Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Mystical Wolves of Mount Mitake

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Mountains have always been fertile grounds for gods and legends. Sasquatch and Coyote roam the American West, while basilisks and ghost dogs haunt the peaks of Europe.

In Japan, the mountain slopes are home to a wide variety of kami, ghosts, and legendary creatures, some of whom live on long after their natural counterparts have gone extinct.

Inari Wolf on Mount Mitake

Although the short-legged Japanese wolf was declared extinct in the first years of the 20th century (the last confirmed sightings occurred in 1905), the legend of Mount Mitake's wolves remains alive and well.

Mount Mitake rises 929 meters (3,048 feet) above sea level in Chichibu Tama Kai National Park, about an hour's train ride northwest of central Tokyo. Upon arrival, visitors either hike the 2.5-hour trail to the top or, more commonly ride the Mitake Tozan Cable Car and hike the last 45 minutes to Musashi-Mitake Jinja (Shrine) which sits on the mountain's summit.

The entrance to Musashi-Mitake Jinja ... still a 20 minute stair-climb from the summit.

Like many Shintō shrines, Musashi-Mitake Jinja has both a primary hondo, or worship hall, and numerous sub-shrines, including one dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, sake, and fertility.

One of the only Inari shrines in Japan that doesn't have foxes as guardian statues.

Guardian statues near the shrines serve as spiritual protectors, but unlike most other Shintō shrines, whose guardians are lion-dogs, kirin, or--in the case of Inari shrines--foxes, the guardians at Musashi-Mitake shrine are wolves.

Inari wolf on Mount Mitake

Wherein lies a tale.

Guardian wolf, Musashi-Mitake Shrine

According to legend, Prince Yamato Takeru--the son of Japan's 12th emperor--got lost in the forests of Mount Mitake after a demon transformed itself into a stag and led the prince astray. Lost and cold, the prince wandered on the mountain until a giant white wolf appeared and led him to safety. Thereafter, the prince proclaimed the wolf a deity, and it became the official guardian and protector of the mountain.

Protecting Mount Mitake for over 1000 years.

In Japanese folklore, wolves are often portrayed as messengers of the kami (deities or gods); in other legends, wolves are considered divine in their own right.

Numerous places in Japan have local legends involving okuriōkami  or "escort wolves" that rescue people lost on mountains or follow travelers through the forest at night to ensure they reach home safely. Whether these legends predate or follow Yamato Takeru's encounter on Mount Mitake, they demonstrate that wolves in Japan are not the Big Bad Beasties of Western lore.

The ferocious scowls on the statues that cover Mount Mitake may strike terror into the hearts of evildoers, but little girls on the path to grandma's house have nothing to fear.

He's only fierce if you are.

Regrettably, there are no more live wolves in Japan, but if you believe the legends, the spirit wolves are still watching and waiting, ready to come to your aid in a time of need.


  1. It's always interesting to see art from different cultures, sculptures, in particular.

    These wolves are quite impressive. When were they built?

  2. Sad to hear they're gone. We could have used a few back in the States these days to help guide us out of the wilderness.