Welcome to a village famous for being as beautiful as a picture book.
Chihaya-akasaka is a village in the mountains of the Kongozan (1125 meters high) located in Minami-kawachi. Over 6,000 people resides in this mountainous area in the southeastern part of Osaka. It is just a 90-minute drive away from Osaka city or a 20-minute bus ride from the Kintetsu Tondabayashi station.
To many older Japanese, this village is famous to many for Kusunoki Masashige, better known as Nanko-san, a general in the early 1300s who was born here. He took Imperial orders from Emperor Godaigo and raised an army here at Shimo-Akasaka Castle. His character was popularised after appearing in Taiheiki and NHK's period drama.
Today, people come to Chihaya-akasaka to experience a traditional and noble Japanese countryside. Simple elements like the forests, rice terraces and houses with thatched roofs create an idyllic tableau of rural Japan. It's also a place where you can also enjoy nature's bounty, from tasting farm-fresh vegetables sold at morning markets to enjoying fishing rainbow-trout upstream of the Chihaya River. Come see for yourself the beauty of rural Osaka.
The local people refer to the mountain Kongozan as "Kogoze". To reach the top, you have two choices - either enjoy a 60 to 80-minute hike, or hop on the village-owned ropeway that will take you up in 6 minutes. Up here, you can enjoy the outdoors by camping, having a barbeque or staying at one of the bungalows at the Forest for the Residents of Osaka prefecture, Chihaya Park Area. At the center of the grounds is the Museum of Nature and Astronomy where you can do bird watching, learn about various plants or observe the stars with a little help from the volunteers and staff. If you are up for hiking, take a walk in the woods for about 30 minutes and you'll reach Kongozan's peak where you'll become truly acquainted with "Kogoze". After you've communed with nature, relax by taking a hot bath in an ancient hinoki-buro (cypress bath) at the village-run Konanso.
Chihayaakasaka's hero, Nanko-san
Chihaya-akasaka's most well-known local hero is a general who lived between the mid- to late-1330s called Kusunoki Masashige, or Nanko-san. Symbols of this historical character can be found throughout the town. There is a statue of Nanko-san at Chihaya Elementary School, the school's crest resembles the Kusunoki family crest and a Kusunoki Matsuri (festival) is held in spring. So if you want to find out about this village, we'll have to start off by studying Nanko-san first.
The guardian deity of Nanko-san
The Takemikumari Shrine is about a 20-minute ride on the Kongo bus from Kintetsu Tondabayashi station. Hop off the bus and climb up the steep hill and you will see two torii gates. Both are gateways to separate shrines that are related to Kusunoki Masashige. Climb the higher hill on the left and at the top of the stone stairs you will find the outer shrine. Here, ask around for Mr. Okayama Hiromi whose ancestors have taken care of the shrine since the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. He will happily share his knowledge about the history of the building.
The main shrine was built in 1334 by Nanko-san (Kusunoki Masashige) by the imperial orders of Emperor Godaigo. The structure is special because of the unique way the three shrines with cypress-thatched roofs are connected by a corridor. This shrine is designated as a cultural asset of national importance. So for protection and also because God is enshrined in the main shrine, visitors are only allowed to enter to the front shrine.
The front shrine was once burnt down by Oda Nobunaga. And what you see know was rebuilt by the village people who gathered whatever wood they could find around them. That is why the pillars aren't perfect and have damages in places.
The shrine's crest is Kikusui (Chrysanthemum and river), which also happens to be the Kusunoki family crest. This is a combination of the chrysanthemum Imperial Crest granted to general Masashige by Emperor Godaigo and the river representing the God of Water housed within the shrine.
Birthplace of Nanko-san
The history of Nanko-san begins with his birth in 1294. Almost 600 years later, a monument with the words "the birthplace of Nanko" was built by Ookubo Toshimichi while he was on his journey to visit historical remains. This commemorative structure is located 15 minutes away from Takemikumari Shrine.
Right next to the monument is the Chihaya-akasaka Village Museum of Local History. Here you can observe objects relating to Nanko-san and also learn more about his history and the village itself. When you step out of the museum, walk for 2 or 3 minutes and on your right is the well that supplied water for Nanko's first bath. It still supplies water, perhaps even the same well-water that was used by Nanko-san himself.
The Shimo-Akasaka Castle Ruins was designated as a historical site in 1934. It stands on a hill behind the Chihaya-akasaka Public Junior High School gym. The castle was built by Nanko-san to fight the troops of the Kamakura Shogunate. Although he initially lost, two years later he succeeded in his fight to recapture the castle. Study the guide board and stone monument that stands on top of the stone wall, and then enjoy the beautiful panoramic view of the terraced paddy fields of Shimo-akasaka that spreads below.
You can reach the ruins of Kami-Akasaka Castle in about 40 minutes on foot from the Village Museum of Local History and enjoy the fantastic view of the Osaka Plains, Awaji and Akashi. The Kami-Akasaka Castle and Chihaya Castle were both built by Nanko-san after he lost the battle and Shimo-Akasaka Castle. And within the Chihaya Castle ruins is the Chihaya Shrine where the Nanko Festival is held annually on the closest Sunday to May 25, which is the day Nanko-san died heroically in battle.
The Gorinto Yosete-zuka (burial mound for the attacking force) and Mikata-zuka (burial mound for supporting force) was also built by Nanko-san in memory of those who lost their lives in the Chihaya Battle. A testament to his fine character, Nanko-san made the Yosete-zuka larger than the Mikata-zuka and also purposely did not use the word Teki (enemy) in respect to the force he fought with. The Houkento was built to commemorate the 600th year after Nanko-san's death and is now a popular site for cherry blossom viewing.
Strolling around in a farm village
What makes Chihaya-akasaka Village so special is that you can hear the river flowing, see magnificent historical houses and beautiful terraced paddy fields. And that's not to mention the really good food too!
The terraced paddy fields
In 1999, the terraced paddy fields that spread below the ruins of Shimo-Akasaka Castle were chosen as one of "Japan's Best 100 Terraced Paddy Fields" by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Tanada, or terraced fields, are a way to grow rice in mountainous places that lack flat land. In spring, sunlight sparkles off the water-filled terraces and in autumn the stalks of rice blow in the breeze like waves. This beautiful landscape draws many photographers and tourists throughout the year. Although the terraced fields create a marvelous view, they are extremely hard to manage. Because machines cannot be used on the narrow terraces, all farming must be done by hand.
Below the terrace fields, you might see people gathering at a building with a green vinyl roof. This is where the village markets are held on Saturdays and Sundays. Here, about 30 of the registered farms in the village sell their produce like rice, flowers, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, eggplants, mulukhiya and more. At only a few hundred yen per bag, the market is a cheap place to get locally grown goods. The farmers advise people to come around 6:00am when the market is busiest and there are still items left to choose from. After lunch, most products have already been sold, so it's worth while to get an early start. If you have plans to hike up the Kongozan, you can pay for your things first and pick them up afterwards.
It is said that until 1955 there were many water mills along the Chihaya River and many people making rice, grinding soybeans and making freeze-dried bean curd. Unfortunately as time passed things have changed and fewer people are engaged in the industry.
At its peak there were nearly 60 tofu manufacturers in the village but there are only a few that remain. One of them is Matsumasa, which is located near the start of the hiking trail of Kongozan. According to the death register of the Matsumoto's, the family started manufacturing tofu in 1777. In the mid-1990s, Matsumoto Masachika restarted the factory and his son Kosei-san is now in charge. According to records, their Koori-doufu or freeze-dried bean curd won a prize in an exhibition held in the Meiji Era. Currently, their tofu costs 350 yen per block, which is a bit expensive but still well worth it to experience the tofu's rich taste. Matsumoto-san recommends having it with a dash of salt rather than soy sauce so the tofu's flavor is allowed to shine. Fans of the product will even line up at the Matsumasa shop on weekends. Besides tofu, they have black soybeans, Hirousu and soy milk. There is also a cafeteria next door where you can try their famous tofu yourself.
From the farm produce stand, head towards the mountains along the national road and you will see a fancy building on your right. This is La Foresta (Minami-kawachi Forestry Center) where wood crafts and furniture are displayed and sold. At the cafe, open on weekends, you can take in a gorgeous view of the terraced fields while enjoying Tanada Rice Curry. Or, you can go up the Chihaya River on a ropeway to the Chihayagawa Trout Fishing Spot where you can rent equipment for fishing. Then, take your hard-earned catch to the kitchen within the facility and have them cook it for you. If you visit in October or November you can also go tangerine picking at one of the tangerine farms in the village.
Enjoying The Great Outdoors
Chihaya-akasaka Village is surrounded by the Kongozan, which at 1125 meters high is referred to as "Osaka's Roof". At the peak of the mountain is the Kongo-Ikoma-Kisen Quasi-National Park that has a campground, picnic site, beautiful flowers and wild grass, a unique nature experience program and other outdoor amusements.
Reach The Top of Osaka!
Take the bus from the Kintetsu Tondabayashi station for about 40 minutes, get off at the Chihaya Ropeway Mae stop and climb up the hill for about 10 minutes to reach the Chihaya Station of the ropeway. In 1956, Chihaya and Akasaka Villages merged and became Chihaya-akasaka Village. Ten years later, this village-run ropeway was built and it has been running ever since. You can enjoy a 6-minute midair walk to the Kongozan Station which is 975 meters above sea level. During this walk you will see cherry blossoms in spring, fresh green leaves in summer, bright reds and oranges in autumn and silver frost in winter. Just remember that the temperature up here is about 6 degrees (Celsius) lower than in the city.
Diamonds in The Sky...
Osaka Prefectural Citizens' Forest, Chihaya Park Area is a natural park of 13 hectares including a log-house-like resting spot, barbeque space, bungalow and campgrounds. Another one of its main facilities is the Chihaya Nature and Astronomy Museum built in 2001. The environmentally friendly building has wind-power generation, an eco-roof and a bio-toilet. On the first floor, toys made out of acorns and wood are exhibited and you can also learn about the animals, plants, insects and birds that inhabit Kongozan. Upstairs is a study space equipped with log chairs where nature workshops are held.
Go even higher to the roof deck and you will find a huge astronomical telescope with a 400-millimeter-diameter lens. Except from during mid-winter, a star gazing gathering is held a few times per month. If you are planning to participate don't forget to book a bungalow, camp site or a room at the village-run accommodation at the top of the mountain because the gathering is held at night and you won't be able to catch the ropeway back home until the morning.
The participants, mostly families and groups, gather at the roof deck at about 7:30pm. Here there are no neon lights that get in your way - just the glittering, star-studded firmament above. A curator is there to guide you through the stars you observe through the telescope. During the day, the museum also has programs allowing visitors to feel and learn about wild birds, insects and wild grass of the Kongozan.
The Konanso has a traditional cypress bath that can be used by guests who are both visiting by day or spending the night. You can also enjoy a nice meal at the restaurant before of after your bath. An observation deck 7 minutes away from the museum offers a marvelous view of the Yamato and Osaka plains. On clear days, one can see all the way to Kansai International Airport and Akashi-kaikyo Bridge.
Climbing to the top of Osaka
Every year more than one million people climb Kongozan, which makes it is as popular as Mt. Fuji. And while it's a magnet for hikers, ever since the Kongozan Temporinji Temple was built in the late-7th century, it has also been known as a place to practice religion.
The gateway to the temple
Find the path next to the resting spot located in the picnic field beside the museum. Walk 1.5 km up this path to the top of the mountain, which should take about 30 minutes on foot. Eventually you will reach the Ichi-no-Torii, which is a fork in the road. If you go right you will be heading towards the Mizukoshi Toge and the Diamond Trail (Kongo-Katsuragi Nature Trail). If you choose to go straight, you will walk under the torii gate and reach the mountaintop Katsuragi Shrine.
Katsuragi Shrine: the top of Kongozan
Kongozan was formally called Mt. Katsuragi or Takamayama. But after the Kongozan Temporinji Temple was built on the summit, the mountain was referred to by the first half of the temple's name, which is how it became known as Kongozan.
The true peak of the mountain, 1,125 meters above sea level, is called Katsuragi-dake and is located at the back of the Katsuragi Shrine. It is said that Hitokoto-no-nushi Ookami, the God enshrined here, will meet your wish only if you make your wish in one phrase with a pure heart. So when you clap your hands and make your wish, don't forget your pure heart.
Katsuragi Shrine: Temporinji temple
Go down the stairs of Katsuragi Shrine and in about 5 minutes you'll see the Temporinji Temple on your right. The main shrine of the head quarters, Katsuragi Shugendo Dai Honzan, stands in silence surrounded by large cedar trees. The annual Dai Goma (large holy fire) is held on July 7th when Buddhist monks from all over Japan gather. After you have visited the main shrine, stop by the Gyoujya-dou where the sorcerer who built the shrine is buried, the Fudo statue below the stone stairs and the 200-year old weeping cherry trees.
Houken-to, where the sword of Ootou-no Miya is buried, was built by Emperor Godaigo during the Ashikaga Era and is located near the Katsuragi Shrine. At Fukuishi, people stack small stones or pebbles to wish for happiness because it is believed that the guardian God of happiness and profit is enshrined here. And on your way home, if you want to relax, stop by and take a hot bath at the village-runned Konanso.