The Kitano Tenmangu: The Shrine of All Shrines

An Introduction to the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

Japan is home to a number of shrines, temples, and other sacred or religious sites. The Kitano Tenmangu Shrine may be one of the most important Shinto shrines in all of Japan. It is iconic for its ancient and rustic architecture as well as its very popular courtyard which is home to hundreds of centennial plum trees. As it is situated in the historical prefecture of Kyoto, it is known to have played an important role in the ancient Japanese culture and history. In fact, it is one of the popular tourist destinations in the region.

By 663highland (663highland) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Kitano Tenmangu Shrine was built in the 9th century with the then popular form of architecture. It has wooden walls, sliding paper windows, impressively designed roofs. The eaves are designed with impressively handpainted wooden and metallic sculptures of dragons, flowers, and vines. It is also adorned with specialized lanterns which are hung from the eaves.

What makes this much more special than other shrines in the country is the fact that it is associated to the kami or known as Sugawara Michizane, a scholar and politician from the early centuries of Japanese civilization. It is not unusual for a shrine to be dedicated to a mythical or legendary spirit or even a god. However, it is unusual for an elaborate shrine to be dedicated to the spirit of an ordinary human being.

It is said that this particular kami is a very angry spirit because of what has happened in his past life. He was exiled as a political enemy of the then-popular Fujiwara clan. But it is always a wonder to find out who Sugawara no Michizane was.

Who was Sugawara no Michizane?

This man, also known as Kan Shojo or Kanke, was one of the most prominent figures in the Japanese society of the late 8th century. He was a poet, a politician, and a scholar. He was known to be a prominent poet who writes Kanshi Poetry. This kind of poetry was held in high regard at the time. It was only learned by people of honorable and important ranks. Since Sugawara n Michizane was among those who were able to proliferate Kanshi poetry to the Japanese, he is regarded as the Shinto god or learning.

People wonder why a man such as him is honored in a Shinto shrine even though he was not an emperor or a person of imperial rank. However, his works and accomplishments did not go unnoticed. He was among the only few Japanese who had a firm grasp of the Chinese language, a skill coveted by many scholars of his time. His impressive and natural skill had won him several positions in the government and even lead to his popularity and prominence. He worked as a scholar in the court with a prestigious rank. He was an official of the Ministry of Civil Affairs. He was also appointed as a governor in some faraway province in Japan.

However, political tensions between him and a rival had pushed him in a downward spiral. He was demoted and was exiled until his death. Interestingly, his death has led to many superstitious incidents. There were plague and drought immediately after his death. They experienced severe rains and flood. The sons of the current emperor died in succession leaving no heirs to the Chrysanthemum throne. To appease his “angry spirit” a shrine was built in his name. He was even given the title of Kami of scholarship, or god of learning.

What is a Tenjin?

The god of learning is known as Tenjin, a combination of the words ‘ten’ which means sky, and ‘jin’ which means god. In some translations, ‘Tenjin’ can mean lightning god and many people are wondering how Michizane gained this kami name. The word Tenjin actually attributes to the different circumstances that the Imperial court experienced after his death. Tenjin was originally known as the god of natural disasters and the shrine was built to appease his angry spirit. The kami was worshipped and given sacrifices so that the world will be free from his curses.

However, many scholars have later on changed the image of the Tenjin. Instead of seeing him as an angry kami or spirit, his life and works became more valued through time. He was soon recognized as a patron of learning and education because of his many contributions to the Japanese society. He is also known to be the god of agriculture, the god of honesty and sincerity, and god of performing arts.

Nowadays, a lot of students superstitiously travel to his shrine to pray for guidance, passing grades, and success – usually in the form of passing entrance exams, getting into a prestigious university, or even getting good grades. When the students to achieve success, it is expected that they return to the shrine to show gratitude.

A Walk-through of Kitano Tenmangu

There are three main Tenman-gu shrines in Japan known as the Three Great Tenjin Shrines. One is the Kitano Tenman-gu in Kyoto and the other is the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Fukuoka. Just in the recent centuries, another shrine was built and this is the Egara Tenjin Shrine of Kamakura. Of the three, the Kitan Tenman-gu is probably the most popular because it is the first shrine which was built to commemorate his spirit.

The Honden, or main hall, of the Kitan Tenmangu, is the largest structure in the area. It is designed with the most interesting sculptures and artworks. It is designed with stone oxen because it is believed that a guide ox lost its life while pulling the coffin of Michizane.  Other sources say that it actually refused to take another step which is why it was buried exactly at the location of the Daizafu shrine.

There are also many superstitions surrounding these sculptures as visitors and tourists rub the statues as a means of good luck. It is also said that rubbing the statues will transfer someone’s pains and aches into the oxen. This is why it is important to rub the statue in the same spot where the pain is felt.

Other interesting aspects about the Kitano Tenmangu is that there is a hall dedicated to the treasures of the Tenjin. These include handpainted scrolls that illustrate the shrine, as a posthumous gift of a famous painter from the 14th century.

Best time to visit Kitano Tenmangu

Kitano Tenmangu Tanabata

The Tenman-gu shrine is a popular destination to celebrate the Tanabata festival or evening of the Seventh. It usually is celebrated every summer where men and women wear colorful yukata. They usually enjoy fireworks over rivers, lakes, and oceans. They also enjoy stalls of food, traditional games, and other goodies. Ryokans are a great place to stay during this time. Usually held at the months of July or August, this is a great time to enjoy the historical beauty of the shrine.

Kitano Tenmangu Autumn

The garden of the Tenman-gu shrine is a great place to enjoy the beauty of nature. Autumn time, like the months of October and November, is a great time to visit the shrine because of the foliage. Both plum and cherry trees are beautiful during the spring and autumn time. Just watch out for weather reports that predict the months and times when the blossoms or foliage are at their peak. The thing about both spring and autumn time is to make sure that a hotel is booked ahead of time. Hotel bookings at this time are usually much more expensive because of the demand.

Kitano Tenmangu Light up Season

Usually, the light up season happens during the spring and autumn time when tourists take hours late into the night to enjoy the gardens of the shrine. This is why lighting up the shrine is popular at this time. Special LED lights are used to decorate the trees, the gardens, the pathways, and the buildings during peak seasons of travel.

Festivals Celebrated in Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

Kitano Tenmangu Plum Blossom Festival

Different species of Ume or plum blossoms are planted all over the Kitano Tenmangu shrine because it is the Michizane’s favorite tree. He enjoys looking at the red and white blossoms of plum which is just as beautiful as Cherry blossoms. Because of the abundance of plum trees and cherry trees in the shrine, it is a popular tourist destination for the Hanami or flower viewing matsuri.

It is also the reason why the plum matsuri or baikasai is held in the shrine every 25th of February. This has been celebrated on the same day of every year for the last nine centuries as a means to commemorate the death of Michizane and a way to celebrate his life and works.

Ochatsubo Hokensai or Tea Festival

The Tea Festival or Ochatsubo Hokensai is a fairly recent celebration. It is literally a ceremony where tea and wagashi are served in the gardens of the Tenman-gu shrine. It was based on the historic tea ceremony which was held by Toyotomi Hideyoshi for the late Michizane. Based on historical records, this particular outdoor tea ceremony was phenomenal because the man invited everyone to come.

By Olivier Lejade from France (P4070114) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, the tea festival is celebrated with an apprentice geisha, or maiko, where tea is served to the thousands of guests of the shrine during that day. A celebration with the same extravagance as Toyotomi’s tea ceremony.

Gion Matsuri

This is held July of every year and is known to be the largest matsuri or festival in Kyoto. There is a large-scale parade held at the end of the celebrations where individuals are adorned with ancient clothing. This is a means of celebrating the former glory of Kyoto as the capital city of Japan. In this festival, people parade the streets for three nights – the yoiyama, yoiyoiyama, and the yoiyoiyoiyama. It is a custom for people to place family heirlooms on display for the public to see.

The Tenman-gu shrine is a popular destination to view the parade. The shrine is also a good place to enjoy night shops that sell different kinds of traditional snacks and sweets. The people, as well as the tourists, are dressed in colorful summer yukata to celebrate as well. The celebration is capped off with a display of fireworks.

Tips to remember when visiting the Kitano Tenmangu

Kitano Tennmangu Shrine Hours

The shrine is open from 5:30 AM to 5:30 PM from the months of October to March. This is to accommodate more visitors as these months are the peak of the autumn leaves. Then, it is open between 5:00 AM to 6:00 PM from April to October. This is to accommodate people who go to the shrine to enjoy the plum blossoms which are on peak every February and March.  

Admission to the shrine grounds and hall is free of charge. What makes it even more special is that there is a flea market held outside of the shrine grounds every 25th of the month. Items and souvenirs can be bough for a few hundred yen.

Kitano Tenmangu Access and Location

The Kitano Tenmangu is located in Imadegawa city of the Kyoto Prefecture and there are different ways to access the shrine. One way is via bus lines traveling towards Imadegawa. There are buses coming from Kyoto Station and Central Kyoto that travel to Kitano Tenman-gu. For those who wish to take the local train lines, it could be accessed via a few minutes walk from the Kitano Hakubaicho station of the Keifuku line. There are also bicycle rentals in the area for those who wish to visit nearby shrines as well.

Kitano Tenmangu Market and shop hours

The Kitano Tenman-gu flea market is open on the 25th of every month. There are a great number of products being sold at the shrine at this time. These include flowers, plants, and other farm products. Usually, the flea market opens and closes at the same time as the shrine. However, during the plum festival and tea festival, the flea market closes much later at night.