One of Japan’s peculiar delights is the seeming prevalence of quiet, serene, out-of-the-way temples and shrines, hidden in the nooks and crannies of the countryside like treasures waiting to be discovered. Hike in the mountains or along a country road for any reasonable length of time and you’re bound to come across one. They often appear as stairways leading off the main path up a densely-wooded slope, the darkness of the forest canopy framing an old torii gate which marks the entrance to a sacred place. The forest darkness beckons, obscuring from view what lies at the top of the steps, inviting you to come up and see.
Japan is the land of Eight Million Gods, and has countless shrines throughout, from the major pilgrim and tourist destinations like Meiji-Jingu, Miyajima, and Izumo-Taisha, to the multitude of lesser god-dwellings scattered among the forests and mountains. Some date back decades, some centuries, and others more than a thousand years. Some enjoy regular visitors, along with donations, repairs, and upkeep; others languish, largely forgotten. But each has a story, whether remembered or lost to time.
Such spots have a certain electrifying effect on my imagination, in the way that old, mysterious, and shadowy places often do. To visit one feels like placing your feet at the boundary of two worlds, one physical and visible to the eye, the other immaterial and accessible only in your internal, private experience. Looming, jeweled cathedrals and pagodas have their special places in my heart—but soaring arches, vaulted ceilings, and imposing edifices aren’t the only ways to inspire humility in the presence of the divine. Sometimes a bit of stone and some moss will suffice.