Some time ago, I had learned of the existence of a mysterious cave in Taga, in Eastern Shiga: no-one around us knew about it, so our interest was piqued. Emily, Mashiko and I set out on our expedition in early December, just as the weather grew colder and the red leaves started to fall. Equipped with only our cameras and gusto, we drove into the Suzuka Mountain range, unsure of what may be awaiting.
The road twisted and turned before us as we got deeper into the mountains. As we followed the rivers, the woods around us became steeper and steeper until we were at the bottom of a valley. We spotted monkeys and rusted relics of humanity, but mostly kept our eyes on the road for oncoming vehicles on the narrow road.
After one last bend, we had reached our destination. Across the small river stood a house with a peculiar roof, a shrine, and the entrance to the woods that hid the cave. We started on the way up the mountain, not quite sure what to expect, first crossing a bridge before a slow ascent. At one point, the path split before us: metal stairs that towered over the water, or moss-covered stone stairs that had survived the tests of time. We split up to explore each route and reconvene at the top. We were getting closer and closer. Soon, there were signs announcing the cave ahead, but once we got there… nothing!? All the arrows pointed to a sheer rock wall in front of us. What trickery was this? Unsure if we should go back, we took a few steps forward until we saw it: there was a hole there, leading to the mouth of the cave!
Carefully, we made our descent inside the first room, ever-aware of the ceiling’s proximity to our heads. Soon enough, we ducked into a larger room. I noted there were no stalactites or stalagmites, which struck me as odd. While the Kawachi wind cave is made of limestone, I suppose it doesn’t have enough calcium bicarbonate to produce them. We stood there, awe-struck, drinking in the rock formations and the silence. Or could we perhaps hear the faint roar of a mountain spring? Eventually, we went up the stairs at the back of the room and found ourselves in front of a crumbled pile of rocks, the way forward blocked out. Luckily, looking around, we saw a ladder going up to a cavity above.
This room was the smallest so far, and the path beyond was blocked by rocks and a door. The temperature here stays at a nice 10℃ year-round. We sat quietly for a while, enjoying the complete silence broken by drops of water falling in the darkness beyond, and reflected on our visit to the area. Before long, we decided to leave the calmness of the cave and return to the regular world.
I would say the modern world, but our next destination was so old, it’s mentioned in the Kojiki, a record of Japanese history and mythology written over 1300 years ago! Taga Taisha is not only the oldest shrine in Shiga, but also what the small town of Taga is best known for. While it has been repaired numerous times over the centuries, it’s shape has apparently never changed.
The weather was blustery, but the street leading to the main torii gate was beautiful and lined with a variety of shops and restaurants. We chose to start at the furthest end of the street, nearest to the station.
After filing our stomachs, we slowly made our way toward the temple. Along with the stores, we saw a few curiosities, such as tanukis, statues, and a machine that farmers can use to dehusk their rice. We were on the lookout for one thing we didn’t want to miss: Taga’s specialty food, itokiri mochi. Itokiri mochi (literally thread-cut rice cakes) are soft, red-bean paste filled rectangles of mochi adorned with colourful stripes. The stories say that those colours represent the flags of invading Mongolian armies who were defeated; people would use the mochi during their prayers. A few stores sold them near the large torii gate at the other end of the street.
Then, all was left to do was to turn around and we stood before the shrine.
Before even walking onto the shrine grounds, we had to cross a small canal over which autumn leaves were still peeking. We could have chosen to walk on the flat path, but since the option was there, we climbed over the surprisingly steep arched bridge instead. It was built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of the Great Unifiers of Japan, in honour of his mother. Since it’s essentially a semicircle, going up and down was quite a feat! A few steps later, there were the sizeable grounds!
We walked to the main building in front of us while taking in our surroundings. There were smaller buildings on each side, wooded areas, a stage and a few paths to here and there. People come here to pray for good fortune, long life and a successful marriage: the shrine is dedicated to Izanami and Izanagi, the couple responsible for creating Japan and many gods in Japanese mythology, after all. We headed to the right after observing the intricate woodwork and the thatched roof, and looked at the many charms and items sold by the shrine. I, of course, bought a stamp for my signature book: with COVID-19, many temples and shrines are selling them as inserts instead of painting directly inside the go-shuuin books. We could also buy roof tiles and rocks to use for prayers, but decided not to.
We then turned around to go to the other side of the shrine, where a path connects to a street further ahead. There, a small shrine to Inari welcomed us with its multiple red torii gates, and we could have a look at the sides of the main building and enjoy some more fall foliage.
Back in the main area, we did one last round to find all the famous spots:
- the white fortune papers, mixed in with pink ones that allow you to find out your luck in love;
- the wooden prayer panels that are shaped like ladles, a symbol of the shrine that you can find in other places here and there;
- the noh stage;
- the life-extending stone, to whom a man once prayed to have his life extended long enough to help rebuild the shrine; there are actually two stones: one to mark where the man came to die later, and one to leave your own prayers.
The last thing we wanted to see was a very unusual one: a bell like the ones found at Buddhist temples. At some point in the 18th century, there were attempts to fuse Buddhism and Shinto. This bell is one of the remnants of that time.
Lastly, to end our day, we sat down a bit to try our mochi. What a treat! Along with the sweet taste of the red bean paste, we could detect a pinch of salt that balanced out what was already a feast for the eyes.
With our memories of two very different experiences, we road back home into the sunset.
Want to see more? Don’t miss Emily’s video!
The Kawachi wind cave is only accessible by car (or taxi). Entry: 500 yen. Parking: 400 yen. Please note that it’s not accessible to everyone due to the many stairs, the ladder and the cramped spaces.
Taga Taisha shrine is accessible by train. The nearest station is Taga Taisha-Mae, on the Ohmi Railway (about 10 minutes by foot.) Entry is free!