This is a photo of the Iwakura district of Nakatsugawa, taken in around 1930 by Ito Jintaro.
During the late Edo Period (1603-1868), Mt. Iide became a popular focus of mountain worship in Tohoku. Climbers from many places would travel to Nakatsugawa to climb to the peak of the mountain.
Iwakura is not far from the foot of the mountain, and climbers would stay the night in Iwakura before they began their climb. They would also visit Iwakura Shrine to pray for safety.
In Shinto, it is believed that spirits called kami (神) dwell in mountains, waterfalls, rocks, forests, trees, and so on. A shrine is a place to pray to the kami. Kami are invisible, so no statues were made to represent them.
But Iwakura Shrine originally served a second function as a Buddhist temple. Buddhism has , the main deity, Fudo Myoo (不動明王),locally called as Fudo-sama (“お不動様”), is enshrined in a 142.3cm tall statue with blue skin and red flaming halo and two Nio-zo (仁王像), the guardians who have red skin, enshrined on the two sides at the entrance called Nio-Mon (仁王門).
The reason why we have statues at the shrine is because it used to be a Buddhist temple. The temple was believed to be built in the early Muromachi period (1338-1573). It has been worshiped by the Samurai and various martial arts chiefs. It used to be called Iide San Fudo Myoo Temple (飯豊山不動明王寺) until it became Iwakura Shrine in 1897 because of the influence of "Haibutsu Kishaku" (廃仏毀釈). Haibutsu Kishaku literally means abolishment of Buddhism which was a movement during Meiji Restoration (1868-1889) where tens of thousands of Buddhist temples were eradicated throughout the country. Luckily at Iwakura Shrine only the name was changed and infrastructure changed to fit the description of a shrine but the statues remain safe to this date. The powerful Nio-zo, represented by strong and muscular physiques, are also guardians of feet. Hence it has become a popular belief to pray here before climbing Mt. Iide for the safety of the climber's legs.
Every year on the 9th day of September, the locals gather to celebrate the Iwakura Shrine Festival. Typical to every other shrine festival in Japan, they have the morning ceremony for praying called Sai-rei (祭礼), and the evening festivities which is called Yo-kyou (余興), where they have shops and stage performances, etc. But at Iwakura Shrine they also have another ritual, which is the Shishi-mai (獅子舞), i.e., Lion dance.
Lion dance is a traditional Shinto folk performance art where a group of people form a human chain under a Lion costume with the person at the front wearing the lion's head. The typical Lion dance in Iide region has a large group of people performing at a single place. But in Iwakura they usually have 4 people to form the lion and they go around all the houses in the area and back to the shrine. But for the past ten years or so, Iwakura Shrine did not have the lion dance because of the lack of depopulation. Also because of the influence of covid, the evening festivities have been cancelled for two years in a row. But despite all these challenges, the locals manage to perform the main morning ceremony without fail.
Iwakura Shrine is surrounded by giant cedar trees that are believed to be over 400 years old and is situated right beside the river. Because of the thick tree cover, the grounds of the shrine is a perfect spot of natural moss growth. Particularly during the rainy months of June and also in July, the shrine looks serene with its natural moss carpet. It can be an enchanting experience walking around the shrine listening to the sounds of the river.