Japan Shrines: Yusuhara Hachimangu
Yusuhara Hachimangu, Oita, Kyushu 柞原八幡宮
Located in an ancient forest in the foothills of the mountains west of Oita city, Yusuhara Hachimangu is a major shrine that owing to its location receives far fewer visitors than other similarly ranked shrines.
Yusuhara Hachimangu was founded in 827 as a branch of Usa Hachiman Shrine. Hachiman Shrines are now the second most common shrines in Japan, after Inari Shrines, with about 30,000 nationwide, but originally the Hachiman cult was based in northern Kyushu.
In the 9th century the Imperial government in central Japan adopted the cult and established the Iwashimizu Hachimangu in Yawata near Kyoto. Not much later oracles "revealed" that Hachiman was none other than a manifestation of the mythical Emperor Ojin and that has become the dominant identity of Hachiman.
In medieval times the Minamoto adopted Hachiman as their tutelary deity, and then quickly became adopted by all samurai. It was from this time that Hachiman's identity as God of War became established.
For the first century or so after its founding the head priest of Yusuhara Hachimangu was also the ruler of the local area, and the shrine was the Ichinomiya, the highest ranked shrine, in Bungo Province.
Horuto no ki
The bus drops you at the long flight of stairs that climb up the mountain through the dark forest. Just on the right at the base of the stairs is a large, thick-trunked tree with a signboard.
This is the "Holto Tree," horuto no ki, and the story says that it dates back more than 400 years to the time when the local daimyo, Sorin Otomo, became a Christian and engaged in trade with the Portuguese.
The name is derived from the word Portugal, and it is said that it was a seedling brought to Japan by the Portuguese, though other sources suggest that this is just a fanciful explanation for an earlier mistranslation.
Climbing the stairs after passing under a vermillion torii displaying the Imperial crest, the chrysanthemum, a huge and imposing gate comes into view straddling the stairs. This is the Nandaimon, the Great South Gate.
Originally built in 1623, the current structure dates from 1870. The roof supports have the usual carvings, elephants and komainu, but what is different about this gate are the 24 panels of relief carvings. Depicting scenes from the lives of 24 Sages of Old China, these unpainted reliefs can be studied for hours, leading to the gates nickname, Higurashimon, which loosely translates as "until evening gate", implying that you can spend hours enjoying the art.
To the left of the gate is a massive tree wrapped in a small shimenawa. This is an ancient camphor tree, kusunoki, and is claimed to be 3,000 years old, which may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but there are similar trees all over Kyushu that have been dated as almost that old.
A little further up the stairs and a path on the right leads to a small Inari Shrine flanked by two stone fox guardians. Set in a sun-dappled glade, and lacking the pomp and grandeur of the main shrine, this will be maintained by local farmers.
Carrying on up a little further still and the path forks, the less used one veering to the right and leading up to another impressive gate. Bearing the chrysanthemum crest, this gate is locked and only opened for members of the Imperial family or their emissaries. It is worth a look because flanking the gate in two enclaves are a pair of old wooden komainu, paint peeling, but still impressive.
Walking along the outer wall back to the main gate you see small trees or bushes with what appear to be white blossoms. Closer examination reveals them to not be blossoms, but omikuji, the small paper fortunes bought from the shrine office and then tied to the branches.
Inside the main compound of the shrine it is laid out in typical Hachiman Zukuri, with colorful casks of sake donated to the shrine lining the corridors. As with any shrine of this size and importance there is a shop, usually manned by miko, shrine maidens, selling all manner of charms and fortunes.
Standing in front of the main altar a huge red, long-nosed Tengu looks down on you and the ceiling space has several huge votive paintings, precursor to the small ema which you can buy in the shop. Tucked away at the side of the shrine is a small area for archery, something not uncommon at Hachiman shrines as Hachiman is also the god of archery.
According to the legend when Ojin was born he had a birthmark on his arm in the shape of a homuda, an elbow pad to protect the archer. Bows are a powerful symbol, and many shrines have archery festivals to either ward off evil or to attract good fortune. Miniature bows are often bought at the New Year to bring luck. While I was at the shrine a group of older men with bows and arrows arrived, quite possibly to practise for an upcoming ceremony.
987 Kamihachiman, Hachiman Oaza
Oita City, Oita 870-0808
Tel: 097 534 0065
Yusuhara Hachimangu Shrine is open 7 days a week and there is no entry fee.
Buses to Yusuhara Hachimangu leave from Nishi Oita JR station about 12 times a day, a little less on weekends. Nishi Oita Station is three minutes by JR Nippo Line from Oita Station. From Hakata Station in Fukuoka the Sonic Express takes 2 hours, 10 minutes to Beppu, then change to a local train for Nishi-Oita (10 minutes). The JR Rail Pass and Kyushu Rail Pass are both valid on these trains.
Renting a car is a good option for exploring this rural region of Kyushu.