Japan: Chikubu Island, Nature and Spirituality on Lake Biwa
Updated: Feb 7
Chikubu Island is one of the six major islands of Lake Biwa. It is a national heritage treasure. Through its temple and shrine, it is a must-visit destination for those interested in Japanese spirituality and culture. And the uniqueness of the place gives it a preserved sense of mystery.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
For photographers in particular, it is also an ideal place to capture the serenity and cultural richness of Japan. Here are some details about its characteristics, temple, shrine, and cultural significance.
Chikubu is a small island, measuring about 2 kilometers in circumference. It is renowned for its natural beauty, with dense vegetation and a peaceful setting. It is primarily home to places of worship and sacred sites. However, unlike Okishima Island, also located on Lake Biwa, this island is not inhabited.
Equipment: NISI Filter Kit. The reference for long exposure photography.
Temples and Shrines
1. Hogonji Temple
It was founded in the 8th century, although some sources suggest it could be older. Chikubu Island itself is considered sacred in Shintoism and Buddhism. This temple is one of the three major temples in the region dedicated to Benzaiten. Hogonji belongs to the Shingon sect of Buddhism (read my article about Shingon Buddhism).
The temple is particularly known for its shrine dedicated to Benzaiten, a Buddhist deity who is an incarnation of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom and the arts. Benzaiten is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune in Japanese belief and is often associated with music, literature, and fortune.
The temple complex includes several historic buildings and artworks, including statues and paintings. The architecture of the complex features typical elements of the Heian era and later periods of Japanese history.
Hogonji is a popular pilgrimage site. It plays an important role in various local ceremonies and festivals. Its position on Chikubu Island, in the middle of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest freshwater lake, adds to its mystical ambiance and natural beauty.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
2. Sukubusuma Shrine
This Shinto shrine is associated with a legend of a dragon that lived in Lake Biwa and was pacified by the establishment of a shrine on the island. It is famous for its Torii (traditional Shinto gateway) and picturesque setting.
Although the exact founding date of Sukubusuma Shrine is not clearly established, it is generally recognized as being very ancient, possibly dating back to Japan's prehistoric era. Chikubu Island itself has been a sacred site in Shintoism since ancient times.
The shrine is dedicated to Shinto deities (kami), particularly those associated with the protection of sailors and fishermen. This reflects the importance of Lake Biwa to the local communities in terms of fishing and transportation.
As is often the case in Shinto shrines, Sukubusuma features simple yet elegant architecture, with wooden buildings and traditional Shinto gates, the Torii (read my article on the symbolism and spirituality of Torii). The natural environment around the shrine, with the lake and the dense vegetation of the island, adds to its peaceful and sacred atmosphere.
Sukubusuma is an important part of the cultural heritage of the Lake Biwa region. Chikubu Island itself is often associated with legends and stories from Japanese folklore, and the shrine plays a role in these narratives.
My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3. The ultra-stable and lightweight carbon tripod for landscape photography.
Cultural and Spiritual Importance
Chikubu Island hosts several annual festivals and events that reflect the richness of its cultural and religious tradition. These events attract both locals and visitors from across the country, offering an immersive experience in Japanese practices and celebrations.
Here are some of the main annual festivals and events on Chikubu Island.
1. Benzaiten Festival (Benzaiten-sai)
This festival celebrates Benzaiten, the goddess of music, wisdom, and fortune, worshipped at Hogonji Temple. It usually takes place in May and attracts devotees who come to pray for good fortune and success.
2. New Year Festival (Oshogatsu)
As in many other shrines and temples in Japan, the New Year is celebrated with special ceremonies and prayers. It's a time when people visit the temple to pray for a good year ahead.
3. Autumn Festival (Aki Matsuri)
Held in the autumn, this festival is marked by traditional rituals and celebrations that reflect gratitude for the harvests and blessings of the year.
4. Setsubun Festival
Celebrated in early February, this festival marks the beginning of spring according to the lunar calendar. It is often associated with purification rituals and the driving away of evil spirits.
5. Buddhist and Shinto Ceremonies and Rituals
Throughout the year, various ceremonies and rituals are held in the temple and shrine, reflecting the Buddhist and Shinto liturgical calendar.
Participating in these festivals offers a unique opportunity to immerse oneself in Japanese culture and traditions, cradled by an exceptional natural setting.
Fine Art Prints © O. Robert
To reach Chikubu Island in Lake Biwa, visitors can use ferry services from several locations on the shores of the lake. Here are some options I have tested over time.
1. From Nagahama: Nagahama is a city located on the northern shore of Lake Biwa. Boats regularly depart from Nagahama to Chikubu Island. This is a convenient option for those coming from the northern region of the lake.
2. From Imazu: Imazu, located on the northwest coast of Lake Biwa, also offers ferry services to Chikubu Island. These trips are often preferred by visitors coming from the Kansai region, including Kyoto and Osaka.
My book: "Miroirs d'eau du Léman au Biwa." Published by Glénat. Available on this site.
3. From Hikone: Hikone, another significant city on the shore of Lake Biwa, also offers boat connections to Chikubu Island. Hikone is easily accessible from Kyoto and Osaka, making it a convenient starting point.
4. Access by Train: For those traveling by train, reaching one of these cities (Nagahama, Imazu, Hikone) is facilitated by the JR Biwako Line, which serves many locations around Lake Biwa. Once you arrive in one of these cities, it is quite easy to get to the ports to take a boat to Chikubu Island.
Naturally, I recommend checking the ferry service schedules and availability. They frequently vary depending on the season and weather conditions. In addition, some connections offer additional tourist services, such as guided tours or cruises around the lake.
See all articles dedicated to Lake Biwa.
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