Kumano 1): Hayatama Taisha

The stunning freshly painted colours of the Shingu shrine suggest that it is thriving


Kumano is a land of legends, and together with Yamato and Izumo it’s one of Japan’s spiritual heartlands. It’s also part of the Kii peninsula World Heritage site boasting three shrines, two temples, pilgrimage routes and a hot spring. Most famously of all, it’s famous for the Kumano Sanzan – the three great shrines of Hayatama, Nachi and Hongu.

The shrine's sacred tree, over 800 years old

The animism of the early shrines was later overlaid by Buddhist notions of a Pure Land lying in the south, such that the shrines became part of huge syncretic complexes which lasted until the forced separation of the religions in 1868. In the middle ages the shrines became the focus of pilgrimages by emperors no less than the common man. They were so popular that they were described as a line of ants headed for Kumano. (The Hayatama shrine treasury houses some 1200 items offered by pilgrims in the past.)

Hayatama lies in the town of Shingu close to the mouth of the Kumano River (Hongu lies some 40 kms upstream). It originated with the remarkable Gotobiki Rock, which lies fifteen minutes walk away at Kamikura Jinja (an auxiliary shrine and part of the World Heritage designation). It was here that the three kami worshipped at the shrine first ‘descended’ – presumably a reference to clan ancestors having arrived by boat at the coast. Later a new shrine was established away from the rock, at the present location, which is why the town that developed around it is called Shingu (meaning ‘new shrine’).

In the compound is a sacred tree which is venerated for its size, vitality and age. It’s the largest “Nagi no ki” (Podocarpus nagi) in Japan, and was supposedly planted by a samurai called Taira no Shigemori over 850 years ago. The leaves are tough and hard to break, which is why womenfolk used to take them as charms to place at the back of mirrors so that their relationships would not be broken.

Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow

Wherever you go in Kumano, the three-legged yatagarasu is likely to make an appearance. In the Kojiki (710) the crow appears as a messenger from the sun goddess Amaterasu to her descendant Emperor Jimmu, whose mission to invade the Honshu heartland had been stalled in the Kii Peninsula.

Interestingly, mythology in other countries also associates the sun with crows, and a priest at Nachi Taisha told me he thought it was because of the black spots which can be seen on the sun. For myself, however, I see it as a reference to an ancestral clan leader of the crow tribe who allied himself with the invading Jimmu forces. He’s worshipped now as a founding figure at Kamigamo Jinja in Kyoto, to where his descendants presumably made their way in later times.

The three-legged crow can thus be seen as a shamanic ancestor, like the crow totems of Native American tribes, though few Japanese including priests seem to have any notion of this. However, thanks to the continuity of Japanese society, the figure is still venerated today and promoted by the Kumano and Kamigamo shrines. And characteristically for a culture of cuteness, it’s been adopted too as a symbol of the Japanese football team (some of whom, like Shinji Kagawa, do indeed appear to have three feet!!).


Wikipedia has a piece about the three-legged crow in different cultures here.
For more about the yatagarasu and crow connections in Kyoto’s Kamigamo Jinja, see here or here.


The sparkling new buildings of the Hayatama Shrine in Shingu show that it continues to thrive thanks to its legendary fame and World Heritage status

Yatagarasu Shrine, the subshrine to the right, dedicated to the three-legged crow in the Hayatama compound

The Gotobiki rock to which the Hayatama kami descended, with the Kamikura Shrine nestling below

The astounding Kamikura Jinja, one of the most impressive sites that Shinto has to offer

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Kumano 1): Hayatama Taisha — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks for another interesting article. I’d like to make a possible point of clarification. You are probably already aware of this, as your wording leaves it unclear, but there is apparently (at least in the English translation) no actual description of Yatagarasu having three legs in either the Kojiki or the Nihon-shoki (pertinent section here for the Kojiki. So the “three legs” part of the legend may have been a later addition.

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