Today I want to share yet another travel experience during my winter vacation in Kyushu.
It was the last day of the year and it was definitely one of my highlights of the trip.
I went to Takachiho (高千穂) which is a small city in Miyazaki Prefecture.
Takachiho can be accessed by bus from either Kumamoto or Miyazaki (via Nobeoka).
If you head there from Miyazaki, you can take a train and then transfer to a bus at Nobeoka Station.
There used to be a train station in Takachiho, but it’s not in use anymore (but maybe worth a visit for train / station fans!?).
Takachiho is famous for a few things, but mainly for its Kagura dance (more about this later), so the characters that appear in the dances are displayed all over the place.
You’ll see it when you walk from the Takachiho Bus Center towards Takachiho Shrine.
Takachiho Shrine (高千穂神社) is rather small and hidden in a forest with some old cedar trees.
The atmosphere was quite nice with the sunlight shining through the old cedar trees.
They were already preparing for “Hatsumode” (the first shrine visit in early January).
The “ema” (絵馬 = wooden wish plaques often found in temples and shrines) also featured the kagura characters.
This is because the Kagura dances are actually held at this very shrine.
Of course there are some dragon themed emas as well.
On my way back to the bus center I found even more random “Kagura” surreptitious advertising.
Amano Iwato Shrine
Back at the bus center, I took a short bus ride to get to “Amano Iwato Shrine” (天岩戸神社).
In order to understand the importance of the shrine, I have to give you some extra information first:
You know that there are mainly 2 religions that have mixed quite a bit in Japan, right?
Buddhism and Shinto. The latter one being the original Japanese religion.
As every religion, Shinto also has its little story about their gods.
Some of you might have heard of “Amaterasu”, the Shinto sun goddess?
Well, Takachiho is actually the site of the most important legends in Japanese mythology concerning her.
In the story, Amaterasu hid herself in a cave because of some pranks of her brother, refusing to come out and depriving the world of her life-giving sunlight.
That was a very short version as you’ll read about the full story later in this post. This much is enough to understand the importance of the shrine.
At the entrance of the shrine.
It looks a bit scary at first.
The “ema” of Iwato Amano Shrine are showing Amaterasu surrounded by the other gods.
You can take a short tour with a monk guiding you. Behind the shrine building there’s the cave in which Amaterasu hid herself according to the legend.
No photos were allowed as it’s a very sacred place.
I was the only foreigner in a group of roughly 20 people. The monk seemed to be worried if I was able to follow his explanations.
Note: You can NOT access the cave directly!! You’ll just be able to see it from far away!
Power Spot: Amano Yasukawara
A few minutes walk from the shrine is a well-known power spot in Japan: Amano Yasukawara (that’s also what the sign says).
There’s a very small shrine, but what is interesting are all the stone piles.
People pile up stones in order to receive energy / power from there.
To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s more powerful the more stones you pile up. Anybody knows?
Some were amazingly high and looked like they would fall apart any minute, but most of them had been there forever.
A few people climbed over the big stones in the river to get to a spot where fewer people would come. Simply because people might trample over your pile of stones if you place it too close to the shrine. Not on purpose, but there’s not much space to walk!
Of course I wanted to receive some power as well.
I still had a little bit of time until the bus came, so I quickly rushed to the “Eastern Shrine” of Amano Iwato which is only a few minutes away from the “Western Shrine” (the main one).
And here we are. That statue scared the hell out of me! When I came back down from the shrine (which was small, so no photos) it had moved and showed me its back!!!
That is “Ame-no-Uzume” by the way. You’ll learn about her later.
How to get around in Takachiho
Back in the bus a Japanese girl my age turned over and started a conversation. She said she came with the same bus as I did and so she heard me speaking Japanese.
We basically just talked about our trips. As it was December 31st she was about to go back home to be with her family. Too bad, we could have traveled through Takachiho together.
Am I still amazed about the conversations I can have in Japanese?
Uh, no. It’s something completely normal for ME, but often not for the Japanese people around me, but that’s another story.
So, I was actually glad that I was treated normally by that Japanese girl.
Most towns in Japan have their own manhole cover design – Takachiho is no exception.
Apart from “Amano Iwato Shrine” you can easily access the other attractions on foot. It’s a nice and pleasant walk.
From the bus center it’s about 10 mins to Takachiho Shrine (where I had already been in the morning) and from there another 20-30 mins to ….
Takachiho Gorge (高千穂峡) is definitely the most picturesque spot in Takachiho.
The gorge and the rock formations came to life after a volcano eruption a very long time ago.
If you visit in autumn, you can see beautiful fall colors.
You can rent a boat for 30 mins (~ 1500 yen) to see the waterfall from close up.
First, I thought it’s not worth the money … and as I was alone it felt a little bit strange, but I swear it was totally worth it.
The only bad thing I can maybe say about it was that it was too crowded that day, so that most of the time I was just bumping into other people’s boats, apologizing.
Actually being down there creates a really mystic atmosphere (despite all the people there)!
I imagine it to be even better on a not so busy day!
(And I was right. When I visited again in December 2017, it wasn’t very crowded. A great experience.)
Once done with the boat ride you can walk around the gorge. It’s really huge and the landscape is very unique and interesting.
I liked the color of the water!
And then it was time to leave as it was slowly getting dark and thus cold. Please note that it gets dark as early as 16:30 in winter.
Kagura Dance Performances at Takachiho Shrine
I went to my hotel, got ready, ate dinner until it was time to go to Takachiho Shrine a second time.
I already mentioned earlier that Takachiho is also famous for its “Kagura” (神楽) dances.
Actually they have a kagura performance every single night from 8-9 p.m. at the shrine.
As it was December 31st I already expected it to get crowded, so I came there as early as possible (they told me admission would be from 7:30 p.m.).
…. and it was SUPER crowded!! So much that some people had to stand.
Although I came so early I was only in the 3rd row and had a really tall guy in front of me.
Before we go into the dances, here some extra information:
“Yokagura” is a repertoire of 33 ancient dances which have been passed down from generation to generation. It is said to have originated in a dance of “Ame no Uzume“, the Shinto goddess of dawn, mirth and revelry.
As we learned earlier Amaterasu hid in a cave located close to Amano Iwato Shrine. She did that because she was so scared of her brother Susanoo, the Shinto god of the sea and storms who happens to be the husband of Ame-no-Uzume.
All the other gods tried to lure her out of the cave, but failed.
Ame-no-Uzume started a very ridiculous dance. The other gods couldn’t stop laughing.
Amaterasu became curious hearing all that ruckus outside and finally came out!
They closed the cave behind her to make sure she couldn’t go back.
And thus sunlight had returned to earth!
At Takachiho Shrine, there are usually 4 different performances. The dances vary from time to time, so if you visit a second time, you might get to see a different version.
Dance #1: “Dance of Tajikarao”:
Tajikarao was a god known for his great strength. When the sun goddess Amaterasu hid herself in the cave, Tajikarao went searching for her. Tajikarao suspected that Amaterasu hid in Amano-Iwato cave. This dance depicts Tajikarao listening for any sound that would prove that Amaterasu was actually in the cave.
Here’s a video of the dance:
Dance #2: “Dance of Ame-no-Uzume”
When the gods were sure that Amaterasu was hiding in Amano-Iwato cave, they gathered in front of the cave. Ame-no-Uzume then performed a very unusual dance which made the other gods laugh. The laughter made Amaterasu curious so she peeked out from the cave.
So this is actually something like the origin of kagura dances.
Dance #3: “Totori Dance”
When Amaterasu peeked out from the cave, Tajikarao removed the stone door of the cave. This dance depicts Tajikarao gathering his strength and removing the stone door.
To me the dance seemed very aggressive, but also very appealing.
Dance #4: “Goshintai Dance” (*my personal favorite!)
This dance depicts Izanagi and Izanami, the god and goddess who created Japan, as they make and drink sake. These two gods are known for their long and loving marriage.
This dance is also known as the dance of “The creation of Japan“.
Watch part 1 of the video here and make sure to watch the other parts as well.
*Notes: Part 2: I really thought the guy is coming to me, I was so relieved when he picked the woman right behind me. That gave me the chance to take a video close-up. I heard that he will always pick the most beautiful lady in the room. Whoever is being hugged by him will be blessed.
After the 1 h performance was over we all went back to our hotels. A lot of hotels offer free shuttle buses.
It was a really nice way to finish 2011. Back at my warm hotel I ate some more delicious food and watched “Kohaku” and the Johnny’s Countdown.
If you want to see the dances and you don’t have a car, then your best bet is to stay one night in Takachiho. The last bus leaves way before 8 p.m.! And Takachiho is only worth a visit if you can also enjoy the dances.
Can you see why Takachiho was one of the highlights of my winter vacation??