Located in Muro, Uda City, Ryuketsu Shrine stands at the entrance of a valley that stretches nearly a kilometer along the Muro River from Muro-ji Temple. This sacred shrine is one of the most mysterious and spiritually powerful places in Uda City. The Dragon Deity, God of Water, is enshrined and honored here, and is thought to be responsible for rainfall, rivers, and clean water in the area. The exact date of the shrine’s construction is not known, but is said to precede nearby Muro-ji Temple which was built in the 8th century.
A narrow, winding mountain road behind the shrine leads to ‘Kissho Ryuketsu’ (The Dragon’s Cave), where locals believe the Dragon Deity resides. On the way to the cave, you will pass a huge sacred rock cleaved into two said to be the Ama-no-Iwato, the cave in which the sun goddess of Japanese mythology hid away, thus plunging the world into darkness. This all adds up to make the area a well-known power-spot, bathed in history, mystique and natural beauty.
What immediately strikes you as you approach Ryuketsu Shrine are the giant cedar trees that surround it. The grounds of the shrine are far from vast, but the height of these majestic trees draws your eyes upwards, making you feel like you've stepped into a large living cube - a cube filled with negative ions and spiritual purity.
As mentioned above, the shrine predates the more famous Muro-ji Temple and what's more, the temple's founding is predicated on the shrine's existence. According to the The Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan, the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history) Prince Yamabe (later Emperor Kanmu) once fell seriously ill. In hopes of a cure, he offered prayers at the dragon cave in Muro. This dragon cave is believed to be Kissho Ryuketsu, the cave in which the Dragon Deity of Ryukestu Shrine resides.
After his recovery and subsequent accession to the throne, Emperor Kanmu ordered the construction of Muro-dera Temple, currently known as Muro-ji temple to serve as the guardian temple for the shrine and act as a place of worship for the dragon deity of Ryuketsu Shrine and a place to conduct prayer offerings for rain.
What may surprise Western readers is the fact that in Japan, dragons are associated with good luck and water. That's why the place where you wash your hands before entering a shrine or temple will invariably be accompanied by a small statue of a dragon. Muro-ji Temple to this day is still closely connected to dragon symbology. Every August a special ceremony is conducted where straw dragons are laid on the ground and the head priest of Muro-ji Temple leads a procession between the temple and Ryuketsu Shrine.
Connection to Sarusawa Pond
According to legend, the Dragon Deity of Ryuketsu Shrine once resided in Sarusawa Pond - the pond right in front of our facility and which this blog is named after. Legend has it that while the Dragon was residing in Sarusawa Pond, a low-ranking uneme court lady ended her life in it.
According to the “Yamato Monogatari” legend, the uneme court lady was tasked with helping the Emperor with his daily needs. Over time she earned the Emperor’s favor and fell in love with him. When the Emperor lost interest in her and turned his attentions to other women the uneme was heartbroken and consumed by grief drowned herself in the Sarusawa Pond. After her death the spirit of the deceased began appearing on the shores of the Sarusawa Pond, so the people of Nara erected a shrine on the pond’s northwest bank and started an annual festival to appease the woman’s grieving soul.
This festival called Uneme Matsuri is held at the pond every and you can read more about it here.
This all served to greatly displease the dragon so she decided to leave Sarusawa Pond and relocate to the mountains of Kasuga, seeking a more serene environment. However, due to the area being invariably frequented she decided to move on again, eventually seeking refuge in Muro. Here, she settled by the clear-flowing stream near a large slab of rock, creating a sacred cave as her dwelling. This cave came to be known as Kissho Ryuketsu; The Dragon Cave.
The Marriage Cedar
The "Marriage Cedar" (Renri no Sugi) – A Power Spot for Matchmaking at Ryuketsu Shrine.
To the right hand side immediately after passing under the torii gate there is a pair of giant cedar trees known as the "Marriage Cedar." These two trees are connected at the base and have grown high into the sky in tandem for hundreds of years. This natural formation is believed to bring blessings for match making, marital harmony and family prosperity.
As mentioned above, on the mountain path from Ryuketsu Shrine to the Kissho Dragon Cave, you will pass a 5m tall sacred rock called Ama-no-Iwato. This rock, meaning "heaven's rock cave," holds a pivotal place in Japanese mythology as detailed in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, Japan's oldest historical records. According to legend, the impetuous Japanese god of storms, Susano'o, drove his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu into the Ama-no-Iwato cave, plunging the world into darkness.
To rescue her, the celestial assembly orchestrated a celebration outside the cave's mouth. Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto's playful dance evoked laughter, intriguing Amaterasu. As she peeked out, she became captivated by her reflection in the Yata-no-Kagami mirror. Ame-no-Tajikarao then took her hand and pulled her out of the cave and the world was bathed in light once again. As Amaterasu stepped out of the cave a holy seal was applied to the opening, preventing her from ever retreating into hiding again.
The term "Ama-no-Iwato" is associated with various spots across the country, but what makes this particular spot so intriguing is the overlap with Ryuketsu Shrine. More on that below.
This pair of gigantic rocks, each about 5 meters tall, appear to have split into two. They are enshrined and bound by shimenawa sacred ropes. Nearby, you'll also find a small shrine (hokora).
Connections to Ryuketsu Shrine
Transferred from the original shrine building of Kasuga Taisha Wakamiya Shrine, the Main Hall of Ryuketsu Shrine is a vermilion-lacquered Kasuga-style building constructed in 1671. It has been designated as a cultural asset by the prefecture.
The front of the main hall is flanked by 2 further small vermilion-lacquered single-room shrines to each side. One is associated with the Buddhist goddess Benzaiten, and the other with Ame-no-Tajiikaro, the deity who pulled Amaterasu out of the cave during the "Ama no Iwato" legend.
As detailed above, in the "Ama-no-Iwato" legend it was Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto who played a key role in coaxing Amaterasu out of the cave by her provocative dancing. As the years passed, followers who revered Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto turned to the worship of Benzaiten due to the spread of the Buddhism. Benzaiten is the Japanese name of the India goddess Saraswati and became known in Japan between the 6th to 8th centuries, mainly through the Chinese translations of the Sutra of Golden Light. Considering Ryuketsu is dedicated dragon deities and water, it is interesting to note that Benzaiten's Sanskrit name is "Sarasvatî Devî", which means "Flowing Water"
All of these overlapping narratives of water, dragons and ties to the Ama-no-Iwato legend add up to make Ryuketsu Shrine a truly fascinating and enigmatic place.
Ryuketsu Dragon Cave
The cave in which the Dragon Deity resides, is somewhat separated from the shrine. It is easily accessible by car, taking about 5 minutes, but on foot proves a bit harder as the path is up a winding mountain road which inclines all the way. At a leisurely pace, expect to spend at least 30 minutes getting there. On the way, you will pass the giant Ama-no-Iwato rock on your right hand side.
The descent to the cave is marked by a small torii gate and a sign post.
Upon passing through the torii gate and descending around 100 steps, you'll reach a sacred platform called a Yohaijo. As a sacred space, this small hall prohibits shoes inside but slippers are provided. From here you can offer prayers towards the dragon cave unencunmbered. During your descent towards the Yohaijo, the serenity is only broken by the sound of the waterfall emanating from the right hand side of this cave, a waterfall known as Sho-Ubaku.
The clear waters flowing from here serve as the source for rivers like Nara's Kizugawa and Osaka's Yodogawa. Because of this, various rain-invoking rituals have been performed at "Kissho Ryuketsu" since ancient times and continue to this day.
Undoubtedly, a trip to Muro, which could also take in Muro-ji Temple, Muro Art Forest and several delicious countryside cafes, is best accessed by car, but access by public transport is not out of the question. Whether coming from Nara, Osaka or Kyoto, you will need to make your way to Muroguchi-ono Station and its adjacent bus stop, Murouguchi-ono Station Bus Stop. From here you will need to catch a the number 44 bus heading towards Muro-ryuketsu-jinja (室生龍穴神社行). The trip has 6 stops and takes about 20 minutes, but will drop you right in front of the shrine.
The three places mentioned in this article and the mountain road leading up to Ama-no-Iwato and the Ryuketsu Dragon Cave are not properly shown on Google maps. However, the actual street view links are valid, so we have posted them down below for reference.
Ryuketsu Shrine Street View
Ama-no-Iwato Street View
Ryuketsu Dragon Cave Street View
Author: NARA Visitor Center & Inn