The real-life version of the newest Slam Dunk movie’s shrine is worth working up a sweat to see.

When it comes to pilgrimages to real-world places seen in anime, fans of Slam Dunk are known for heading to Kamakura, the Kanagawa Prefecture coastal town that serves as the model for the town where the series’ basketball-playing teens attend high school. These days, though, there’s a new Slam Dunk pilgrimage site, one found far, far to the north in Akita Prefecture.

Moriko Omonoimi Shrine isn’t mentioned by name in The First Slam Dunk, the CG anime movie that came out late last year and is the most recent piece of Slam Dunk animation so far. However, fans can’t help noticing how the shrine visited by Eiji Sawakita, star player of the powerhouse team the Slam Dunk protagonists go up against, looks an awful lot like Moriko Omonoimi. The shrine is located in the town of Yurihonjo in Akita, the same prefecture where Saakita’s fictional Sannoh High School is supposed to be.

Akita, part of Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region, is one of the most rural prefectures in the country, and stepping out of Kurosawa Station on the Chokai Sanroku Line (the closest stop to the shrine), we had our breath taken away by the idyllic Japanese summertime view of a bright blue sky, pure-white clouds, and green fields stretching all the way to deeply forested mountains.

The station itself is a tiny, unmanned building, but clean and well maintained.

▼ If you’re visiting the shrine by train, you’ll want to snap a picture of the timetable, as trains only come by once or twice an hour.

Like we mentioned above, The First Slam Dunk never explicitly says that Moriko Omonoimi is the shrine Sawakita visits to pray for success in his sporting endeavors. Those who have visited the shrine and seen the movie say the visual similarities are clear, though, so much so that…

the town and station have leaned into the reputation. At the bottom of the Kurosawa Station sign is a picture of a basketball jersey that looks just like Sawakita’s, right down to his number, 9. The sign also greets visitors with the written message “You’ve come to Kurosawa Station,” which in Japanese is “Kurosawaeki ni kita yo,” and sure enough, the sawa and kita parts are written in green.

▼ The route from the station to the shrine

It’s about two kilometers from the station to Moriko Omonoimi, a walkable distance, but there’s also a parking lot near the shrine entrance if you’re arriving by car. Along the way, we even spotted a sign directing visitors.

▼ 森子大物忌神社 = Moriko Omonoimi Shrine

▼ Even the sign for the parking lot has a cool countryside vibe.

In the movie, Sawakita visits the shrine while out running to condition himself for the upcoming game. Elite athlete that he is, he bounds up the stone staircase that leads up to the shrine’s main building.

Stepping through the torii gate, though, we figured we should pace ourselves, because there are roughly 300 stone steps.

On the plus side, you’ll have plenty of beautiful scenery to admire as you take your time, since the path you walk on leads through a dense forest of cedar trees.

As we walked, we didn’t encounter a single other person, and the solitude created a serene, sacred atmosphere. We were far from alone, though as there were tons of bugs: dragonflies, butterflies, bees, horseflies, and mosquitoes.

▼ “Beware of bees”

Since we were visiting in the summer, there was probably more insect activity than usual, but we’d definitely recommend wearing long sleeves to prevent getting bit or stung on your arms. Another thing we’d recommend is bringing some water with you to rehydrate. The cedars provide a measure of shade even at midday, but you’re still likely to work up a sweat climbing up to the shrine.

When we eventually did make it up there, the shrine building was both rustic and majestic. The unpainted wood gives it a very old-school, local-community feel, but the carvings are complex and exquisite.

Just like on the trail, we didn’t see anyone else at the shrine that day. We weren’t its first visitors, though. Set up on a small table was a row of hand counters and a multi-lingual request to press the one corresponding to your country of origin, either Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, or “English-speaking countries.”

Lumping all English-speaking countries together might seem kind of unusual, but language is clearly the focus of the tally-taking, so that the shrine, and by extension the town of Yurihonjo, can know where its visitors are coming from and how to make their time in the area enjoyable, such as by providing tourism information in their native languages. It’s a kind-hearted and admirable initiative, since as a small rural town there isn’t a lot of non-Japanese-language sightseeing information available about the town yet.

Moriko Omonoimi is actually the start of a trail for shugendo, mountain hiking pilgrimages began by ascetic monks and now enjoyed by outdoorsy types in a secular sense too. With daylight running short and our legs already tired from the climb up, we decided to save the shugendo trail for another time, and headed back down the steps.

It may not have the flash of historical significance of the country’s more famous shrines, but visiting Moriko Omonoimi is one of those quintessential small-town experiences that make getting off the beaten path in rural Japan so enticing. Even though it was the Slam Dunk connection that drew us there, you don’t have to be a fan of the series, or even anime in general, to get something out of climbing those steps and visiting the shrine, and the memories of our day at Moriko Omonoimi will be with us for a long time…

…even longer than the bug bites we still have to put anti-itching ointment on.

Shrine information
Moriko Omonoimi Shrine / 大物忌神社
Address: Akita-ken, Yurihonjo-shi, Moriko Yaotome-shita 99

Photos ©SoraNews24
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Follow Casey on Twitter, where “cool shrines, cool cartoons” are big parts of what drew him to Japan.