On a clear winter’s day in 1634, Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty, was riding his horse south of Edo Castle, together with a number of retainers. He was returning to the castle from having worshipped at Zojoji Temple, a major temple complex with which the Tokugawa family have a long and intimate history. As the retinue passed along the base of Atago Hill, Iemitsu noticed a plum tree at the top of the hill covered in beautiful white blooms. It must have looked like a giant snowball. So struck was he by the beauty of the tree that he promised a reward to anyone who would ride their horse to the top and bring him a branch of the blossoms.
Thirty years earlier, Iemitsu’s grandfather, Tokugawa Ieyasu, had founded Atago Shrine atop this hill, and the approach to the shrine was a long, steep stone staircase built into side of the hill. A young retainer named Magaki Heikuro wheeled his horse and charged up those stairs to retrieve the coveted branch. It is said that it took Heikuro and his animal around 45 seconds to make the ascent, and nearly 40 minutes to come back down again with the prize. Iemitsu declared him the finest equestrian in Japan.
Atago Hill, at 26 meters elevation, is the highest hill in Tokyo and once commanded 360 degree views that made it the best fire-spotting locale in the city then known as Edo (ie, prior to 1868). As Edo was constructed predominately of wood, it was particularly prone to fire, making fire-prevention and fire-fighting key to the city’s survival. It was perhaps for this reason that Ieyasu founded a shrine here dedicated primarily to Homusubi no Mikoto, the god of fire. (There are a few other gods in residence as well). While most of the views are now obscured by the city’s skyscrapers, the shrine itself is still a hilltop enclave of peaceful greenery.
The stone stairway mounted by Heikuro, now known as Shussei no Ishiden (stone stairway to success), is still the principal approach to Atago Shrine and the shrine still has plum blossoms this time of year. The staircase consists of 86 steps ascending at a 40 degree angle that is also known as the “Man’s Slope”.
A less strenuous staircase of 113 steps to the right of this ascends the “Woman’s Slope”.
If you’ve managed the ascent of the stone stairway to success, bringing yourself a year of good luck, perhaps pause under the stone torii at the top to catch your breath before you go further. The main shrine building is straight ahead, behind an unusual vermilion gate decorated with the Tokugawa family crest of three hollyhock leaves.
Between the vermilion gate and the shrine is a jumble of horticulture somewhat unusual on a shrine ground, where the area immediately in front of a shrine is usually kept clear. Azaleas and other shrubs are growing around boulders that must have been brought up the hill in a feat to rival Heikuro’s ride.
To the left of the vermilion gate you will find an ancient, wizened plum tree bearing a few pale blossoms. A sign declares this to be the shogun’s plum tree from which Heikuro plucked the blossoms for his lord. If that is accurate, the tree would be around 400 years old. Propped up and bandaged as it is, it certainly looks it! There are a couple of other younger plum trees blooming in garden as well.
In spite of the climb required to worship here, this shrine is always a hive of activity, with people often queuing up to pray. Apparently the shrine is particularly popular with businesspeople and merchants offering petitions for commercial success to the Tengu enshrined at one of the subordinate shrines to the right of the main worship hall.
The shrine also boasts a placid fishpond, guarded by the goddess Benten. The colorful carp gliding around in the pond are only too happy to receive your offerings of fish food (available for purchase).
Two other alternate ways to the top of the hill are a narrow roadway for cars a little further north, and a new elevator to the south, near the base of the tunnel that passes under the hill. Part of the nearby Atago Green Hills complex, the elevator arrives near the NHK Museum of Broadcasting, at the south end of the shrine grounds. This is a small museum, but well worth taking 45 minutes to an hour to explore.
Because of the hill’s vantage point, radio broadcasting was begun from here in the 1920s. The museum has fun interactive displays on great broadcasting moments and Japan’s history of broadcasting. Not every display has English explanations, but there is enough English to be able to follow along. Toward the end of the course is a broadcasting studio where volunteer docents help visitors learn to read the weather news and show off the marvels of blue screen technology. The museum is open 9:30 to 16:30, Tuesdays through Sundays and admission is free.
Atago Hill is a 5-10 minute walk from three subway stations: Kamiyacho, Onarimon and Toranomon.