Miyazaki prefecture is special to me as it was the first place in Japan I visited. I spent a whole summer there doing a study abroad program at Miyazaki University in 2015. It may not be well known to foreign tourists but it is such a fascinating place unlike any other in Japan. Miyazaki is located on the island of Kyushu in the south of Japan. The sunny prefecture of Miyazaki was once the number destination for honeymooners in Japan until the 1980s. Its warm tropical-like climate and its connection to Japanese mythology made it a popular spot for domestic tourists. Miyazaki’s connection to the sun goes beyond its sunny weather, the city of Takachiho is associated with the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Takachiho has a monumental role in the creationary myths of Japan.
*Some of the picture in this post I took a few years ago but not all since my photography skills in 2015 were worse than if you threw a trash bag full of disposable cameras into the Chimpanzee enclosure at a zoo.
I was very lucky to have a kind host family who took me to all the must see places in Takachiho. This is the hometown of my host father so we all stayed at his parent`s huge traditional Japanese house. I never seen a traditonal Japanese house before, It was a really cool experience for me. I got to visit the beautiful Takachiho gorge,walked where the gods once walked, and watched a folk dance called Yokagura, and I even got to meet one of the deities.
The gorge was formed by lava flows from the Aso volcanoes that carved a valley and were subsequently filled by the Gokase river. The gorge is one of the most beautiful natural spots in all of Japan. The cliffs made from volcano basalt columns and the many waterfalls make it clear why this area would subject to legends in Japanese Mythology. You are welcome to view the gorge from up high or if you like you can rent a boat to get a more up-close view of the natural beauty of the gorge. The fees to rent a boat are 4,000 yen for one person, 5,000 yen for two people, and 6,000 yen for three people. The prices used to be cheaper but they were raised because overwhelming demand made wait times as long as 9 hours. Words can`t capture the beauty of this place so please take a look at a few pictures I added below.
Amano Iwato Shrine
The Amano Iwato Shrine is dedicated to the sun goddess, Amaterasu. She is the ruler of the heavens and was used to legitimize the rule of early Japan. The first emperor is said to be a descendent from Amaterasu. In Japanese, Japan is called Nihon directly meaning “Sun Origin” and a symbol of the sun has been adorned on Japan`s national flags for centuries. So you can just the sun in Japan is kind of a big deal.
On the Amano Iwato shrine grounds, you can see the caves from the most well-known story about the sun goddess. Before I get into the caves, let me give you a quick rundown of the story. Amaterasu’s younger brother, Susanoo was the god of the sea and storms, and appropriately his behavior was volatile. He was a bit of a prankster and if around today would probably make a great addition to impractical Jokers despite not being from Staten Island and being able to control the Oceans. He was ousted from the heavens due to his violent and chaotic nature but before he left he went to say goodbye to his sister. Amaterasu was suspicious of his intentions so she challenged him to a contest to see who can make the most offspring from each other’s prized possession(Uno had not been invented yet). Amaterasu created three women from Susanoo’s sword and Susanoo made five men from her necklace. Amaterasu claimed victory because the five men were created from her necklace, causing Susanoo to have a major hissy fit. He declared he had one and went on a “victorious” rampage. He destroyed her ricefields, defecated in her house, and threw a horse at her loom inadvertently killing one of her handmaidens. I thought my little sister ripping our Risk board in half was the worst reaction to losing a game but Susanoo has her beat. Amaterasu was so angry at her brother’s actions and heartbroken about the death of her handmaiden she sealed herself in a cave. As she is the goddess of the sun, she plunged both the celestial realm and the human realm into darkness. The gods unsurprisingly were not pleased with that outcome so they held a meeting at a cave called Amano Yasukawara to figure out a way to coax her out( If only they had Zoom). Omoikane, the god of wisdom came up with a plan to lure her out. First, they had roosters start crowing then placed a holy tree decorated with various scared objects and a mirror, finally, another deity recited a prayer while the Ameno- Uzume, the god of mirth began to comically dance( I like to imagine like Elaine from Seinfeld), exposing herself in the process. This caused the other gods to roar with laughter. Amaterasu peaked out of the cave to see the reason for the commotion and she asked them why they were laughing. They responded by saying because there was a god more glorious than her out there. She went out to see this god and instead saw her reflection in a mirror. While distracted, the incredibly strong god Tajikarao removed the cave door. This brought back light to both worlds.
You can see several locations from the legend at Amano Iwato Shrine, First, you can see Amano Yasukawara where the gods met to form a plan to get Amaterasu out of the other cave, called Amano-Iwato goshintai. It is about a 15-minute walk from the shrine. There are stacks of stones everywhere, which visitors do as a form of prayer. You can easily feel the spirituality of this place and see why it is known as a “power spot”.
Amano-Iwato goshintai is a very sacred place and visitors are forbidden to get close to it but you can see it from a distance from an observation deck. You have to make an appointment with the head priest to be able to use the observation deck. There is machine-translated English available. You will have to partake in a Shinto purification ritual before you can visit the holy cave and no pictures are allowed.
Near the parking lot of the West sanctuary of the shrine, there is a statue that commemorates the swole god,Tajikarao`s feat of strength. I can`t even open a jar of pickles.
At Takachiho Shrine, you can see Yokagura, a variant of a traditional form of dancing that reenacts Japanese legends called Kagura. The name Yokagura comes from Yo meaning night as this form of Kagura is performed all night long. If you have a limited attention span like myself, you can see a performance at Tachiho Shrine which shows 4 acts out of 33. I would think of this as the old-school version of a greatest hits album. The performance lasts about an hour and features dances about Takijikarao looking for Ametatarsu, Ameno-Uzume dance that made the other gods shake with laughter, Tajikaro removing the cave door, the Goshintai Dance which shows the gods, Izanagi and Izanami creating Japan, and “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
The 4 acts of Yokagura are performed at the shrine everyday from 8pm to 9pm.The fee is 700 yen.
The mascot of Takachiho is based on the fun at parties god, Ame-no Uzume. She is adorably called Uzume chan. It was her funny dancing that got Amaterasu to come out of the cave. I relate to her because I too get laughed at when I dance. But as the wise sages without headwear say ” We can dance if we want to We can leave your friends behind ‘Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance Well, they’re no friends of mine.”
How to get there
The easiest way to get to Takachiho is from Kumamoto city in Kumamoto prefecture. There is a bus that takes around 3 hours and costs 2300 yen. The bus will drop you off at the Takachiho bus center. From Fukuoka`s Nishitetsu Tenjin Bus Center, you get there in 3 hours and 15 minutes, costing about 4000 yen. From Miyazaki city, you can take the Nichirin Seagaia 18 Limited Express Hakata train to Nobeoka and then transfer to a bus going to Takachiho bus center. It costs ¥3,160 and takes three hours.
Once you are in Takachiho, you can go to the gorge by electric bicycle available at the bus center or a 30 minute walk. The best way to get to Ama-no-Iwato Shrine is by bus or taxi as it is about 10 km away.
For more information, here is a link to Takachiho`s tourism website.