Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

January 2, 2007

Hatsumode (Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto)

It was not difficult to decide that Shimogamo should be the place for our New Year shrine visit (or Hatsumode). After all, more than twenty years ago, I used to live close to the shrine and cycle through its grounds to Kyoto University. It is also the shrine where my wife and I had our o-harai ceremony, the Japanese part of our wedding. So often when we are in Kyoto we find a chance to visit Shimogamo, all the more so now that we have come back to live here.

[The sando to the shrine starts in a quiet residential neighborhood]

The Shimogamo shrine has the added advantage that - although nicely busy - it is never too crowded on New Year's day. You can keep moving and are not stuck in long waiting lines. What I also like about Shimogamo is the Tadasu Forest, a patch of green with small streams and even some ancient trees right in the middle of the city.

The forest covers 12 hectares and is said to be a precious botanical site as its ecological environment has not changed since ancient times. If that is true, I wonder why the shrine authorities have allowed the forest to become thinner and thinner in the last twenty years, at least some green has been sacrificed for larger parking lots and other shrine facilities.

[In front if the main gate of the Shimogamo Shrine, it gets more busy]

The Shimogamo Shrine stands in northern Kyoto at the confluence of the Kamo and Takano rivers. It was founded in the 8th c. by the Kamo clan for its tutelary deity - already before the new capital Heiankyo was established at this location. Ever since the foundation of the capital the shrine has played an important role as guardian of the Imperial palace and venue for various important ceremonies.

The two main halls of the shrine were rebuilt in 1853 and despite their relatively late date they are listed as National Treasures. Scores of other buildings on the site are also of architectural or cultural importance.

[The entrance to the inner shrine of Shimogamo Jinja]

In 1994, the shrine was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site, a fact that will not elude you, as the Japanese are more fond of such designations than any other people in the world and therefore advertise it all over the place.

The deities enshrined in Shimogamo are Kamo-taketsunemi-no-mikoto and his daughter Tamayorihime-no-mikoto. This daughter once was sitting at the boards of the Kamo River (I don't want to destroy the romantic atmosphere, but as a matter of fact in olden times rivers were used as toilets), when a fiery red arrow came drifting towards her on the waves. Freud could not have written this any better. Of course Miss Tamayori got pregnant (never let your daughter go alone to the river) and gave birth to Kamo-wake-ikazuchi, a god who was subsequently enshrined in the Kamigamo Shrine, the related facility further upstream.

[A sub-shrine of Shimogamo, the Mitarai shrine, stands in a quiet corner]

After we had bought our sacred arrow for protection in the New year (for a whopping 2,000 yen - these things used to be less than 1,000 not so long ago) and a small eto, a clay doll of the zodiac animal of 2007, the wild boar, we walked back along the sando again.

There were more booths selling food and drink than we remembered from past years, which came in handy as we were quite hungry by now. We skipped the cholesterol-bomb sausages, the thick fries made from sweet potatoes, and many other exotic stuff, but first stopped to eat okonomiyaki, a sort of pancake, then we had yakisoba (fried noodles) and finally takoyaki or octopus balls. Believe me, these taste better than they sound.

[Back along the sando]

And then it was time to leave. We had stocked up on our luck for the New Year. At the back of our heads was a small doubt: would it be enough? Should we visit one more shrine? (I was rather in favor of this, as I had not been able to take any good kimono pictures and hoped to find some gorgeous ladies at the Heian Shrine). But we both decided against it. We should not challenge fate by being too greedy. One sacred arrow should do the job for the coming year!

Access: 10 min on foot from Demachi-yanagi St on the Keihan en Eizan lines.
Shimogamo Jinja has many festivals throughout the year. One connected with the New Year is Kemari-hajime on Jan. 4 at 14:00, a reenactment of a football game among Heian-period courtiers.