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Ōkunitama, shrine of darkness, drinking and canoodling

This shrine was established in 111.

That's old. Think Nero, fiddle and fire; Han dynasty; Lui Xin¹; Jesus; Goths going gaga; Vesuvius and arrivederci, Pompeii.

It's said to have been founded by the twelfth emperor of Japan, Emperor Keikō², who may have been real or may have been legendary. We do know for a fact that various Minamoto family members prayed here, and that Tokugawa Ieyasu donated money in 1590 so that additional pavilions could be built at the shrine.

It's called Ōkunitama Jinja (大國魂神社) or "Great Country Soul Shrine", and you'll find it in Fuchū in Western Tokyo.

Ōkunitama Jinja

Ōkunitama Jinja is probably best known as the location of one of the oldest – some would say oddest – festivals in Kantō, the so-called Darkness Festival. It's held at night, and once upon a time it was a good excuse for single and not-so-single men and women to indulge in mutual disorderly conduct under cover of darkness. When Christian missionaries encountered this during the Meiji era, they were so shocked, or more probably jealous, that they pressurized the Japanese government into changing the festival. Nowadays it's still held in May and at night, but it consists of a mikoshi parade and dancing.

Why are monotheistic religions so scared of sex? I digress.

Another popular event at Ōkunitama Jinja is the Chestnut Festival or Autumn Festival, which is held at the shrine on 27 and 28 September. During these two nights, the shrine is decorated with 260 paper lanterns dating back to 1925.

Ōkunitama Jinja enshrines Ōkuninushi (大国主). He's the Shinto god of abundance, medicine, luck and happy marriages, thanks to his persistent pursuing of and eventual marriage to Suseri-hime, the daughter of the god of the underworld. Ōkuninushi³ was really in love: enough to (pretend to) chew centipedes he found in his father-in-law's hair. Read more about it here.

That (his devotion, not the crunchy snack!) explains why the shrine is a popular wedding shrine, and is also regarded as a power spot where you can pray for love.

What is it with Japan and power spots? Your biggest power spot is in your own head. I'm digressing again.

Ema of Ōkuninushi and the white rabbit of Inaba

Fuchū, where the shrine is located, has an interesting history in itself. Nowadays it's mostly associated with the Tokyo Racecourse, but it used to be the capital of the Musashino province, which included present-day Tokyo. It was part of the system of kuni-no-tsukasa or provincial governors that was established by Emperor Nintoku in 374. The governor of Musashi was stationed at Fuchū, and the city became the home of many officials sent from Kyoto.

When various kokubunji (provincial Buddhist temple) were erected in the principal provinces in 741, Musashi Kokubunji was built in Fuchū. It was bigger and wealthier than most others, but today only its ruins remain about a kilometer from the south exit of Kokubunji Station.

You can read excerpts from the Reform Edict of Taika, which prescribed this system, at this link.

Another famous temple in this area is Jindaiji, built in 741, which I wrote about here.

Special aside for Lina: many Korean and Chinese artisans were brought to this area to help with the construction of the temples. It is said that their descendents played a major role in the cultural development of Musashi.

Ōkunitama Jinja is a sprawling complex with many interesting sub-shrines and other features. Let's look at them one by one, in order as you approach the main shrine from the main outer torii along an avenue lined with towering zelkovas.

Approaching the outer torii

The outer torii is guarded by two ancient, sacred trees; as well as two koma-inu (lion-dogs).

Women can pray at Miyanome Jinja (宮乃咩神社) for an easy delivery. It is said that Minatomo no Yoritomo's wife prayed here.

Miyanome Jinja

This is a memorial to soldiers killed in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). Such memorial stones are known as chūkonhi (忠魂碑). This one stands in the avenue leading up to the shrine.

Memorial for soldiers killed in the Russo-Japanese War

One koma-inu always has an open mouth, and the other has a closed mouth.
Read about it here.

You're supposed to wash your hands and rinse your mouth at a chōzuya or temizuya (手水舎) before you approach a shrine.

Temizuya at Ōkunitama Jinja

This torii is next to the war memorial,  just before the temizuya

I know this is an ultra-cheesy shot, but I don't care: I love it.

This is the outer gate, called Zuishinmon (随神門). As you can see, it's new (or newly restored).

Ōkunitama's outer gate, Zuishinmon

The drum tower (鼓楼 korō) was used to warn or inform the neighbourhood about emergencies and disasters.

Drum tower

Drums and mikoshi are stored in this "treasure house" (宝物殿 hōmotsuden).

Treasure house

This is a shrine for the water god, Suijin or Mizugami (水神). I've read that the water comes from a well that's 400 m deep, but I couldn't verify it.

Here's the main shrine.

Okunitama Jinja's main shrine seen through its inner gate

When I went to the shrine, it had a display of sake. Why? I'll keep this as short as possible. One of the sub-shrines is Matsuo Jinja (松尾神社), which was built in honour of the main Matsuo Jinja in Kyoto. Both enshrine a god called Ōyama-kui-no-kami (大山咋命), a god of thunder, water and agriculture. People traditionally prayed to him for a rich harvest and successful sake brewery.

I took lots of sake photos for Dru, and fortuitously there were several crates of beer for Japan Australia.

Sake and beer at Matsuo Jinja

Tatsumi Jinja (巽神社) enshrines Ichikishimahime-no-mikoto (市杵島姫命). She was originally a sea guardian, and she's also associated with Benten. Read more about her here. This sub-shrine has a pair of the strangest koma-inu I've ever seen. That one on the right makes me think of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, for some reason that I can't fathom.

Tatsumi Jinja, with (below) the two odd koma-inu

This koma-inu guards a small Tōshō-gū (東照宮). Sarah!

Hidden behind the main shrine is a ginkgo that's allegedly two thousand years old. It's said that if a woman touches the tree and then touches her breasts with the same hand, the tree will help her to produce milk. This specific tree has also become known for its "basuto appu" (バストアップ)  powers, in other words, it can "raise up" your breasts. There's no information about the tree's booby benefits at the shrine itself, but it's mentioned in a few Japanese guides to shrines and their blessings.

These two stones are called the Turtle Stone (亀石 kame-ishi) and Crane Stone (鶴石 tsuru-ishi). The shrine website itself has no information about them, but a thousand "power spot" blogs will tell you that they bestow the power of the universe upon those brave enough to touch them. "I couldn't touch it. It was too warm," breathlessly announces one blog. "I wanted to touch it, but I was too scared to approach," tremulously admits another.

Turtle Stone

Crane Stone

Yes. Well. I guess my African gods protect me with powerful juju (magic), because I squatted next to the Turtle Stone for several minutes, fiddling with my camera, without knowing that I was being blitzed by cosmic forces. I only realized it's regarded as a power spot when I did research for this post.

Seriously though – and let's not mock the power spot hunters, for there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy – seriously though, both turtles and cranes are regarded as symbols of longevity and good luck, and they often adorn shrines.

It's a beautiful shrine in a nice suburb, and you might as well go on a Sunday to attend a horserace. The next big race at the Tokyo Racecourse is the Emperor's Cup on 27 October.  行きましょう ?

I saw Deep Impact win the Japan Cup at this racecourse in 2006. Ye gods (at Izumo and elsewhere), that horse was magnificent. Oh, what the heck, I'm going to include a short video about him at the end of the post.

Side entrance

Ema depicting the shrine's festival

Beautiful weeping cherry in front of the outer gate


1) Who's Lui Xin? He was damn important: as the curator of China's imperial library, he was the first to establish a library classification system.

2) The 29th emperor, Emperor Kimmei (
509?–571 AD), is the first one that can be verified via contemporary historiography.

3) Remember him, because he'll have a starring role next month. He's the main deity at Izumo Taisha, one of the most ancient and highly revered Shinto shrines, and he presides when all the gods gather at Izumo in October to discuss matters of love and marriage. October is known as Kannazuki (神無月), the month when gods are absent, all over Japan except in Izumo province in Shimane prefecture, where it's known as Kamiarizuki (神有月) or the month when the gods are present.

4) Ōkunitama Jinja is known as one of the five major shrines in Tokyo, the others being Tokyo Daijingū, Yasukuni Jinja, Hie Jinja and Meiji Jinja. I've been to all of them. I've written about Yasukuni and Daijingū, but the other two will have to stand in line.

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