Japanese Spirit with Western Learning: Momiji Maple Leaf Festival

JCMU instructor Sam Sorenson takes a scenic walk (and hike) with current fall students to show you a colorful glimpse into Shiga’s history and culture.


When I was an assistant language teacher on the JET Program I had the pleasure of teaching at two small elementary schools in northern Shiga. One of the schools I worked at during this time was Takatoki Elementary School. This school was tucked away in a remote location near the mountains of rural Kinomoto, Nagahama City (about a half hour north of JCMU). While Takatoki was a tiny school with only around 50 students, it had a big presence in the local community and its students often took part in a number of local events every year. My favorite of these events was the Momiji Maple Leaf Festival held every November near Keisokuji and Shakudouji Temples just a ten-minute or so walk from the school.

Keisokuji and Shakudouji are famous for their large number of maple trees (momiji 紅葉 literally “crimson leaf” in Japanese) and draw thousands of visitors who come from all over Japan every November to see the beautiful fall colors. The Momiji Maple Leaf Festival is held every year right around the time the leaves are at the height of their crimson glory.

Here you can see the main attraction at Keisokuji Temple: A stone staircase lined on both sides with maple trees. Every year as the leaves fall they create a beautiful red carpet along the staircase.

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Photo courtesy of the Nagahama City Hall Facebook account

Former students at JCMU might recognize the scene in the above photo from a picture that currently hangs in the lobby of the dorm.

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Though I haven’t worked at Takatoki Elementary School for more than two years I still make a point of visiting the Momiji Maple Leaf Festival every year to enjoy the beautiful fall colors and to say hello to my former co-workers and students. This year was no different, and on Wednesday, November 23rd I once again made my annual trek up to Kinomoto. However, this time I had the unique pleasure of traveling with three university students currently studying abroad here at JCMU. As you may know, there were a large number of events and activities, this past autumn to keep students at JCMU busy, so it was truly an honor to be able to introduce my favorite autumn event to the students. We were lucky enough to have some beautiful fall weather and everyone had a great time enjoying the beauty of the leaves as well as some of the homemade games and presentations offered by the Takatoki Elementary students.

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Photo courtesy of the Nagahama City Hall Facebook account

The Takatoki students used pinecones, acorns, and maple leaves to make and decorate a number of unique games.

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Takatoki students also gave presentations on the famous 11-faced Kanon statues enshrined at the temples in the area as well as presentations about the endangered giant salamanders (oosanshouuo オオサンショウウオ in Japanese) that live in the rivers and streams around Takatoki. (Photos courtesy of the Nagahama City Hall Facebook account)

After several hours of enjoying the festival we headed back towards Kinomoto Station and stopped at a small restaurant for lunch featuring locally-sourced wild boar soup! While enjoying our lunch, we noticed flyers in the restaurant advertising Mt. Shizugatake, a mountain nearby that was the location of a famous battle between warriors serving Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Oda Nobutaka during the Sengoku Period. I shared with the students that I had been to the mountain several times in the past and that there is an impressive view from the top which allows you to see the scenic northern tip of Lake Biwa. We still had a few hours of daylight left and the students were more than happy to postpone the numerous pages of Japanese homework that were waiting for them once they got back to JCMU, so we made the split-second decision to head to the mountain!

After a 15-minute bus trip we arrived at the base of the mountain. Now, while I am a fan of hiking in Japan, we unfortunately didn’t have enough time or energy to hoof it all the way to the top. Luckily, at Mt. Shizugatake there is a chairlift that allows visitors to breeze their way up the mountain slope rather than making the arduous hike to the top by foot.

Once at the top we were able to take in the sights and all their natural beauty. The late-afternoon sun in the western sky gave the bucolic scenery viewed from the top of the mountain a mysterious glow and elicited quite a few “ooh”s and “ah”s from the students. The atmosphere created the perfect environment in which to take in the 360-degree view and imagine the epic battle that took place on the very same ground we were standing on some 400 years ago.

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A view of the northern-most tip of Lake Biwa
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The view from the top featuring Mt. Ibuki, Shiga’s tallest mountain, in the East as well as Lake Biwa and Chikubushima Island in the West
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An ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Toyonobu depicting the Battle of Shizugatake

After a half hour or so of taking pictures and chatting with other tourists we took the chairlift back down to the base of the mountain and started making our way back home to Hikone. I couldn’t help but feel a small sense of pride that I was able to share some of my favorite parts of Shiga with the students at JCMU. And though the events and places we visited that day were all places I’ve been to numerous times before, sharing them with those students helped me remember what it was like to experience them for the first time myself.


Sam would like to thank the Nagahama City Hall Facebook account for several of the pictures used in this blog post. You can check out their Facebook page for more amazing pictures from events in Nagahama.