Shinto’s greenness


New greenery at Tadasu no mori, Shimogamo Shrine’s sacred grove. These abodes of the kami are held up as shining examples of Shinto’s greenness, but preserving a grove can go hand-in-hand with environmentally destructive policies elsewhere.

Michael Pye is an English academic who has worked at Marburg and Kyoto.  He is on the committee of ISSA (International Shinto Studies Association) and has just published what looks like an interesting book on Japan’s Buddhist pilgrimages. On the site, he has recently posted a revised version of a talk on the environment and Shinto he first gave in 1995 entitled Can Shinto think Green?

The conclusions Pye reaches are central to the concerns of Green Shinto, and the premises on which they are based will be of interest to the readers of this blog.  Many Westerners are drawn to Shinto in the belief that as a nature religion it must be ‘green’, but within Japan such thinking seems simplistic.  ‘In fact, Shintō, like most religions, has a somewhat ambivalent relationship to environmental matters,’ writes Pye.

What follows is a summarised account of the paper, and quotations are given with the permission of the author.  (The full paper of ‘Can Shinto think Green?’ can be accessed here.)


Can Shintō think Green? Introductory Remarks on Shintō, the Environment and Industry
by Michael Pye, Marburg.


Sacred waterfall at Matsuo Taisha. Shinto is particularist, and not all waterfalls are sacred…

One of the first issues Pye addresses is the orientation of Shinto in terms of ethics, and he notes the juxtaposition of ‘a religion of the Japanese people’ which ‘mainly promotes a national perspective’ as opposed to the universal nature of the environmental crisis.  In terms of Shinto’s early development which grew out of its close relationship to nature, Pye asserts that it was ‘a question of the regulation and manipulation of natural forces, rather than of any kind of romantic love of nature.’  Moreover, as Green Shinto has noted on previous occasions, it is by no means evident that worship of particular items of sacralised nature leads to any significant change in environmental attitude or behaviour.  The conservation of sacred trees for instance has gone hand in hand with the large-scale destruction of forests in south-east Asia .

In terms of moral values, Pye notes the emphasis on purity, sincerity and honesty.  He notes too a contrast between the particularism of Shinto, whose concern is broadly limited to the frontiers of Japan, and the universalism of Buddhism.  Given that water, air and sunshine are shared by humankind, Pye suggests that geographical restrictions are out of place in the face of a global crisis and that, while refraining from being seen to meddle in Japan’s affairs, ‘It is good  to emphasize that progressive efforts for environmental protection would meet with world-wide recognition. That is always welcome.’

Pye then gives a concrete example of how change might be encouraged in Japan, which is worth quoting here at length:

Calling for a change of attitude is best done in conjunction with political and economic pressure. Specially targeted conferences and symposia are probably the most effective means of mounting influence from outside Japan, because they are often reported in the media. Responsible participation can be encouraged by the psychologically effective method of planning such symposia on the basis of mutual partnership and exchange.

ARC at Ise Jingu

International collaboration is one way of drawing Shinto into matters of universal concern.

A meeting on environmental questions in Germany, for example, could be complemented by a follow-up meeting to be held in Japan, and so envisaged in the planning stage. Moreover, funding is more likely to be forthcoming. Since the meeting in Japan then refers back to the previous meeting in Germany, it is able to have a much stronger effect on public opinion. For similar reasons, the participation and financial support of industry in both countries should be aimed at. Support in the form of subsidies only may lead into the blind alley of alibi-production, and would be analogous to the donations which flow from the major Japanese companies to the Shintō shrines. Such donations have above all an exorcising function and are supposed to ensure peace, safety and prosperity. It is therefore desirable to have direct representation from industry to industry, in the presence of other experts, ensuring that the environmental aspect remains on the agenda.

By way of conclusion, Pye considers whether Shinto representatives will be prepared to truly ‘go green’, or whether they will just use the word ‘nature’ as a feelgood factor to win popularity. In other words, will the Shinto establishment adopt ‘greenwashing’ as a tactic to project a sympathetic image?  Noting that Shinto is an adapted primal religion, he states that throughout history it has undergone change reactively rather than proactively.  If indeed it is to be truly a nature religion rather than a national religion, then it will probably need to be nudged in the right direction.

‘So, in the last analysis,’ Pye concludes, ‘there is a question to be posed.  Are Shintō leaders prepared to think “green”? The question is urgent.’

Car purificaiton

Westerners sometimes have an idealised view of Shinto as a religion of nature worship, but Shinto in Japan often has concerns that are far removed from environmentalism.

Post-Aoi (Kamigamo)


The inner torii in festive garb

Yesterday Kyoto’s Aoi Festival took place, and since I’ve seen the festival several times I thought I’d take a stroll this year around Kamigamo Shrine after the proceedings had ended.  I was glad I did, for I found the shrine to be full of interest and activity, without the crowds that can make such occasions irksome.  Though I only had my old iphone camera to hand, there was sufficient light left in the day for a few rough shots…


Attractive suzu bells were fixed to the top of the rope at the small enmusubi shrine. Notice the five colours on the banner representing the five elements.


A long queue at the Honden (Worship Hall), which unusually was open for worship since the kami is temporarily absent during the shikinen sengu cycle of renewal due to be completed later this year.


Sprigs of the aoi-katsura tree were on sale for ¥300 to fix at the entrance to homes as a protection against evil spirits and illness. At the bottom is a  picture from a medieval scroll to show that this was ancient practice.


Even though the crowds had dispersed, the shrine office was still doing brisk business…


…. one of the most popular items were sheep omikuji fortune slips (this being the year of the sheep).

Afterwards the omikuji were tied up in an arrangement that with a bit of imagination can be seen to be a sheep.

In creative fashion, the omikuji were tied up in an arrangement that with a bit of imagination can be seen to be a sheep.


In fact, sheep seemed to be everywhere. This one, at the entrance to the compound, was carved by a chainsaw.


The shrine boasts a fine collection of newly printed ema. This heart-shaped one with a Heian-era court lady and short poem is for finding a good love relationship.

On the back of the love relation ema are two leaves of the shrine's emblematic plant known as Futaba Aoi.

On the back are the two leaves of the shrine’s emblematic plant known as Futaba Aoi.  This person, who gives her name and address, asks to find a good connection to someone.

This ema shows the display of horse archery that is one of the pre-events for the Aoi Festival

Another of the ema shows the display of horse skills that is one of the pre-events for the Aoi Festival


Here is displayed a manifestation of the shrine’s kami, Wakeikazuchi no mikoto, a thunder deity


An example of the new-style privacy covering for people who don’t want others reading their love wishes. Unfortunately the innovation hasn’t been perfected yet for when it rains the covering strips off to reveal all…


On the way out I came across this curious monk who had wandered in to take a look at the shrine. His hat was covered in yellow tape, the ‘deerskin’ that shugendo ascetics wear on their backs was some kind of rug, and his wooden pole looked like an old broom handle. I asked him if he was a yamabushi (mountain ascetic) and rather brusquely he answered that he was Zen. The picture on his case by the way is of himself – perhaps it’s his way of reflecting on the ego.

Kyoto: Aoi Matsuri


The procession begins at the Old Imperial Palace, and participants are dressed in Heian garb with a sprig of aoi or katsura leaves


At the beginning there’s a palpable sense of excitement.

A reminder that tomorrow sees one of the Big Three Festivals in Kyoto (the others being the Gion Matsuri in July and the Jidai Matsuri in October). All the preliminary events have been done, such as the horse-riding and various purifications, and the way is clear for the grand procession in which the imperial messenger delivers greetings and offerings for the kami.  (For the schedule, please see below.)


Women dressed in the style of court ladies add colour and elegance to the procession

The festival originated in the sixth century in a desire to please the kami and prevent disasters. Nowadays there are over 500 participants in Heian era costume; 36 horses; 2 ox-carriages. The procession starts off from the Former Imperial Palace around 10.30, and the stately progress means that it takes an hour to travel the short distance to Shimogamo Shrine.The procession stretches out to be half a mile long, and consists of horseback warriors, foot warriors, courtiers, lower-rank guards, higher-rank guards, halberd bearers and dignitaries.   At Shimogamo dances are performed for the kami and the imperial messenger delivers gifts and greetings.  Around 2.20 the procession sets off for Kamigamo Jinja where it arrives around 4.30 and rituals are again performed.

In medieval times there were two processions, one for the imperial messenger proceeding from the Imperial Palace and the other for the Saiin (an unmarried female related to the emperor appointed to the shrines).  Between 810 and the early thirteenth century, when the practice fell into abeyance, there were 35 such priestesses who lived in palaces somewhere between the two Kamo shrines.


The Saiin inevitably is the star of the show, the May Queen of the whole event

The procession gets ready for departure in the grounds of the Former Imperial Palace.  In former times the procession of the Saiin would meet up with that of the imperial messenger, and they would proceed together to the shrines.  Nowadays everyone sets off from the south side of Gosho (Former Imperial Palace), and the role of the Saiin is taken by an unmarried young female from a well-bred local family, who is known as the Saio-dai.  (For an interview with a former representative, click here.)

Unfortunately the weather forecast for tomorrow looks bad, with rain predicted.  Depending on the weather conditions, a decision will be made tomorrow morning whether to postpone the parade for a day.  After all, those junihitoe (twelve-layered ceremonial kimono) and other exquisite costumes are precious items, not intended by any means to serve as simple rain-gear.


Even the children get to wear precious costumes, though on a hot day it can be an awfully long way to walk in such thick clothing

Click for more about the Aoi Festival.  For more about the significance of the Aoi Festival and its pre-events, see Mikage Festival and Miare sai.  To read further details about the festival itself, try the Wikipedia pages or this page of small pictures with accompanying explanations.

Kyoto: Aoi Matsuri

Hollyhock Festival of the shrines. This 1,400-year old festival features a magnificent pageant which colorfully reproduces the imperial procession that used to pay homage to these shrines in ancient days. The procession consists of the ox-drawn carriages, courtiers and court ladies clad in ancient court robes, and men holding flower-decorated umbrellas, all decorated with hollyhock leaf. If it rains, the festival will be postponed to the next day.

Schedule & Key events:
10:30 a.m.-11:40 a.m. Procession from Kyoto Imperial Palace to Shimogamo-jinja Shrine
2:20 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Procession from Shimogamo-jinja Shrine to Kamigamo-jinja Shrine

Festival information compiled in cooperation with the Tourist Information Center of the Japan National Tourist Organization.  (03) 3201-3331). Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.


Strolling musicians accompany the procession…


… and even the drum gets decorated with the trademark aoi emblem.


In the late afternoon the procession finally reaches Kamigamo Shrine…


… where a reception party waits at the inner torii…


… though for some it’s been a long and exhausting day.

Meiji Shrine Forest


One of the seven gardeners employed to sweep the paths (the leaves are recycled back into the woods). There are 20 gardeners in all, who monitor the growth, remove dead wood and protect the trees from disease.

It’s a a mixed forest of 160,000 trees covering a huge seven hectares and housing one of Japan’s most popular shrines.  It contains 240 species and and a flourishing wildlife that includes hawks, fish and tanuki racoons.  It’s a shrine grove praised for its beauty and spirituality, set amidst a sprawling urban conglomeration of concrete and tarmac.  But what makes it particularly special is that it’s an artificial creation, planted a hundred years ago (1915-20) by some 110,000 volunteers.

To mark the centenary, NHK ran a special the other evening on the Meiji Shrine forest.  But first, a bit of background information.  After Emperor Meiji’s death in 1912, the government determined to commemorate his role in the historic Meiji Restoration with a shrine. The location centred on an iris garden which he and his wife had had been fond of visiting, and the shrine was built in cypress and copper. The construction was a national project, mobilizing youth groups and civic associations throughout Japan.  It was completed in 1921, destroyed during WW2, and rebuilt in 1958.Chinju no mori tree

To complete the surrounds, trees were donated from all parts of Japan, and the grove is cherished for its role in displaying Shinto’s affinity with nature. (The woods are for the enjoyment of the kami and off-limits to visitors.) Here is the shrine’s official description:

Meiji Jingu’s forest was created in honour of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, for their souls to dwell in and with every tree sincerely planted by hand. This forest was carefully planned as an eternal forest that recreates itself. Now after about 90 years it cannot be distinguished from a natural forest, inhabited by many endangered plants and animals.

One point of interest is Kiyomasa’s well, probably Japan’s best-known power spot.  It was created by Kato Kiyomasa, a general under Hideyoshi who invaded Korea in the 1590s.  In 2009 the well was declared to be particularly efficacious in wish-fulfilment by popular tv personality and fortune-teller Shimada Shuhei, since when it’s been inundated with visitors.

Ironically, the Meiji forest which is now held up as a prime example of Shinto’s concern for nature came at a time when Shinto groves were suffering terrible depletion.  This was during the merger of shrines which took place 1906-1923, when the total number was drastically reduced from 193,000 to 110.000.  The loss of the shrines was accompanied by the destruction of the surrounding groves.

By contrast the Meiji forest stands as a flourishing oasis of greenery amidst the urban sprawl of Tokyo.  It’s a ‘people’s forest’ that sustains wildlife, purifies the air and offers hope for the future.  In its conservation of the forest, the Meiji Shrine shows how Shinto could put green rather than national concerns at the forefront of its agenda.  In this regard it’s interesting that the shrine brochure chooses not to end on a note of universalism but by asserting how the forest ‘helps to pass down our traditional Japanese value for nature from generation to generation’.


Information from Aike Rots ‘Forest of the Gods’, PhD dissertation at the University of Oslo.

Meiji Jingu forest

To add intrigue to their coverage,  NHK dubbed the forest a mystery and subtitled the programme ‘100 years of a grand experiment’.

Meiji Jingu shrine forest

An illustration of the Meiji Shrine layout. 90% is woodland or water, off-limits to visitors and for the enjoyment of the kami.

The three people who planned the forest, and the diagram they drew up showing how the woods would look after 50 and 90 years.

Before the woodland

How the area looked before the woodland was planted

How the area looks now, and the contrast with its urban surrounds

The woods are home to hawks, owls and other birds rarely seen in the middle of an urban development.


A tanuki enjoys the chance for an evening stroll in the woods


Not only the woodland, but the water too has flourishing wildlife.


After all the visitors have left, the tanuki takes the opportunity to pay respects at the shrine and give thanks  for its woodland blessings.

Hata Part 4: Triangular torii

According to the internet, there are seven triangular torii in the whole of Japan.  Most of these are modern constructions, and may simply be copies of Kyoto’s Konoshima Jinja.  Only one other has a genuine claim of antiquity – on the island of Tsushima, close to Korea.  I happen to have visited that too.

A noticeboard in the grounds of the Konoshima Jinja says that the original construction of the triangular torii is unknown, but records show it was rebuilt 300 years ago after a fire.  Regarding the purpose, there are two theories.  One concerns the descent of the kami into the pile of stones in its midst, with the ‘spirit-body’ open to worship from all sides.  The cosmic connection, open to the heavens, would thus have been complemented by the all-round access and immersion in nature.


The triangular torii should be standing in water, known in one variant as Moto Tadasu no Ike.  The name suggests it was the original of that at Shimogamo, and as with the Kamo clan shrine there is a festival in which participants wade through the water for good health.

‘There’s another theory that it’s connected to Nestorian Christianity,’ the board states cryptically, without explaining what it is exactly. Fortunately, the Wikipedia entry for Mihashira Torii (three-legged torii) amplifies the theory somewhat:

The primary historical example of a mihashira torii is found in the records of Konoshima Shrine in Kyoto. These records states that a triangular torii was rebuilt in 1716-1736, after a fire. The text hints at a reference to Nestorianism in the construction of the torii, and says that the three pillars represent the heavens, the earth, and mankind. This is not an interpretation common in Shinto beliefs.

This, to me, is bizarre.  First of all, no one in their right mind in eighteenth-century Japan would claim to possessing anything connected to Christianity.  The Tokugawa were paranoid about the European religion, and every single known Christian in Kyoto had been burnt, crucified or forced into hiding in the remotest of villages.  Persecution was so intense that mere suspicion could lead to the most excruciating torture.  (See my book on Hidden Christians.)

Secondly, there is nothing at all odd about the three pillars representing heaven, earth and mankind.  This is the Taoist triad, and as anyone familar with Shinto knows, there was a huge amount of borrowing from Taoism.  The emblem of the mitsudomoe (mitsu tomoe) is a prime example, with its three commas twirling round each other.  ‘Some view the mitsudomoe as representative of the threefold division (Man, Earth, and Sky) at the heart of the Shinto religion,’ says the Wikipedia page on mitsu tomoe.  Wikipedia here confounds Wikipedia – a glaring instance of why it’s not to be trusted!

So if the torii has nothing to do with the Trinity, what has it to do with?  As mentioned, there is another three-sided torii in Tsushima, and there are striking similarities between the two.  Both were built at an unknown date and for an unknown reason.  Both have a pile of stones or rocks at their centre. And both are in watery settings, the one in Kyoto standing in a pond, that at Tsushima standing in seawater as the incoming tide covers its base.

The three-legged torii at Watatsumi Shrine in Tsushima, close to the Korean peninsula.  The notice says that this is how the structure is thought to have looked originally.

The three-legged torii at Watatsumi Shrine in Tsushima, close to the Korean peninsula. The notice says that this is how the structure is thought to have looked originally.  That at Konoshima Jinja has been rebuilt in modern times.

Here I’d like to put forward a theory of my own, linking the two torii with the Hata.  Since the clan moved en masse from Korea into Kyushu, it’s almost certain that the first port of call would have been Tsushima.  You can actually see the island from the tip of the Busan shoreline.

The torii stands in the grounds of Watatsumi Shrine, which faces directly towards Korea.  It would have made a natural landing ground.  Indeed, this is almost spelt out by a row of torii running down into the sea to welcome visitors.  Could not the torii mark the spot where a Hata leader first set foot upon the shore – the ‘descent’ of an ancestral kami?  There are similar markers along the Inland Sea shoreline where ‘kami’ ‘descended’ onto sacred rocks (the one at Kamikura Shrine in Wakayama Prefecture being a notable example).

The Hata had spent centuries under the influence of the Koreans, whose religious outlook was shaped by Siberian shamanism. Rock worship is a notable element, with the permanence embodied in the rocks contrasting with the perishable nature of human life. For Koreans, you could say, immortality is carved in rock.

A characteristic of shamanism is the summoning down of spirits, and the pile of stones in the middle of the torii would have acted as spiritual vessel. In a material world, rock gives the insubstantial spirit substance.  In Shinto mythology, gods are described as descending in ‘rock boats’ for a similar reason.  Wooden boats rot; rock-boats last forever.

The Shinto emblem commonly seen at shrines, particularly on drums, is the mitsu tomoe (mitsudomoe), thought to symbolise Earth, Heaven and Humans.

The three-sided torii that surmounts the stones might well have represented the harmonious coming together of Heaven, Earth and Mankind in the shamanic ceremonies.  The Hata would thus have been reflecting their continental origins, with Chinese teaching underpinning Korean shamanism.

Interestingly, Tsushima has a tradition known as the Tendo faith, in which a temporary altar is constructed in a lush forest for spirits to descend. ‘Such practices also appear as elements of rituals on the Korean peninsula,’ notes the Kokugakuin encyclopedia.

Torii only developed in Heian times, so one can presume the three-sided version dates from then or afterwards.  But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a three-sided structure of some kind before that,  peculiar to the Hata (clans developed their own distinctive beliefs and rituals).  Prototypes certainly existed in Korea in the form of gates at the edge of villages which were used as a chicken roost.  (Torii literally means ‘bird roost’.)

Though gateways are two-legged, it’s worth noting the universal appeal of the number three in religious terms. It speaks to the tripartite nature of human thought.  Past, present, future.  Father, mother, child.  Beginning, middle, end.  Birth, life, death.  Earth, Sun, Moon. Or in shamanic terms, the Upper, Middle and Lower Worlds.  It’s worth noting too the structural solidity of the triangular structure itself, which makes it robust enough to withstand the elements and even the natural disasters that plague Japan.

When the Hata settled in Uzumasa, they would have brought with them the memory of their legendary migration with them.  In place of the sea over which they had travelled, they turned a flowing stream into a pond.  And in the middle they piled stones to assist the descent of their clan ancestors.  Water, earth, wood, wind and sky – all the elements were there for drawing down the spirits of the past.

As the imperial regime tightened its control over the clans, the shamanic element of their early ways died away in favour of a centralised priesthood.  Uniform officials replaced feathered shamans.  And as the ritualists took charge, the whole purpose of the three-legged torii was forgotten as the art of summoning spirits was replaced by formulaic utterances.  With the openness of outdoor worship  replaced by buildings that housed an unseen ‘spirit-body’, the three-sided torii was left to decay in the water in which it stood.  A once magical triangle had lost its magic.

Watatsumi Jinja approach from the sea

The torii at Watatsumi Shrine lead significantly down to the sea with the outermost becoming semi-submerged at high tide. The shrine is on the side of the island facing towards Korea: what ancestral spirits might they be welcoming?


For an Overview of the Hata, see Part One of this series.
See Part Two, about Hata Kawakatsu, founder of Koryu-ji.
Or see Part Three about Konoshima Jinja (Kaiko no Yashiro).

Hata Part 3: Silkworm Shrine

Kaiko no Yashiro

Entrance to Konoshima Jinja, better known as Kaiko no Yashiro (Silkworm Shrine), in the Uzumasa district of Kyoto.

Much about the Hata is shrouded in mystery and lost in time.  In which century did they arrive into Japan?  Did they come from Korea, from China – or somewhere far beyond that along the Silk Road?  What belief systems did they pick up on their trails – Buddhism, Judaism, Korean shamanism, Nestorian Christianity?

The uncertainty has led to some fanciful theories, sparked by the triangular torii that stands to the side of the Worship Hall at Konoshima Jinja. (See next post.)  The shrine is known popularly as the Silkworm Shrine or Kaiko no Yashiro, because of a subshrine in the grounds dedicated to the silkworm deity.  It was for their work in spreading sericulture in Japan that the Hata are best known.


Through the torii is a section of Inari subshrines, one of which is in a cave-like hollow beneath the ground.

The shrine is a curious affair, well-kept yet always strangely deserted whenever I’ve been there.  There is nothing to suggest any interest in visitors, no note to explain when the shrine office is open, no invitation to ring a bell for the priest, and no indication of any goods for sale.  Worst of all, in my opinion, the pond is empty of water though a noticeboard boasts of how it shows a connection with nature. (What factors are involved in maintaining the water I’m uncertain.)

My Japanese companion suggested the shrine had made money from selling off land and therefore had no interest in attending to business.  Perhaps she’s right.  But nonetheless it’s sad that a shrine boasting such a rich heritage should be unprepared to do more for visitors.

As one might expect from a Hata shrine, a section of the grounds is set aside for Inari worship.  There is not just one subshrine, but three or four.  One of them, unusually, is in a cave-like hollow below ground, as if to suggest a fox’s lair.

Another curious feature is that the pond is called Moto Tadasu no ike (Original Tadasu Pond).   Shimogamo Jinja is well known for its Tadasu Woods, but it seems Konoshima Jinja claims to have had the original (tadasu has the sense of atonement, or cleansing negativity through purification).  At one time, apparently, there was a surrounding mulberry forest known as ‘Mototadasu-no-Mori’ to feed the silkworms. It suggests some kind of connection between the two shrines.

Konoshima Jinja haiden

The Worship Hall (Haiden). Notice the distinctive aoi emblem on the lanterns, usually associated with the Kamo clan.

Another connection with Shimogamo Jinja lies in the use of the aoi emblem.  The flower is closely connected with the Kamo clan, who had also settled in the Kyoto basin in pre-Heian times and founded the Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrines.

At the Aoi Festival every May the plant is used to decorate the costumes of participants, and it is widely used as an emblem at the shrines. It seems at some stage the Hata clan became allied to the Kamo through marriage and adopted the aoi emblem too (Matsuo Taisha also uses it).

But the most intriguing feature of the Konoshima Shrine is undoubtedly the triangular torii that stands to the left of the Worship Hall.  Its date and purpose are unknown, but it is closely connected with the Hata.  And it’s a subject I’d like to deal with in a separate post.  Dear Reader, read on…


The Maiden or Kaguraden is used for performances to entertain the kami. To the left of the picture stands a most unusual three-sided torii.

Hata Part 2: Kawakatsu

Statue of Hata no Kawakatsu at Koryu-ji, together with his wife

Statue in Koryu-ji of a stern-looking Hata no Kawakatsu, together with his wife

The sixth-century Hata no Kawakatsu was one of the key figures of his time.  He was an influential ally of the devout Buddhist Prince Shōtoku, credited with the spread of the new religion in Japan. As a member of the immigrant Hata, Kawakatsu too was receptive to Buddhism and founded Koryu-ji, the first temple to be built in the Kyoto basin.  He is also said to have introduced Shinto-style kagura dance/plays into Japan.

According to records left by Noh playwright Zeami, Hata no Kawakatsu fist became known as a young child during the reign of Emperor Kimmei (509-571), when he was discovered by a high court official in a jar near the gates to Miwa Shrine. The official assumed the child to have come from heaven, which was reported to the emperor.

That night the emperor had a dream in which the child said he was the spirit of the first Chinese Qin Emperor. As a result he was introduced to court, later serving as a minister with the name of Hata (the Japanese reading for the Chinese character of Qin).


The famed statue of Miroku Bosatsu, said to have originated in Korea like Kawakatsu himself. (Image courtesy heritageofjapan)

Kawakatsu was asked by Shōtoku Taishi to perform sixty-six dramatic pieces, in order to help settle disturbances in the land. The prince made masks for each piece, and the performances were held at the imperial palace. Since this was successful, Prince Shōtoku decided that this form of entertainment should be maintained, and dubbed it kagura (神楽, entertainment for the gods).

Kawakatsu founded Koryu-ji in 603 after receiving a statue from Shotoku.  The temple functioned as a clan temple for the Hata, being known locally as Uzumasa Temple or Hatanokimi Temple.  In later centuries it was twice destroyed by fire, but rebuilt. Now a Shingon temple, it is the oldest Buddhist foundation in the Kyoto area and famous for a strikingly graceful Miroku statue whose long fingers extend towards its cheek (though controversial, the statue is thought to be Korean in origin).

According to tradition, Kawakatsu lies buried in a sacred grove on the small island of Ikishima in the Inland Sea (also known as Inamijima).  It has a special connection to a shrine on the mainland called Osake Jinja, which uses the island as a ‘tabisho‘ (resting place) during its annual festival in October. Legend says that Kawakatsu often visited the area and villagers built a hill to welcome him, from the top of which is a view over the nearby bay containing Ikishima.


View of Koryu-ji Main Hall. The temple has an Uzumasa-den for veneration of founder, Hata Kawakatsu.

I can only presume that the place had strong ancestral memories for Kawakatsu and the Hata clan as they arrived through the Inland sea from Korea. It’s surely no coincidence that the island name echoes that of Iki Island, one of the stepping stones between Korea and Kyushu. Did Kawakatsu travel to the Osake hill to look pensively at the sea with nostalgic thoughts of his origins overseas?  Did he brood on the sea palace that according to mythology lay beneath the watery depths?  Did he envisage death as a returning to the sea from where his ancestors had come?

Some six or seven centuries after Kawakatsu’s time a shrine was put up and dedicated to his ancestor, Hata Sake no kimi.  It thus bears the same name as the Osake Shrine in Kyoto.  (Kawakatsu was a sixth generation descendant of Sake no kimi).

Second in power to legendary Prince Shotoku, Kawakatsu’s time marks a peak in Hata power.  Nonetheless a century later the clan founded the large and influential shrines of Matsuo Taisha and Fushimi Inari, as well as working with Emperor Kammu to build a new and permanent capital.  But never again would the Hata produce a figure as powerful as Kawakatsu.  Buddhist by faith, he is remembered by posterity through the ancestral traditions of Shinto – dead, but not forgotten for the mark he left on Japanese history.

One of the boats in the annual festival of Osake Shrine when mikoshi are taken to Iki Island where Kawakatsu’s grave lies, to the accompaniment of music and kagura performances.  (photo courtesy tripadvisor)


Hata Part 1: Overview

Fushimi Inari is the most famous place associated with the influential Hata clan

Fushimi Inari is the most famous of all the places associated with the immigrant Hata clan.  Intriguingly the northeast of China from where the Hata might have originated had a fox clan in ancient times.

As part of Golden Week activities this year, I made a tour of places in Kyoto associated with the influential Hata Clan. Anyone who has lived in the city will have come across the name at some stage, as the clan were instrumental in the building of Heian-kyo in 794. Prior to that, they were responsible for the founding of Koryu-ji temple, Matsuo Taisha and Fushimi Inari amongst others.

Once a virtual clan shrine for the Hata, Osake Jinja has seen better days but has managed to survive into the present.

Once a clan shrine for the Hata, Osake Jinja has seen better days but has managed to survive into the present.

Much about the Hata is shrouded in doubt because there are no reliable sources. It has given them an air of mystery, with some claiming they were Nestorian Christians and others saying they were descended from China’s Qin Emperors.  There’s even a theory they were a lost tribe of Israel.  The truth is probably less fanciful, but no less intriguing because of the many clues that remain.

The Hata came to Japan from Korea, though it’s believed they originated in China (their name is written with the same Chinese character as the Qin Emperors of old).  They arrived in Japan in considerable number, and brought with them advanced techniques in silk-weaving, saké making, stringed instruments, agricultural methods, and large-scale landscaping. This has led some to suppose they had Silk Road connections, by means of which they picked up the leading knowledge of their time.

There are many places throughout Japan associated with the Hata, particularly along the migration route from Korea into northern Kyushu, along the Inland Sea to the Kobe area and then inland to the Kyoto basin.  The place most closely connected with them though is the Uzumasa area of Kyoto (Uzumasa was a name bestowed on the clan leader by the emperor). There are a number of places with Hata origins, one of which is the small Osake Jinja, effectively a Hata clan shrine.  Its noticeboard gives an overview of the clan’s developments (though this is quite different from the Wikipedia version).

In 356  (other reports place it much earlier) a Hata representative came to Japan to help avoid war with Paekche, one of the Korean kingdoms.  This was followed by an influx of 18,670 people at the time of Emperor Ojin.  They brought gifts of gold, silver and silk etc leading the Japanese authorities to look on them kindly.


Konoshima Jinja, built by the Hata, is more commonly known as Kaiko no Yashiro, the Silkworm Shrine, because one of its subshrines is dedicated to the deity.

In 471 Emperor Yūryaku bestowed the family name of Uzumasa on Hata Sake no kimi (or Hata Sakekimi) for his contribution to the spread of sericulture.  The area of the Kyoto basin in which the clan came to settle was accordingly named Uzumasa (uzumoreru implies ‘being covered or buried in treasure’).

There may have been a clan shrine called Uzumasa Jinja, but at some stage this was destroyed and merged into Osake Jinja (named for Sakekimi), which has survived into the present.  No doubt it was once a flourishing place, but now it is confined to a small roadside space housing a torii and small token shrine.

More impressive is another Hata shrine in the area, known as Konoshima Jinja (or Kaiko no Yashiro, the Silkworm Shrine).  It’s thought that this was built around 603 as a protective shrine for the nearby Koryu-ji temple, put up by Hata strongman, Kawakatsu.  The shrine is notable for a peculiar triangular torii, which stands near the Worship Hall, giving rise to fanciful theories about Christian connections (three sides representing the Trinity!).  More about this in a later post.

In 701 Hata Imikitori founded Matsuo Taisha.  He was out hunting one day when he saw a huge tortoise.  In Chinese folk custom tortoises are a symbol of good luck and longevity. Sure enough, the turtle revealed a spring of fresh and invigorating water coming down from Mt Matsuo.  As a result the shrine today is full of tortoise statues and noted for its saké connections (the water from its spring is used for brewing). (See here for more about about Matsuo Taisha.)

A turtle at Matsuo Taisha spouting water into the temizuya (water basin)

A turtle at Matsuo Taisha spouting water into the temizuya (water basin)

In 713 Hata Irogu was doing archery practice in the Fushimi area when his ricecake target turned into a white bird and flew up Fushimi Hill to reveal a field of rice.  (See Fushimi Inari.)  Later when Heian-kyo was built, Fushimi Inari became the protective shrine for the new capital’s Toji Temple.

In 794 the Hata clan played a decisive part in Emperor Kammu’s decision to move the capital from the cursed location at Nagaoka-kyo.  The clan not only possessed much of the land in the Kyoto basin and were able to help fund the cost of relocation, but they were skilled too at handling the large-scale engineering involved, such as redirecting rivers and building earthworks.

(Hata clan descendants remain throughout Japan today, and there is an annual get-together for members.  The Matsuo Shrine in particular is said to retain ties to the clan.)

The subshrine at Fushimi Inari dedicated to the Hata clan ancestral spirits

The subshrine at Fushimi Inari dedicated to Hata clan ancestral spirits


The sacred rock (iwakura) representing Hata no Irobu, founder of Fushimi Inari

The sacred rock (iwakura) for the spirit of Hata no Irobu, founder of Fushimi Inari


For Part Two of this series, click on this link for Hata Part 2: Kawakatsu.

Boy’s Day

Full display of Boy's Day paraphernalia

Full display of Boy’s Day paraphernalia

May 5 is officially Children’s Day, a national holiday established in 1948 that is part of Golden Week (a series of holidays at the beginning of May).

In ancient times people suffered disease around this time of year due to the change in temperature and humidity. Families with boys traditionally displayed warrior dolls and miniature armour in their homes, especially for 5 year olds, in order to make them strong in later life.

It’s a custom linked to the 7-5-3 festival, in which the number five applies particularly to the development of boys. Hence the date of the festival – May 5 (5/5).  March 3 (3/3) was the traditional Girl’s Day, though the postwar government has conflated the two into one Children’s Day.

In the picture above can be seen the accoutrements of warriors – armour, bow and arrow, swords. Also saké holders, chimaki and kashiwa mochi (types of rice cakes). There’s a seasonal flower too, a type of iris (the fragrance was believed to drive away bad air and have a healing effect).

On the bottom shelf is a taiko drum, a helmet and a prestigious fan with the sun symbol.  In front of the display is a tiger for strength and a white horse, symbol of the élite.  Whichever boy gets this display is going to have an impressive future!

Around this time families put up carp-shaped koinobori flags (according to Chinese legend, a carp strong enough to swim upstream will become a dragon}. It’s said the way the flags blow in the wind looks like they are swimming.  Traditionally there is one carp for each member of the family.

Carp streamers (courtesy Wikicommons)

Carp streamers (courtesy Wikicommons)

Tōji temple shrines

Yashima Shaden and pagoda

Yashima Shaden, one of Toji Temple’s two shrines that stands in the shadow of the famous pagoda.

It’s an interesting fact that many of Japan’s Buddhist temples house small shrines for protective kami.  Sometimes they can quite sizable, similar in appearance to independent Shinto shrines.  Quite what the status of these shrines are I’m not sure, but they don’t number amongst official Shinto shrines, which number somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000.

The shrines don’t have Shinto priests attached to them, though they do have rituals performed by Buddhist priests, who are in charge of the well-being of the kami and serving them offerings.  Most of these shrines belong to the two esoteric sects, Shingon and Tendai, though there are often kami shrines too in Zen and Nichiren temples.  The Pure Land sects tend not to have them.


The magnificent wooden structures of Toji Temple are World Heritage Sites – and guarded by two small shrines.

One of the most interesting examples of shrines within a temple complex can be found in Kyoto’s Tōji Temple.  ‘Tōji’ means Eastern Temple, and together with its counterpart Saiji (Western Temple) it was built to be a protective guardian of Heian-kyo (now known as Kyoto).  The two temples stood near the southern entrance to the city, to either side of the mighty Rashomon gate.

Tōji was entrusted to Kukai, founder of the Shingon sect, who used the space to build a seminary for his new branch of Buddhism.  The result was a magnificent temple, which although it has been greatly reduced in size is still mightily impressive today and  houses statuary that is amongst Kyoto’s finest.  What’s interesting about the layout is that to either side of the main Southern Gate stand two guardian shrines.  The design thus mirrored the city at large, echoing its defensive strategy and feng-shui principles.

Kukai aka Kobo Daishi

Kukai, known posthumously as Kobo Daishi, was the founder of Shingon and sympathetic to the notion of Japan’s kami

The picture at the top of this page shows Yashima Shaden, dedicated to Oonamuchi no kami, lord of the land.  The shrine’s name refers to the Eight Islands with which Japan began, suggesting that it was protective of the nation as a whole.  According to the accompanying noticeboard, it’s thought the shrine existed prior to the building of the temple and that Kukai asked Oonamuchi to look kindly on the building of his new project.

The temple’s other shrine, which stands to the west of the main gate, is named Tōji Chinju Hachiman-gu.  It owed its existence to a disturbance that took place in 810, following which Kukai built a shrine to venerate Hachiman as a protective deity (the kami had fulfilled the same function for Nara’s Todai-ji).

According to the noticeboard, Kukai made three statues from a single tree trunk, which are now hibutsu (secret Buddhist images rarely if ever shown to the public).  In the Sengoku Period, arrows directed by Hachiman apparently helped Ashikaga Takauji to victory in his bid to become shogun, in return for which he bestowed gifts on the shrine.  In the Meiji Era the shrine bunt down but was rebuilt in 1992.


Green Shinto friend, Quin Arbeitman, pays respects at Tōji Chinju Hachiman-gu


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