Shrines and legends around Mt. Iwaki

Rising from the southern Tsugaru plains west of Hirosaki city, Iwakisan is also sometimes referred to as Tsugaru Fuji (津軽富士) as seen from the southeast its smooth shape resembles the better known Fujisan. In mid-September, people carrying large banners gather under the moon as pilgrims for the autumn festival Oyamasankei (お山参詣) to witness the sunrise after climbing Mt. Iwaki and to pray for bountiful harvest and peace for the household.
The top of Mt. Iwaki (岩木山), which is actually a stratovolcano, is made of three smaller peaks of which each one is associated with a different deity. The central one is the actual Iwakisan and where Kunitokotachi resides in. The one to its north is Gankisan (巌鬼山) and home of the local, female kami Kuniyasutamahime and the one to its south, Chokaisan (鳥海山), is the seat of Ōkuninushi, also known as Utsushikunitamanokami (living-land-spirit deity) a kami of agriculture and harmony.
Akakura mountain (赤倉山) is the name given to the northeastern and much more rugged face of Mt. Iwaki which is also called the “ura no kao” (裏の顔 reverse side face) or the “fushigi na basho” (不思議な場所 mysterious or strange place) as it’s shrouded in legends and cults. I think every characteristic mountain has this phenomena of having two different faces, one that is the poster child and the other hidden face. Or would you happen to know what the backside of the iconic Matterhorn looks like?

Iwakisan in the Anime Flying witch petit (ふらいんぐうぃっち)

It is said that the local dragon goddess Tatsubihime (多都比姫神) from Mt. Iwaki sometimes also referred to as Akakurasama or Onigamisama ruled over the land around it, until Ōkuninushi arrived in the Tsugaru area, mated the goddess who handed over her soul, and brought prosperity to the land. Tatsubihime was since then called Kuniyasutamahime.
Another legend has it that Sakanoue Tamuramaro from the Yamato court in central Japan received help from the Onigamisama (Demon goddess or Akakurasama) to fight the rebellious groups sometimes also seen as oni (鬼 demon), living in the north of Honshu. In the Tsugaru area he is strongly associated with Bishamon (毘沙門天), guardian of the northern quarter of the universe, demon slayer, and lord of wealth and treasure and hence one of the seven lucky gods. Sakanoue Tamuramaro is celebrated each summer in the Nebuta festivals of Aomori.

The rōmon (楼門 tower gate) of Iwakiyamajinja at the end of a long stone paved walkway flanked by old Hiba cypress

As mentioned above there are two sides of the mountain, a rear side and a public one. What is known today as the Iwakiyamajinja (岩木山神社) located at the omote (表), the public or official side of Mt. Iwaki was formerly the Hyakutakuji (百沢寺), a shrine-temple complex. During the separation of Shintō and Buddhism by the government in the Meiji era the site received a new state Shintō administration and all traces of Buddhism were removed. It was regarded as the “northern gate protecting Japan” (北門鎮護).
While the Iwakiyamajinja on the southern side of Mt. Iwaki was used by the rulers of Tsugaru, who established the residing kami as their ancestral deities to further their political power, everything that had been prohibited by the Meiji government, such as activities of itako and gomiso (female shamanic mediums) who work outside the established traditions, was naturally confined to the Akakura side of Mt. Iwaki. The waterfall of Fudō, located within Akakura gorge, is also a common destination for those seeking ascetic discipline (Shugendō 修験道).

Takaterujinja (高照神社 bright shining shrine) is a smaller but very pretty shrine at the foot of Mt. Iwaki. It is dedicated to Nobumasa, the fourth lord of Tsugaru and designated as an important national cultural property, just as the Samurai sword Sanemori, which is also kept by the Takateru shrine and of which Nobumasa is said to have been the original owner. I loved walking around the deserted grounds and I could almost hear the snow falling as everything else was silent. I can imagine that a few days later this shrine would have been well-attended for Hatsumōde (初詣 first shrine visit of the New Year) but two days before the New Year there was nobody around.

Bronze horse at the Takaterujinja with the Kamon (家紋 family emblem) of the Tsugaru feudal lords of Hirosaki Castle

It was kind of difficult to gather information about the two shrines as it was almost impossible to find anything at all on the web. The subsequent blogging felt like a flashback to writing papers for uni but I’m glad I could get an idea of Mt. Iwaki who’s been dominating the Tsugaru popular religious imagination since ancient times. If you care for some first-hand information and would like to know more details, these books are where I gathered my information from:
Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami By John Breen, Mark Teeuwen
Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain By Ellen Schattschneider
Maybe it’s the still preserved mysteries guarded by these remote places that lure me off the beaten path into world of kami and folk stories and as much as I enjoy these places all by myself, I think it’s important to share the less known stories and places of Japan even if that means to unveil some of the well kept mystery.


PS: I can’t wait for another occasion to actually climb Mt. Iwaki!
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