Located in Atsuta Ward in the south of Nagoya City, in a wooded precinct spanning 190,000 square meters, Atsuta Shrine is a tranquil oasis to many residents of Nagoya, and a popular spot for visitors, with around 7 million visitors each year.
The Shrine is said to have been established in 113 AD, when the legendary prince Yamato Takeru-no-Mikoto (see below) entrusted his sacred sword, Kusanagi-no-Mitsurugi, to his wife, Miyazuhime-no-Mikoto (宮簀媛命), in present-day Odaka (Midori Ward). When the prince died shortly after his departure, the sword was enshrined, later moving to Atsuta.
The Hongū (Main Shrine) enshrines Atsuta-no-Okami, the sun deity Amaterasu-Ōmikami, embodied by the sword, Kusanagi-no-Mitsurugi.
In addition to the Hongū, the precinct also contains the Betsugu (Annex) Hakkengu Shrine (established in 708 and the object of veneration by warriors including Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu), 12 auxiliary shrines and 31 subordinate shrines, a Museum, and a number of great trees, including the Ōkusu (great camphor tree, pictured right) said to have been planted by the Buddhist monk and scholar Kōbō-Daishi (Kūkai).
A photo book with English captions is available for a donation at the Juyo-Sho, near the Hongū.
Literally "sacred grass-cutting sword", this weapon is one of the Three Sacred Treasures that form the Imperial Regalia. (The other two being the mirror, Yata no Kagami [八咫鏡], enshrined at Ise Jingū, and the curved jewel, Yasakani no Magatama [八尺瓊勾玉], held at the Imperial Palace.) The sword is said to represent valor.
The story of the sword extends to the age of the gods, when Susanoo-no-Mikoto dicovered the sword Ame-no-Murakumono-Tsurugi ("sword of gathering clouds of heaven" within the tail of a serpent, later presenting it to his elder sister and sun deity, Amaterasu-Ōmikami. Amaterasu-Ōmikami would later give the sword and other regalia to her descendent Ninigi when he descended to earth.
■Yamato Takeru-no-Mikoto (日本武尊)
Son of Emperor Keiko (thought to have reigned 71-130 AD), Yamato Takeru-no-Mikoto was a valiant warrior, dispatched by his father to pacify local tribes and expand his father's territory in the west and east. On his way to the east, he was presented with the sword, Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, by his aunt, the Shrine Maiden of Ise Jingū. After using the sword to cut grass to ward off an attack by fire on an open grassland, Yamato Takeru-no-Mikoto renamed the weapon "grass-cutting sword." Leaving the sword with his wife, he angered a deity of Mount Ibuki, and died of illness.
Although most visitors come to pay their respects at the Hongū, when strolling around the precinct one will see locals praying at many of the lesser shrines, and maybe find yourself wondering what people are praying for. The middle-aged businessman, bowing rigidly, perhaps hoping that his business will be spared the brunt of the current economic woes; or the group of suited new recruits, hoping for guidance in navigating their new environment; or the little elderly lady, praying as she maybe does every day on her afternoon walk.
Each shrine is devoted to a different deity, and associated with different blessings, but sometimes the 'shrine' need not be a shrine at all. The Kusunomimae-sha (楠御前社, literally "shrine before the venerable camphor tree", pictured), for example, located near the South Gate, has no shrine structure, but rather a fence surrounding a camphor tree. This is because the tree itself is the object of veneration, along with the sibling deities Izanagi-no-Mikoto and Izanami-no-Mikoto, who created the Japanese archipelago.
The tree has long been worshipped for its ability to heal, and particularly as a deity of easy childbirth, and it is said that by offering a votive tablet in the shape of a miniature torii gate, inscribed with one's oriental zodiac animal and name, one's wishes will be fulfilled.
To the right of the enclosure is a stand seemingly festooned with vibrantly colored chains of paper cranes, diligently folded by parishioners and offered as prayers for respite and recovery from illness. Many votive tablets in various shapes are also hung from the stand, inscribed with wishes from soon-to-be parents and people hoping for the recovery of unwell family members or friends. While some of the messages are personal, others are a reflection of feelings no doubt shared by many, such as one anonymous tablet reading, "May everyone be able to laugh and enjoy life, in good health!"
Points to observe when visiting a shrine
- Before passing through a torii gate, stop and bow.
- The center of the path is considered the path of the deities, so mortals are advised to keep to the sides of the path.
- Before visiting the shrine, cleanse yourself with water at the temizu-sha / chōzu-sha (手水舎). Pick up a ladle with your right hand, and fill the ladle with water from the basin. Bring your hands and the ladle closer towards you, so that you don't pour water back into the basin. Pour some water over your left hand, then take the ladle in your left hand and pour some water over your right hand. Return the ladle to your right hand, pour some water into your cupped left hand, and use the water to rinse your mouth. Use the remaining water to wash your left hand once more, and return the ladle.
- At the shrine, remove any headwear, and throw a coin (of any amount) into the offertory box. Bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, and pay your respects / ask for blessings before bowing deeply once more.
- When leaving, stop at the torii gate, turn around to face the shrine, and bow again.
Where: Atsuta Shrine (熱田神宮), in Atsuta Ward (熱田区)
Access: A 3-minute walk from Jingū-mae Sta. (神宮前駅) on the Meitetsu Nagoya Line (名鉄名古屋本線); or an 8-minute walk from Atsuta Sta. (熱田駅) on the JR Tōkaidō Line (JR東海道線); or a 7-minute walk from Jingu Nishi Sta. (神宮西駅) on the Meijo Subway Line (地下鉄名城線).
With a number of important rituals and other events held at this time of year, May and June are usually good times to visit Atsuta Shrine. Please note that these events will not be accessible to the public this year as part of measures against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A ritual dating from the Heian period (794-1185) in which court music and dance (舞楽 / Bugaku) are presented as offerings on an elevated red-painted stage in the forecourt of Atsuta Jingū's Kagura-den (神楽殿). The beautiful, graceful performances, radiant beneath the fresh green leaves of the shrine gardens, take the viewer into the world of a Heian period picture scroll. The shrine priests, maidens and members of Atsuta Jingū's Gagaku association perform authentic Heian period Bugaku before the deities.
The collection in the shrine's Treasure Exhibition Hall (文化殿) features Bugaku masks, which are Important Cultural Properties, thought to have been created during the Heian and Kamakura periods.
When: 1 May
According to the Nihon Shoki, the sword Kusanagi-no-Mitsurugi was stolen in 668, but recovered when the thief's flight abroad was thwarted by foul weather, and kept in the capital until the sword's vengeful spirit was determined to be the cause of Emperor Temmu's illness.
This unusual ritual commemorates the return of the sword Kusanagi-no-Mitsurugi to Atsuta Jingū in 686. The lights within the precinct are extinguished, and priests laugh loudly in unison before Yōgōnoma Shrine (影向間社), the Kagura-Den (神楽殿), the Bekkū (Annex Shrine / 別宮), and the Seisetsu-Mon Gate (清雪門), to convey the joy felt at the time of the sword's return.
Each priest hides a mask (which, tradition holds, must not be looked at) in his sleeve, and when a mask is tapped with a fan, the assembled priests burst into laughter as one. From the sound of their laughter, this mystical ritual is also known as the "Ohoho Matsuri."
When: 4 May
Held the day after Eyōdo-shinji, and similarly connected to the return of the sacred sword. This ritual, held to pray for the protection of the Imperial Palace features a procession of around 100 attendants in courtly dress, accompanying a mikoshi (神輿 / portable shrine) from the Hongū (Main Shrine / 本宮) to the West Gate (西問).
When: 5 May
This agricultural ritual, also known as Hana-no-tō (花のとう), divines the outcome of the year's crops and gives thanks to the divine virtue of Yamato
Takeru-no-Mikoto, who is said to have bestowed knowledge of agricultural and sericultural practices on the people he encountered on his journey to pacify the eastern lands.
During the festival, the Nishi-Gakusho is decorated with a diorama (otameshi / おためし) featuring miniature fields and paddies, made by the priests, which is displayed from 8 until 13 May. Worshippers involved in agriculture predict the conditions of this year's harvest from the state of the miniatures.
Another popular attraction held at this time of year is a market within the shrine precinct featuring stalls selling plants and seedlings, bamboo ware, ceramic ware and more.
When: 8 May
Where: Main Shrine (本宮) & Nishi-Gakusho (西楽所)
As the annual Reisai (例祭 / Atsuta Matsuri of 5 Jun.) approaches, an offering of kanmiso (神御衣 / robes for the deity) is presented to the deity,
Atsuta-no-Ōkami. The robes are presented by Tsukiji Shrine in Minato Ward, which has weaving facilities, in a procession of around 300 people, led by a banner emblazoned with "Daiichi Goyō" (大一御用 / "On the service of Amaterasu Ōmikami").
Following the celebratory prayer of the chief priest, the envoys present their offering of silk and hemp before the deity.
When: 13 May
Where: Procession begins at the East Gate (東門), and travels to the Main Shrine / Hongu via the Third Torii Gate (第三鳥居)
Atsuta Matsuri (熱田まつり)
Officially known as the Reisai (例祭 / annual festival), the most significant festival of all those held at Atsuta Shrine. A number of events and attractions are held in and around Atsuta Jingū in conjunction with the festival, drawing around 200,000 people each year.
Among the sights are kento-makiwara (votive lanterns attached to straw in a tree-like arrangement, 17:30 - 20:30) at each entrance of the shrine grounds, and fireworks (which can be viewed from around the nearby Atsuta Jingū Park [熱田神宮公園] - park off-limits during fireworks - and Shirotori Park [白鳥公園], 19:40 - 20:30). For Atsuta locals, the festival is the beginning of the yukata- (summer kimono) wearing season each year, as they browse the stalls, fan in hand, enjoying the season.
When: 5 Jun. (10:00 - 20:30)
Where: Atsuta Jingū (熱田神宮) and surrounds, Atsuta Ward (熱田区)
Event photos courtesy of Atsuta Jingū