Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Kumanokōtai Shrine – The Must-Visit Shrine in Karuizawa

Kumanokōtai Shrine (熊野皇大神社), close to the Usui Pass Observation Platform, is a rare shrine you will want to visit. Not only does it sit on a prefectural borderline, but the central watershed (中央分水嶺) can also be found in the precinct! Because the shrine’s precinct is across two prefectures, the shrine consists of two religious institutions (宗教法人). One half in Nagano Prefecture is Kumanokōtai Shrine, and the other half in Gunma Prefecture is Kumano Shrine. Each religious institution has its own responsible person, shrine staff, donation box, and shrine office. This is why Kumanokōtai Shrine is designated as one of the 4 Special Shrines of Japan (特別神社).

Before climbing the staircases beyond the stone torii gate, check out the Komainu dogs (狛犬).

The stone statues are said to be made in the mid-Muromachi period, making them the oldest Komainu dogs in Nagano Prefecture. No wonder we can hardly make out their facial features (´▽`*).

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Although the shrine seems quaint and little at first glance, Kumanokōtai Shrine is one of Japan’s Three Biggest Kumano Shrines. It consists of three shrines, Hongū (本宮), Nachigū (那智宮), and Shingū (新宮). It is said that worshiping at Kumanokōtai Shrine, you can gain the same benefits as worshiping Hongū, Nachigū, Shingū, and The Three Great Shrines of Kumano (熊野三山) separately.

Tips:
☛ For those who collect Goshuin, don’t miss out on Kumanokōtai Shrine’s Tobidasu Shinanoki Goshuin (とびだすしなの木の御朱印). The Goshuin is in the pop-up card style! But note only 30 Tobidasu Shinanoki Goshuin each day.
☛ Kumanokōtai Shrine’s fall foliage season is from mid-October to mid-November.

The Linden Tree at Kumanokōtai Shrine

Ⓒ photo-ac.com

Additionally, there is a Linden tree over 1,000 years old at Kumanokōtai Shrine. Being treated as an object of worship, many visit it hoping to receive some spiritual power for good luck and relationship matters.

Note that there is a special way to pray to the Linden tree. After the usual bowing and clapping, walk around the tree while praying. By doing so, your prayer will be answered. Even if you have nothing to ask from the tree, it is said that you will live one more year or have one less wrinkle if you go around the tree once!

On one side of the Linden tree, there should be a table with many white balls placed. Each of them has a little hole in it. These balls are called Yakuwari-dama (厄割玉). After putting 200 yen into the wooden box, you can blow your bad luck into the ball. You then throw Yakuwari-dama against the big stone at the Yakuwari-dokoro (厄割処) nearby. If your ball is shattered, your bad luck is shattered too!

On the other side of the Linden tree, you will see many arrows on a table. If you manage to throw one of them into the cave close to the table, it means good luck is following you! Again, it costs 200 yen for an attempt.

And why do people pray to the Linden tree to find the right life partner? In Japanese, a Linden tree is pronounced as Shina (しな). Because Shina also means binding, the Japanese have been praying to Linden trees for relationship matters since ancient times. Furthermore, the Linden tree has a heart-shaped leaf, and the tree at Kumanokōtai Shrine also has a heart-shaped hole!

Tip: A heart-shaped stone is embeded in the ground. Standing on it gives you the best angle to see the heart-shaped hole.

The Sub-Shrines at Kumanokōtai Shrine

Besides the main shrines, there are three other sub-shrines in Kumanokōtai Shrine’s precinct that you may want to pray at.

The first one is Yatagarasu-Sha (八咫烏社), on the Linden tree’s right. The bird that guided Yamato Takeru (日本武尊), a Japanese semi-legendary prince, through Usui Pass, is enshrined here. The bird is what you want to pray to if you need some guidance on what worries you.

The second one is Sanada-Sha (真田社), where Sanada Yukimura, an infamous warrior in the Sengoku period, prayed for victory before his first war. Because his prayer was answered, pilgrims nowadays visit Sanada-Sha to pray for victory.

The last sub-shrine is Oku-Sha (奥社), Kumanokōtai Shrine’s rear shrine. In a sense, Oku-Sha is a sacred place where you can feel the origin of the Kumanokōtai Shrine. If you have the stamina to spare, how about visiting Okusha?

Note if you want to get to Sanada-Sha and Oku-Sha, follow the small road at the back of Yatagarasu-Sha.

The Central Watershed at Kumanokōtai Shrine

So where is the central watershed in Kumanokōtai Shrine? It is at Shige no Ya’s parking lot at the shrine’s entrance’s right. The triangular stone indicator of the central watershed is immediately above the metal rectangular drain cover in front of the parking space. As no one will know what the stone is there for, you might feel a little bit of excitement when you spot it (=゚ω゚)ノ.

From where the stone is placed, rain that falls on the Gunma Prefecture side flows to the Pacific Ocean, and rain that falls on the Nagano Prefecture side flows into the Sea of ​​Japan.

How to Get to Kumanokōtai Shrine

  • Kumanokōtai Shrine’s office is open from 9 am to 4 pm. The precinct is accessible 24/7.
  • There are 3 ways to get to Kumanokōtai Shrine. Refer to our Usui Pass Observation Platform article for more details. The shrine is close to the observation park.

Other Attractions Close to Kumanokōtai Shrine

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Click the photo for information about the attractions close to Kumanokōtai Shrine!

A considerable amount of effort is certainly required to visit Kumanokōtai Shrine. So since you have made it this far, there are a few other spots close to the shrine that you might be interested in. They will make your visit to the Usui Pass a lot more memorable.

For more information, refer to our article on the Usui Pass Observation Platform!