Japan Travel Guides: The Mysterious Interior of Dogo Island, Oki Islands, Shimane Prefecture
The Mysterious Interior of Dogo Island 島後
Part of the Daisen-Oki National Park, and a UNESCO Global Geopark, Dogo has, like the other islands in the group, some fantastic coastal scenery, but it also has something the other islands don't have - a distinct interior.
Because of their shape and size, wherever you are on any of the other Oki Islands, you are never far from the sea coast, but because Dogo is roughly round in shape, and the middle of the island is relatively high - Mount Daimanji is more than 600 meters above sea level, the interior is a quite distinct environment.
The ancient Japanese settled the coasts, coastal plains, and the watercourses that flowed to the coasts. Places where rice could be grown and the sea could provide plenty of food. The higher, densely forested mountains were to a large extent a mysterious and dangerous place, they were the realm of the kami, the powerful and mysterious natural forces that we often call gods.
These kami occupied the mountain tops, the water sources, mysteriously shaped rocks and ancient, giant trees, and these sites were the earliest shrines, before the idea of building permanent structures came with Buddhism. Dogo has several of these ancient, sacred sites within its interior, and as would be expected, they are not on bus routes and take some effort to reach, best done with a rental car.
Dangyo Shrine & Waterfalls
Dangyo Shrine and waterfalls is perhaps the best known and most visited of these mysterious places. To reach it entails a drive through dense forest, far from any villages or even isolated farmhouses. After parking the car a path leads deeper into the forest through a torii gate flanked by a pair of huge trees.
Venturing in alongside a small stream the forest canopy eventually opens up and you come to some overhanging cliffs with a pair of waterfalls. The larger fall is considered male and the smaller female.
Under the overhang of the male falls are now some small shrine buildings. The water here is classified as among the 100 Best Waters of Japan. There are a male and a female kami enshrined here. The male, Oyamakui, originates from the Izumo region but is probably best known for being the main kami at Hiyoshi Taisha, the tutelary shrine of Enryakuji, the great monastery overlooking Kyoto on Mt. Hiei.
The female, Seoritsuhime, sometimes called a guardian of waterfalls, is not well known, but is mentioned in ancient prayers as a kami connected to places of purification. According to the legend of the origin of the shrine, a priest discovered an ancient bronze mirror here, and as bronze mirrors were important ritual objects in ancient Japan, it suggests that the water here has been considered sacred since time immemorial.
Over the centuries different benefits have been attributed to the water, but the most well known nowadays is that the water of the female waterfall is "winners water" and before competitions such as Bull Sumo or traditional sumo participants will come here and drink the water for luck.
Ongyaku Shrine is somewhat easier to reach as it is right by the side of the road, though it is pretty inconspicuous and you might just drive by. A simple wooden torii, with no buildings, but in the middle of the space a large rock. The rock is the shrine.
Large rocks are fairly common sacred sites in Japan as it is believed that when the kami descend they like to inhabit rocks and are often called "iwakura", rock-seat. Of interest here is what might at first glance be a shimenawa, the "rope" made of twisted rice straw that marks sacred space.
If you look closely you will see it is not in fact a shimenawa, but a representation of a serpent. This is another tradition still commonplace here on Dogo as well as other remote parts of Japan and the serpent is named Kojin, a kami of the land. Just about every community on Dogo has one, though you will usually find it wrapped around a tree in shrine grounds. On March 21st in even years a ritual takes place at Ongyaku Shrine with arrows being shot at targets with pictures of a crow and a mouse.
Located in a steep valley on the eastern side of the island, Oyama Shrine is also marked by a simple, wooden torii. In the open space in the forest behind the torii this shrine also has no buildings and simply consists of a single, huge tree, another of the objects favored by the kami when they descend to Earth.
This one is a sugi, cryptomeria, a type of cypress though commonly called Japanese cedar, and is believed to be 800 years old. Wrapped around the base of the tree is a vine, and inserted in it are numerous gohei and other ritual objects that carry prayers.
On the first Sunday in April of even years, the villagers from the fishing village of Fuse, where the valley reached the sea, carry the vine up to the shrine and wrap it seven and a half times around the tree base. It is said that this is one of the oldest mountain festivals in Japan.
The next shrine is deeper into the mountains, and whereas the Oyama Shrine tree is very tall and perpendicular, seeming to reach all the way up to heaven, the tree at Chichisugi Shrine is very unusual to say the least.
Looking like something from the imagination of Tolkien, it's not hard to see why ancient Japanese would have found this tree an object of awe. Like the tree at Oyama Shrine, this one is also believed to be about 800 years old.
The base is a single trunk, but part way up the trunk branches out into more than a dozen trunks, some of which appear to have roots growing down from them. They are not actually roots, but are a method the tree uses to absorb moisture from the atmosphere.
It's a species of cryptomeria called Urasagi which grows on the Sea of Japan side of the main Japanese island of Honshu and its strange form is a way it deals with the excessive snowfall of this part of Japan.
On the 23rd of April each year villagers come to the tree with offerings for the kami as part of their festival. The best time to visit is in the morning before the mountain mist has burned off when the tree takes on an almost ghostly appearance.
Not too far away is another Urasagi called Kaburasugi. A couple of hundred years younger than the Chichisugi, as you approach it it looks like a group of six trees, but getting closer you see it has just one trunk at the base.
Getting Between the Oki Islands
A fairly frequent and fast ferry service connects the three islands of Dozen, but between Dozen and Dogo you need to use the car ferry or fast ferry.
Read more about access to the Oki Islands and getting around the islands.
Useful Oki Island Resources
- Oki Islands UNESCO Global Geopark
- Oki Islands Events Calendar
- Oki Islands Nishinoshima
- Oki Kisen Ferries