Home > Historical Outline of Mount Hiko Shrine

The sacred mountain of Hiko-san (Mount Hiko, ht. 1200 m.) is located in the centre of Northern Kyushu, the westernmost of the four main islands of the Japanese archipelago. Three major rivers in northern Kyushu, the Chikugo, Yamakuni and Onga, have their source on Mount Hiko. “Hiko-san”refers not only to the mountain itself, but it also has a religious connotation involving both the mountain and the shrine-temple complex. Mount Hiko, especially its central peak, has been an object of worship since ancient times. Three kami are enshrined on the mountain summit: the main deity Ame no Oshi Ho Mimi no mikoto on the central peak, and two other deities, Izanagi no mikoto on the northern peak and Izanami no mikoto on the southern peak. With the propagation of the idea of honji suijaku (the merging of the kami cult with Buddhism), these three deities were referred to as the three gongen (avatars) of Mount Hiko, Nyotai Gongen, Hottai Gongen and Zokutai Gongen respectively. Subsequently, with the spread of faith in Miroku (Maitreya, whose worship originated in India as a form of Buddhist messianism), the three deities came to be identified with Senju Kannon (the main deity), Shaka Nyorai and Amida Nyorai respectively. The complex was designated an imperial temple, and the area under its jurisdiction included 3800 residences of yamabushi (mountain ascetics). Thus it was known as an important Shugendo sacred mountain. Shugendo is a form of mountain asceticism incorporating Buddhist and Shinto concepts.


During the mediaeval period (12th -16th century), the Hiko-san cult spread widely among the warrior class and feudal lords (daimyō), who supported the religious centre with donations. As evidence, we have, for example, the Sansho gongen mishōtai, a set of three cast-bronze plates with reliefs of the Mount Hiko Gongen donated by Ōtomo Yoshinao (1172-1223), a military leader appointed as the governor of Bungo and Buzen provinces in northern Kyushu. In 1333 (Genkō 3), Prince Chōjohō, sixth son of Emperor Gofushimi, was appointed abbot (zasu) of Hiko-san. His hereditary line continues down to the present day with the Takachiho-gūji family (“Takachiho” was a name given by Emperor Meiji, and the title “gūji” indicates the chief priest of a Shintō shrine).

In the mediaeval period, old traditions liberally mixed with cultural influences both Japanese and those brought by immigrants from abroad, especially from China and Korea. For example, the illustrious painter Sesshū and other cultural figures left their mark on Hiko-san on their way back from China. At the time, Hiko-san’s community was divided into three different types of religious professional: the gyōja-gata, consisting of Shugendo practitioners, the shito-gata, consisting of Buddhist monks, and the sō-gata, consisting of Shinto ritual performers. Having built fortifications during the civil war (Sengoku) period, Hiko-san inevitably attracted the attention of daimyō like the Ryūzōji, Ōtomo and Shimazu clans of Kyushu and the Ōuchi clan of Chūgoku, who were fighting for supremacy in the area. As a result, Hiko-san was caught in the conflicts among the fighting daimyō, which left the temples and the lodges of monks and yamabushi in ashes, burned down by the Ryūzōji clan in 1568 (Eiroku 11) and then by the Ōtomo clan in 1581 (Tenshō 9).


At the end of the sixteenth century Toyotomi Hideyoshi confiscated Mount Hiko property when he extended his control over Kyushu. In spite of the destruction of the Hiko-san buildings, the religious community, which had remained strong throughout the middle age, remained untouched. Thanks to the presence of this community, Mount Hiko astonishingly regained its power during the early-modern period. Faith in Hiko-san was widespread among the warrior class and farmers: the number of parishioners (danka) rose to 420,000 families and extended beyond Kyushu to the islands of Iki and Tsushima. This popularity was evident during the religious festival called Matsu-e, which brought together 70,000-80,000 people from all over Kyushu. The Hōheiden, one of the major shrines on Mount Hiko (Important Cultural Property), was rebuilt by the Kokura lord Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1646) in 1616 (Genwa 2).


Furthermore financial support to rebuild the bronze gate at the entrance (also an Important Cultural Property) and the lower, middle and upper shrines, as well as other buildings, was a religious offering by the lord of Saga, Nabeshima. These remarkable reconstruction efforts extended to the abbot’s (zasu) residence and to the lodges (bō) of religious professionals. In particular a stone-paved road of about 1 km led from the bronze gate to the Hōheiden, with yamabushi lodges built on both sides.


A literary work composed at Mount Hiko in this period, the Hikosan shōkei shishū (Collection of Mount Hiko’s excellent sceneries), was compiled by the zasu Sōyū, collecting together about 400 Chinese-style poems by some 140 people of different origins, including princes, court nobles, warriors and scholars. Thanks to the close relationship of the zasu with the imperial family, in 1729 (Kyōhō 14) the Retired Emperor Reigen (1634-1732) granted Mount Hiko permission to add the character 英 (outstanding, excellent) to its name, changing it from 彦 山 to 英 彦 山 .

In the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a growing nationalist movement centred on overthrowing Tokugawa rule and expelling foreigners (sonnō-jōi). Kyōyū, the zasu of Hiko-san at the end of the Edo period, came from the Takatsukasa family and was related by marriage to Sanjō Sanetomi (1837-1891), a court noble who was to occupy important positions in the Meiji government. In 1863 (third month of Bunkyū 3), the imperial court ordered Kyōyū to perform prayers for success in the expulsion of foreigners, and after that, he became closely connected closer to the sonnō-jōi movement in Chōshū domain (now part of Yamaguchi prefecture), the most active centre for it at the time.

In the same year (on the 18th of the 8th month) the Aizu and Satsuma domains, which supported a policy of collaboration between the Imperial Court and the Tokugawa Shogunate, expelled representatives of the Chōshū sonnō-jōi movement from Kyoto. Mount Hiko then became one of its bases of operation A plan was devised on Hiko-san to attack Kokura Castle in the Kokura Domain, which had ignored the imperial order to chase away foreigners. However, some people belonging to a faction that was reluctant to attack revealed the plan to the Kokura chiefs. This consequently led to an assault on Mount Hiko and the capture of people belonging to the sonnō-jōi faction, including Kyōyū, who was imprisoned in Kokura Castle. Some Mount Hiko yamabushi were also executed. Today they are venerated in a sanctuary enshrining the war dead (shōkonsha) on Mount Hiko. The anti-Buddhist movement and the ban of Shugendō in the first years of the Meiji period brought profound changes to the cult of Mount Hiko as a sacred mountain. The rapid disappearance of Hiko-san religious activities and the mountain’s subsequent decline was the main reason for depopulation in the area, which continues to the present day.