Shirahige Shrine: Lake Biwa’s Iconic Shrine

Shirahige Shrine is perhaps one of the most recognizable shrines in all of Shiga prefecture. Though this shrine is not as historically significant as Hiyoshi Shrine or Taga Shrine, pictures of its beautiful vermilion torii standing on the pristine water of Lake Biwa are often in brochures and books about Japan. Though it is a bit hard to access, it is one of the iconic and picturesque spots in Shiga Prefecture.

 

Getting to Shirahige Shrine

The closest station to Shirahige Shrine is Omi Takashima, which is off the JR Kosei Line. From the station, all you have to do is to walk south along Lake Biwa (National Route 166) for 20 minutes. There are public beaches all along the shore of the lake, so you can always take a more scenic walk to the shrine if you prefer. Be forewarned that there are no information boards to direct you to the shrine from the station. If  you feel uncomfortable walking down the road you can always take a taxi. 

Make sure to walk on the right side (left side in this picture) of Route 166 as there is no sidewalk on the left.
The waters of south Lake Biwa can be a bit murky, but the water is much clearer north!

After just 20 minutes (that is if you don’t get too distracted walking the beautiful beaches of the lake) you will be at Shirahige Shrine. Despite being a bit far away from Shiga’s major cities like Otsu and Hikone, a lot of people visit this shrine.

 

Torii

Even before you enter the shrine, you will see the large torii on Lake Biwa. The vermillion torii appear to almost float on the clear blue lake. It is easy to see why this majestic scenery is so very popular and draws as many people as it does. 

Torii of Shirahige Shrine on Lake Biwa
Torii of Shirahige Shrine. Easily one of the most famous images associated with Japan.

You might imagine that these awe-inspiring torii have stood here for centuries, but that is not the case! A merchant from Osaka built the first torii in 1931. However, there are some stories that say a large torii once stood in Lake Biaw long before the current ones.

Though the torii may not be super historic they are  still very beautiful!

 

Shrine Grounds

Entrance of Shirahige Shrine
Shrine entrance

While the torii aren’t that old, the shrine itself is another matter. Legends say the shrine is about 2,000 years old, but some the shrine is not mentioned in many historic texts. Still, some of the oldest buildings on the shrine grounds date back to the early 1600’s– which is pretty old regardless.

Upon entering the shrine you will see the main shrine building, or honden. The main shrine building of Shirahige Shrine is rather unique. At first glance it appears built in the gongen-zukiri style, meaning that the honden and the haiden (prayer hall) are connected. However, the honden was built in 1603 and its haiden was added later in front of the honden. So not only are the buildings from two very different time periods, but the buildings are not connected after all.  

Honden of Shirahige Shrine
Honden: looks like Gongen-zukuri style, but it actually isn’t.

The honden enshrines Sarutahiko. He guided a god called Ninigi from the realm of the gods to Earth. Sarutahiko is often depicted with tengu-like features face and full white beard. In fact, this is why this shrine bears the name Shirahige (white beard) Shrine.

Little shrines
Shrine grounds of Shirahige Shrine and Lake Biwa
Shrine grounds of Shirahige Shrine and Lake Biwa
Iwato Shrine: Located at the top of the shrine grounds. It stands on kofun!

Shirahige Shrine is one of only a handful of shrines in Japan that have “floating” torii. Though it is a bit time consuming to get to, a trip here will reward visitors with a first-hand experience of one of the most iconic views of the country. 

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