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How to visit a shrine like a local -Kameido Tenjin Shrine-

Date: 02.10.2020

With over 80,000 shrines in Japan, from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south, it’s likely that you will encounter at least one during your stay, however long that may be.

As the focal point of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, the shrine plays an important role in daily Japanese life. Aside from the traditional New Year visit, people go to shrines to offer prayers ahead of key life events, such as school exams or births, to take part in seasonal festivals, or simply to enjoy a day out.

With this guide, you’ll be able to visit a shrine like a local and enjoy everything the experience has to offer.


Kameido Tenjin Shrine

Located in Tokyo’s Koto City, Kameido Tenjin is both historic and scenic, with its colorful buildings, beautifully landscaped grounds, and unique statues.

The shrine dates from 1662, but many of the buildings today are reconstructions of the originals, which were destroyed in air raids during World War II. Kameido Tenjin is believed to have been founded by a priest from Fukuoka and designed to resemble Dazaifu Tenmangu, a major Tenjin shrine there.

Tenjin is the deified name of Sugawara no Michizane, a ninth-century scholar renowned for his poety and learning. He was exiled and became an outcast shortly before his death. A series of natural disasters followed, prompting leaders to placate his spirit. He was eventually deified as Tenjin, god of scholarship, and students continue to visit the shrine where he is now enshrined every year to pray for good grades and to enter the school of their choice.

With stunning bridges and ponds, as well as pretty blooms of plum and wisteria every spring, the shrine’s grounds are well worth a visit. In fact, Kameido Tenjin is so beautiful that ukiyo-e master Hiroshige included a print of it in his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series.


What is a shrine?

Literally meaning “place of the gods,” a jinja (shrine) typically consists of a honden, which is a sanctuary that enshrines a god. In Shinto, gods are believed to inhabit all things, so there may be several gods in one shrine.


Enter the shrine

The entrance to a shrine is marked by a torii (shrine gate). Be sure to bow at the gate before you enter, and as you pass through the gate, walk on the left or right side of the path (avoid the center as this is the path for the gods).


Wash your hands

After passing through the gate, look for the chozuya, water basin, used by visitors to purify themselves before approaching the buildings.

Taking the ladle in your right hand, fill it with water and pour a little over your left hand.

Then switch the ladle to your left hand to clean your right hand in the same way.

Next, holding the ladle in your right hand pour more water into your left hand and rinse your mouth (do not touch your mouth with the ladle or swallow any of the water).

Rinse off your left hand once again as it has touched your mouth. Ensure that the water doesn’t drip back into the basin at any time during this ritual.

Last, rinse the handle of the ladle by holding it upright and allowing the remaining water inside to flow down over the handle. Place the ladle upside down on the side of the basin.


Say a prayer

At the entrance to the main sanctuary honden building, bow twice from the waist at a ninety-degree angle to show respect. Then clap twice before closing your eyes and pray silently and making a final bow.


Complete an ema

Most shrines have small wooden plaques called ema, on which visitors can write a wish. Literally meaning “picture-horse,” ema date from ancient times when visitors would donate a horse to a shrine for good luck. Over time, real horses were replaced by wooden plaques featuring the picture of a horse. Later on, people began to use various designs, resulting in the varied and often colorful ema of today. Hang your completed ema at the shrine, and your wish will come true.


 Explore the grounds

As well as the honden, there are typically lots of shrine structures to visit, such as the worship hall (haiden), the offerings hall (kaguraden), subordinate shrines (massha), and shops selling shrine charms (jyuyosho). Most shrines also have peaceful open or green spaces or even picturesque Japanese gardens and ponds.


Water features

At Kameido Tenjin, a popular attraction is vermilion arched taikobashi bridges rising high over peaceful ponds, a rare sight in Tokyo. These bridges and their reflections in the still waters below are said to resemble a Japanese taiko drum.


Ox statue

Don’t miss the chance to stroke the bronze statue of a sacred ox in front of the main honden shrine building for good luck.


Sugawara no Michizane statue

Another bronze statue on the grounds is that of Sugawara no Michizane, Kameido Tenjin’s enshrined deity. He is depicted at age five, when he is thought to have composed his first poem.


Enjoy the seasons

Home to more than 300 plum trees, Kameido Tenjin is a joy to visit in February and March, when their pink, red, and white blossoms bring the shrine to life.

From late April to early May, the shrine is one of the most popular places to view purple wisteria, which hang from trellises that wind extensively throughout the grounds. Check out the wisteria festival for its carnival-like atmosphere and its stunning views of this beautiful flowering vine.


Tokyo Skytree

While exploring Kameido Tenjin, you will also be rewarded with views of Tokyo Skytree. This iconic landmark extending high above the historic shrine is a perfect example of the coexistence of old and new Japan.


Be good

Don’t forget that Kameido Tenjin is a religious site, so it’s not possible to take photos inside the honden. Visitors should behave with decorum and show respect to worshippers.


Be sure to pop round your own local shrine when you get the chance, and if you want to visit Kameido Tenjin then you can plan your visit at the link below: (Japanese only)


This article was written by Louise Lawson

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