Exploring the Ancient Salt Road, Shiogama shrine (where resides the Salt God) and the ancient tradition of salt-making in Japan

The Old Salt Road

Salt bearers Photo courtesy: JTB

The Salt Road (Shionomichi) was an ancient highway that connected that interior regions of Honshu Island in Japan with the coastal regions. Part of it was called the Chikuni-kaido that connected the castle city of Matsumoto with Itoigawa on the Japan Sea coast. The route involved the transportation of various kinds of goods, the most important of which was salt, along treacherous mountain roads. In landlocked Shinshu (today’s Nagano), salt was the most-prized among these commodities. For this reason the route was named the ‘Salt Road’.

Below are excepts from “The Salt Road” (Go Nagano! Blog):

“At the beginning of May, the Golden week holidays herald the arrival of cherry blossom season in Hakuba. Every year the Salt Road Festival celebrates the ancient salt road that passes through Otari, Hakuba and Omachi.

The Salt road runs from Itoigawa on the Japan sea all the way inland to Shiojiri near Matsumoto. Until roads were developed salt was ferried by oxen and human from the sea to the interior and sold at markets. The biggest market was in Shiojiri near Matsumoto. …

The old road winds through beautiful countryside and clusters of thatched farmhouses. Along the way local people sing folk songs, play taiko (Japanese drumming) and hand out free refreshments of tea and local sukemono (pickles). The old village of Chikuni at the half way point houses the salt road museum where you can see the history of the salt road and “Pay a toll” to the tollbooth staff for passage by getting your map stamped.”


Ancient legacies of the Old Salt Road travelers

Ancient steles dedicated to ancient traveler guardian and protector deities, including a number of stone Buddhist statues, may also still be found all along the Salt Road from Sano via Lake Aoki to Sanosaka and the stretch between Hakuba and Otari. Particularly numerous are the  ancient Jizo, Kannon and Batou-kannon statues.

Kazakiri Jizo: With the winds that blow down from Hakuba’s peaks, Kazakiri Jizo, a guardian deity of travellers, is said to protect crops from pests and drive away evil spirits that bring about sickness and disease.

Kannon-bara: With 33 statues from western Japan, 33 from the Kanto area, and 34 from the Chichibu area, Kannon-bara field contains 100 stone Buddhist statues. An additional 87 Batou Kannon make the total number 187, all arranged in a quad around the field.


The city of Shiogama ( Miyagi Prefecture) owes its name to the salt-making tradition for Shiogama’s name means “salt cauldron”. This refers to an ancient Shinto ritual involving the making of salt from sea water that is still performed every July at the Okama Jinja Shrine.  The Shiogama Jinja (or Shrine) is the leading Shinto shrine in Tohoku and according to the shrine history of Shiogama-jinja, enshrined here are the triad and three pillars of Great Deities known as Shiotsuchinooji (the god who taught them how to make salt), Takemikazuchi(who had” descended to the land of Izumo” source) and Futsunushi (the martial tutelary of the warrior clan Mononobe(source)– the latter two deities are said to have come to Shiogama after they had conquered various provinces with the guidance of Shiotsuchinooji. Rebuilt in the 17C, this shrine with asymmetric roofs (Nagare-zukuri style) is composed of three buildings (Ugu, Sagu, Betsugu), each dedicated to one of the three local deities responsible for Tohoku’s prosperity: Shiotsuchi-Oji-no-Kami in the betsugu (detached sanctuary), Takemikazuchi-no-Kami in the sagu (left sanctuary), and Futsunushi-no-Kami in the ugu (right sanctuary). Shiotsuchi-Oji no kami  is the most important of the three.

Shiotsuchi-Oji no kami is also a tide god who protects fishermen and pregnant women, there being considered a link between salt and pregnancy – shio means salt but it also signifies the tide. As a Japanese folklore saying goes, babies are always born during an incoming tide, when the moon is high in the sky.

Shiotsuchi-Oji no kami is also the offspring of Izanagi and the “old man of the sea” and a kami of the sea belonging to another mythical cycle, “the Luck of the Mountains” where — the Luck of the Mountains (a.k.a. Hohodemi) was sitting on a beach balefully weeping, when Shiotsuchi-no-oji(ja) came to his aid. The tide god built Hohodemi a small ship described as being manashikatsuma, and guided him on a journey (see Encyclopedia of Shinto) to the fish-scaled palace of the Watatsumi (Undersea God) where Hohodemi married the Sea God’s daughter Princess Toyotama. (Hohodemi is venerated in shrines mainly in the southern parts of Kyushu Island, and according to recorded myth,  Hoderi’s descendants are the Hayoto who guard the palace). Following the mythical cycles, Shiotsuchi-no-Oji kami likely emerged from south, before arriving in the Kanto plain.

Shiogama jinja is thought to be one of the oldest shrines in Tohoku, and there are a variety of different rituals carried out throughout the year. Primary among these are the Salt-Making ritual held on 6 July. The ancient salt making ritual is performed at the Okama (or Okamasya) Shrine in Shiogama, the smaller shrine that is subordinate to Shiogama shrine.  According to shrine tradition, the Okama shrine is located in a place that used to be a beach called Hodenohama in ancient times, where salt was made for the first time in the nation.  The Okama shrine that deifies Shiotsuchi-no-Oji-kami, who allegedly taught them salt making, as well as Yonkono Kamigama and Ushiishi fujimuchi-sha, both of whom were also related to the process of salt making…is thus probably the oldest location of the Shiogama shrine structures.

The shrine is now merged with Shiwahiko Jinja which is dedicated to another deity, Shiwahiko-no-Kami, guardian god of agriculture, national development, higher productivity and industry.

Okama Jinja, subordinate shrine to Shiogama Shrine Photo: Bachstelze

History of Shiogama Jinja (as excerpted from Shigama Guide Map)

“The exact year in which the jinja was built is unknown.

However, it is reported that when the Japanese race moved to this area over 2,000 years ago, jinjas were established and according to ancient records, the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu-Omikami, specifically commanded two of the deities who reside here, Takemikazuchi-no-Kami and Futsunushi-no-Kami, to develop the Tohoku District (in which the jinja stands) and its culture. The third deity, Shiotsuchi-Oji-no-Kami, is said ti have guided the other two to their domain. After their arrival in tohoku, the area was guided to a state of peace, and Shiotsuchi-Oji-no-Kami is said to have taught the local people how to obtain salt from sea water. In gratitude, the people enshrined the three deities at what is now called the Shiogama Jinja. It is certainly of very ancient origin.

Further evidence of the jinja’s history is found in a record called the “Koninshiki”, compiled c.820 A.D. This states that successive Emperors offered 10,000 bales of rice to Shiogama Jinja and exempted it from state taxes. In such ways, from that period onwards, the Imperial Court showed its respect for this, the most important jinja in the showed its respect for this, the most important jinja in the Tohoku District. The jinja was also revered and protected by military leaders and powerful clans who saw it as a source of profound spiritual support. A notable example was Lord Date, who lived during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Having deep faith in the jinja, he personally served as chief priest and made generous offerings of land, swords, sacred horses and valuable gifts. The present jinja structure was also built by command of Lord Date.

Shiogama Jinja Buildings

Zuishinshinmon gate

The first buildings that can be seen after climbings the 202 steps approaching the jinja is the graceful, vermilion-lacquered gate called Zuishinmon. It takes its name from the Zuishin images that stand on the left and right of the gate. Beyond the Zuishinmon is a gate flanked on either side by corridors. Passing though this gate it is possible to see the three buildings that are the sanctuaries of the three deities, the detached sanctuary dedicated to Shiotsuchi-Oji-no-Kami being on the right side. At the center is the honden, or main sanctuary, which consists of three halls built of plain wood in a style of shinto architecture called nagare-zukuri. The three sanctuaries, on the other hand, are lacquered in vermilion, in the Irimoya style ; their construction was started in 1704 at the order of the fifth Lord of Date and they are preserved as cultural properties of Miyagi Prefecture. Before leaving the precincts of the main jinja, the dedicated to the jinja in 1185, a stone sundial dedicated in 1792 and a 14-foot high lantern of iron and copper that was donated in 1807. All are evidence of the importance of this jinja throughout is long history.

Belief and Festivals

The deities of the jinja have long been worshipped as guardian deities of seafarers, notably fisherman, and also expectant mothers. They are also considered to offer their guardianship to land developers and students of the martial arts, also those seeking longevity, success in school entrance examinations and road safety. Expectant mothers come from overseas as well as from all over Japan to offer prayers for a rich catch are offered before departure; prayers of gratitude are offered on the fisherman’s return, together with some of the catch.
A large number of festivals and observances are held throughout the year…

Reisai, July 10th: This is the most important observance in the jinja calendar…preparations begin on July 4th with a three-day rite held at a subordinate jinja, Okamasya. In this rite, salt is made from sea water in accordance with the ancient method, for presentation to Shiogama Jinja on July 10th. On that day, various religious and cultural events draw a very large number of visitors; for example, the distribution of talismans in the form of folded paper strips, and a performance of yabusame, mounted archery.”

— The above information was excerpted from the Shiogama Guide Map


How far back does salt production and trade go in Japan?

Archaeologists know that coastal people of the  Jomon Period evaporated saltwater in pots to obtain salt. For example, salt produced by people on the Kanto lowlands was exchanged with people in the Chubu highlands for other goods of value. Kanto and Tohoku had known salt production centres.  Salt pottery was widely distributed throughout the Kanto plain. Salt pottery shards recovered from 100 inland sites outside of the salt production centres and faraway from the coast, indicate exchange networks were in place during those times.

According to Junko Habu, Late and Final Jomon layers have revealed repeatedly heated, thin-walled “evaporation pots” for salt that had salt residue on them. At several of the excavated sites, evaporation pots represented actually the majority of the artefacts recovered, leading them to be labelled as salt production sites. There were also associated pits and ash layers believed to be hearths used for salt production. Small quantities of evaporation pots were found as far inland as 100km away from coast and are believed to have been traded to those areas.

According to Goto, the disappearance of large shell mounds along Tokyo Bay is related to the emergence of salt production. Gotō (writing in 1973) supposes that large shell mounds, which developed in the Middle and the Late Jōmon periods, were made from the refuse of dried shellfish production, which was used in exchange. His theory explains that the demand for salt existed before salt production started, and that salt production replaced dried shellfish as the exchange item.

new paper (Kawashima), reconsiders the reasons why salt production centres and trade networks developed, identifying major Jomon salt production centres in the Jomon Period as located around Tokyo Bay’s shellmounds, Mutsu Bay, Sendai Bay, Lake Kasumigaura,  Sanriku Coast, and the Tokai region,  the most important among them being those on the shores of Lake Kasumigaura. The salt centres are deemed to have been geographically separate, and their technologies to have been separate developments.  Excavated salt-making pottery, salt hearths and workshops are evidence. Methods used including heating brine or seawalter as well as production of salt from marine plants (i.e. seaweed), and different methods were used at different sites.

An important conclusion of the Kawashima paper is that the Jomon salt production and trade exchange centres developed and flourished not out of the need for preservation of maritime food products, but that” Jomon salt was supplied for exchange and  use in ritualized contexts”.

The shrines and the enshrined salt deity Shiogama and other associated deities of the Shiogama Jinja, of the ancient Salt Road (Chikuni-kaido), however can be traced with certainty to written records date-able to at least the 7th century(Kojiki was presented to Empress Genmei at court in 712 but the compilations began with Emperor Kinmei in the middle of the 6th century: source: Encyclopedia of Shinto), however, the deities are regarded to be part of the Land-Pulling Myths cycle belonging to the much earlier Yayoi Period substantiated by archaeology.

The medieval old shio no michi (Salt Road) or kaidō (highway) transported salted from the ocean to the inland portions of central Honshū — salt was brought  both from the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean to Shinano Province for processing.

The road leading from the Pacific Ocean was called the Sanshū Kaidō (三州街道). Salt was initially carried from Mikawa Bay(south of Aichi Prefecture) by boats traveling up the Yahagi River and its tributary, the Tomoe River. From Toyota, the salt was carried by horse, marking the start of the Sanshū Kaidō

On the Echigo Province side of the route, the highway was called the Itoigawa Kaidō.

On the Shinano Province side, i.e. the road leading from the Sea of Japan to Shinano Province was called the Chikuni Kaidō (千国街道).

Salt production on the continent

For comparison, the oldest known saltworks on the Asian continent are:

  • The salt produced from the surface of Xiechi Lake near Yuncheng in Shanxi, China dates back to at least 6000 BC, making the Xiechi Lake saltworks one of the oldest verifiable saltworks.
  • The Poiana Slatinei archaeological site next to a salt spring in Lunca, Neamt County, Romania, is evidence indicating that Neolithic people of the Precucuteni Culture were boiling the salt-laden spring water through the process of briquetage to extract the salt as far back as 6050 BC. The salt extracted from this operation is thought to have a direct correlation to the rapid growth of the population of the Precucuteni Culture that occurred soon after its initial production began


This next section focuses on the process of salt-making as detailed in a Japan Times news article “SO, WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?|Seaweed Salt” by Alice Gordenker, relevant excerpts provided below:

“There’s a lot we don’t know about salt-making in ancient Japan, according to Hiroki Takanashi, curator at the Tobacco and Salt Museum in Tokyo, but the very earliest method was probably burning seaweed and using the resulting ashes for their salt content. Another method seems to have involved collecting seaweed and allowing it to dry in the sun until salt crystals formed. The crystals were then washed off into vats of sea water, creating a concentrated brine that could be boiled down to yield salt.

If that sounds laborious, consider that the ancients didn’t have a choice. Unlike countries with salt lakes or rock-salt deposits, Japan has virtually no land sources of salt. It was — and still is — dependent on sea water for salt production. And unlike countries with dry climates where salt can be obtained by simply letting sea water evaporate in the sun, Japan is too wet and rainy for solar-evaporation production methods.

“The first challenge in salt-making in Japan has always been to find a way to concentrate sea water, which contains only 3 percent salt,” Takanashi explained. “It would simply require too much fuel to make salt by boiling down seawater, so through the ages Japanese people used various methods to make concentrates with as much as 15 percent salt.”

According to Shinto tradition, it was the god Shiotsuchi-Oji-no-Kami who taught people how to obtain salt from sea water. In gratitude, they built a shrine at what is now called Shiogama Jinja in the town of Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture. Every year, starting on July 4, priests conduct a three-day ritual called moshioyaki shinji in which salt is made from seaweed according to what is believed to be the traditional method.

By the eighth century, the use of seaweed was largely abandoned in favor of a new method of concentrating sea water through the use of sand terraces built near the seashore. This process involved throwing seawater over sand and letting it dry in the sun to create sand with a high salt content. The sand was collected and seawater poured through it to make salt concentrate. This remained the dominant method of salt making for thousands of years, until 1972 when a modern method using ion-exchange was adopted. …

I went hunting for moshio and found products from four different locations around Japan: Awajishima in Hyogo Prefecture; Shiogama in Miyagi Prefecture; Kami-Kamagari in Hiroshima Prefecture; and Tsushima in Nagasaki Prefecture….

For more on this topic, including photos of moshio in the making in Shiogama, as well as a link to an English-language video on the salt-terrace method, please visit my blog at www.alicegordenker.wordpress.com. The Tobacco and Salt Museum has permanent exhibits on traditional salt production. There isn’t much English signage, but you can buy an English guide to the exhibitions in the gift shop for ¥1,000. The shop sells moshio too. The museum is a 10-minute walk from Shibuya Station, at 1-16-8 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. It’s open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., last entry 5:30 p.m., and closed Mondays except on national holidays. Admission is ¥100 for adults and ¥50 for school-age children.”


Sources, references and further readings:

The Way and the History of the Salt of Hakuba (a website of Tourism Commission of Hakuba)

Seaweed Salt from Alice Gordeneker’s What the Heck is That series (Japan Times, June 19, 2012)

Shiogama, History (Wikipedia)

Shiogama Guide Map (Shiogama Tourism and Industry Association)

Encyclopedia of Shinto (Kokugakuin University website)  Takemikazuchi page; Futsunushi page; the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki page; and the Kotokatsu kunikatsunagasa no mikoto page where Shiotsuchi no Oji kami is mentioned as guiding Hohodemi to the Palace of the Sea.

Habu Jinko, “Ancient Jomon of Japan”, Cambridge Press, 2004, Chap. 6

Boom of the barter trade (Heritage of Japan – this site)

GOTŌ Kazutami 後藤和民 (1973). Jōmon jidai ni okeru Tōkyōwan engan no kaizuka bunka ni tsuite 縄文時代における東京湾沿岸の貝塚文化について [Shell Mound Culture along Tokyo Bay of the Jōmon]. In: Chihōshi kenkyū kyōgikai 地方史研究協議会 (ed.). Jōsōchihōshi no kenkyū 常総地方史の研究. Tokyo: Yūzankaku

Nazuna Sea Salt

KAWASHIMA, Takamune, “Reconsideration of the Use of Salt in the Jōmon Period Interfaculty, Vol. 3 (2012) (Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Tsukuba)

古道 塩の道―松本‐糸魚川三十里トレイルマップ 謙信が信玄へ塩を送った道,  府川 公広 Japanese book “Old Salt Road” and its associated website: www.salt-road.com/book.html.

古道 塩の道 This website provides many detailed maps and routes of the ancient Salt Road in Japan

小谷村 塩の道 Otari Village-Old Salt Road website

The Way of the History and Salt of Hakuba (Hakuba Official website)

The Old Salt Road Museum an official website of Itogawa city

Shio no Michi (Wikipedia)/ The Salt Road

Salt Traders Nazuna Sea Salt: An ancient tradition of salt-making evidenced by “numerous earthenware vessels for Japanese salt-making date back as far as the Jomon period (8,000 B.C. – 200 B.C.].”

Shiogama Jinja / Shrine

1-1, Ichi Moriyama, Shiogama City
(15 min. walk from Hon Shiogama Station of JR Sengoku Line)
Tel; 022-367-1611

Okama Shrine

7-1 Motomachi, Shiogama, Miyagi

The Salt Museum (Shinshu Omachi, Nagano) website

Japanese Mythology (Wikipedia)

Sea Salt

Shiogama Jinja (Michelin Guide) on the connection between salt and pregnancy

One thought on “Exploring the Ancient Salt Road, Shiogama shrine (where resides the Salt God) and the ancient tradition of salt-making in Japan

  1. […] of salt centres in Japan throughout (see “Salt” by Mark Kurlansky, p. 373). The Shio no Michi or salt road to the inland regions such as Shinshu-Nagano was one of the most important trade routes, with salt […]

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