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

January 10, 2007

Toka Ebisu in Ebisu Shrine, Kyoto

Toka (Tenth Day) Ebisu is a festival with prayers for happiness and success in business that is held at Ebisu Shrines around Japan, especially in the Kansai, between 8 or 9 and 11 January. The most important shrines are Imamiya Ebisu in Osaka, Nishinomiya Ebisu in Nishinomiya near Kobe and the Ebisu Shrine near Kenninji in central Kyoto. The first two ones usually draw a million visitors each, so that was a good reason to opt this year for the smaller and more cosy Kyoto shrine.

[People are touching the Ebisu Statue in the Ebisu Jinja, Kyoto, for luck]

Ebisu is always depicted as a jolly good fellow (as the statue above) but in fact he is a rather complex deity. His name means 'foreigner' or 'barbarian,' which hints at the fact that he is a so-called marebito deity, a deity who has come from overseas.

In Japanese mythology he first appears as the misshapen 'leech' child of the Creator Gods Izanagi and Izanami, born without bones because the female, Izanami, has taken the initative during lovemaking. In a paternalistic society, such wild behavior apparently leads to dire consequences.

The deities, who are on an island called Onokoro, that has been identified with part of modern Awaji, put the misshapen infant in a boat made of reeds and abondon it to the waves of the sea. So much for parental responsibility! The child washes ashore on the opposite coast and comes to be venerated as the god Ebisu. He remains slightly crippled and deaf for the rest of his life, but is all the same a very auspicious figure and as a god he becomes many times more popular than his unfeeling parents - sweet revenge.

[Ebisu Jinja, Kyoto]

In a completely different story, Ebisu is identified with Kotoshironushi, a deity from the Izumo pantheon, and the son of the culture hero Okuninushi no Mikoto. When the Sun Goddess sends Takemikazuchi as her envoy to demand that Okuninushi gives up his land to her (as a faint echo of the struggle between Yamato and Izumo), Okuninushi entrusts Kotoshironushi with the response. His son, however, pledges allegiance to the camp of the Sun Goddess and hides himself inside an enclosure of green leaves he has made in the ocean. A sort of sacred suicide, I suppose.

However it may be, in both stories the link with the sea is striking and that remains so: Ebisu is first and for all the deity of fishermen and safe sea travel. That is how he came to be here in Kyoto: the Ebisu Shrine was originally part of Kenninji Temple, set up by Eisai. Eisai (1141-1215) was one of the first priests to resume travel to China to study (after a hiatus of two and a half century), and as a result he was able to introduce Rinzai Zen Buddhism and tea to Japan. During his voyage, when a storm blew, he entrusted his fate to Ebisu and out of gratefulness for his safe trip enshrined the kami in Kenninji. In the Meiji-period, the shrine became independent from the temple.

[Ebisu Jinja, Kyoto. Visitors buy decorations
to hang on the good luck bamboo branches]

Ebisu later was included among the Seven Deities of Good Fortune and is often paired with Daikoku, the god of agriculture. He wears a tall hat and always holds a fishing rod in his right hand and a seabream under his left arm. In the Edo period, he also became popular as a god of commerce and shopkeepers and that is what most Kyotoites will come for during Toka Ebisu.

'Toka' is 'tenth day,' and January 10 was according to one tradition the actual birthday of the god. That day is the main festival, but already on the 8th it was very lively in the shrine grounds of the Kyoto Ebisu Shrine, with lots of booths selling fukusasa, 'good fortune bamboo branches' on which various good luck charms as rice bales, sea bream, gold coins and cranes were hung by the visitors. This can add up to quite a high price, but only few people leave without buying a branch and colorful parafernalia to decorate in their house or shop.

[Ebisu Jinja, Kyoto. As Ebisu is a bit deaf, worshipers knock on the boards of the shrine so that he listens to their prayers]

Address: 125 Komatsu-cho, Yamato-oji-dori Shijo-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Tel: 075-525-0005
Access: 6 min on foot from Shijo Keihan St; 8 min from Shijo Kawaramachi. 
Hours: 9:00-17:00. Grounds free.