Kyoto's Top Ten Quirky Shinto Shrines & Buddhist Temples
See a listing of ten of Kyoto's quirkiest temples in no particular order of strangeness or fun.
As with visiting any shrines or temple in an increasingly-crowded Kyoto, JapanVisitor's advice is to visit early in the day and avoid weekends and Japanese public holidays.
1. Kuginuki Jizo
Kuginuki Jizo (Shakuzoji Temple) is a small temple in the north of the city. Kuginuki means "nail pulling" (as in hammer and nail) and refers to the legend of a merchant in 1556, who lived near the temple and felt terrible pains in both his hands. After praying to the Bodhisattvas Jizo for relief, the Bodhisattvas appeared to him in a dream and told the sufferer he had pierced the hands of an effigy of a man he had hated in a former life. The spirit of his former enemy was now seeking revenge, so to atone for this previous sin, the man offered a set of eight inch nails and a pair of pliers to the temple. The pain subsequently disappeared and, ever since, people with aches and pains offer to the temple nails and pliers attached to a wooden board. The main hall of Shakuzoji Temple is covered with these wooden boards of nails and pliers and the motif can also be seen on the paper lanterns (chochin) in the temple.
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2. Saihoji Temple
Saihoji Temple - or, as it is more commonly known: Kokedera (苔寺; "moss temple") - was founded in the fourteenth century and is located on a spacious 2 hectares (4.5 acres) in Matsuo, south west Kyoto, south west of Matsuno-o Shrine. Over a hundred species of moss form a velvety carpet that spreads throughout much of the temple grounds with an almost eerie beauty. Fall is a special time to visit, when the turning leaves of the trees spectacularly color the precincts, but the moss is at its greenest in early summer: May and June. A reservation is required to visit. Write the temple with your name, address in Japan, occupation, age (you must be at least 18), the number of people in your group, and the date you wish to visit, plus an alternate date. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope: Saiho-ji, Matsuo Jingatani-cho 56, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto 615-8286. Do this at least a few weeks ahead of time - a few days ahead is not enough. Do not show up late for your appointed time. The fee is 3,000 yen, which is the highest in Kyoto.
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3. Go'o Shrine
Go'o Shrine in Kyoto on the western side of the Imperial Palace is dedicated to all things wild boar. Go'o Shrine honors Wake no Kinomaru (733-799), an adviser to the Heian Period Emperor Kammu (737-806), and the courtier's sister Hiromushi.
Instead of the usual komainu (mythical lion-like beasts) standing guard outside the shrine, a pair of wild boar do the job instead.
Legend has it that after saving the Emperor's heirs from a plot led by the Buddhist priest Dokyo, Wake no Kinomaru was exiled on the orders of the Empress Koken, who had patronized the "meddling" priest, was possibly Dokyo's lover and may even have been involved in the conspiracy to change the succession in favor of Dokyo. Traveling in the wilds of present-day Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu, the loyal imperial servant hurt his leg but was protected by a herd of wild boar, hence the iconography that dominates Go'o Shrine.
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4. Bloody Temples of Kyoto
The Bloody Temples of Kyoto are five temples which have incorporated blood-soaked floorboards donated to them from Fushimi Castle. Here in 1600 a force of 2,000 men under Torii Mototada, a general supporting Tokugawa Ieyasu, withstood an 11-day siege by 40,000 men under Ishida Mitsunari in the run up to the decisive Battle of Sekigahara, before only 10 men were left alive. These men finally committed seppuku rather than surrender and their blood seeped into and stained the floorboards of the castle. The temples are Koshoji, in Uji, Yogen-in, Shodenji, Genko-an and Hosen-in.
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5. Shiramine Shrine
Shiramine Shrine, located on the north east corner of Imadegawa and Horikawa in Kamigyo-ku in Kyoto enshrines the kami of two previous Japanese emperors who were driven into exile: Sutoku (1119-1164) and Junnin (733-765). Shiramine Jingu is also associated with sports, in particular soccer, as it stages an annual kemari (an ancient type of keepy-up) festival played by Shinto priests on April 14. Most visitors are young junior, high school and university students who come to pray for success in sports, particularly soccer, though including baseball, rugby, basketball and other games. The reason for this is that Shiramine Jingu also enshrines Seidamyojin, said to be the guardian deity of mari (ball). The ancient courtly game of kemari (kick ball), thought to have come to Japan from China, was performed here during the Nara Period (710-794), Heian Period (794-1185) and Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The Asukai family were fervent practitioners of the game and the shrine stands on the grounds of their former residence in Kyoto, hence the connection.
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Though not a temple or shrine, Mimizuka Ear Mound, is certainly rather strange with a very bloody history. While it is now commonly known as the Ear Mound, this is a euphemistic misnomer. Mimizuka's original name was Hanazuka, or 'Nose Mound', as this was the extremity that denoted one dead Korean, be they soldier or hapless noncombatant. During the ultimately unsuccessful campaign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi to seize the Korean Peninsula in 1597 on his way to conquering Ming China, he ordered the entire populace of certain regions to be slain and their heads shipped back to Japan as evidence. The sheer number of bodies meant that to save space the soldiers simply sliced off noses and packed them in brine. While likely an exaggeration, some 38,000 are said to have been interred at the Mimizuka site, which Hideyoshi ordered built in an apparent act of contrition, although possibly also as a tacit warning to other nations not to challenge Japanese military might.
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7. Miyake Hachimangu
According to legend, Miyake Hachimangu Shrine was founded by Ono no Imoko (小野 妹子), an important politician and diplomat during the Asuka Period of Japanese history. Supposedly after falling ill in Kyushu on his way to or way back from China, the envoy prayed for health to the deity Hachiman at Usa Jingu in present-day Oita Prefecture. Ono no Imoko reportedly recovered so quickly that he built a shrine to Hachiman, who is associated with the mythical Emperor Ojin, when he returned to central Japan. The Emperor Ojin is the main deity enshrined at Miyake Hachimangu and Hachiman/Ojin's symbolic animal and messenger is the dove which can be seen on statues, noren curtains and ema (votive plaques) around the shrine. Flocks of pigeons are fed at the shrine by devotees.
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8. Matsuo Taisha
Matsuo Taisha, sometimes known as Matsunoo, is an interesting ancient shrine on the outskirts of Kyoto that offers a little more to see and do than most of the often visited shrines in the area. It is also less crowded. Located near Arashiyama, Matsuo Taisha was founded in 701, almost 100 years before the founding of Kyoto. Matsuo Taisha was founded by the head of the Hata clan, an immigrant clan that ruled the area before the moving of the capital from Nara. The Hata also founded the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine. The Hata were instrumental in bringing sake brewing techniques from Korea, and the shrine has a deep and long association with sake brewers, who still take water from the sacred well Kame no I, located in the shrine.
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9. Tanukidani Fudoin
Tanukidani Fudoin, in the hills of eastern Kyoto, looks more like a Shinto shrine than a Buddhist temple on first appearance. In the car park before the stairs to the main temple buildings, yamabushi mountain priests bless cars with their magic gohei wands. Tanukidani is a Shingon-sect temple associated also with Shugendo - a form of ascetic practice undertaken in mountains. On July 28 there is a fire festival in the evening where priests and later the audience walk over the ashes of burning pine branches. The main temple precinct contains an image of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. 88 stepping stones have been placed around the hall, mirrowing the 88-temple pilgrimage in Shikoku associated with Kobo Daishi. Thus worshippers can complete the pilgrimage in a couple of minutes by stepping on all the stones. Scattered around the grounds are also many ceramic statues of tanuki (raccoon dogs or badgers). Various good luck charms are on sale at Tanukidani Fudoin including distinctive orange stickers for your car and even a charm for your toilet!
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10. Hiko Shrine
Hiko 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 nearby Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu Shrine also has an interesting connection with Thomas Edison, who used bamboo collected from the groves at the shrine by his assistant William H. Moore to make filaments for his first electric light bulb in 1880. Also in Yawata, Tanden-an Temple - aka the "Graffiti Temple" - allows visitors to write their wishes on a white wall in one of the temple halls for 100 yen instead of on an ema (votive plaque). The walls are painted over at the end of the year. *Note Tanden-an is only open on weekends and the first three days of the New Year 9am-3pm
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