Experience The Wisteria and Magic of Kameido Tenjin Shrine

Shinto is Japan’s indigenous religion.  The shrine is where believers go to worship. Originating with the ancient fear and worship of demons and supernatural beings, Shinto is Japan’s main religion and is widely practiced through festivals and ceremonies.  The shrine structure’s main purpose is to house “kami”, which are spirits of venerated dead people, landscape elements or forces of nature.  The Shinden or Honden, the main sanctuary where the kami is enshrined, is the most important part of the shrine.  

Shintoism; A Crucial Piece of Japanese History

In the olden times, the Japanese worshipped their ancestors and sought their advice.  Village councils often held sessions to evoke and attract the kami in the mountains or near great trees in the forests.  Gradually, these sacred places evolved into today’s shrines. With the advent of agriculture, true shrines came to being with the need to attract kami to ensure good harvests.  However, the first shrines contained no sacred objects or images since they usually served the mountain or environment where they were located.  

The arrival of Buddhism from China introduced the concept of the permanent shrine to Japan.  To help the priests promote accord with the local kami, many Buddhist temples were built next to existing Shinto shrines, making those makeshift shrines permanent. As the shrines evolved with the passage of time, they turned into the imposing structures that they are today

A Sudden Change in Situation; Buddhism Vs. Shintoism

During the Meiji Period (1868-1912) the Shinto shrine underwent significant changes. With the Kami and Buddhas Separation Order, the Meiji administration introduced a separation of kami and the foreign Buddhas.  

This important historical event started the haibutsu kishaku, a violent anti-Buddhist movement that caused the forced closure of temple after temple, the confiscation of lands, including books, statues and other properties, and the forced return to ordinary lives of Buddhist monks. This occurred during the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration Period. 

For centuries previously until the Edo Period’s end, Buddhism and Kami beliefs were so closely intertwined that the same buildings were used as Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. However, things changed when monks were defrocked in 1868 under an order - which instigated a backlash. Afterwards, the veneration of Buddhist statues in shrines and the use of Buddhist terminology to Japanese kami were forbidden. 

Violent Marks In History Turns Peaceful

The defrocked Buddist monks were ordered to become shrine priests. However, after enjoying a period of popularity, the separation of Buddhas and Kamis waned. Both remain intertwined until the present.  As proof of this, almost all Buddhist temples in Japan have a small shrine dedicated to its Shinto kami while Buddhist figures are worshipped in Shinto shrines.  

The History of the Kameido Tenjin Shrine in Koto-ku, Tokyo

The Kameido Tenjin Shrine, in particular, is dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane (845-903 AD), a 9th-century scholar and poet who was one of the most significant politicians in Japan's history.  

Towards the end of the 9th century, he was appointed the governor of Sanuki Province and given other important positions by then Emperor Uda.  However, at the start of the 10th century, Michizane was accused of plotting against the throne.  As a result, he was banished from the city and given a minor post in the island of Kyushu.  

Appeasing an Angry Spirit

A few years after Michizane’s ignominious death, there was a series of droughts and fires in the capital city of Kyoto, culminating in the sudden death of a son of Emperor Daigo. These were all attributed to the angry spirit of Michizane.  To appease his spirit, a Shinto shrine was built in Kyoto and dedicated to Michizane, defining him as the god of learning and literature. Many Shinto shrines are devoted to him in Japan, including the Kameido Tenjin Shrine. 

In 1646, the Kameido Tenjin Shrine was built by Sugawara Ootorii Nobosuke, a descendant of Michizane. To enshrine Michizane, a statue made of plum wood was installed in his honor. Since then, the shrine has been worshipped to pray for success in tests and examinations in all fields of study including worshippers from the Japanese Edo, Meiji, Taisho, Showa, and Heisei periods.  

In 1662, the main shrine, paths, bridge, and garden area were built following the order of the main Tenmangu at Kyushu. The original shrine was destroyed in World War II and the shrine as it is seen today was reconstructed with cement, steel, and modern materials.

Exploring Japan: A Guide to Kameido Tenjin Shrine

The Kameido Tenjin Shrine (sometimes called “Kameido Ten Jinja”) is located on the east side of Tokyo Metro, in a surprisingly beautiful site that includes ponds and an impressive arched bridge. A popular tourist attraction during the summer, the ponds are home to numerous koi and swimming tortoise. The shrine is also known for its plum blossoms in February and the Wisteria Festival in late April to the beginning of May.  

Along the approach to the shrine are 3 bridges, representing the life of a person: the first bridge named Otokobashi meaning “men’s bridge” represents the past.  The second bridge is called Hirabashi which represents the present while the third and last bridge is called Onnabashi, or Women’s Bridge which symbolizes the future.

The shrine is known to be one of the best places in Tokyo to see Japanese wisteria, which was said to have been planted during the Edo Period.  While the Wisteria Festival is held in spring, the shrine is also famous for plum blossoms in winter. The Plum Festival is held from late winter to early spring and the Chrysanthemum Festival is held in late autumn; around November to December.

What is Inside the Kameido Tenjin Shrine?

Located in the Koto Ward of Tokyo, the Kameido Tenjin Shrine has over 350 years of history.  Passing the main gate through the large torii is the main road that approaches the shrine. Inside the shrine grounds is found a large pond and 3 vermillion bridges.  

  1. The first bridge is a male arched bridge.  
  2. The second is a broad bridge
  3. the third is a female arched bridge. 
By Manishprabhune [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that crossing these bridges cleanses the soul. The male and female bridges are quite angular, so care must be exercised in crossing them.  Sugawara no Michizane, a poet, and politician of the Heian Period, is enshrined along with ancestors of the Sugawara family in the main hall that rises from the inner section of the grounds.  He was worshipped as a deity due to the many natural disasters that occurred after his death.

Also found in the vicinity of the main hall is a monument inscribed with a godly bull, many lanterns, fans and other objects of interest.  The bull is believed to provide healing and wisdom if touched.  The shrine is also famous for being Tokyo’s best location for viewing Japanese wisteria flowers which are cultivated close together on trellises.  

Apart from wisteria flowers and plum blossoms, the shrine is also popular for its ponds with many swimming turtles. The word “kame” in Kameido means turtles. In the old days, the area probably had many wells and ponds with many turtles, giving the place the name Kameido. 

See a Special Piece of Art in Kameido Tenjin Shrine by Utagawa Hiroshige

“Grounds of Kameido Tenjin Shrine” (from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo) was created by Utagawa Hiroshige in 1856.  Influenced by Hokusai’s “Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji”, Hiroshige started the first of his series of dramatic landscape scenes that incorporated scenes of famous places. He also notably created a piece called “Plum Park in Kameido”.

Hiroshige was the last major master of the ukiyo-e school (woodblock art) and lived his entire life in the city of Edo (now Tokyo). Composed of 119 landscape and genre woodcuts of mid-nineteenth-century Edo, “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” is a single-sheet collection showing the artistic vision that characterizes ingenuity of the ukiyo-e color woodcut.  Hiroshige was born in 1797 and died in 1858. Many of his works are displayed in a museum in Tokyo called Hiroshige Museum of Art. 

A Report on Kameido Tenjin Shrine’s Wisteria Festival in 2017

The Kameido Tenjin Shrine Wisteria Festival is one of the most beautiful and popular festivals (“matsuri”) and is easily accessible from central Tokyo.  About 50 or more of the wisteria flowers start to bloom around the end of April.  

The wisteria flowers create a dazzling reflection in the pond and the light fragrance is intoxicating and pleasing to many people. In full bloom, the flowers create a stunning fairy tale tunnel. The annual Wisteria Festival is held from April 15 to May 7 when the wisteria blooms are most abundant.  

By 御粥 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are many events that are held on weekends and holidays with various food stalls along the promenade and inside the shrine that add to the excitement of the festival. Delicious okonomiyaki, yakisoba, yakitori, choco bain Shrine is open 24 hours nana treats are readily available. The wisteria flowers are illuminated in the evenings from sunset until midnight and the backdrop of the shining Tokyo Skytree provides a magnificent contrast to the flowers.    

The Kameido Tenjin Shrine is open 24 hours daily, 7 days a week. Admission is free. 

Find a Map to Help You Navigate and Find Kameido Tenjin Shrine

As with most aspects of traveling, it is crucial to prepare before going to your destination to make the most out of it. Because this shrine is found in Tokyo, there are many options for you to arrive here because of their comprehensive and clear public transport system.

You may find a map online and print it out, however, it is most convenient to purchase a sim that provides data, or a portable wifi router that can give you access to interactive maps online to help guide you. Google maps are one of the best and can give you detailed maps of where you are, locating you via GPS. It can also give you more information via live updates on the train, subway, and bus schedules. 

Accessing the Kameido Tenjin Shrine

A 14-minute walk from the JR Kameido Station via the JR Sobu Main Line or the Tobu Kameido Line or a 15-minute walk from the North Exit of Kinshicho Station taking the Sobu Line or Tokyo Metro Hanzomon Line are ideal ways to get to the shrine. 

It should take about 30 minutes to 1 hour to tour the shrine, depending on the pace. 

Stop By the Kameido Tenjin Shrine for A Uniquely Japanese Cultural Experience

The saying “you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all” does not count when it comes to shrines in Japan. Each shrine houses different kami, and has a unique history, which makes every encounter a personal and special one. There are many hotel options, restaurants, and accommodations around this shrine, so it’s very easy to stop by – and it’s definitely worth the effort.