12 November 2010

The Search for Syonan Jinja

Syonan Jinja - most people may not have heard of this peculiar Japanese name. Many would even display shock on their faces when they were told of the existence of this former Shinto shrine erected in the Macritchie Reservoir forest by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War II.

The Japanese took all of Malaya during the Malayan Campaign in the short span of 70 days, with the garrison defending Singapore surrendering control merely seven days after the first Japanese troops landed on Singapore's shoreline. The British Prime Minister at that time, Sir Winston Churchill, called the fall of Singapore "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history".

The Syonan Jinja was completed in November 1943, built by manpower provided by British and Australian POWs. It was an important place of worship for all Japanese soldiers who were posted to Syonan-To. (The name of Singapore when it was under Japanese administration).

POWs working on the bridge of Syonan Jinja

Syonan Jinja shortly after it's completion in 1943

The infamous Rising Sun flag, the flag used by the Japanese Imperial Army.

During their occupation of Singapore from 15th February 1942 to 12th September 1945, the Empire of Japan renamed the island Syonan-to (昭南島 Shōnan-tō), which translates to "Island of the Light of the South" or "Southern Island (obtained) during the Shōwa period", referring to the period of Japanese history corresponding to the reign of Emperor Shōwa Hirohito.

When the Japanese relinquished control following the atomic bombings over the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the shrine was subsequently blown up by the Japanese. Some parts of the ruined shrine still remain, sitting quietly in the vegetation, waiting to be discovered amongst its obscurity.

These stone structures sticking out of the water on the right were initially
thought to be the remnants of a bridge leading to the shrine.

It was later discovered that the structures were actually used to hold pipes
running across the reservoir from the adjacent pump house. (left of this photo)

In 2005, the team decided to set forth on an expedition to look for this fabled shrine. We knew that the ingress to the shrine area was in close proximity to the Ranger Station, and immediately proceeded to plot our advancement towards the supposed location of the shrine, with the help of a map and a prismatic compass.

From what we could gather, the shrine was built to commemorate the Japanese soldiers who died while fighting for the control of Singapore. Worshipers who visit the shrine would first perform a ceremonial purification rite known as the temizu by washing their left hand, right hand, mouth and finally the handle of the water ladle to purify themselves before approaching the main shrine. This was done at a large water-filled stone basin, known as a chozuya , located along the approach to the main shrine. After their ceremonial prayers here, some worshipers would also move on for a second ceremony at Syonan Chureito, a war memorial which was located at the present day Bukit Batok nature reserve.

Eric, one of the pioneers of the One° North Explorers (known back then
as the Singapore Urban Explorers), making headway through the brushwood.

Braving the incessant swarm of mosquitoes, we walked along the track, past the ranger station until we arrived at a small clearing to the left of the path. "This is where we need to start bashing." said Eric as as he pushed aside the undergrowth.

Izam, who was tasked to pace our steps in order to ensure that we were on the right track, orientated his map and compass before proceeding along our plotted azimuth. Soon, darkness engulfed us as we cut through the thick undergrowth carefully, stepping over several deadfalls, avoiding the potholes along the way as a cacophony of crickets and several other unidentified nocturnal forest creatures lent their relentless voices in accompaniment in our night jungle foray.

The jungle bashing was banal and uneventful. As we walked further into the vegetation, we encountered a few large spider webs, which we steered clear of. The large torch I was holding provided little illumination for the undergrowth around us was really thick.

Izam traversing under a dead-fall. Heavy rainfall and lightning leading up to our trip would justify
the numerous dead-falls we encountered during our trip.

We understand that due to this area being a sacred ground to the Japanese, many of the Imperial Army soldiers might have committed the sacred disembowelment ritual of Seppuku (literally "stomach cutting") when the Japanese surrendered in 1945 around the Syonan Jinja. Hence, the presence of spirits around the ruins were said to be extremely strong. Hence, I was taking random "fly-by" shots as we hiked along the haphazard path that was being created by Eric and Izam, our bashers who were way ahead of us, navigating and bashing away concurrently. There was nothing so far, except for some bright spots captured directly in front of the camera, probably owing to the hefty number of flying insects doing their own "fly-by".

As we made our way past a dead-fall, I felt a weird chill as I stepped over the fallen tree trunk. It was as if something was "sitting" on the trunk, and I had accidentally displaced it as I lifted my legs to cross over the termite-ridden trunk. Taking a few steps back to get a wider shot, I snapped two simultaneous photos from the same position, hoping to get something on film. The second photo, shown here below the first, was taken roughly 3 seconds later.

Was this an ectoplasm that we had caught on film? None of the guys were smoking at that point in time, and there was no visible fog or smoke I could see with my naked eye. This would surely go down as one of the more mysterious photos in our team's scrapbook.

"Guys, I think we should hold our ground." said Izam after close to two hours of bashing. "Judging by the distance we have covered so far, we might have gone overshot." As the team sat down to have a short break to rest our tired legs, the enterprising Eric continued plowing around the area for clues. He disappeared down a slope, before returning shortly with good news. "I found something below!"

All of us jumped up in unison. Any fatigue we felt at that time must have disappeared instantaneously, judging by the manner by which we had all huddled around the area where Eric was. Right there, standing before us, was a leaning obelisk of sorts. Finally, an indication that the shrine might be nearby. This leaning pillar would prove to be an important marker for us as we bashed through the undergrowth.

Save for some moss and water stains, the leaning obelisk was actually quite well-preserved,
considering that it was abandoned since some 65 years ago.

Adjusting the map and compass, we continued bashing into the unknown, confident that one of us was going to find the Syonan Jinja soon. Barely less than a hundred metres later, we found a few pillar-like structures lying on the ground in front of us. As we shone our torches into the darkness beyond those fallen structures, we were overcome with joy as the staircase leading to the shrine came into view. The team moved quickly towards the stairs, and my adrenaline was pumping like crazy. I was finally going to see the shrine for myself. It was an indescribable feeling.

This was actually a fairly long and steep staircase, with perfectly proportioned steps. The people employed to build the shrine must have been really meticulous in their work to ensure such uniformity. These stone steps leading up to the shrine, known as the Sando, or pathway, is a common feature of most Shinto Shrines located on hillsides. The wild undergrowth was flanking in from both sides of the staircase, the steps were weathered due to their relentless exposure to the harsh elements of nature and there was an assortment of wild creepers strewn around the steps as well. As we ascended the stairs, a dead-fall was found resting across one portion, forcing us to make a slight detour.

Aaron making his way up the stone steps.

We conducted a quick blanket search around the vicinity and soon found the legendary stone basin, the Syonan Jinja's chozuya, where many worshipers would do their washing-up as a form of respect prior to entering the shrine. Upon getting closer to the chozuya, we noticed that the four white cups, which used by the SPI in their visit to the shrine before us to conduct paranormal experiments and research, were arranged in one neat row and placed on a part of the chozuya. The basin was full of dead leaves and stagnant water, and probably home to a myriad of lifeforms including several kinds of bacteria and mosquito wrigglers as well. The presence of several pesky mosquitoes definitely fortified that thought.

Next to the chozuya were several round stone stumps on the ground, each adorned with a square-shaped depression in the middle, not unlike giant Chinese coins lying on the ground. These were possibly the bases for the structure which sheltered the chozuya from rain or shine.

Not too far away, we found a stone wall as well, which was cut off abruptly. Was the stone wall partially destroyed after the Japanese Occupation was over, or was it never complete to start with?

More questions came into our minds when we found more stone structures nearby while canvassing the area for more clues, particularly a queer stone structure with a gaping hole underneath it as well. Peeking into the hole with the help of our torch beams, the hole beneath seemed large enough for an adult to hide in.

The team searching diligently around the shrine area for more clues.

Perhaps someone buried something important underneath this stone slab and removed it afterwards? There was a rumour that there was this treasure which was buried somewhere. Some had speculated that this treasure was a magnificent necklace, while others believe that the treasure referred to was a part of the fabled General Tomoyuki Yamashita's gold, a treasure said to be strewn all over countries which had fallen to the Japanese during the said general's conquests. (It was no surprise that the General was also fondly known as the "Tiger of Malaya", capturing the whole of Malaya in the short span of seventy days with his guile, the superior technology he had at his disposal and his tactical supremacy.) Nonetheless, the treasure was said to be so valuable that it would be able to fund the entire war for the Japanese. Could this hole have been the secret hiding place for this treasure?

As we continued to unravel more stone ruins round the vicinity, we began to see traces of first light from beyond the canopy of trees. Our search for the Syonan Jinja had unwittingly taken an entire night! We waited for the sky to turn a little brighter to illuminate the path out, before we bade a reluctant farewell to this historical place. An exhilarating night of discovery led to more questions in our heads.

Who destroyed the shrine after the Japanese capitulated?

What was that large gaping hole used for, and,
If it was used to bury something of significant value, who removed the item, and,

More importantly, what was the item that was stored there? Something of sentimental value? Or something worth a lot more in monetary terms?

As we began to carefully retrace our steps out of the MacRitchie forest, we trekked out, our bodies oh so weary but our faces grinning from ear to ear, our hearts full of contentment.

Izam seeking solace in the warmth of the morning sun after an whole night of adventure

We had the good fortune to have seen and captured on film, an important piece of Singapore's history in the flesh, and were perhaps only one of the privileged few who have personally walked on the hallowed grounds of the Syonan Jinja.

We hope for more adventures of such massive scale and historical value to come!

Article and photos copyright of Aaron Chan.

Forgotten places, secret spots, lost historical sites or having some interesting info to share? Is there a location/venue you want the One-North Explorers to feature?

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  1. I cant see the picture you had posted :(

  2. Hi hitman,

    Apologies, there seem to be missing linkage from Aaron's Flickr account, will check back with him again.

    Cheers and thanks!

    - Andrew
    One North Explorers