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The scholarly god, the bull and the blossoms

This is a story about a scholarly god, a bull and blossoms. I assure you, there's a connection that makes perfect sense.

Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真) was a scholar, poet and politician in Kyoto in the Heian era. He was betrayed by a rival, Fujiwara no Tokihira, and exiled to a minor post in Dazaifu in Kyushu. After Sugawara's death in 903 at the age of 58, Kyoto was hit by various calamities, from droughts to floods, all attributed to his angry spirit. The imperial court, in an attempt to calm him down, deified him as Tenjin (天神), the god of scholarship. Today there are roughly 14 000 Tenjin shrines, or Tenman-gū, in Japan.

Ema at Yushima Tenman-gū with a drawing of Sugawara no Michizane

So what's the story with the bull? Aha. It all started at Sugawara's funeral procession, when the animal that was pulling the cart with his remains refused to go any further than a certain point. So the procession stopped, and his grave was dug on that spot. Today you still see statues of bulls at all Tenjin shrines. It's believed that you'll acquire wisdom if you touch the animal's head and then your own.

Arbitrary linguistic interlude: I don't know whether it was a bull or a cow that pulled his cart. Japanese has a word ushi  that can refer to a cow or a bull, single or plural. Cow is me-ushi 牛 and bull is o-ushi . English has cattle but that's only plural. Stupid English: it's a language that has clearly never touched a cattle's head.

Bull statue at Yushima Tenman-gū

Bull statue at Kameido Tenman-gū

Right, up next, blossoms. Since Sugawara loved plum blossoms, plum trees are always planted at his shrines. He wrote this famous poem about his favourite plum tree:

東風吹かば kochi fukaba (when the east wind blows)
匂ひおこせよ nioi okoseyo (let it send your fragrance)
梅の花 ume no hana (oh plum blossoms)
主なしとて aruji na shitote (although your master is gone)
春な忘れそ haruna wasure so (do not forget the spring)

I started grinning when I copied that poem, because I remembered StarBrooke's phrase "a real plum blossom post, profuse with poetry celebrating the delicate trees".

I'm cheating. I took this photo at Kameido Tenman-gū last year.

Have we covered all topics now? God, bull, blossoms. OK. We move on.

The biggest Tenjin shrine in Tokyo is Yushima Tenman-gū (湯島天満宮). It's located near Tokyo University and is very popular amongst students hoping to pass their entrance exams. Since these exams are held in January and February, the shrine is packed in these two months. It gets extra busy in February, when the shrine has a plum blossom festival.

The shrine was originally established in 458 AD for Ameno-tajikarao (天之手力雄命), a deity who's associated with strength and power, but Sugawara was also enshrined here in 1355, in honour of his brilliance as scholar. The current shrine was rebuilt entirely from Japanese cypress trees in 1995.

I went To Yushima Tenman-gū this week to attend the plum blossom festival, but it was a total anti-climax. There are no blossoms yet. Zenzen nothing. Perhaps because we've had such a cold winter? (Petal prediction: I suspect the cherry blossoms might also be a bit late this year.) The lack of blossoms didn't deter the visitors, who mostly go to these events to stuff their faces, and it wasn't a wasted journey for me either because I discovered another sexy daikon shrine and another tiny hidden shrine that's built around a tree. More about both later.

Yushima Tenman-gū

Now, a short paragraph about ema, the wooden tablets on which you write your wishes to the gods. When I recently did a post about Imado Jinja and remarked that I'd never seen so many ema at one shrine, commenter csmege responded that "Yushima Tenjin during the exam season might come close". Csmege, you're right. Yushima's ema are distributed on several frames around the main shrine, but if you count them one by one, I'm convinced the total would be more than Imado's.

Here’s a special good luck wish for Cecilia, who's currently finalising her master's degree; Sixmats, who's studying for his JLPT1; and all other students. I sent a silent wish your way when I was at the shrine. がんばってくださ!

I've included more photos. Sorry. They jump fairly randomly between Yushima Tenman-gū and the other famous Tenjin shrine in the shitamachi, Kameido Tenman-gū.

PS: The Hero says I should rename this blog The Shrine Blog. He might be right, as per usual ...

Sugawara no Michizane

A statue of Sugawara no Michizane at Kameido Tenman-gū

Yushima Tenman-gū

The only blossoms at Yushima Tenman-gū were on a beautiful bonsai.

Bonsai at Kameido Tenman-gū

Ema at Yushima Tenman-gū


This ema asks for entry into Chūō University (中央大学), which is famous for its law faculty.

I noticed this one tucked away beneath many others. I would, wouldn't I? It's a request for entry into Japan's top university, Tokyo University (東京大学). I'll keep 'em crossed for you, 愛-ちゃん!

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