Rise and shrine!
That was an awful pun. Where wôs I?
Our second New Year's walk meanders to three shrines. It starts at Yushima Tenman-gū, which honours Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar, poet and politician in Kyoto in the Heian Period.
Quick history: Sugawara was betrayed by a rival, Fujiwara no Tokihira, and exiled to a minor post in Kyushu in 901. After Sugawara's death, Kyoto was hit by various calamities, from droughts to floods, all attributed to his angry spirit. The imperial court deified him as Tenjin-sama, the kami of scholarship, in an effort to calm him down. It worked. Today there are approximately 14 000 Tenjin shrines in Japan.
The one at Yushima is always packed over the New Year's period, because students go there to pray for good luck in the upcoming entrance exams. It's especially popular with youngsters who want to enter the nearby University of Tokyo. I went for a visit despite my crowd aversion, because I have a very soft spot in my heart for the shrine, the students and scholarship in general.
|Yushima Tenman-gū's roof, seen through the first plum blossoms of the year|
|I love the curves of shrine roofs. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.|
|Waiting patiently to pray|
|Students writing ema|
There are several ox statues and carvings at Yushima, because Tenjin is associated with this animal. It is said that during his funeral procession, the ox pulling his funeral cart stopped in his tracks and refused to budge. Tenjin's shrine was then built on this spot. You're supposed to rub the ox's head or nose for good luck.
Next stop, Shitaya Jinja, the most important shrine in the Ueno area. It was founded in 730 and was originally called Shitaya Inari, which explains why the surrounding area is still called Inari-chō.
They have a small, informal dondoyaki (どんど焼き) every year – a ritual bonfire in which the old year's New Year's decorations (there must be a shorter way to say that) are burned. Incidentally, the biggest dondoyaki in the neighbourhood is at Torigoe Jinja on Sunday, 8 January. It's a more formal event that starts at 1 pm and continues for an hour. (There's a similar type of bonfire called otakiage or お焚きあげ, which focuses on religious items like votive tablets and good luck charms. Here's an explanation.)
|Shitaya's big red torii|
|Natural wood has a special beauty, don't you think?|
|Last year's New Year's decorations, waiting to be burned|
Talking of Torigoe Jinja, here it is. Its New Year's celebration isn't that big; it saves its energy for the Torigoe Festival in early June. It needs to conserve its strength, because its main mikoshi weighs a massive 4 tons and has to be carried by 200 people. It tips over at times, which means the police and the paramedics have to be on standby. (No, I've never been. It's too hectic.)
|The tools of the trade: a taiko drum and sake barrels|
|Torigoe Jinja's ema|
|It's me and roofs again.|
|A small pile of ginkgo leaves, definitely the last of the season, on a stone torii at Torigoe Jinja|