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Japan off the beaten track: Hakusan Moss Shrine

Heisenji Hakusan Jinja


Would you like to dive into a world that feels like taken from a Ghibli movie?

Japan’s moss temples might be just the place for you!

While visiting temples and shrines in Japan, I always feel how close this culture has been to nature. In the countryside you will often observe that holy sites have natural “halls”, with columns of full-grown ancient cedar trees, rising more than 30 meters into the sky.

They are invoking the same feeling of awe as any great hall of the world’s big churches or mosques, while also emitting a calming closeness to nature that only breathing, green environments can evoke. For me it is the spirit of Shinto, Japan’s nature bound religion that has been captured in these places in a masterful way.

What makes a visit to Heisenji Hakusan Shrine so special, is not alone its beautiful tree columned hall, a forest surrounding the main shrine. Already at the entrance you will see why this shrine is one of Japan’s most famous “kokedera” so called “moss temples”.

The whole forest floor as well as many of the ancient stones strewn across the area are covered in thick layers of moss, giving it a vibrant green hue. You will dive into a special atmosphere of dampened sound, as if a cushion has been laid on every part of the surroundings.

And still, once you linger, listen and observe, it has many stories to tell, overgrowing the ruins of a former Buddhist temple that was destroyed in an uprising centuries ago. And still, once you linger, listen and observe, it has many stories to tell, overgrowing the ruins of a former Buddhist temple that was destroyed in an uprising centuries ago.

Plan for at least 2 hours to walk and explore the premises. You will find a lot of scenic spots to discover along the small paths branching off the main walkway. There is even a special treat: at certain times of the year, the temple is illuminated at night, creating another breath taking atmosphere that is worth a visit. An experience that made it on my to-do-list for my next visit.

Extending your area of exploration, you will find that around the main shrine area there are several archeological sites. Signs with English sections give the visitor historical background to the area and an idea about the size of the holy city that once occupied this place.

Some of the medieval roads and foundations as well as parts of a reconstructed outer wall and gate can be found. With its silent atmosphere I was really surprised to learn that this used to be a bustling temple district with inhabitants in the ten thousands ranging from priests and their acolytes to servants, farmers and warrior monks (yes, there used to be an army of 8.000 here) a few lifetimes ago.

Curious? Have a tour:

The drive up to the shrine combines ancient road with modern.
A bell calls for prayers at the entrance of the shrine.
The long path of stairs up to the main shrine is already covered with moss on both sides.
One of the many Torii.
A holy pond hidden beside the main path.
There are lots of secluded spots to discover while walking the shrine.
The main shrine.
A walk along the pine tree halls.
Sleeping beauty.
A reconstructed outer gate. These plateaus used to be home for thousands. The shrine forest in the background.
Ancient roads invite for a walk.
Hakusan Heisenji Shrine Historical Map of Premises
Map of the medieval temple town. A case for google translate. 😀

By the way, this shrine is a good alternative to Kyoto’s famous Saiho-ji. The famous moss garden is notoriously sold out and needs booking of a visit well in advance online.

As Heijensi Hakusan Jinja is not one of the main attractions and also a bit remote, of the beaten track in Fukui prefecture, only frequented by the occasional tourist bus from the Kansei region, the chances that you will be the only visitor to walk these halls are quite high.

Where to go next:

Hakusan National Park

Ichijōdani Asakura Family Historic Ruins

Tojinbo Cliffs

Gujo Hachiman Castle

Machu Picchu of Gifu

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