Kitano, Senbon and Shimogamo
- about our obsession with benefits in this world


Kitano-Tenmangu (Kitano Shrine) is not distant from the world heritage Rokuonji (Rokuon Temple). Rokuonji is with its Kinkaku (Golden Pavilion) one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kyoto. However, the popularity of Kinkaku comes from its kitsch gold glitter and the most visitors do not seem to have interest in the temple as religious institution. On the contrary, most visitors of Kitano-Tenmangu have a concrete objective; they want to pray for success in the entrance examination.

There are two famous Tenmangu, Kitano in Kyoto and Dazaifu in North-Kyushu. They both enshrine Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903). Michizane assumed important positions under Emperor Uda (867-931; on the throne 887-897). However, after being defeated in political strife with the powerful Fujiwara clan, he was relegated to Daszaifu and died there.

Waiting for turn to pray to the powerful Tenjin for passing entrance examinations

After his death the ruling people in Kyoto suffered from a series of disasters and they were convinced that the disasters were caused by the vengeful ghost of Michizane. Therefore, they enshrined Michizane as god "Tenjin" so as to calm down his anger and built Tenmangu in Dazaifu and Kyoto. It was a common understanding in the ancient and medieval times that vengeful ghosts of martyrs caused disasters. Therefore, only vengeful ghosts - no peaceful souls of successful heroes - were enshrined as gods. Sugawara-no-Michizane is a typical case.

The idea of vengeful ghost was gradually forgotten and Michizane instead came to be worshipped as god of studies or science and many shrines dedicated to Tenjin were built all over Japan (1). Nowadays, Tenmangu and Tenjin are extremely popular among young students who intend to take entrance examination for high school or university. There is a consensus that no other god can give comparable benefit to the examinees. I think it is ridiculous that young people depend on such a superstition. However, there is a saying even in English "A drawing man catches at a straw". I guess, examinees believe in the efficacy of Tenjin more than straw.

(1)According to Association of Shinto Shrines, there are 3953 Tenmangu and Tenjin shrines in Japan. This is the third largest number after Hachiman (7817) and Ise (4451).

Michizane was a famous poet and his poem about plum blossom is well known. On the other hand cow is thought to be a familiar of Tenjin. Therefore, we can find plenty of plum trees in the garden of Tenmangu as well as statues of sitting cow.

Senbon-Shakado main hall

Sword cuts on the pillar of Senbon Shakado

A few hundred meters to the east of Kitano-Tenmangu, there is Senbon-Shakado (Senbon Buddha Temple). Though its simply beautiful main hall is the oldest building in Kyoto and many marvelous wooden Buddha statues are preserved in its sanctuary, very few tourists come to this corner of Kyoto.

It is a well-known story that the people in Kyoto mean "Ohnin-no-ran" instead of WWII when they refer to "the previous war". "Ohnin-no-ran" was a civil war which was fought between 1467 and 1477 and paved the way to the more than 100 years lasting civil war period. The main hall of Senbon-Shakado was built in 1227 and survived numerous wars. We can see some sword cuts made during Ohnin-no-ran on the pillars of the main hall.


Senility Prevention Kannon

While there are six magnificent Kannon statues and other important statues in the sanctuary, a bronze statue in the temple yard is definitely more popular among the people in Kyoto. It is the statue of "Okame", wife of the chief carpenter of the temple. When her husband mistakenly cut one of the main pillars shorter, she proposed to cut other pillars as well to make them even and add "masugumi" (2) to put the design in order. This idea proved very successful, but she committed suicide before completion of the temple for fear that a rumor might injure her husband that a woman intervened in the business. Though, I do not understand this reasoning, she anyhow came to be respected by carpenters as a brave wife. Even now carpenters in Kyoto celebrate the start of construction work using a mask of Okame.

(2)"Masugumi" is a combination of various wooden parts and used in particular to support roof.

"Okame" was the name of this wife, but "okame" is also the name to describe the female face with small nose and swallowed cheeks, which is nowadays understood to be the face of plain girl. The figure of Okame is made using this commonplace image of okame.

Apart from Okame, Senbon-Shakado is popular in Kyoto due to its radish festival. At the festival Sanskrit characters are engraved on the cut end of radish before cooking. The thus cooked radish is believed to prevent disease, among others stroke. Unfortunately the festival takes place in December, but a Kannon bodhisattva stands in a corner of the temple yard and she is said to have a special miraculous efficacy against senility. Of course, I prayed to the Senility Prevention Kannon with generous amount of offering.

After having prayed for success in examination or business career and for health, we headed for the place to pray for matchmaking for our daughter!

Aioi-no-Yashiro and Renri-no-Sakaki (left)

Renri-no-Sakaki at juncture (above the torii)

"Aioi-no-Yashiro" stands on the left side in front of the main gate of "Shimogamo Jinja". It enshrines "Kamimusubi-no-Kami", one of the first three gods which came into existence at the time of creation of universe. Kamimusubi is here worshipped as god of matchmaking. Her matchmaking power is so strong that the two independent trees, which stand as divine trees beside the shrine, become one from the mid of their trunks (Renri-no-Sakaki). A legend says, when divine trees wither, their followers are born somewhere in the forest of Shimogamo Jinja and the present trees are the fourth generation.

In the court of Shimogamo Jinja, there are many small shrines which are especially powerful for the wellbeing of people who were born in the zodiac year they are responsible for. I was born in the year of Tiger and am expected to pray before the mini-shrine of Ohonamuchi-no-Kami.

Mini-shrines in Shimogamo Jinja;
The shrine on the right is for Tiger.
Ohonamuchi is another name for Ookuninushi. In fact some Japanese deities have numerous names and it is understood that they were originally different deities and integrated in the process of formation of myth.

So, after education, health and matchmaking, we came to gods who take care of us in every respect. I hope that those gods will protect us and help us in the future, though they must be very busy in listening to the wishes from so many people every day.