Shimogamo-jinja: Among the Oldest Shinto Shrines in Japan

Among the most popular places to check out in Japan are shrines. With its rich culture and tradition embedded in the history of Japan, it comes as no surprise that several of its shrines are still preserved and well-maintained up to this day. While these are various shrines in the country that one can check out, probably one of the most suggested shrines to look into is Shimogamo Shrine. This may be because it is one of the oldest Shinto shrines still standing in Japan today.

Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto: Overview and Opening Hours

By No machine-readable author provided. Fg2 assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

More commonly known as Shimogamo-jinja in Japanese, Shimogamo Shrine is a famous place as an essential Shinto sanctuary located in the Shimogamo District, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto City. While it is more well-known by the name of Shimogamo-jinja, its formal name is actually Kamo-mioya-jinja. As one of the oldest Shinto shrines in the country, Shimogamo Shrines is among the 17 Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Shimogamo Shrine has also been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The associated Kamo shrines of Kyoto, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine, are generally referred to as Kamo-jinja in Japanese. Between the two shrines, Shimogamo-jinja is older with some believing that it is a hundred years older than Kamigamo Shrine. Some say that Shimogamo Shrine dates back to the 6th century, which was prior to Kyoto becoming the capital of Japan. The purpose of Kamigamo Shrine is to protect Kyoto from bad influences.

Shimogamo-jinja is mainly dedicated to the veneration of Kamo Taketsunomi and his daughter Tamayori-hime, whose name literally translates to “the spirit-inviting maiden.” With Honoikazuchi-no-mikoto, who is the God of Fire and Thunder, Tamayori-hime has a son named Kamo Wakeikazuchi, who is also known as the “thunder-divider of Kamo.” It is the Kamogamo Shrine that is dedicated to Kamo Wakeikazuchi.

History of Shimagamo-jinja

The specific history of Shimogamo-jinja is known to be a bit hazy. However, artifacts have been found from the excavations in the Tadasu no Mori forest that indicate that the site was already being used during the Yayoi period, which was 2,000 years ago. Though the Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine are known as separated entities, they used to be considered as one back in the day.

Legend says that the founder of the Kamo clan who was known as Kamo Taketsunumi no Mikoto became a three-legged crow called yatagarasu. In this form, it is said that he guided Emperor Jinmu, who was the first emperor in Japan, to the plains located in Yamato. From there, the emperor founded the kingdom that later on grew and developed into the modern nation of Japan.

Initially, Shimogamo-jinja was built as a complex that consisted of buildings, which was in contrast to a typical worship site in nature. It was constructed during the tenure of Emperor Tenmu, who was the 40th emperor of Japan, ruling from the year 675 to the year 686. The prestige of the Kamo Shrines increased during this time due to the ties of the Kamo clan to the Hata clan, which was an immigrant clan that was powerful in that area.

The well-known shrine began as a modest one in the beginning. Gifted with only around a hectare of land where the shrine could grow its own ritual crops, Shimogamo Shrine’s popularity grew when the capital of Japan became Kyoto. Rising to prominence, the shrine eventually had 689 hectares of land after 300 years. Following the move to Kyoto, the imperial family, as well as several influential priests, started to patron Shimogamo Shrine in the hopes of keeping malign influences at bay.

Because of this imperial patronage, as well as being at the age of wealth and prosperity and cultural height, the Shimogamo Shrine rose to fame and benefitted greatly. Eventually, one of the daughters of Emperor Saga, who reigned from the year 809 to the year 823, was designated by the emperor himself as the Sai-in, which translates to “sacred maiden,” of the shrine. This act was based on the tradition that is done at the grand Ise Shrine, which is considered to be the most important site in the religion of Shinto.

There are various processions done inside the shrine. One of these is the Aoi Matsuri. This custom began as an elaborate procession wherein the maiden was taken to the shrine, as accompanied by an imperial messenger, once every year for the purpose of not just purification but also for ceremonies. To this day, the Aoi Matsuri is still being done in Shimogamo Shrine. Another system adopted by the shrine was that of skininen sengu. It is a concept of renewal in the Shinto religion that stipulates that shrine complex must be rebuilt every span of 21 years.

Sadly, the influence and prominence of Shimogamo Shrine decreased as the Imperial power fell. The elite of Kyoto got involved in a civil war, which also led to a shogunate system that eventually seized power from the Emperor. Even though Imperial rule made a return in the 1800s, the status of the shrine was still under threat due to Western modernization and influence. Thankfully, during the period of State Shinto, Shimogamo Shrine was recognized as a kanpei-taisha, which meant that it would receive support from the government.

An unfortunate time befell the shrine during the war period. Due to the lack of funds, several festivals and shrine activities were canceled. Still, the people of Kyoto continued to support and preserve the shrine through the tough times. Today, Shimogamo Shrine has somehow adapted to the modern world and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Different Structures Inside the Shrine

By Nekosuki [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

There are various structures inside the shrine complex that visitors can check out. There are two main shrines inside the complex that are dedicated to two main gods, namely, Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto and Tamayorihime-no-mikoto. As a tradition hailing back to the Heian period, the east main shrine and the west main shrine face south. Visually, both shrines embody the architectural style that was typical during the Heian period. They also serve as great examples of Nagare zukuri.

Both shrines are known for its flowing roof style. What makes it distinct is its porch on one side of the shrine that is covered by a long gabled roof. Several main shrine structures throughout Japan replicated this roof technique. Both main shrines were rebuilt in the year 1863 and have been preserved well. Today, both of them are designated as National Treasures.

The next structure on the list is the Maidono. Because of the prominence of Shimogamo Shrine, numerous emperors have already visited the complex to pray for the welfare and prosperity of the entire nation of Japan. However, the emperors initially would only stop at the red torii gate, which is located just outside the Maidono, instead of going inside the shrine. It was their messengers who would have to carry the prayers of the emperors, as well as gifts, inside the Maidono.

However, the role of the emperor was redefined in the 1600s. Following this, the Meiji emperor and the succeeding ones began to enter the Maidono. The present Maidono structure was built in the year 1628. It is this exact building that served as the host of all the emperors who personally entered the structure and prayed for his people.

One of the halls inside the complex is the Shinbukuden. The Japanese term “shin” translates to “god” while the term “fuku” means “clothes.” As the name suggests, the Shinbukuden is the hall where the clothes of the gods were initially sewn. As time went on, the purpose of the hall eventually changed. It became the temporary residence of the emperor should his palace in Kyoto were ever to catch fire. While this never happened, the Shinbukuden still serves as a resting place for the emperor every time he visits Shimogamo.

Another hall inside the shrine complex is the Ooidono Hall. It is the traditional place where all religious offerings in the shrine complex are prepared. It consists of a garden abounding in hollyhock, which is called “aoi” in Japanese. Hence, its garden was formerly known as “The Garden of Aoi.” Currently, the said garden is considered a venerated area in the Aoi Festival.

Aside from the main Shimogamo god named Tamayorihime-Mikoto, there is also another god that bears the same name. A shrine known as Kawai shrine was dedicated to this god. This god is known to be the guardian for women even though one of the shrine’s most popular residents was actually a male. This shrine is also considered to be one of the most essential shrines in the complex.

By Chris Gladis from Kyoto, Japan (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

During the 12th century, the priest of this shrine fathered a child who was prevented to succeed the position of his father. Considered an ill-fortune, the child eventually grew up to become among the most famous pessimists in the country, Chomei Kawai. He wrote a book entitled Hoojooki, which is composed of a comprehensive review of the various disasters that the people of Kyoto have experienced through the years.

Another shrine in the complex that is highly popular among the public is Aioi-sha shrine. This shrine is dedicated to Kamumusub-no-Kami, who serves as the god of good marriage as well as the guardian of engagement. It is a custom for people who are engaged to visit this shrine and pray for a good and happy marriage. Part of this custom is to pick a fortune slip that contains lines from the famous Japanese book entitled “The Tale of Genji.” This is in hopes that the person’s marriage would fare better than that of the protagonist of the book.

The shrine is also known for its Sakaki tree. A mysterious holly stands near the shrine, which was actually a product of two trees that intertwined. This tree is officially known as the “Renri no Sakaki,” which also became the subject of one of the Seven Myths of Kyoto. The myth states that whenever this tree passes away, another of its kind would again grow in the Tadasu-no-mori. Proving this myth, the present Sakaki tree is actually already the fourth of its kind.

Based on its location, one of the shrines in the complex is called the Mikage shrine. Standing on Mt. Mikage, which is one of the 36 Higashiyama mountains located on the west side of Mt. Hiei, the shrine is often visited by the pilgrims during the Mikage festival. As one of the most ancient rites in the Shimogamo tradition, this festival starts as a rite of life and energy, which translates to “miare” in Japanese. The concept of this festival centers on renewal and regenerations of crops. Because of this, the Mikage Shrine is also often called the Miare Shrine.

Assigned as an Important Cultural Asset by the national government of Japan, another shrine to include on the list is the Mitsui Shrine. It enshrines three gods, namely, Kamotaketsunomi-no-Mikoto, Ikakoyahime-no-Mikoto, and Tamayorihime-no-Mikoto. Next shrine would be the Izumoinoheno Shrine, which is also known as Hiraki or holly shrine, due to the trees that surround the shrine. Other structures to check out in the complex are Koto shrine, Mitarashi shrine, Hosodono, Reiji-sha shrine, Aka-no-Miya (Kamohani shrine), and Adzukariya.

The Main Festival in Shirogamo-jinja

By Japanexperterna [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

The main festival in Shirogamo Shrine is none other than Aoi Matsuri. With the beautiful scene of fresh greenery in Tadasu-no-mori, as brought by the month of May, the shrine is most popular during the Aoi Festival. It begins on the 3rd of May with a show of horseback archery hailing from the Heian period called the Yabusame-shinji. This depicts archers in court noble costumes aiming and shooting at targets in several parts of the forest. Another archery event known as the Busha-shinji occurs after two days, but with a different costume.

There are several other activities that happen during this event such as religious processions with several people donning costumes, singing, and dancing. Different events occur during the length of the festival, with some of them happening on the 12th and on the 15th of May.