa area. Among the evidence of this is the Lake Suwa Geyser Center, where a controlled geyser spouts every 90 minutes during daylight hours. Nearby is a footbath. Footbaths are popular at Lake Suwa; there’s even one on the platform at Kami-Suwa train station.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Most accommodation in Kami-Suwa have onsen baths, but for a daytime dip, check out Katakurakan, a Gothic-style building built in 1928 to house Roman-style baths. (Open daily, 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.; admission 750 yen).

From the boat dock in Kami-Suwa, visitors can catch a swan-shaped sightseeing boat for a 25-minute glide around the lake. On a clear day, Mt. Fuji can be seen in the distance to the southeast from the middle of the lake. Boats operate daily between 10 a.m. and 15:30 p.m. Adults: 920 yen; children: 460 yen.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Nearby, rent bicycles to enjoy the lake from another perspective, or to facilitate exploring all that the area around Lake Suwa has to offer.

Takashima Castle

Takashima Castle was built on the southeastern shore of Lake Suwa in 1598. Its position on the water’s edge was said to have made it appear as if it was floating on the lake. The castle was the seat of the Suwa daimyo clan until 1871, when the Meiji government decreed that all castles were to be dismantled. The castle’s primary fortifications remained in place and the site became a public park. Over the years, landfill projects at this shallow top of the lake have left the site about 500 meters from the present-day shoreline. 

In 1970 the main keep, a turret and the castle gate were reconstructed. The result is a castle and grounds that are distinctive in their style and coloring; a pleasant spot to spend an hour or so. While the outside of the keep is said to be faithful to the original, the inside is a ferro-concrete structure housing museum displays about the history of the castle and the Suwa clan with more Mt Fuji views from the top floor.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Suwa Grand Shrines

Suwa Grand Shrine consists of four locations around the lake. The Kamisha (upper shrines) are located above the lake, not far from Chino station, while the Shimosha (lower shrines) are in Shimo-Suwa, on the lake’s north shore.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Suwa Grand Shrine is mentioned in Japan’s oldest written history, the Kojiki (compiled in the seventh century). It is believed to be one of the oldest shrines in Japan. The primary deity is Takeminakata, who is believed to have control of rain and wind. This has made him the popular recipient of the prayers of farmers and sailors. He is also revered as a god of war and protector of warriors.

Takeminakata resides predominately at the Kamisha Honmiya or upper main shrine, but he also travels across the lake to the lower shrines, particularly to visit his wife, Yasakatome, who resides in the Shimosha shrines. Yasakatome is believed to be a sea goddess, another reason the shrine is popular with sailors and those who work with boats.

Ice pressure ridges that form on the frozen surface of Lake Suwa during winter are said to be the tracks Takeminakata leaves when he crosses the lake to visit Yasakatome. (Actually, they are created due to hot onsen water seeping up through the lakebed, resulting in vertical temperature gradients in the relatively shallow lake. Global climate change has resulted in diminished frequency of this phenomenon.)

The two Shimosha are known as Harumiya and Akimiya (Spring and Autumn shrines, respectively). Walk along the Nakasendo to travel between the two to pass by various historical buildings and get a taste of travel in the feudal age.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Each shrine is made up of several structures surrounded by tall cedar and cypress trees. Each has its own particular architectural features. One common feature, although a bit difficult to spot, is four pillars on each shrine ground, demarcating the boundaries of each shrine’s inner sanctum. It is these pillars, known as onbashira, that are replaced every six years in the Onbashira Festival.

Onbashira Festival

The Onbashira Festival is believed to be more than 1,200 years old. It began as the efforts of the communities around the lake to bring timber from the surrounding mountainsides (yamadashi) to regularly rebuild the buildings of the shrines. The onbashira pillars, each more than 17 meters long and weighing around ten tons, would be cut from white fir trees identified at least three years before the festival. After the trees are cut, they are brought down the mountain in a ceremony known as ki-otoshi. Men of the community literally ride the onbashira down a particular steep slope, a dangerous endeavor that inevitably results in injuries to some.

This dangerous ride has become a symbol of the Suwa shrines that is repeated in other art around the town.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

While the festival will take place in 2022, the pandemic has necessitated scaling it back. This year, for the first time ever, mechanized transport will be used to move the onbashira down the mountain and onto the shrine grounds. The ki-otoshi log ride will not take place. This means there will be only limited festival activity at the shrines themselves (Kamisha: April 2-4; Shimosha: April 8-10).

The second half of the festival, known as Satobiki, when the onbashira pillars are usually moved onto each shrine ground and set in place, takes place in May (Kamisha: May 3-5; Shimosha: May 14-16). This, too, will likely to be more subdued than usual, but may have more matsuri activities than is possible in April. For those who try to attend, get details at Chino Station (for Kamisha events) or Shimo-Suwa Station (for Shimasha events).

Whether visiting to catch the action of the Onbashira Festival (which won’t happen again until 2028) or at some other time of year, there is so much to enjoy at Lake Suwa that it would be difficult for a visitor to be disappointed.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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