Yanagimori Shrine

Yanagimori Shrine 柳森神社

Courtyard of Yanagimori Shrine
The tranquil courtyard of Yanagimori Shrine, Tokyo

Yanagimori Jinja ("Willow Forest Shrine") is a small Shinto shrine in Chiyoda ward, Tokyo, located alongside the Kanda River and just across from the electronics and nerd culture mecca of Akihabara.

Yanagimori Shrine has an aura of antique calm in stark contrast to the garish hubbub that is Akihabara just a minute's walk across the footbridge over the river.

Yanagimori Shrine's nickname is O-Tanuki-sama, a tanuki being a Japanese racoon dog. In Japanese folklore, the tanuki is a whimsical supernatural being with shape-shifting ability, and its most conspicuous physical feature is its huge, bulging scrotum, which has associations with a sack of gold (kintama, or "golden balls," being slang for testicles in Japanese). Yanagimori Shrine therefore features numerous statues of tanuki, complete with bulging scrotum and belly.

However, Yanagimori Shrine began life not as a tanuki shrine, but as an Inari shrine, featuring the fox. Today, the shrine is a medley of different religious themes born of its long and fascinating history.

Entrance to Yanagimori Shrine
Entrance to Yanagimori Shrine
Tanuki statue at Yanagimori Shrine
Tanuki statue, Yanagimori Shrine

Yanagimori Shrine History

Yanagimori Shrine was founded in 1457 by the warlord, Ota Dokan (1432-86) who designed and built Edo Castle (albeit for another warlord, whom he served, Uesugi Sadamasa) on the site of what is now the Imperial Palace Tokyo. The shrine being north-east of the former castle - an "unlucky" direction - Dokan had willow trees planted here, which were believed to attenuate the bad vibes, and established Yanagimori Shrine as a branch shrine of the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine that is in Kyoto. Inari is a Shinto deity associated with fertility, rice, agriculture and commerce, and is served by its messenger, the fox.

Yanagimori Shrine Main Shrine Building
Ringing the bell at the Inari Honden Main Shrine of Yanagimori Shrine

Yanagimori Shrine is now more closely associated with the big-scrotummed tanuki, but this was a much later feature, from the late 19th century. The association with the tanuki has its roots in the 17th century, in the person of Keishoin (1627-1705), the mother of the fifth Shogun. Keishoin was from Kyoto, the daughter of probably a lowly tradesman, but ended up a concubine of the fourth Shogun in Edo (modern Tokyo) thanks to her beauty. She then gave birth to the fifth Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, thus further enhancing her status. She built a shrine to Fukuju-inari, the tanuki god, on the grounds of Edo Castle, which became a focus of worship by her grandson, the Shogun Tokugawa Ienobu. The shrine was later relocated to the Kuramae district east of Akihabara and then, at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, moved to Yanagimori Shrine and amalgamated with it.

The tanuki and the fox thus met, making Yanagimori Shrine the combination of deities that it is today. Keishoin's good fortune in being elevated from obscurity to mother of the Shogun is also reflected in the word "tanuki" which, using completely different kanji characters, can be given the meaning "drawn up out of the hoi polloi." Supplicants here therefore also pray for the same kind of fortune.

Fukuju Tanuki Shrine at Yanagimori Shrine
Fukuju Tanuki Shrine at Yanagimori Shrine
Fujiko cairn at Yanagimori Shrine
Fujiko cairn at Yanagimori Shrine

Yanagimori Shrine Features

Yanagimori Shrine is accessed through a stone torii and down a few steps from the sidewalk, this "valley"-type setting giving it the feel of a retreat. Beside the chozuya (covered water trough for cleansing) at the foot of the steps is a cairn - a pile of what look like headstones - which is associated with the Fujiko cult that originated in Tokyo, centered on climbing Mt. Fuji and venerating the ancestors of Japan's most illustrious statesman, Fujiwara no Kamatari (614-669 A.D.). As the fortunes of the Fujiko cult waxed and waned, the Fujiko cairn here has been removed and replaced several times.

Yanagimori Shrine, with its complex history of moves and mergers, actually comprises no less than seven shrines (including the cairn) in its small compound.

The Honden main shrine is that of the original Yanagimori Shrine and venerates the god Inari. It is guarded by two stone foxes - the one on the right with a ball denoting soul or spirit, and the left-hand one with a fox cub, signifying the treasure that is children.

The O-Tanuki-san (福寿神) shrine is from the Fukuju-inari Shrine built by the fifth Shogun's mother in the grounds of Edo Castle and moved here in the 19th century. It features a stylishly crafted stone tanuki just outside its torii gate, with belly and scrotum conflated into a single rotundity that it sits nursing with all fours. Inside, two iron tanuki stand at the base of the shrine itself. This is where women would pray for the same kind of luck that elevated Keishoin in life.

Kotohira Jinja in Yanagimori Shrine
Yanagimori Shrine's Kotohira Jinja, guardian of those who go to sea

Lifting Stones

Besides the six other small shrines, there is a corner of the compound containing rounded stones with red inscriptions. These stones are lifting stones (chikara-ishi, literally "strength stones") and were used by young men to demonstrate their strength. The chikara-ishi here in Yanagimori Shrine were said to have been those of a group of sumo wrestlers at the beginning of the 20th century.

Gyoiku Sakura

Yanagimori Shrine has an extremely rare gyoiko sakura, or Japanese harlequin cherry blossom tree, planted here in the 1970s. It has semi-double yellow-and-white flowers with green stripes, and with reddish-purple tints some days after blooming.

Yanagimori Shrine Festival

The annual Yanagimori Shrine Festival is held on the weekend nearest May 15.

Yanagimori Shrine beside the Kanda River
Yanagimori Shrine, beside the Kanda River

Yanagimori Shrine Access

Yanagimori Shrine is about five minute's walk from Akihabara Station on the JR Yamanote Line, the Keihin-Tohoku Line, the Sobu Line, and the Hibiya Subway Line.
2-15-1 Kandasudacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 101-0041

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