Located on the southern banks of the Kamo river, Kamomioya-jinja both reflects and inspires Kyoto City. Even its common name is a product of the city. “Shimo-,” meaning lower, and “-gamo,” after the city’s central river, yields the familiar Shimogamo. The creator and guardian of the city, Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto, is enshrined in the main sanctuary of the shrine, along his daughter Tamayorihime-no-mikoto, a mythical figure with her own repute. Together these deities welcome and protect all who visit the shrine, from Kyoto and beyond.
The ancestor of the Kamo clan, Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto, is said to have descended to earth on the grounds of Mt. Mikage, a mountain east of Kyoto. According to Shinto beliefs, this god metamorphosed into the three-legged deity of the sun, Yatagarasu. In this form, he led the legendary first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, throughout the Kyoto countryside and finally settled at the future site of the Shimogamo shrine.
This great god’s daughter, Tamayorihime-no-mikoto, attended to her ritual duties on the shrine grounds. One day while purifying her body in the Kamo river, she saw an arrow floating downstream. Unknowingly, she picked up the arrow, placed it on the shore, which before her eyes turned into a beautiful god. Shocked and smitten, she married the god and begot a child. Her son took on another avatar of the Shinto arrow, as the thunder god. Worshipped at Shimogamo’s sister shrine, Kamigamo, the thunder god Wakeikazuchi is said to have all the power of thunder when it impregnates the land with life. His mother’s legacy is therefore one of productive marriage and parenting.
The history of the Shimogamo shrine extends at least two thousand years. A recent excavation of the Tadasu-no-mori, the shrine’s forest, unearthed artifacts from as long ago as the Yayoi period (4 B.C. – 3 A.D.). Fragments of plates and arrowheads from the Yayoi were found in good condition throughout the forest excavation site. Artifacts dating from later periods document the evolution of society around the shrine. Heian period artifacts include the head of a ceramic horse figurine and elaborate roof tiles, while Edo period artifacts range from simple bowls and nails to mirrors and money.
The shrine grew in stature as the powerful Hata family adopted Shimogamo and its sister shrine, Kamigamo, as two of their favored shrines. Since then, the shrine has enjoyed considerable attention from important and indeed, imperial, families. It was during the reign of Emperor Temmu (675-686) that the first shrine buildings were constructed. Surrounding the shrine was an ever-growing amount of land. Records from the Tempyo Shoho period (749-757) indicate one cho of land (about one hectare) was given to the shrine to cultivate food for religious offerings; three hundred years later, Shimogamo owned 689 cho of land, extending all over the country. The growth in this influence came as Emperor Kwammu moved his capital into a neighboring province of Kyoto and finally to the site of modern day Kyoto. At the founding of the imperial capital (then called Heian), priests gathered at Shimogamo shrine to worship for its success.
Imperial culture flourished in Kyoto during the Heian period (794-1185) and the Shimogamo shrine alongside. The shrine was its most prosperous during the reign of Emperor Saga (809-823). Many of the shrine’s elaborate architectural designs and traditions come from this time. Emperor Saga was the first to dedicate one of his daughters as a Sai-in, or maiden of the shrine, following a similar custom as established at the Ise shrine. The Sai-in would only come once a year, in a grand procession with an imperial messenger. The shrine priests would decorate the buildings and their own costumes with branches of aoi (hollyhock), and so started the Aoi Matsuri. This event became so famous than it was known as “the matsuri” or the festival, throughout Japan. It is mentioned under this name several times in the classic Heian-period Japanese epic Tale of Genji. Tempestuous love rivals rammed their ox carts in battle during one matsuri and contented couples strolled through another. Contemporary to the Tale of Genji, the Makura-shoshi, a compilation of the likes and dislikes of a noblewoman, lists the matsuri as one of her favorite events in Kyoto. Noble by noble, Shimogamo shrine cultivated the good favor of the imperial court and aristocracy for several hundred years.
The court began having financial difficulties in the 13th century. The emperor suspended the tradition of the Sai-in, and gifts grew fewer in number. The country fell into strife and was eventually engulfed in civil war in the 15th century. When the new shogunal government emerged, the Shimogamo shrines were still intact, but as vestiges of the imperial era, their power was considerably reduced. Emperors would still visit the shrine, but with less pomp than in previous eras.
Perhaps the most famous imperial visit during this time was that of Emperor Komei in 1863. Legend has it that he prayed for the return of the antagonistic foreigners to the land from which they hailed. This wish went unfulfilled, and as the shogunal government collapsed as the threat of Western invasion advanced, imperial culture was, at least nominally, brought to the fore once again. During this Meiji era, the government glorified the role of the emperor and provided generous stipends to the Shimogamo shrine, listing the Kamo shrines second only to the Ise shrine. However, the process of modernization stripped away the hierarchical social structure that the shrine relied upon and redistributed the shrine’s land holdings.
During the 20th century, the country faced a more hostile exchange with Western powers. As World War II consumed the national psyche, festivals were cancelled and supplies rationed. After the war, the emperor was left defeated and humanized, and the imperially favored shrines lost visibility. Though festivities resumed in 1953, the shrine needed to recast itself for the post-war era.
Today, the Shimogamo shrine is integrated into the Kyoto community. It hosts community wide markets, an old book fair, a lecture series on religious and historical topics, always bringing people together for social and spiritual purposes. People from the community volunteer in the forest on Earth Day, and flock to the many festivals throughout the year.
According to the system of Shikinen Sengu, all shrines in the Shimogamo complex are meant to be rebuilt every 21 years. The purpose of this physical reconstruction is spiritual renewal. The gods of the shrine are briefly relocated into temporary structures and then welcomed back into their main halls. The ceremony of return is as intricate as it is secret. Both the ceremony and the construction that precedes it are extremely expensive and though Shikinen Sengu is broadly a Shinto ritual, only about ten shrines in the entire country actually practice it. The cost of going without is also severe in its own way, as in addition to its religious significance, the Shikinen Sengu has tremendous cultural value. The specialized timber-frame Japanese religious construction techniques are passed on from generation to generation through the experience of rebuilding.
As all the halls have been designated either National Treasures or Important Cultural Assets, their preservation is of the utmost importance. Though the shrines were completely razed and rebuilt in the past, the modern-day system of Shikinen Sengu is limited to renovation. 2013 marks the 34th anniversary of this event. Currently, the Hiraki-sha is being prepared for renovation and the main shrine will also be renewed for this anniversary.
This lush, green mori or forest is a hallmark of Shimogamo shrine. Its name is so ancient that its history is uncertain; Tadasu may mean either delta or justice. The forest is situated at the river delta, promoting its verdant growth. Yet this forested delta is more than the mere crossroads of rivers. Its neighbors are said to have come to the forest to adjudicate their own conflicts in a system of community justice. Perhaps the name Tadasu is a double-entendre meant to encompass both possibilities.
Its trees have been famous throughout the shrine’s history. The delicate flowers of the plum trees and the aromatic blossoms of the cherry trees have inspired many visitors. The acclaimed artist Korin Ogata (1658-1716) immortalized the plum trees in his folding screen Red and White Plum Flowers, now a national treasure. The most famous cherry tree is a specimen of Yama-zakura, or mountain cherry tree, that stands in front of the vermillion gate of the forest.
The forest today spans over 12 hectares and is well protected by both national and international measures. The Tadasu-no-mori Foundation protects this natural environment and educates community members about the forest on April 29th, Green Day in Japan. It is a National Historic site, a Natural Heritage site, and a U.N. World Cultural Heritage site of its own right.
New Year's Festivities
The year begins at Shimogamo Jinja at the stroke of midnight on January 1st. The gates are opened and hundreds of thousands of people stream in to give a traditional New Year’s Prayer. Guests are entertained by Kagura and Kamiya, theatrics of song, dance and comedy for the first three days of the year. On January 4th, another light-hearted celebration of the New Year ensues. The shrine hosts a display of Kemari hajime, an elegant nobleman’s game, which traces its roots to ancient China. Wearing colorful and stately robes, players lightly kick a ball of deer skin to one another, attempting to keep it in the air. New Year’s celebrations continue on January 15th with the Okayu-sai or Rice-porridge Festival. On this day, the shrine dedicates a dish made of five different grains to the gods. Another marker of the new year, the end of the cold season, is celebrated each year on the Setsubun, February 3rd. Worshippers scatter parched beans outside, hoping that any traces of bad luck will follow. At the shrine, Setsubun is marked by the Tsunayumi-shinji, an archery display. Twelve targets, representing the twelve full moons of a lunar year and the twelve signs of the Japanese zodiac, are scrawled with a single Japanese character. That character is “Oni” meaning demon that causes sickness, and with the pierce of an archer’s arrow, it is hoped that these demons are driven away.
The first harvest prayer of the year is held on February 17th at all Shinto shrines throughout Japan. The shrine priests follow a specialized prayer protocol first written in the Engi-shiki book in the 9th century. Priests enter through the goten, the exclusive door to the main shrine that is only opened five times a year. Palatial portions of food are prepared for religious offerings, including a number of specialties like alabone, ayu fish, lobsters, and red snapper fish. During the Heian period, these offerings were brought from shrine lands across the country-- the fish from Lake Biwa, lobsters from the coast, rice from the countryside. Today, communities around Lake Biwa still offer carp fished for this festival. The festival prayers are dedicated to ensuring that the land and sea provide food in abundance for the following year. A similar festival, the Shin jou sai, is held in late autumn to give thanks for the harvest.
May brings fresh greenery to the Tadasu-no-mori, setting a beautiful scene for Shimogamo shrine’s flagship festival, the Aoi Matsuri. The festival commences on May 3rd with the Yabusame-shinji, a display of Heian period horseback archery. Donning the costumes of court nobles, the archers majestically aim and shoot targets throughout the forest. Two days later, another archery event, the Busha-shinji, brings archers attired in traditional samurai armor into the Tadasu-no-mori. Nearby, priests assemble at the Mitarashi river for the Misogi-no-gi, the preparatory rite of the Aoi Festival. In the past, female relatives of the Emperor participated in this ritual themselves as Saiou, or dedicators of the rite. Today, these imperial relatives are represented by a woman chosen from amongst the citizens of Kyoto to be the Saiou-daii or substitute of Saiou. For the festival, she wears a Jyuni-hitoe, a traditional 12-layer court costume, and accompanying women also dress in court attire.
On May 12th, the oldest religious procession in Japan commences at Shimogamo shrine. The Mikage festival welcomes the Aramitama, the fresh spirit of God, in the shrine on Mt. Mikage, one of the eastern mountains. Over a hundred people dressed in Heian period costumes march from Shimogamo shrine to the Mikage shrine, stopping to sing and dance in front of the sacred white horse in the Tadasu-no-mori.
May festivities reach a crescendo on the 15th, the date of the Aoi Festival. Formally known as the Kamo Festival, this celebration dates back to the reign of the Kinmei emperor in the year 545. The festival became so important that during the Heian period, the Japanese word for festival, matsuri, referred specifically to the Aoi Festival. Costumed people parade from the Imperial Palace in Kyoto to the Shimogamo shrine. When the procession arrives at Shimogamo, festivities commence. The leaders of the procession arrive on horseback, dismount before the first torii of the shrine, and take off their armor. They make offerings to the main temples and receive a sacred letter from the shrine priest. Afterwards, decorated horses trot before the gods in a rite known as Kemba. Dancers charm visitors in a rendition of Edo-period Azuma-asobi dancing, and the procession continues into the shrine. The courtiers holding flowered umbrellas, ox-drawn carriages and elegantly robed noblemen are all decorated with the namesake plant of this festival, the aoi.
On the day of Doyoo-no-Ushi, a full 18 days before the traditional beginning of autumn in August, the shrine hosts Mitarashi, a ritual foot bathing. Thousands of people flock to the pond in front of Mitarashi shrine, dedicated to the god protecting against plague and misfortune. Devotees believe that if they wash their feet in this pond on this day, they will be blessed by god. In addition to these prayers, many people also receive mitarashi dango, sticky rice balls covered in sweet sauce, invented on the grounds near the eponymous shrine. The first mitarashi dango shop opened in a stall in the shrine forest, and today, many food vendors line the grounds during this festival.
Just one day before autumn officially arrives, the shrine undertakes an intensive midyear cleaning. The shrine offers a fresh start to the local community as well, distributing white paper dolls throughout the neighborhood. People may write their names on these dolls and then throw the paper into the Mitarashi pond. Every year, a few dozen men go one step further. Under the black of night, one white human-sized paper cutout is placed on top of the pond while fifty sticks made of the sacred sakaki tree are stocked underneath. At the sound of a taiko, men stripped down to their underwear jump into the water and fight to win the sakaki sticks. In the ensuing chaos, the sticks begin to look like arrows, thus giving the ritual its name meaning the “taking an arrow ritual”.
One night in autumn, when the brilliant autumn moon rises over the shrine, visitors come to be entertained by Bugaku court dancing and music. The festival takes its name from a famous musical instrument played in the moonlight. The Hashidono, a residence shaped like a bridge over a river, is the center of this festival, and a temporary teahouse augments the scene.
At the end of November, when the winter air is beginning to harden the ground, the shrine holds this festival to ward off the worst of the cold. Priests collect firewood from around the area and stack the sticks in the middle of the shrine grounds. They ceremonially light the fire to heat up the ground with hopes of inducing an earlier spring. Neighboring farmers usually also offer vegetables from their harvest with this same purpose in mind.
The name of this festival translates as “medicine wine, young water.” Just before the New Year, on approximately December 12th, priests collect this wine-water from the shrine grounds. Fresh water springs up in the holy well next to the Ooidono Hall and buckets are pulled out as the shrine starts to prepare offering for the New Year.
The two main shrines of Shimogamo are dedicated to the two main gods, Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto and Tamayorihime-no-mikoto, whose stories are written above. Both the east and west main shrines face south, a tradition begun in the Heian period. Indeed, these halls typify the architectural style of the Heian period and are prime examples of Nagare zukuri. This flowing roof style is distinguished by the long gabled roof that covers a porch on one side of the building. This technique has been replicated widely in main shrine structures throughout the country. The well-preserved Shimogamo main shrines were rebuilt in 1863 and have been designated National Treasures.
Scores of emperors have visited Shimogamo jinja, praying for the welfare of the entire country and its people. However, the emperor himself would rarely enter the shrine, stopping at the red torii marking just outside the Maidono. The emperor’s messengers would usually carry his prayers and gifts into the Maidono. As the emperor’s role was redefined in the 1600s, the Meiji emperor and all following emperors would personally enter the Maidono. The current Maidono building, constructed in 1628, has hosted all of these emperors. The vast veranda is also used as a dance stage in modern times.
This hall serves as the traditional preparation site for all religious offerings in Shimogamo shrine. Its garden abounds in aoi (hollyhock), thus giving the garden its former name, “The garden of Aoi,” and a venerated place in the Aoi Festival. When the emperor’s daughters would visit, both for the festival and their religious duties as Saiin, they would stay in a neighboring hall, since burned and never replaced.
This shrine is dedicated to the god Tamayorihime - Mikoto , distinct from the main Shimogamo god of the same name . This god serves as the guardian for women, and her shrine has long been considered one of the most important. However, one of its most famous residents was male. A baby boy b o r n to the priest of this shrine in the 12th century was prevented from assuming his father’s position. Perhaps because of this ill-fortune, this boy grew up to be one of the most well-known pessimists of Japan, Chomei Kawai. His book, Hoojooki, is a comprehensive review of the earthquakes, famines, and other disasters that befall the people of Kyoto.
This shrine is dedicated to the god of good marriage and the guardian of engagement, Kamumusub-no-Kami. People come both to pray and to pick a fortune slip based on lines in the Tale of Genji, hoping their marriage will fare better than the protagonist’s. The romance lingers in the trees nearby, where one mysterious holly is actually the product of two intertwined trees. This “Renri no Sakaki” tree is the subject of one of Kyoto’s Seven Myths. It is said that whenever this tree dies, its successor will rise again in the Tadasu-no-mori. The current tree is believed to be the fourth such tree, an example of lasting ties itself.
This shrine takes its name from its location on M t . M i k a g e , t h e s e c o n d o f t h e 3 6 H i g a s h i y a m a m o u n t a i n s t o t h e w e s t o f M t . H i e i . Pilgrims climb up this mountain to visit the shrine during the Mikage festival, one of the oldest rites in the Shimogamo tradition. The festival began as a rite of miare, or energy and life. It was an agricultural ritual of renewal, and regeneration is still at the core of the modern-day festival. For this reason, the Mikage shrine is also known as the Miare shrine.
The Mitsui shrine has been designated an Important Cultural Asset by the national government. Three gods-- K a m o t a k e t s u n o m i - n o - M i k o t o , T a m a y o r i h i m e - n o - M i k o t o , a n d I k a k o y a h i m e - n o - M i k o t o -- a r e e n s h r i n e d here, and the god of Kemari is enshrined at an affiliated shrine . Additionally, the small attached shrine houses all 35 spirits of the Saino.
This shrine i s a l s o k n o w n a s H i r a k i (holly) s h r i n e b e c a u s e t h e surrounding t r e e s have s e r r a t e d l e a v e s l i k e the h o l l y plant . This shrine is dedicated to the regional guardian, S u s a n o - n o - M i k o t o . The god is associated with good fortune and Japanese tea ceremony. The shrine attachment is dedicated to the god of artistic innovation, especially in the realm of tanka (poetry).
The Koto shrine is actually a series of subshrines, each serving people of a particular Japanese zodiac sign. The Hitokoto east serves those born in the years of the Snake and the Sheep, while the Hitokoto west serves those born in the year of the Horse. The Futakoto north is for those born in the year of the Rat, while the south is for those born in the years of the Cow and Boar. The Mikoto north is for the Rabbit and the Cock, the south is for the Sea Horse and Monkey, and the middle is for the Tiger and the Dog. People come to the Koto shrine to pray for success in business and general prosperity.
Formally known as the Inoue Sha, this shrine is dedicated to the god of purification and clean water. Its pond is appropriately the location of the autumnal purification festivals.
This hall was used as the resting place for noble visitors. Legend states that the powerful Fujiwara no Michinaka, advisor to the emperor, walked through the hall, likely stopping for a moment’s pause. Retired emperors would also rest in this hall with their imperial entourage.
The Reiji-sha shrine is dedicated to the god o f s e a l a n d c o n t r a c t . The personal seal is the most important signature one can apply to a document, a sign of loyalty and commitment.
The name of this shrine translates directly as “red palace.” The red clay in the surrounding area may have been used to make ceramic plates for religious offerings. These locally made ceramics were used until the Edo period, but the shrine remains dedicated to the god of pottery.
This shrine, also known as Aoi-den, once served as the housing quarters for on-duty priests. Now, it is the site of wedding ceremonies performed at Shimogamo shrine.