Recently, while on my whirlwind day-tour of Tokyo with reader and fellow E-Sangha alumni “JohnL”, our first stop by request was the famous Shinto shrine of Yushima Tenmangū located near the University of Tokyo. The Shrine is mostly dedicated mostly to the Shinto Kami named Tenjin (天神), who in turn is the deification of the historical poet and scholar Sugawara Michizane. The other, original Kami worshiped there is Ameno-tajikaraono-mikoto (天手力雄命), a kami associated with strength and sports, and mentioned in early Shinto myths.
Of all the Shinto Kami, I have to admit I feel a stronger connection with Tenjin/Michizane being a fellow scholar and writer, just as musicians might feel a connected to Benzaiten who embodies music and the arts, or businessmen might pay special attention to Inari or Daikokuten. Tenjin/Michizane fascinates me, so I was hoping to see a shrine to Tenjin and pay my respects just once, and Johnl picked a great location.
The Shrine is in the quiet, but respectable Bunkyo Ward (a short walk to Ueno Park also). Once you get out of the nearby station, there are two “hills” to get up to the Shrine: the men’s gate (otokozaka 男坂) and women’s gate (onnazaka 女坂). The men’s gate is more direct, steeper stairs; women’s gate is more of a gentle slope. Here is the men’s gate:
As you can see, we opted for the men’s gate (since we’re manly men) and were surprised to find a small, hidden Tendai Buddhist temple there, just to the right of the stairs:
It turns out this small temple, devoted to the 11-faced image of Kannon Bodhisattva, is one stop on the “Edo Kannon Pilgrimage” of the Tokyo area (who knew?). It was an auspicious start, so we paid our respects to Kannon Bodhisattva, and also the tiny Shinto shrine on the premises:
Based on the fox statue in the shrine, this is apparently devoted to Inari Kami, which I saw a few times over the course of the day (that’s how popular a Shinto Kami he is). Also at the foot of the stairs was a small shrine devoted to Jizo Bodhisattva, related to the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923:
Again, having paid our respects, we climbed the steps where we noticed the plum tree grove on the hillside. As the historical figure was quite fond of plum blossoms, Tenmangu shrines often have plum trees on or near the premises. In this photo below, the Woman’s Hill was to the left and the Men’s Hill we just climbed was to the right:
From here we passed through the Torii gate into the shrine proper. The main shrine would be on the right, not visible in this picture:
This is the main shrine:
I followed the proper etiquette before and when approaching the shrine, then I left a rather large coin offering as I was excited to be there. Finally, I prayed for help in passing the JLPT N2 exam. Once this was complete, I went to the little “omikuji” fortune box on the lower-right of picture, and was surprised to see that I pulled out the #1 highest fortune possible (daikichi, 大吉):
Besides the very good fortune, the omikuji also included a famous poem by Michizane:
秋風の akikaze no
吹上に立てる fukiage ni tateru
白菊は shirakiku wa
花かあらぬか hana ka aranu ka
浪の寄するか nami no yosuru ka
For which I found an English translation here:
“The autumn breeze rises
on the shore at Fukiage–
and those white chrysanthemums
are they flowers? or not?
or only breakers on the beach?”
Afterwards, we picked up some souvenirs at the gift shop, and got our pilgrimage books stamped. I got a basic omamori charm for studying (again, for the JLPT) very similar to the red charm featured in the Wikipedia article. Then we took a stroll around the grounds. Yushima Tenmangu has a really nice vibe to me, like an urban oasis. It’s a small shrine but very calm, quiet and relaxing. I remember seeing people just sitting on benches reading books or enjoying canned coffee (vending machine also on the premises too), or strolling by the pond:
Somehow the whole scene struck me in a very positive way: peaceful, free for people to enjoy, no fear or condemnation. I think being there, I somehow “got” Shinto for the first time in my life. Reading about it in books seems to help only a little, but Shinto is definitely a very spiritual, but experiential religion.
From the book, The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart, Rev. Motohisa explains:
No matter how hard one works to construct a theology with long strings of elaborate words, those words cannot contain either the world of great nature or the world of the spirit of Kami. In Shinto, it is important for each person to experience and feel in his or her own way and not to use language to force others to believe in a certain way. (pg. 41)
In a sense, Shinto’s lack of a formalized doctrine may be its greatest strength and simultaneously its biggest weakness depending on how you look at it.1 But as I saw Yushima Tenmangu, I realized that Shinto is both spiritual and practical, as Rev. Motohisa also explains:
Shrines in the modern era provide for a wide range of individual and collective needs, some of them overtly spiritual or “religious”, others more subtly so, reflecting the spirituality of everyday life. This union of the sacred and the mundane is a distinctive feature of Shinto. (pg. 11)
Speaking of the mundane, apparently, the shrine is very busy around this time though, as you can see huge wall of ema votives by prospective students hoping to pass the entrance exams into nearby Tokyo University or elsewhere:
Also, I was surprised to see other shrines within the grounds, such as this shrine to Inari Kami:
Suffice to say I was greatly impressed by the whole experience, and finally got to see Michizane’s legacy in person, as well as complete one wish to bring back a Tenjin charm to the US. If you are ever in the Tokyo area, definitely visit Yushima Tenmangu if you can.
1 Somewhat immune to dogma, but also it’s often at the whim of nationalist politics.