explore minato-ku

Atago Shrine at Edo’s highest point: Atagoyama

Atago hill (Atagoyama in Japanese) is a small natural hill 25.7 meters above sea level just north of Zōzō-ji temple and Tokyo tower. It the largest natural elevation within Edo/old Tokyo (in the old days Shinjuku, where there is an elevation of 45 meters, was outside of Tokyo) and used to have good panoramic views of Tokyo, before the high rises took over.

From the start of the Edo period onwards (1603-1868), the hill was used as a fire watchtower. Therefore the shrine on top is dedicated to the fire god. Due to its location at the highest point in Tokyo, the capital’s first radio station was established here in 1924. Nowadays, NHK (the national broadcaster: Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai) has its Broadcast Museum here.

In recent history, right after the capitulation of Japan in the second world war on 15 August 1945, a group of 12 people opposing the capitulation occupied Atago hill armed with Japanese swords, pistols and hand-grenades. It ended bloody on 22 August 1945 when 10 died and 2 were arrested. This is called the Atago Hill Incident.

Climbing the hill

There are many different ways to climb up the hill. Likely the most beautiful way to climb Atago hill is through Seishō-ji temple that is located at the bottom of the hill on the southern side. They made a connection between this temple and the shrine, with nice wide stairs (after you enter Seishō-ji, go to the right, the path starts at the right hand side of the temple).

Seishō-ji is also worth a visit. It is a Zen temple dating back to the 15th century. However all of its buildings were destroyed during the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and have been rebuilt afterwards. On the temple grounds are many small humorous bronze statues created by Yabuuchi Satoshi, sculptor and professor at Tokyo University.

Bronze statues by Yabuuchi Satoshi at Seishō-ji temple.

The most popular way to climb up the hill is by the Stone Steps to Success (see photo at the top of this article). The stairs have an angle of 45 degrees, each step is about 20 cm high and there are 86 steps in total. Climbing the stairs will give you success, mainly in business.

The legend of the steps starts in 1634 with Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (in office 1623–1651) spotting a plum on top of the hill and ordering to quickly get it for him. One brave soul took his horse and raced up the stairs and down again, a quite daunting task as the stairs are really, really steep. By the way, the plum tree is still there! You can find it left of the shrine building, there is a panel in Japanese with information.

Climbing up the stairs by horse has actually only been accomplished 3 times in history, the first time according to the legend in 1634, the second time in 1925 (first live radio broadcast in Japan) and the third time in 1982 (this time on television).

The alternative stairs towards Atago shrine (from Seishō-ji): less steep, more green.

Climbing up to Atago Shrine can be done in the following ways:

  • Stone Steps to Success (also called otokozaka, literally man slope): very steep stone steps
  • Gentle stone steps (called onnazaka, literally woman slope) located to the right of the steep steps
  • Stairs from Seishō-ji: a green path with wide stairs (after you enter Seishō-ji, go to the right, the path starts at the right hand side of the temple)
  • Elevator next to Seishō-ji (right next to Atago tunnel on the Onarimon Station side)
  • Stairway next to the tunnel on the Kamiyachō Station side
  • Road at the backside so you can get up by car

Atago Shrine

Established in 1603, the first year of the Edo period, by instruction of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (in office 1603–1605). There was a very practical reason to establish facilities here: the hill could be used as a fire watchtower. Hence, the main shinto god that is worshiped at this shrine is the fire god Homusubi no mikoto. The shrine was destroyed both during the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and during the Tokyo bombings in 1945. The buildings have been rebuilt in 1958.

It is a nice little shrine, set in greens, with pond and koi. It has many other small shrines on its grounds for other deities. It is one of those shrines that makes you forget you are in the middle of a large city. While it is just very pleasant to spend some time here, you have also plenty of opportunity to get some good luck coming your way.

Ninuri no mon (red-painted gate) at Atago Shrine

Of course, climbing the stairs of success is a good start, but next you should also pass through the red gate in front of the main shrine building. It is called the Ninuri no mon (red-painted gate). If you pass under this gate it is told that you will avoid misfortune. On this gate you can see the coat of arms of the Tokugawa clam, referring to the origins of the shrine.

On the left hand side of the shrine is the Maneki-ishi (inviting stone). If you stroke this stone gently it will bring you good luck. You will see the stone is very polished already due to all the people stroking it. Furthermore, the small little sub-shrines will bring you good luck and fortune in one way or the other. Of course you can also do omikuji to learn about your fortune (for sale at the reception, Japanese only).

The biggest and most popular festival at this shrine is the Shusse no Ishidan Matsuri (Festival of the Stone Steps to Success), featuring the number one characteristic of this shrine, its steep stone stairs. It takes place every 2 years in September (next one in 2018) and features men carrying the mikoshi (very heavy portable shrine) down the stairs, parade it through town and then climb up again with this heavy mikoshi. Climbing up is done in the evening with paper lanterns on the mikoshi making it a quite spectacular sight.

Small sub-shrine at Atago Shrine with the pond and koi fish.

In practice

1-5-3 Atago, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Closest station:
Kamiyacho Station – 5 minutes walk (Hibiya Line)
Toranomon Station – 8 minutes walk (Ginza Line)
Onarimon Station – 8 minutes walk (Mita Line)

Opening hours: always open

Entrance fee: free

When to best visit? Any time of the year

Why visit? history filled beautiful green spot in the middle of Tokyo

Web: http://www.atago-jinja.com/ (Japanese only)

Names in Japanese:
Atago Shrine 愛宕神社
Fire God 火産霊命
Stone Steps to Success 出世の石段
Seishō-ji 青松寺