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January 6, 2008

Hatsumode 2008 (Kamigamo Shrine, Kyoto)

Last year it was the Shimogamo Shrine we selected for our Hatsumode, this year we opted for its "sibling", the Kamigamo Shrine in northern Kyoto. January 1 was a dark and overcast day, with some sleet raining down, but New Year's day would not be complete without a shrine visit.

The Kamigamo Shrine is dedicated to Kamo-wake-ikazuchi, the son of Tamayori-hime, a princess who together with her father Kamo-taketsunemi-no-mikoto is enshrined in the Shimogamo Shrine. The deity was miraculously conceived after a red arrow touched the princess between her legs. Both shrines were tutelary shrines of the Kamo clan who ruled this area before Kyoto (Heiankyo) was established here as the new capital in 794.

Before being adopted by the Kamo clan, and "humanised," these deities were sheer natural forces. The Shimogamo shrine stands downstream, where the Kamo and Takano rivers flow together and was a sort of river god to whom prayers were said to guard against floods. The Kamigamo Shrine stands farther north, at the foot of Koyama Hill, where the deity first was called down to an iwakura, a rock formation at the top. He was most probably a thunder god to whom prayers were said for rain and good harvests.

This is the Romon, a two-storied gate that gives entrance to the inner part of the shrine. It dates from the 1620s. In front flows the Omonoi stream which is crossed by the red Tama bridge. Like Shimogamo, also this shrine has clear streams which were used for purification ceremonies and stands in a patch of forest. Although the surroundings are more natural, the buildings are slightly smaller than those of the Shimogamo Shrine.

These two mysterious conical heaps of sand (Tate-suna) probably originated in a gardener's device to have fresh sand at hand, but now are believed to be imizuna, "purifying sand" or "exorcising sand" that is scattered at impure spots and in unlucky directions as the northeastern "Demon's Gate." It is even sold in small bags to take home.

Like the Usa Shine in Kyushu, Kamigamo keeps a sacred horse as mount for the deity. The shrine is also famous for the annual horse races (Kurabe-uma) on May 5, held continously since 1093. The purpose of the ceremony is to pray for a good harvest and for peace. Next to the Aoi Matsuri held jointly with the Shimogamo Shrine on May 15, this is the most popular ceremony of the shrine and many people come to watch.

This is the entrance to the Honden, the Main Sanctuary, and Gonden (temporary sanctuary on the left of the Honden), a sort of Holy of Holies where no pictures are allowed. The buidings are National Treasures and date from 1863. They are representative examples of the "Nagare-zukuri" style of Shinto architecture: the front of the gabled roof has been extended forward, the building is three bays wide and roofed with cypress bark. Inside, nothing but the sound of clapping hands and clinking coins.

In front of the shrine, this shop selling local pickles was open even on January 1. Their specialty are Suguki, a kind of turnip (belonging to the famous branded category of Kyo-yasai, Kyoto vegetables), well-fermented and with an acidic flavor. It is one of the typical "winter pickles" of Kyoto.

The Kamo River with as background Kyoto's northern hills. It is barely visible, but one of them, Mt Funayama, has been encrusted with the shape of the ship that is lighted with bonfires during the Obon Festival on August 16. It carries the souls of the dead towards the Pure Land of the Buddha. The Kamigamo Shrine stands just to the right. Walking here, you would not think you are in a large city, it rather feels like free nature.

Another Kyoto winter scene: yurikamome, black-headed gulls, gathering on and near the Kamo River.

P.S. The Kamigamo Shrine is also the location of Poem No 98 of the Hyakunin Isshu, an ablution poem.