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Atago Jinja's silly samurai and his brave steed

Well I'll be goldarned! It's another shrine post! I'm writing this because …

1) You're probably thinking I've fallen into a black hole or converted to a religion that forbids shrine visits. The former is highly likely; the latter will not happen in this life, universe or beingness. Or the next eleven.

2) I've been roped into participating in a Google+ promotion called #fivedayquest. You're supposed to post a photo from your day for the next five days, tag a friend to join you and mention the person who invited you. That's why, when I had to do errands today, I went on foot instead of by train, despite considerable distances involved, and took my camera with me. I walked from Hiroo to Shinbashi, then to Tokyo Tower, then back to Shinbashi. My original intention was to take photos of Tokyo Tower and Zōjō-ji, but then I thought … been there, done that, wrote and copy-edited the slogan on the T-shirt.

So I stood on a street corner, scowled at women with parasols, tilted my face up to the sun and prayed, "Burn me, bless me, turn me into toast, caramel, milky coffee. Take away this horrid fish-belly-white skin. Give me a few more sunspots so that I can know I'm alive, I live, I'm real." (We're getting there. I already have a faint wristwatch line. I'm rather smug about that.)

Sunlight and vitamin E do wonders for your brain. That must be why I was filled with inspiration. "Atago Jinja is near here. Perhaps they've finished their renovations. Yay. Thataway, tallyho, onwards heathen soldiers!"

Businessmen visit Atago Jinja to pray for career success.

I visited the shrine in the New Year's period because 2014 is the year of the horse and Atago Jinja has equestrian associations, but it was being renovated and I didn't get good photos; hence my decision to return.

Atago Jinja (愛宕神社) in Minato was built in 1603 on the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The current shrine was rebuilt in 1958. It's located on Atago Hill, which is 26 meters above sea level. The very steep stairs leading to the shrine, called Otokozaka (男坂 or "male slope") are also famous, as they represent success in life. Steep slopes are always called male slopes in Japan, since only real men can climb them. Softer slopes are called onnazaka (女坂 or "female slope"), since they're gentle, polite and submissive.

Atago Jinja's famous stairs

Looking up

Looking down

Several shrines in Tokyo are associated with business success – Hie Jinja and Kanda Myōjin being the most famous – but Atago Jinja is linked to personal success and a rapid climb up that corporate ladder.

Otokozaka are found in business, too. That's why there are few women in corporate management positions in Japan.

Yes, I'm being sarcastic.

Let's return to serious shrining. Why is this one associated with personal success? Here's why. I'm stealing this explanation from CNN Travel, because it made me grin: 
Legend says that a young 17th-century samurai rode his horse straight up that impossible incline to deliver a beautiful plum-blossom branch to the shogun. Samurai were touchy-feely about things like flowers when they weren't slicing and dicing each other and the odd peasant, you see. The shogun was so impressed that the young man’s future was assured. No mention of what became of the horse that actually did all the work, but them’s the breaks when you're not at the top of the food chain. Still, there’s a wooden cutout of the samurai and his horse that you can stick your face through for a photo op. Who wants to be the horse, you have to wonder.
I've read that the ascent took one minute; the descent 45. The samurai was an idiot but got the glory; the real hero, the horse, was a trembling wreck. Since I'm a horse rider myself, I can confirm that a steep hill is hell on horseback. That's why The Man from Snowy River is such an awesome movie. (See the video embedded below. I can watch that scene a thousand times and it always makes me cry with fear, awe, excitement, the thrill of the ride.)

You can stick your head in there and pretend to be the samurai.

The shrine was originally constructed as a lookout for fires, as well as protection against the "flowers of Edo" (i.e. fires). The main Shinto god worshiped here is the fire god Homusubi no Mikoto, but he's joined by Mizuhanome no Mikoto (a water god), Ōyamazumi no Mikoto (a mountain god) and Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (a military god).

How steep are the stairs, you ask? I may be the wrong person to answer that, because I galloped up, realized I hadn't taken photos, skidded back down, trotted up again. Then I repeated the process allegro assai when I realized the flight of stairs was finally empty, with no ojiisan wheezing up or stiletto-clad damsels doing that flamingo-with-constipation-and-bunions walk downwards. Have you ever seen a woman with very high heels and a very twee parasol walking down very big, very steep, very many steps? Impossible to choose between horror and hilarity.

Perhaps, given man slopes and woman slopes, she was actually a samurai in drag?



Anyway. What I'm saying is that when I see stairs, I run. (Towards it. When I see a parasol, I run away from it.) So I didn't think it was particularly special. Not remotely as tiring as the 350 steps at Saijō-ji. Which I also did in one go, but then I collapsed at the top due to myocardial infarction.

If you find the main stairs intimidating, you can use the gentler, zigzagging stairs towards the right, but only if you're a real lady prone to fits and vapours. Don't forget your parasol.

Entrance is forbidden if you don't have a parasol.



Looking towards the stairs from the main shrine

Summer in Japan: emerald green and vermilion red

Red and green

The water fountain where you wash your hands before you pray

A small torii in a pond at the shrine


Shrine details

The water fountain

Hydrangea. The colour, the colour ...

Sake has a purifying role (as does salt) at shrines.

Above, a lion-dog guarding the entrance, and below ... well ... take that, Mr Samurai!

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