Skip to main content

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!

Popular posts from this blog

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Happy birthday, Mum!

Here's an August flower for you.  Not your beloved cherry blossoms, but your favourite colour. I miss you.

The Tenen Hiking Trail in Kamakura

"I can't do this anymore," my colleague said. The bell for the next lesson had just rung, but he was still sitting in his chair, looking like Marvin the Paranoid Android.
He's an eikaiwa veteran who's had a stint as a school manager, and he's a genuinely good teacher, but he's reached that saturation level that hits any eikaiwa teacher with half a brain and a smidgen of goodwill.
Eikaiwa teaching is a thoroughly unnatural job: you're supposed to make entertaining small talk with strangers you may never see again, and you're supposed to do this for eight hours. If it's an interesting person, great, but sometimes you're stuck with Kenji whose hobby is sleeping or Mariko whose hobby is to go to shopping.
I grimaced in sympathy. Only two things keep me going right now: knowing that university classes will resume shortly, and hiking. As I observed my colleague, I made an instant decision: Kamakura. Friday, my day off, Tenen Hiking Trail.


The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…

Hiking along the old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …

over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!

Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone. I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.

It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. My main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't do the full course. I started at Hakoneen along the shore of Lake Ashi and then walked through Moto-Hakone to Hatajuku, halfway along the old Tōkaidō, and returned along…