Dorogawa: A Spiritual Retreat

Dorogawa Onsen, in Tenkawa, offers a physical and spiritual retreat from everyday life. Its remote location at the foot of sacred Mt. Omine and soothing natural hot springs make it the perfect place to unplug and unwind. If you are lucky, you might catch sight of some Shugendo practitioners curiously clad in white and carrying conch shells. The steep mountain paths in the area have been the training ground for this ascetic form of Buddhism for 1300 years.

The Town

The small hot spring hamlet of Dorogawa has a retro atmosphere and quietude punctuated only by the occasional sound of conch shells blown by mountain monks. Local life takes place along the charming high street running through its center.

Lining both sides of the street, there are many traditional inns and small shops selling herbal medicine and the equipment and garments used by Shugendo practitioners.

At Zenitani Shokakudo Daranisukegan, you can buy daranisuke, a folk medicine that has its roots in the esoteric Shugendo community practicing in the nearby mountains. The dark black pellets made from tree bark are a natural remedy for maladies ranging from stomach aches to hangovers.

Many of the ryokan in the area have been operating for hundreds of years. Hanaya Tokubei, the oldest, has been welcoming pilgrims for 500 years. At night, the lanterns that hang outside the inns glow a dim orange, lending the town a special atmosphere. Kadojin looks particularly beautiful lit up in the evening.

Although the town can be covered easily on foot, there is a small petrol station that rents scooters at the bottom of the main street, near the bus station. These are handy for exploring more of the Tenkawa area and to get to Mitarai Valley.

While in the town, try its spring water, Gorogoro Mizu. The name alludes to the gurgling sound of the spring's water which can be heard from within nearby Goyomatsu Limestone Cave. The water is as pure as it gets and can be drunk straight from the source.

Where there is pure spring water, there is good quality soba and tofu. Seikuro only opens for lunch, but serves excellent soba noodle sets with kakinohazushi, a kind of pickled sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. At Meisui Tofu Yamaguchiya, you can buy fresh tofu to eat outside on the small bench in front of the shop.

Shugendo & Sacred Mt. Omine

Shugendo is a psycho-physical practice from the Heian era, combining elements of shamanism, Shinto, Taoism and Buddhism. Practitioners undertake challenging hikes up sacred Mt. Omine and along the Omine-Okugake Trail. Through this practice they purify and revitalize themselves, becoming one with nature.

Located near the peak of Mt. Omine, Ohminesanji Temple, is only open between May and September. During this time, thousands of Shugendo practitioners gather from around the world in Dorogawa. Dressed in traditional white attire and occasionally sounding conch shells, they are easy to recognise.

Long and arduous, the Omine-Okugake Trail leads over mountain ridges and through forests. It runs from Yoshino, south through Totsukawa and into neighboring Wakayama Prefecture. The section from Mt. Omine to Totsukawa is particularly challenging and not recommended for novices.

Open all year round, Ryusen-ji Temple, at the base of Mt. Omine, holds the opening and closing ceremonies for the sacred mountain on May 3 and September 23 each year. The temple itself is beautiful, and well worth a visit when in Dorogawa.

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