Japan is riddled with shrines, both in cities and out in the countryside, huddled in the basin of wintry valleys or perched precariously on top of mountains- often at points of raw natural beauty and power. From time to time though these wooden complexes go bankrupt. The monks pack up and move out like franchisees out of rent money. They didn’t sell enough blessings from the shrine blessings shop, didn’t garner enough inheritance tithes, didn’t bury enough people in the graveyard plots they rent out. They move out and the wooden structure is left to fend for itself against the forces of nature it was set up to commemorate.
I’ve seen an abandoned shrine before, but never an abandoned shrine-castle, so set out into the backwoods of Saitama prefecture filled with anticipation.
Model shrine and water pump offertory.
I went to this mountain-top castle-shrine solo, after numerous false starts by train. It was a grey and overcast day, occasionally splashing rain, probably the coldest of the year so far. I didn’t know what to expect of the ruin, only what I had seen from the air via Googlemaps- it was surrounded by forest, set off the road, with only a long winding path leading up to it. I didn’t know for sure that it was built on a hill, but its name- yamajo (mountain castle), gave it away.
Japanese castle are typically built out of wood, several levels high with ornate carvings and heavy ceramic tiling. I’ve been in numerous tourist castles before, rebuilt and filled with historic goods so they could double as museums. Matsumoto-jo in Nagano springs to mind.
40 minutes walk from the train station and I reached the fenced and sand-bagged gate to an overgrown road. The gate was a metal arch that somewhat resembled a ‘torii’, the red-wooden gates to be found at Japanese shrines. I hurdled the low fence and headed on up to a semi-cleared area, perhaps once a car-park but now covered in whatever low scrub could take root in the asphalt. I followed myself on the GPS on my i-phone, a very convenient tool for exploring. There was a large red-roofed building to my left and I checked it out. Empty, though a few stands of rubber tires and wooden boxes stood in the warehouse-like interior. Underfoot lots of white ceramic beads rolled, and I assumed local kids came out here to practise shooting their BB guns. I didn’t bother taking any photos because there was nothing much to see.
A cracked old lamp-post marked the corner where I could continue up. The path grew narrower and more overgrown, and I regularly had to duck under the thick strands of spiderwebs, occasionally walking full on into them and needing to extricate myself carefully. I passed a few outbuildings, hoping to catch a glimpse of the castle-shrine, but the trees were too thick and tall.Perched at the top, across a bridge, I reached it. It was small, only two levels, white-faced, with barred windows and a heavy ceramic roof, fallen down in places. It looked like a miniature castle.
I went inside. The floor was rotten through in places. Before me were two odd items, already posed in the dim light; something that looked like a machine for spinning yarn and another that seemed to be for pumping water, splashed only with a few token offertory coins. There were also some chests of drawers.
Water pump offertory.
Coins in the box.
Spinning wheel and chest of drawers.
Next to a hole.
From across the room.
Chest and spinner.
On the second floor was nothing, frazzled tatami mats and a mostly blocked view of the slope back down, to the town. I made some efforts to get up onto the roof, but it was a losing battle.
Empty but for a few mats stacked to the side.
All the windows barred.
Outside again I climbed a precariously leaning tree to try to get an exterior shot of the whole structure. It was impossible though, as the trees grew right up next to its walls.
Ext, grey dusk.
Feeble tree shot.
Back down at the tourist center/shooting range I climbed up onto the red roof and enjoyed the view, red metal and mountains.It wasn’t all the exploring I’d hoped for, there were no samurai weapons on the walls or photographs of Shaolin-soccer style feats, but I got to climb a tree, onto a roof, and wandered along a sand-bagged path. I guess that’ll have to do.
Aerial on red roof.
Strange water feature in front of tourist center.
Tourist center, red roof.
Heading back to the train station, I ran for about 20 minutes to catch my train.