Egara Tenjin Shrine

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There are many shrines called 'Tenjin' or 'Tenmangu' in Japan. All of them are dedicated to the memory of Michizane Sugawara (845-903), who has for centuries been venerated as a patron deity of scholarship. Tenjin literally means heavenly gods. Michizane Sugawara was of noble birth in Kyoto. Not only was he a good politician, but also was a great scholar and calligrapher. With his talent, he was promoted quickly to the highest ranking minister. His promotion was so fast that his peers were jealous of his success. Finally, some of them falsely charged that he was trying to dethrone the emperor. As a result, he was demoted and transferred to a faraway town Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture in Kyushu island, roughly 550 kilometers west of Kyoto.

Masterminding his relegation behind the curtain was rival aristocrat Tokihira Fujiwara (871-909), who succeeded in establishing the Fujiwara family as the most distinguished aristocrat. Michizane grieved at the transfer, and two years later he died in sorrow at Dazaifu. His four sons, all serving the Imperial Court, also lost their jobs.

After Michizane's death, however, a series of thunderbolt struck Kyoto, one of them striking right on the living quarters of the emperor, and members of the Fujiwara family including Tokihira mysteriously died one after another. The Greek deity Zeus may have taken revenge on behalf of Michizane with its traditional power. Back at the time, thunder coupled with lightning was thought to be a typical super-natural power or a divine act. Court people believed those disasters must have fallen on them with Michizane's curse, and thought it necessary to propitiate his soul so that his curse might be lifted. Otherwise, revenge would continue to be exacted by the spirits of Michizane and his family. Thus, construction of the shrines to appease his curse, to venerate Michizane's apotheosis and soothe his vengeful spirit started all over Japan.

Grown up and spent most of his life in Kyoto, everything evoked Michizane's feelings of nostalgia in Dazaifu. A tanka (31-syllable verse) written by him to express his homesickness for Kyoto is well known to many Japanese even today, which reads like this:

"Ume (Japanese apricot) flowers! Don't forget the springtime even though your master is no longer with you. When an easterly wind blows, be sure to send me your sweet fragrance."

Japanese nobilities those days greatly loved plum blossoms, more than cherry, and its beauty was widely featured in classical art and poetry. Indeed, Man-yoshu, an anthology of tanka poetry composed in the 5th to 8th century, contains 104 poems featuring plum blossoms, as against only 38 for cherry.

Because of this famous tanka, plum trees are like the symbol of Tenjin shrines and almost all of them have the trees planted at their shrine grounds. Here in Egara, a pair of red and white plum trees are standing in front of the main hall; red one at its right and white one at the left. The red one is said to bloom in late January, earliest in Kamakura. Altogether, about 40 plum trees are planted. The first flower-viewing ceremony of the year in Kamakura takes place in the Shrine. On the doors of the main hall, the Shrine's emblem with five circles appears designed after the ume blossoms. The five circles and lines in center depict round petals and stamens of the flower.

The Shrine is one of the few religious structures which had existed before the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Who built it is unknown. Legend asserts that on August 25, 1104, well before the military government was established in Kamakura, the spirit of Tenjin descended here, and local people constructed a small shrine to dedicate to the spirit of Michizane. As the site was located at the northeast direction, or Kimon {key-mon}, of the Shogunate office, in other words, an tabooed quarter, Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of Kamakura Shogunate, venerated the Shrine as a guardian deity to ward off evils.

The structure made of the oratory in front and the sanctum at the back was last rebuilt in 1735, using the old pillars and beams of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine at the time of Tsurugaoka's renovation. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, however, ravaged many of structures in Kamakura. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu was not exceptional. Tsurugaoka immediately built a temporary main hall. After the construction of the permanent hall was completed, the temporary one was brought here again to replace the damaged main hall of the Shrine. That is what we see today. The two shrines have close relationship as both are associated with the similar Shinto elements.

With the nature of the Shrine as the deity of scholarship, it earned acclaim as a prayer hall for academic achievements. Students preparing for entrance exams flock here in early spring to offer prayers for their successful challenge. Each one buys a sacred, wooden Shinto tablet called Ema {eh-mah} for about 1,000-yen (it depends on what you pray for), on which they inscribe wishes so that they may pass entrance exams, like: "Help me to pass the exam. I wish to enter such an such college (or high school)." The Shrine hangs them on the outside walls of the oratory after the Shinto prayer and rituals were performed. Hundreds of those Ema can be seen hung on the Shrine's walls. In exam season, usually January to March, students can visit the Shrine early in the morning of the exam day and ask priests for Shinto prayer with a minimum fee of 1,000 yen.@(Picture, above; Ema-hung wall of the main hall.)

Egara is among the three main Tenjin in Japan. The other two are: Dazaifu, where Michizane was exiled, and Kitano in Kyoto, Michizane's birthplace. Of a total of 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, there are 11,000 Tenjin or Tenmangu.

Inside the oratory, there is nothing particular except Tamagushi (sprigs of the sacred tree) and other objects indigenous to Shinto shrines. The Shrine has a number of important artifacts, though. Most of them are kept at the Kamakura Museum. Shinto shrines usually do not have statues. The Shrine is, however, sacred to the memory of Sugawara, a real human, and therefore, it owns the following two statues of Michizane:

  1. A wooden, sedentary 81.5-centimeter-tall statue carved in 1261. The statue is believed to have been brought to Kamakura when the Sixth Shogun Munetaka (1242-1274) came down here from Kyoto. It wears court noble's official dress and holds a scepter with both hands.
  2. A wooden, standing 91.3-centimeter-tall statue. Little is known, it is thought to have been made in the mid-14th century judging from the mode of carving.

    Both have indignant aspects and are called "Angry Tenjin", which shows Michizane tried to blame for false charge and plead not guilty .

    They are on the list of ICAs.

Portraits of Michizane Sugawara.
Four polychrome portraits are owned by the Shrine, all are in full court dress of traditional fashion. They tell us what the official costumes the court nobles wore back then looked like. All of them are made in the latter half of the Muromachi Period (1336-1573).

Other than the above, the Shrine keeps a number of ancient writings.

A portrait (woodblock print) of Michizane Sugawara at MFA

Kappa Fudezuka Stone

On the left-hand side of the main hall lies a egg-shaped stone, roughly one-meter or so long, which is called Kappa Fudezuka. Kappa is a water imp, an imaginary animal, which is a good swimmer and has a shell on his back and a dish on top of his head. He is like a 4- or 5-year-old human being. Kon Shimizu (1912-1974), a famous cartoonist, used this kappa as his main theme. He was almost synonymous to kappa to the extent that a mention of it may instantly evoke his cartoons. On the face of the stone, there appears a kappa sketched by him. It was installed in 1971. On the back of the stone, five letters "Kappa Fudezuka" are engraved, which were penned by Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), a Nobel Prize winning author. Both were Kamakura residents and loved Kamakura.(Picture, left: Kappa Fudezuka Stone)

Brush Monument

A flight of steps behind the Kappa Fudezuka leads to a mound where stands a 3.2-meter-high bronze monument in the shape of a brush. Around the monument, 154 kappa profiles in relief are affixed. Those are donated by cartoonists in praise of Shimizu's achievements. It was erected in 1989. (Picture, below; Brush monument)

A Ginkgo tree

On the right of the Shrine grounds, there is a sacred Ginkgo tree, roughly 900 years old and its trunk girth measures 6.5 meters, the tallest in Kamakura. It is a Natural Monument designated by Kamakura City.

Annual Events

January 15: Ritual for burning sacred straw-festoon
The ritual called Sagicho takes place at 10:00. Parishioners bring their old talismans and amulets they kept the previous year and have priests burn them in sacred manners after Shinto purification rituals were conducted.

January 25: Fude Kuyoo, or a memorial service for writing brushes.
In bygone days, Fude (writing brush) was one of the most important tools for intellectuals, and they thought they should hold a memorial service once a year for the tool in honor of and in appreciation of its role. The traditional ritual has continuously been, and is practiced even today despite digital devices widely in use. Kon Shimizu was a regular. I observed this ritual in January of late 1990s. When I arrived at the Shrine, more than 200 people had already been there, many were aged and having top-grade cameras, and surrounded the oven, roughly one-meter diameter, placed in the center of the courtyard. On the oven were hundreds of used writing implements, mainly writing brushes and some pencils, ready for burning. I believe those who brought brushes are calligraphers and painters. Young students bringing pencils were found here and there. At 10:30 a.m., the ritual began in the oratory. The chief priest recited a Shinto prayer while Japanese ancient flutes were being played. The ritual took about 20 minutes and then the chief priest followed by other priests, all in traditional garb, came down to the oven and ignited the brushes. Since writing brushes were made of bamboo and were dry, they burst into flame.

A similar ritual is also observed at Shogaku-an, a sub-temple of Tofukuji in Kyoto. Why at Buddhist temple? Legend has it among Zen Buddhists that a spirit of Sugawara flew to China overnight in the era of Sung Dynasty and it mastered Zen Buddhism. The spirit was called Toso-tenjin and some Zen temples enshrine it. (Toso means visiting China in the Sung dynasty era.)  In Shogaku-an are mounds for writing brush, hence the name of writing-brush temple. Here, Fude Kuyo takes place on November 23 every year.

February 8: Hari Kuyoo, or a memorial service for sewing needles
Sewing needles were also as important as writing brushes in ancient days. Religious people have long been holding a similar ritual for the used needles and pray for safety from injury while sewing. What differs from the services for writing brushes is that they do not burn the needles. Instead, needles are stuck into soy-bean curd, offered in front of the oratory, because it gives comfort to needles. Today's young women, meanwhile, do not use sewing machines, let alone needles. The services are being observed by old seamstresses and those who honor the traditional sewing.

July 25: Annual Shrine festival
A beautiful portable shrine elaborately decorated parades the streets carried by young parishioners. This portable shrine is kept at the sub-shrine near the main hall and visitors can view it anytime.

As noted above, I took part in the Fude Kuyoo ritual in late 1990s. When I was about to pass the Shrine's gate that morning, a car blew a horn from behind. The torii gate was narrow, barely able for a car to pass through. I got out of the way wondering who on earth were coming in by car. A black shiny sedan stopped ahead of me. Alighted from it was apparently a shrine priest garbed in the Shinto formal dress for the ritual. Priests of wealthy shrines can afford a chauffeured car.

(Updated August 2013)