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June 27, 2017

The Omiwa Shrine and Sake

Mt Miwa, a beautiful conical mountain (467m / 1532ft) north of the city of Sakurai, at the eastern edge of the Yamato basin in Nara Prefecture, is an important sacred mountain, home to one of Japan's earliest Shinto shrines, called Omiwa or "Great Deity." The whole mountain is sacrosanct and entry is in principle forbidden even today.

[The Haiden of Omiwa Jinja]

An alternative name for Mt Miwa is Mimoro (Mimuro), which means "August Hall." Mt Miwa serves as the shintai (object of veneration, or "kami-body") of that shrine. On the western slope is Japan's most ancient road, known as the Yamanobe no Michi, which is already mentioned in the Manyoshu poetry collection of about 759. Several large burial mounds from the early Kofun period (2nd half 3rd c. - 4th c. CE) can be found around the mountain.

[The tip of Mt Miwa seen from Yamanobe no Michi]

The deity enshrined here is Omononushi (or Onamuchi), also identified with the Izumo kami Okuninushi, the leader of the earthly deities. In Kojiki (712) and Nihon shoki (720), the kami of Miwa emerges as the prototypical earthly deity, or as John Breen and Mark Teeuwen write in A New History of Shinto (p. 71): a violent force that the early Yamato kings struggled to control. In one story the Miwa kami transforms himself into a red arrow and impregnates a beautiful maiden while she is defecating in a ditch (before the advent of water closets riversides and ditches often served the purpose of natural toilets). The offspring resulting from this union with the arrow deity of Miwa became the wife of Jinmu, the mythical first emperor and fictional ancestor of the Yamato dynasty.

[The shrine stands in a quiet forest and is reached through an ancient type of torii: two posts between which a rope called shimenawa has been slung.]

In another tale, the land of Yamato was harassed by a dangerous epidemic and the kami of Miwa appeared in a dream to the then Emperor, the legendary Sujin. The deity declared that he was responsible for the disease and demanded that his spirit from then on be worshiped by a certain Otataneko. When this man was found and started venerating the Miwa kami, the disease was quelled. In fact, Otataneko was a mythical descendant of the Miwa kami, who - in another snake story - had entered the sleeping quarters of Otataneko's mother (Ikutamayori-hime) by way of the keyhole in the guise of snake.

And in one final story, Emperor Yuryaku dispatched one of his vassals of Korean background to seize the Miwa kami. The deity turned out to be a large snake, which cracked thunder at the emperor, forcing him to flee. So the kami of Miwa was a thunder (and rain) deity, who could appear in both human form and in the guise of a snake or arrow. Even today, the offerings at Miwa include not only sake but also raw eggs, because snakes are in Japanese folklore believed to love eggs.

[Ikuhi Jinja, dedicated to the mythical Takahashi Ikuhi,
the first ever Master Brewer (Toji) of Japan]

Otataneko was the ancestor of the priestly lineages of both Miwa, Kamo (the two Kamo shrines in Kyoto) and Hie (at the foot of Mt Hiei in Shiga). "In other words, they were part of an extensive network of intermarrying priestly lineages who controlled a category of earthly deities that threatened the heavenly rule of the Yamato kings with techniques that were at least in part of continental origin," is the conclusion of Breen/Teeuwen.

There existed already an important cult place at Mt Miwa in the Yayoi period (300 BCE - 250 CE); archaeological surveys have shown that offerings continued here until well into the 7th c. The 7th or 8th c. was probably the time that for the first time physical shrine buildings were set up, as happened around that time at many kami cult places in Japan inspired by Buddhist example. The Omiwa Shrine only has a Haiden (prayer hall) and no Shinden (main hall where the deity dwells), because Mt Miwa, right behind the shrine is regarded as the shintai of Omononushi. Behind the Haiden is a triple torii, this time (in contrast to torii in general) with gates (and a fence) which normally remain closed as the mountain is a so-called kinsokuchi or forbidden place. (There is one entrance at the nearby Sai Shrine where pilgrims identified as such and under strict conditions are allowed to follow a path to a rock formation at the summit of Mt Miwa). The present Haiden at Omiwa dates from 1664.

[Sacred cedars in the shrine grounds. Offerings include sake and eggs,
as a snake is said to live at the foot of the tree]

The above mentioned large keyhole-shaped burial mounds in the neighborhood of the mountain probably belong to the first "great kings" (okimi, the term tenno or emperor was only devised in the late 7th c.) of the Yamato lineage. They probably ruled in the second half of the third and in the fourth centuries CE and Sujin, as we saw credited with initiating the worship of Omononushi at Miwa, may have been the first of the line (his real name was Mimaki-iri-biko-inie no mikoto, "Sujin" is a Sinified name devised - as for all emperors - in the 8th c.; also note that the Nihon shoki adds a fabricated calendar pushing the reign back to the impossible dates of 97-30 BCE).

[Sai Jinja is dedicated to the healing aspect of the Miwa deity]

Like the Matsuo Shrine in Kyoto, Omiwa has deep connections with sake brewing: the brew was handed down to mankind by Omononushi, the deity of the shrine, and continues to be offered to him as a way of thanksgiving. In the Manyoshu, "umazake," "delicious sake," is employed as an epithet for the Omiwa Shrine, and the term "miwa" itself was used to designate sake in the past. The Omiwa Shrine holds an annual Sake Matsuri on November 14, when brewers come to pray for a successful brewing season. In contrast to Matsuo Taisha and the Umemiya Shrine in Kyoto, the link of Omiwa with sake is documented in written sources and it was also deeper than that of just a patron deity for the craft of brewing. Deity and sacred drink form a unity, the one is a manifestation of the other. One of the sub-shrines of Omiwa, Ikuhi Jinja, is dedicated to the mythical Takahashi Ikuhi, the first ever Master Brewer (Toji) of Japan. Several songs preserved in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki deny human agency but affirm divine responsibility (through the power of Omononushi, or alternatively, Sukunabikona) for successful sake brewing. The process of alcoholic fermentation must have been considered miraculous and sacred in antiquity. The song in the Nihon shoki occurs when Emperor Sujin has Otataneko worship Omononushi and for that event master brewer Ikuhi has to brew the sake. Ikuhi then sings the following song:

This sacred sake
Is not my sacred sake,
He who brought forth Yamato,
Omononushi,
He has brewed this sake,
Everlasting,
Everlasting.

[Sake brewery in Miwa - Imanishi Shuzo. The brand name is Mimurosugi, or "Cedar of Mimuro (Miwa)"]

Sake was seen as having regenerative powers, even healing ones. That is again connected to the Izumo myths in which Okuninushi figures a a creator deity, who creates the earth ("the land"). In this endeavor he is assisted by Sukunabikona, a dwarf or child deity who suddenly appears from over the sea. Sukunabikona is clearly a medicine god, who also is venerated in the Sukunabikona Shrine in the pharmaceutical quarter of Osaka. After his work is done, he again retreats to Tokoyo, the Land of Eternal Youth. In the grounds of the Sai Shrine (another sub-shrine) is a well with water to which medicinal properties are ascribed. There is here a clear link of sake with "the water of life."

Cedar twigs from the shrine forest of Omiwa are traditionally used to make sugidama (also called sakabayashi), globes of cedar twigs and needles hung under the eaves of sake breweries (and also the Haiden of the Omiwa Shrine) when the new brewing season starts. When the twigs turn brown, the new sake is ready for consumption.

[Otataneko Jinja (Wakamiya) - it is clear from the architecture that this hall was originally a Buddhist temple: the jinguji of Omiwa called Daigorinji]

The Omiwa Shrine was the most important cult place for the early Yamato court, but later it was superseded by the Ise Shrines. Also, when fixed capitals were set up in Nara (8th c.) and later Kyoto (from the end of the 8th c.) other powerful shrines came up in those areas and managed to get the attention of the court. A sort of apotheosis happened when in the early 9th c. the Hie Shrine in Sakamoto was sponsored (and brought under control) by Enryakuji, the Tendai temple complex on Mt Hiei; Omononushi, the kami of Miwa, was invited to this shrine, where he was paired with the mountain deity Oyamakui. Like all kami cult places, around that time also Omiwa was brought under the management of Buddhism and incorporated in a Buddhist worldview, where kami were seen as a sort of lesser avatars of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Several temples (jinguji) were built at Miwa, and remained in charge for about 1,000 years, until the end of the Edo-period.

The Meiji-government had a strict and entirely new policy of separating Buddhism from the kami cult (called euphemistically "clarification;" in fact, as Breen and Teeuwen stress, this was when "Shinto" was created [invented?] for the first time). The temples at Miwa were destroyed; one, Byodoji, was leveled completely, as it was a shugendo temple (the Meiji government particularly disliked the yamabushi priests); the other, Daigorinji, was turned into a sub-shrine (Otataneko Jinja) and here the Buddhist-style hall still survives. The main statue of Daigorinji was a magnificent Eleven-headed Kannon, which at the time of the separation in 1868-71, when countless Buddhist treasures were destroyed, was simply thrown into a ditch. There it was found by the priest of Shorinji, a small temple south of Sakurai, where it received a new home. The once discarded statue now even has the status of a National Treasure! (The main statue of Byodoji, a Fudo Myo-o, is now kept in a small temple near Hasedera).

Thanks to its ancient links with the imperial house, Omiwa Jinja was designated as a "state-funded great shrine" (kanpei taisha) from the Meiji-period until the end of WWII (meaning it was counted among the about 65 major shrines in Japan and its then colonies). Also today, the shrine stresses its link with the imperial family; a visit by the Showa Emperor unfortunately motivated it in 1986 to build a massive steel torii, which is an eyesore on the landscape. But the forested surroundings in which the shrine itself stands are beautiful and allow visitors to catch a whiff of the early kami cult and its strong connection to sake.

[Sources: Miwa - der heilige Trank, by Klaus Antoni (Stuttgart, 1988); Yamato/Kii Jiin Jinja Daijiten (Heibonsha, 1997); A New History of Shinto, by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume I (Cambridge U.P., 1993); Kojiki, translated by Donald Philippi (University of Tokyo Press, 1968); Nihongi, translated by W.G. Aston (reprint Tuttle, 1985); Shinto Shrines, by Joseph Cali and John Dougill (Hawaii U.P., 2013)]