By Steve Laser & Craig Nicol reporting from Shizuoka, Japan
Shizuoka Prefecture is best known as the home of Mount Fuji (Fujisan) and the green tea capital of Japan. It’s also an excellent destination for visiting some remarkable attractions including the Nihondaira Ropeway aerial tramway that transports visitors to Kunozan Toshogu Shrine.
Mt. Fuji towers over the landscape beyond the city, yet there’s another landmark in Shizuoka a short walk from the Japan Railway (JR) Shizuoka Station where we arrived by Bullet Train. The statue (below) of Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542-1616) is dedicated to the shogun of Japan.
As the first shogun (supreme commander of the feudal government) and founder of the Tokugawa dynasty, Ieyasu lived in Shizuoka as a child and then spent his last years in retirement at Sumpu Castle, also located in today’s downtown area. One of the best places to learn more about Ieyasu is Kunozan Toshogu Shrine, his burial site. Like many journeys in Japan, getting there is half the fun.
Join us for a ride on the Bullet Train in this video as we travel from Kyoto Station to Shizuoka at speeds up to 162 miles per hour (260 kph).
We’ve been to Shizuoka many times yet for this journey we decided to visit Kunozan Toshogu Shrine as a day trip. We purchased train tickets in the morning at Kyoto Station (about 150 miles to the south), and rode the Bullet Train (Shinkansen) to Shizuoka. After our visit, we continued our journey to Tokyo (about 100 miles north) arriving in the evening at Tokyo Station.
We did it all in a day thanks to Japan’s incredibly efficient rail system. Shinkansen links major cities throughout the nation traveling at speeds that would have been unimaginable in Ieyasu’s time.
Speaking of efficient, the second part of our journey to Nihondaira took place in a Toyota Prius that made the trip up the mountain road with ease. Come along for the ride in our video.
We met our (editor’s) relatives at the station, hopped into their Toyota Prius, and headed for Nihondaira Parkway. For those arriving in Shizuoka without such connections, Nihondaira can be reached by the Shizutetsu Justline bus service that departs from JR Shizuoka Station.
While it’s possible to climb to the shrine on foot from the base of Kunozan (1,159 steps) without driving up the mountain, the Ropeway makes the journey much easier with a scenic five-minute ride that starts at the top and transports visitors to the shrine below.
Instead of spoiling the landscape to build a road to the shrine, the Ropeway was installed and started service in 1967. The ride from the top offers spectacular views of the rugged terrain below and vistas of the sea from Suruga Bay to Izu Peninsula.
Ready to join us for a ride on the Ropeway? This video records our journey from Nihondaira Station to Kunozan Station.
Our Ropeway guide spoke Japanese, so we’ll translate some of the key points. Nihondaira’s highest point is 308m (1,010 ft.), while Kunozan Station is at 270m (885 ft.). The Ropeway stretches about 1km (0.62 mi.) between the stations. The deepest section of the gorge below, at 90m (295 ft.), is called “Hell’s Canyon.”
The Ropeway journey is actually the easy part. Climbing up the stairs to the shrine requires considerably more effort beginning with this steep stretch. “As you climb the steps leading to the sacred grounds, you are purified by the magical power, as many people have discovered, you can meet the spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu,” says the guidebook to the shrine.
Our tour of Kunozan Toshogu (above) includes huffing and puffing sounds as we climb the steps to capture the different levels, buildings, and incredible beauty of the shrine on video.
“Ieyasu Tokugawa was the first son of a local daimyo (feudal lord),” says the guidebook. “Born in 1542, a time when Japan was being exhausted by continuous wars between various feudal lords. But with natural shrewdness and strenuous efforts, he finally unified the country in 1600. The official title shogun was given to him by the emperor at that time.”
According to the guide, the peaceful period brought about by Ieyasu lasted for more than 260 years during which time both the Japanese economy and culture were greatly advanced. “Even today, we can see Ieyasu Tokugawa’s influence in many aspects of our daily life and in the national character of the Japanese people.”
Kunozan Toshogu was built in 1617 by the second shogun, Hidetada, and the third son of Ieyasu Tokugawa. Kunozan was originally constructed in the mixed style of Shintoism and Buddhism. But after the shogunate government came to its end, the new government led by the emperor ordered the separation of the two religions and some Buddhist style structures were removed or remodeled. The remnants of the Buddhist style can still be seen in various locations, says the guidebook.
The same fundamental architectural style was copied by the Nikko Toshogu shrine which was built by the third shogun in 1636. According to the guide, tens of other Toshogu shrines using the same architectural style were built by local feudal lords across Japan.
“In 1605, Ieyasu handed the position of shogun to his third son Hidetada and retired to Sumpu Castle, his childhood home in Shizuoka City,” says the guide. “He died in 1616 at the age of 75. The funeral was held in the Shinto style in accordance with his last wish. To this day his spirit is worshipped by many people throughout Japan.”
The pavilion was constructed in the Gongen-zukuri style using Edo Period architecture and art techniques. Nakai Masakiyo, the shrine’s principal architect, also built Nagoya-jo Castle (a Designated Special Historic Site), Ninna-ji Temple (an Important Cultural Property), and Nijo-jo Castle (a National Treasure and World Heritage Site). Kunozan Toshogu Shrine was designated a National Treasure in 2010.
While Ieyasu Tokugawa was buried at Kunozan, it’s unclear what happened after that. Some reports indicate that his remains were relocated to Nikko Shrine a year later while others state that he’s still at Kunozan. Walking around the beautifully landscaped grounds and examining the incredible attention to detail of the structures set in a quiet and remote location, we felt the spirit of Ieyasu Tokugawa during our visit.
We took a close-up tour of Ieyasu’s personal artifacts at the nearby Museum of Kunozan Toshogu Shrine. While we took this photo of the exterior of the museum, photography inside the building is prohibited.
Items displayed in archival glass cases that he used in his daily life as shogun include helmets, arrows, swords, and suits of armor. Ieyasu also received gifts from foreign governments. Those on display include a beautiful clock from the King of Spain, a pair of pince-nez glasses, and a service cap from Napoleon III of France.
Following our visit to the shrine and museum, we rode the Ropeway back to Nihondaira Station.
The ride to the top of the mountain was remarkably beautiful in the sweet light before sunset. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, and you want to see hidden treasures, we recommend making the journey to Shizuoka and Nihondaira. We proved that it can be done in less than a day for those with tight travel schedules.
It’s comforting to learn that the Ropeway cables are made of heavy duty stuff. This display at Nihondiara Station shows segments of the Track Rope, Traction Rope, Ballast Rope and Tensioning Rope. If that’s not sufficient to assuage those with a fear of heights, Kunozan can be reached by parking below and climbing up the 1,159 steps. (There’s a separate “Foot of Kunozan” bus stop at the bottom.)
With tired feet and empty stomachs, we entered our modern hybrid chariot and were whisked down the mountain road with a steady hand at the wheel. Thanking our relatives for this amazing journey (and a delicious meal in Shizuoka City), we boarded Hikari Shinkansen bound for Tokyo to begin our next adventure in Japan.
For more information visit the Nihondaira Ropeway and Kunozan Toshogu websites.
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