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Misogi Shinto ritual
Naked except for a white loincloth, I stand on the edge of the pool and move my arms rhythmically in a rowing action. As I do, I chant guttural sounds with each stroke. “Ay. Ho. Ay Ho.”
Next, I stand straight, hands on my waist, looking upwards as I shout into the air. “Iku tama! Taru tama! Tama tamaru tama!”
Leading me through these actions is a Shinto priest, also dressed in just a white loincloth. Together, we do the actions, chant the sounds, and prepare to go into the water.
The priest leads me into the pool and we both crouch down under the surface so just the tops of our bodies are above water. He begins to chant a prayer in Japanese, a long passage that goes for about five minutes. I have a phonetic copy with me and I try to keep up with him.
This ceremony is called ‘misogi’ and is one of the most important rituals of the Shinto religion here in Japan. Misogi uses water to purify and there’s something extra special about this water – it’s coming from Mount Hakusan, one of Japan’s three holy mountains.
With the Japanese words hanging in the air, and the cold waters surrounding my body, it’s hard not to feel the gravity of this moment. Are the Shinto deities hearing our prayer?
This pool is the only site on the west coast of Japan where the misogi purification ritual is performed and tourists are welcome to experience it. You just need to book in advance here.
But even if you don’t want to take part, it is still worth visiting this important religious centre.
The purification pool is part of the complex at the Shirayama-Hime Shrine in Hakusan City. For centuries, the spirituality of Mount Hakusan has flowed down to this spot from the peak, about 25 kilometres away.
Shirayama-Hime Shrine is the head of the 3000 Hakusan and Shirayama shrines across Japan that are dedicated to the mountain.
Although Mount Hakusan has been worshipped since ancient times, the first pilgrimage to the peak was in 717AD. Since then, the Shirayama-Hime Shrine has been the starting point for the hike up to the shrines at the top of the mountain.
When you visit, you’ll find there’s a main entrance next to the carpark – but I would actually suggest you come in from the lower entrance. This way you will walk up 108 wide moss-covered steps, through the trees and past lanterns, on a more serene approach.
At the top, there’s the main shrine building. But to the right, look out for a smaller shrine behind some tori gates that has been created with a collection of boulders. This shrine points directly to Mount Hakusan and the rocks are in the same shape as the mountain’s main peaks.
On the edge of the shrine complex is a traditional Japanese inn called Wataya. With the same serenity as the shrine, with classic wooden buildings and trickling streams running through the gardens, it feels like an extension of my purification experience.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, I would highly recommend the Wataya Ryokan. The room, with tatami mats and traditional paper walls, opens up to a private garden view. At night, with the futon laid out, it’s a wonderfully-comfortable sleep.
The food at the restaurant also makes the stay so special. The chef will light a fire in a pit within your personal dining area and cook fresh fish over the coals, before they’re served directly to your plate.
I’ve stayed at quite a few Japanese ryokans over the years and this is one of my favourites.
Getting to Hakusan City from Kanazawa
Hakusan City is right next to Kanazawa and, as often happens in Japan, the two cities merge together and the boundary becomes more political than geographic. It’s hard to tell where one stops and the next starts.
Hakusan City itself is even more difficult to define because it was actually only created in 2005 by combining about eight cities, towns, and villages into a new municipality. It’s still new enough that the locals tend to use the old names.
That’s why the best way to get here from Kanazawa is not to go the ‘Hakusan City’ but to Tsurugi, one of the old towns that is the most interesting part of the city – where you’ll find the Shirayama-Hime Shrine, for instance.
Coming from Kanazawa, you can get a good deal called the ‘Tsurugi Town Strolling Coupon’, which costs ¥1200 (US$11.30).
Firstly, it gives you return train tickets from Nomachi station in Kanazawa to Tsurugi station. You also get a small souvenir and special deals at almost 20 local businesses.
But, most usefully, it gives you free bike rental for a whole day, which is perfect for exploring the area and visiting the various sights.
One of the striking features of the Tsurugi area is the Shishiku Plateau, a large slope that forms a natural boundary to the east.
At the bottom of the plateau is a resort facility with museums and shops – but I would suggest these are aimed more at Japanese visitors. What is more interesting is the gondola ride that takes you to the top.
Unfortunately I went on a cloudy day, but normally you would get an excellent view of the Sea of Japan. There are also quite a few good hiking trails that start from here.
For the more adventurous, this is where you can go paragliding for the ultimate view of the mountains, cities, and out to the sea!
Other sights in Tsurugi
There are some other things to consider in Tsurugi to fill the day. For instance, there’s the Kinkengu Shrine, that is smaller than the other one, but visiting it is supposed to bring you financial fortune!
Make sure you also take a special type of sushi called sasazushi. It’s made by wrapping the rice and toppings in a bamboo leaf and then putting pressure on it for several hours to flatten it.
You can even try to make it for yourself at a restaurant called Ohagiya.
Speaking making things yourself, you can join in a craft workshop at the Yokomachi Urarakan Free Resthouse. When I popped in, a lovely lady showed me how to make something out of bamboo thread.
The building itself is a great example of an old shop and storehouse. There’s often an exhibition or you can just pop in for tea.
Also, I’ll mention there’s a famous Insect Museum in Tsurugi, but it’s aimed more at children and is probably not worth a visit unless you had a special interest in the topic.
Outside Hakusan City
After the bright lights of Kanazawa and the culture of Hakusan City, it might be nice to see a bit of nature in the region – and you don’t have to go far to find some great sights.
Driving towards the mountains, you’ll follow the spectacular Tedori Gorge and come across things like the Watagataki Waterfall.
There’s the well-known Oboke-Sugi Cedar Tree and a small art park surrounding it.
And you’ll also find the Torigoe Castle Ruins on the top of a hill.
But it’s more than enough just to just look out the window and enjoy the scenery as you go along the rivers, cross bridges, and weave through mountain passes.
An important cultural sight along the way is the Buddhist Temple of Rinsai-ji. What makes it so special is the attached hall that has seven statues of Buddha.
All of these statues were once at the top of Mount Hakusan, placed there are tributes, but were almost lost forever when the government ordered that Shinto be purged of Buddhist elements in 1868. These ones were rescued and are now displayed here.
Each statue has its own story and it’s an interesting look at the history of the mountain’s spirituality. The temple itself is also quite pretty.
One of the traditional industries in the foothills of Mount Hakusan is silk production. Once upon a time, the locals would use the warm attics in their houses to keep the worms and harvest their silk.
The industry is still going in the area and, although it’s not really done in houses anymore, the production is still by hand.
You can visit one of the silk production factories here and see it for yourself. You can even do a workshop and weave something to take home with you.
As you may know, there are a few different types of noodles in Japan and each has its own unique characteristics. I really like soba noodles, which also have a symbolic role in Japanese culture, representing longevity.
At Niwaka Kobo, you can do a workshop to learn how to make soba noodles for the experts… and, of course, you then get to eat them all at the end.
It takes about an hour to go through the process – first making the dough, then kneading it properly, then cutting it into thin noodles. Then it’s boiled in water, cooled down, and served with dipping sauce.
And it tastes so much better when you’ve made it yourself, right?
If you’re exploring the region, there’s no need to go back to Hakusan City to stay the night – there are lots of accommodation options in the mountains.
I would recommend staying at Ichirino Onsen, a small village that is a popular ski area in winter so has quite a few places to stay. (A good option os the Gooin Hotel.)
In the warmer months, it’s nice and quiet, which makes it a relaxing place to stay and enjoy the nature and the hot spring waters.
For about three months in summer, you can also see the amazing illumination displays at Ichirino. Thousands of lights bring a rainbow of colours to the main hill and they change every thirty minutes.
The lights charge using solar power during the day and then last for about four hours after the sun goes down. You can even get your own light and write a wish inside before hanging it up with the others.
From the misogi ceremony at the shrine, to the lights in the hills, I feel like I’ve had a lot of positive spiritual energy here around Hakusan. Perhaps the mountain just radiates it naturally, or perhaps you have to come looking for it.
Either way, spending some time here, you can understand why this region has been worshipped since ancient times.