Japan Shrines: Hiko Shrine
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Hiko Jinja 飛行神社
Yawata (sometimes pronounced Yahata), a small town south of Kyoto city grew up around Iwashimizu Hachimangu. Founded in 859 to protect Kyoto and the Imperial family, during the next centuries the shrine grew in importance to become one of the most important shrines in the country.
As the shrine grew so did Yawata, and nowadays most visitors to the town come to visit the shrine, but at the base of hill below it is a much smaller shrine with a fascinating background and history that is well worth a small detour to visit, Hiko Shrine, the shrine to flight, quite unlike any other shrine you may have visited.
The shrine was founded in 1915 by Chuhachi Ninomiya, and rebuilt by his son in 1989. Chuhachi Ninomiya is by no means a household name, but it is only by a quirk of fate that it is not as well known as the Wright Brothers.
Several years before the Wright brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, Chuhachi had designed an aircraft that was in many ways superior to that of the Wrights, and it was only due to a lack of funding and support that his design was not realized. Once the Wright Brothers made their maiden flight Chuhachi gave up his plans, but by 19 he had become concerned by the increasing number of deaths of aviators and their passengers and so set up the shrine to pray for the spirits of those killed in flight.
The unprepossessing entrance to Hiko Shrine in Yawata
Aircraft engine with a twisted propeller that was salvaged from a Mitsubishi Zero fighter that crashed into Osaka Bay during World War II
Airplane-themed ema or votive plaques at Hiko Shrine
Approaching the shrine, that is located on a typical urban street, there are none of the usual signs indicating the presence of a shrine, no stone lanterns, no komainu (guardian lions), no tall torii (Shinto entrance gate).
You know you have reached the shrine when you see a long wooden structure running along the front of one of the properties. It has a narrow roof and look somewhat like an ornamental wall, but looking inside one sees the engine from a Jumbo Jet. Up a few steps beside it and now the modest-sized torii is visible.
Composed of cylinders in a modern style named after the infamous Yasukuni Shrine that has the largest example of the style, this gleaming torii is not made of wood, stone or concrete, or even of bronze, but of Duraluminum, alloy used in aircraft construction.
Passing through the torii into the shrine grounds the next thing one sees is an aircraft engine with a twisted propeller. This was salvaged from a Mitsubishi Zero fighter that crashed into Osaka Bay. The strangeness doesn't stop there.... the haiden, the main worship hall of the shrine is based on the design of a Greek temple, as far as I can find out the only Shinto building with such architecture. Behind the main hall is a row of three honden, the smaller structures found at the rear of shrines wherein the kami (gods) take up temporary residence, these are traditional and typical of all shrines.
The three kami enshrined here are Nigihayahi no mikoto, Konpira, and the souls of those killed in air accidents. Nigihayahi no mikoto is not a well known kami, but he descended from the High Plain of Heaven in a stone boat and assisted the mythical first Emperor of Japan, Jinmu, in his conquest of Japan.
Considered to be the ancestor of the Mononobe clan, a very powerful clan in early Japan, it is hard to figure why Nigihayabi was chosen by Chuhachi as quite a few kami have stories of them descending from heaven in vessels made of stone.
Konpira, a very popular kami with shrines all over the country was originally connected to safety on sea journeys, but now has expanded to include all types of journeys, including air. Japanese astronauts have been known to visit the main Konpira shrine on Shikoku before heading to the space station.
Next to the main hall is a small shop selling amulets and ofuda from the shrine. The ema (votive plaques) are particularly interesting with a variety showing pictures of Chuhachi's designs and even one in English "for a safe flight". Here one can pay 300 yen and enter a small museum with models, drawings, and photographs of Chuhachi's work.
Hiko Shrine in Yawata south of Kyoto
Tel: 075 982 2329
Yawata is a station on the Keihan line roughly halfway between Kyoto and Osaka. The shrine is located 300 meters to the east of the station.