Category Archives: Shrines

Cherry Blossoms at Hirano Shrine

Last weekend we visited Hirano Shrine, famous for it’s cherry blossoms.

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They have a lot of yatai food stalls set up there for the cherry blossom festival.

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And above them all and around them a gorgeous cloud of pink and white cherry blossom.

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“As court nobles donated cherry trees handed down in each family from ancient times, there are approximately 400 cherry trees of about 50 kinds.”

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“Early-opening flowers come into bloom in the middle of March while those blooming latest are at their best around April 20. Therefore people can enjoy cherry blossoms for about a month at this shrine.”

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It’s not always easy to get that perfect shot…

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But I think these aren’t bad.

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Hirano Shrine is located just a little further north from Kitano-Tenmangu on Nishioji Street. Here is a MAP.

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Even the hardest hearts will melt at the sight of Jonangu’s plum blossoms.

I think it is safe to say that the weeping plum blossoms at Jonangu Shrine were at their peak when we visited last Sunday.
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Jonangu lies to the south of Kyoto, about 15 minutes walk from Takeda Station, which can be reached on either the Kintetsu or Karasuma Subway lines. When a shrine was originally built here in Heian times the area around it would presumably have been open countryside and farmland, but today it is a sorry mix of grimy commuter housing and love hotels. All the more the gardens feel a haven of peace and tranquility when you arrive.
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Bean Pelting, Devils & Fiery Charms – Setsubun in Kyoto!

Setsubun is an old festival for seeing out the hardships of winter and welcoming in the spring, symbolized in the ritual act of throwing beans at mask clad devils… 鬼は外福は内! (“oni wa soto! fuku wa uchi!” – “devils out, and good luck in!“) people cry while pelting their lucky beans till the demonic forces beat a retreat. There are a variety of sites around town where you can join in with devil dances and bean throwing ceremonies which I shall list below.
Yoshida Shrine (see the poster above) holds the biggest Setsubun festival in Kyoto. The festival lasts for three days from the 2nd to the 4th. Highlights are the driving out of the evil spirits from 6pm on the evening of the 2nd and the fire festival from 11 pm on the 3rd. A huge bonfire is lit with piled up amulets, papers and charms – and when I say huge I mean it. It really is quite dramatic. As with most festivals there are 屋台 (yatai – food stalls) galore lining the route to the shrine, so there’s plenty to eat and drink. See details at the Yoshida Shrine website (Japanese):
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #206 and get off at Kyodai Seimon-mae. Here is a MAP.

Other Setsubun locations:
Yasaka Shrine
img_setsubun01Here you get to see Maiko and Geiko throwing the beans! Bean pelting and traditional dances will occur at various times on both the 2nd & 3rd of February as ladies from different districts come to perform. Times on the 2nd are: 1pm, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. On the 3rd the times are 11am, 1pm, 3pm and 4pm.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #206, and get off at Gion. Here is a MAP. Website (Japanese):

001Heian Shrine
February 3rd: From 12pm there is a Kyogen traditional comedy performance and bean pelting from 3pm. Sweet sake served free all day.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #5 and get off at Kyoto Kaikan Bijutsukan-mae. Here is a MAP. Japanese/English website:

50setu_oni1biki_BRozan-ji Temple
February 3rd: Here you can see devil dancing from 3pm and bean pelting from 4pm. Old charms will be burned in a bonfire from 5pm.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #205 and get off at Furitsu Idai Byoin-mae. Here is a MAP. Japanese website:

If you know of other Setsubun events around town, please list them in the comments! Here’s a video of Yoshida Shrine’s raging inferno to get you in the mood:

Shinto – Deities, Shrines and Symbols

The Sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami emerges from a cave, bringing sunlight back to the world. This print by Utagawa Kunisada is in the public domain.

Ian Ropke writes,

Shinto is Japan’s original religion and today it maintains a strong position next to the country’s other main religion: Buddhism. It is interesting to note that nearly all Japanese do not even know what the word Shinto means. The word Shinto comes from the Chinese characters: god and path. Elegantly translated Shinto means The Way of the Gods. Today, if you want to get onto the subject of Shinto you more or less have to begin talking to people about the world of the jinja or shrine.

Shinto for the average Japanese of today is a world of superstitious beliefs and practices that most people do. Few understand very much about the religion and this is understandable as there are basically no holy texts. Shinto has no real founder, no religious laws and only a very loosely organized hierarchy of priests. It is a religion of the wild world of nature, of which humans are just one tiny part.

Izanami and Izanagi, a public domain painting by Kobayashi Eitaku

Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Evidence indicates that its main beliefs came into existence before 500 BC. These beliefs are a combination of many things: nature worship, shamanism, fertility cults, and techniques for divining the future. Until the end of WWII, the Emperor of Japan was regarded as one of the many gods or kami in the Shinto pantheon. He descended to earth from heaven as the kami that would live among men.

The divine couple, Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, gave birth to the islands of Japan and their other children became the deities of Japan’s many clans or tribes. Their daughter, Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess) is the mother of the Imperial family. Her shrine at Ise is one of the largest in Japan and the emperor journeys there every year to pay his respects. Indeed, much of the emperor’s yearly life revolves around the many rituals and ceremonies that he, as a god, has been performing throughout the year for over 1,500 years. Continue reading

Kasagake at Kamigamo on October 16th

Deer-skinned horse riders deciding their turn by lottery

John Dougill writes,

There were traditionally three styles of horseback archery carried out for the entertainment of the kami. The most well-known is Yabusame, in which galloping riders shoot at a fixed target. Much rarer is Kasagake, to be performed this Sunday at Kamigamo Jinja. The other style involved firing at live dogs: thank goodness, it’s no longer practised.

Entry Procession

There is mention of Kasagake being carried out at Kamigamo Shrine some eight hundred years ago. Previously it had simply been a martial art, designed to improve battle skills. Legend has it that it began with Emperor Jimmu who used his helmet as a target. It was adapted as a shrine entertainment, and then died out.

Horse rider procession

In 2004 Kamigamo revived the ritual, and it is carried out by the Takeda-ryu school of horseback archers. Among the riders are descendants of the Kamo clan, who settled the Kyoto basin in pre-Heian times. The event begins and ends with the banging of a drum, following which a procession of colourfully costumed officials gather for a purification ceremony. The head rider then performs a Heaven and Earth ritual, by circling his horse first to the left and then to the right to summon yin-yang forces, before aiming a symbolic arrow upwards and downwards to ward off evil spirits.

Opening ritual - shooting towards the ground

There are ten riders in all, separated into two groups. Unusually for such an event there are women riders and the order of the riders is decided by lottery. On the first run through the riders fire at three targets at shoulder height. On the return run they fire at two targets set near the ground. The number of hits is recorded and announced over the tannoy. Once the results are in, the best five are put through into a second round, when the targets get smaller. Amazingly, this means that at a fairly high speed they fire at something little bigger than a saucer.

Winners and losers on their way back

Inui Mitsutaka

As part of the shrine’s outreach to foreigners, it provides an English-language commentary along with the Japanese, performed by Inui Mitsutaka who worked for a while with the International Shinto Foundation in New York. There’s much here that tells of the values of Shinto. The celebration of tradition. The entertainment for ancestral deities. The treasuring of skill and precision. Confucian and Taoist influences are evident, while the white horse on display brings to mind the importance of the animal as an emissary of the kami. They say Buddhism in Japan is a religion of the living concerned with death. Shinto on the other hand focuses on dead spirits but is concerned with life. Here in the galloping horses is a case in point.

The sacred white horse at Kamigamo (only to be seen at festivals and holidays)

The festival begins at 13.00.  Details about the shrine and how to reach it can be found here:
Tel 075-781-0011
Fax 075-702-6618
Nice short of video of it here,

Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at

Karasu Sumo at Kamigamo Shrine on September 9

John Dougill writes,

Priests hopping and cawing like crows.  Seven year old kids doing sumo.  What’s that all got to do with Shinto, you may wonder?

Kamigamo Jinja is Kyoto’s greenest shrine and probably the oldest.  It was established by the Kamo clan long before Kammu founded the capital in 794.  One of the clan, according to legend, helped guide Emperor Jimmu across Kii Hanto and was known as yatagarasu (the three-legged crow).  Personally, I take this to mean he was a shaman of the Crow People, who settled in Kyoto after immigrating from Korea.  Their descendants still live in the area around Kamigamo.

Bowing to the sacred mounds

At the festival the priests sit in front of two mounds of earth, which represent the sacred hill onto which the shrine’s kami, Kamo Wake-ikazuchi, first descended.  The hill, known as Koyama, lies north of the shrine and every year there is a secret ceremony there to reenact the shamanic rites of old.

But why are there two mounds?  Interestingly, this recreates the two mounds that stand permanently inside the middle torii.  Priests at the shrine say that they represent yin and yang, but they could well signify the theme of renewal in Shinto.  At Ise, for instance, a new shrine is built adjacent to the old shrine for the kami to move into.  Perhaps the two mounds here act in similar symbolic manner.

Parade of the (mini) sumo wrestlers

The day’s rituals start with the offering of chrysanthemum flowers at 10.00, following which participants proceed from the worship hall to the arena.  A colourfully costumed young girl representing the historical saio (imperial princess) presides over events.  The initial rites include the shooting of arrows to dispel evil spirits, after which two of the priests do their crow performance.

Facing off...

The climax is the children’s sumo, put on for the entertainment of the kami.  There are two teams, and each boy gets to wrestle two times.  The atmosphere can become quite heated, and the crowd usually gets behind the little toddler struggling against a bigger opponent.  Cameras flash from all directions.  By the end you may feel just as happy as the kami that this ancient tradition has been preserved so long.


Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at

(For a video of the priests crowing, see


Shimogamo Jinja  July 21-24, from 5.30-22.30 

John Dougill writes,

Hot, hot and humid! At this time of year you may feel all you want to do is wade through cold water. Well, that’s just what you get to do in the Mitarashi Festival at Shimogamo Shrine. Considering that it promises a disease-free year, particularly for your legs, then it’s easy to understand why the festival is so popular.

Purification is Shinto’s raison d’etre, and the festival can be seen as a mini-misogi (cold water austerity). The idea is that it removes impurities and restores you to full vitality. In Shinto terms it’s a cleansing of your soul-mirror so that it shines brightly once more.

The water comes out of an underground stream, which is why it’s icy cold and invigorating. Participants pay Y200 and get a candle with which to wade upstream and set before Inoue Shrine, dedicated to a purification kami. Thousands pass through the stream over the four days, with yukata and trousers hitched up for the knee-high water.

Afterwards you get to drink a cup of the purifying water. There are black stones available too from the bottom of the stream, which are said to have a special deterrent power for disease demons, particularly the one that causes temper tantrums in children. A suitable donation to the shrine is expected in exchange. On the way back, at the stalls in front of the shrine, you can get Mitarashi dango (dumplings said to resemble bubbles gushing up out of the water).

Shimogamo Jinja is a World Heritage Site and Kyoto’s premier ‘power spot’. This is a rare chance to see it lit up in spectacular fashion and in festive mode. Unlike the overcrowded Gion Festival, this is on a more manageable scale and reflects the community nature of Shinto. There’s little doubt about it: Mitarashi is the coolest festival in town!

Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at

John Dougill’s Green Shinto

Our friend, the historian/poet John Dougill, has launched his own website, Green Shinto, and it looks like a cracker! I know personally that strolling round a shinto shrine with John at your side amiably explaining what everything means, is a very educational experience. Now his expert knowledge of Shinto belief and tradition is available to a far wider audience:

Green Shinto is a blog by John Dougill operating out of Kyoto, Japan, which is dedicated to the promotion of an open, international and environmental Shinto.   It seeks to celebrate the rich heritage of the tradition, from sacred rocks and shamanistic roots to bawdy myths and fertility festivals.  It believes Shinto to be essentially diverse, localised and community oriented.  It looks to a Shinto free of borders, liberated from its past to meet the demands of a new age.   It looks in short to a Shinto that is green in deed as well as in word. LINK

John has already written a LOT of fascinating postings. Here are some tasty snippets that should encourage you to visit:

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Two Views from Yasaka Shrine…

…separated by time. Both images give us a “bronze lion’s eye view” down Shijo as seen from the entrance to Yasaka Shrine. The first is a recent image painted by my hopelessly romantic friend Ichsan. Do please visit his website to see more of his wonderful paintings. This is the image of Gion with which we are familiar today.

This water colour sketch "City Guardian" is by the artist M Ichsan Harja Nugraha. Click to visit his website.

And now here is the same view, as it was over a hundred years ago:

Click to view more photographs of 19th century Japan.

Incredible how much it has changed, isn’t it? The man wasn’t kidding when he said “the past is a foreign country”. If we could transport citizens of 19th century Kyoto to the present day and show them what we’ve done to this city, how do you think they would react? Would they see progress or would they weep? In turn, what would it have been like to live in this city then? Can you imagine the sound of the streets without motorized traffic? Can you imagine being able to see the mountains all around you from the very center of the city? Can you imagine waking up in the morning, walking out onto those streets and greeting the people there? If you are familiar with 21st century Kyoto, doesn’t this picture haunt you? Only a few key buildings from that time remain today, and all the rest has changed utterly… How will this scene look in another hundred years?

John Dougill enjoys a seasonal stroll from Tambabashi to Fushimi

Kammu burial mound entrance with Hideyoshi's reconstructed castle in the background

A pleasant walk through woods and 1100 years of history? In Kyoto? Yes, it’s possible on the south-eastern edge if you walk between Tambabashi and Fushimi-Momoyama. It takes two hours and along the way are imperial tombs, Shinto shrines and an Edo-era escapade.

Paying respects at the Emperor Kammu's burial mound

Start from any of three Tambabashi stations (JR, Keihan or Kintetsu). Walk uphill for ten minutes and you’ll come to the tomb of Emperor Kammu (737-806), fiftieth in succession from the sun-goddess and the founder of Kyoto. The reconstructed tower of Hideyoshi’s Fushimi castle peers out from the trees behind. Continue reading