Friday, August 10, 2012

Aoi Aso Jinja                                                                         UC
Romon of Aoi Aso Jinja
Romon of Aoi Aso Jinja
(all photos courtesy of the shrine)
Date founded: Founded in 806, according to shrine tradition. The current buildings are from 1609 to 1613.
Address: 118 Kamiaoi-cho, Hitoyoshi-shi, Kumamoto 868-0005
Tel/Information: 0966-22-2274 Open from 8:30 to 5pm.
How to get there: From Kumamoto Station, take the Kagoshima Honsen Line to Yatsuhiro Station. Change to the JR Hisatsu Line to Hitoyoshi Station, then 5 minutes on foot.
Enshrined kami: Takeiwatatsu no mikoto, Asotsuhime no mikoto, and Kuni no Miyatsuko Hayamikatama no mikoto.
Prayers offered: Help with new ventures.
Best times to go: The beginning of April for cherry-blossom viewing, and the beginning of July for the lotus blossoms in the pond in front of the shrine. Also for the Okunchi Festival in early October.

Haiden of Aoi Aso Jinja
Important physical features: Aoi Aso Jinja’s extremely interesting and unique architecture is its most important physical feature. Five structures of this shrine, constructed between 1609 and 1613, are designated National Treasures—of which there are fewer than eleven hundred nationwide. The fact that three of the five important structures retain their thatched roofs (kayabuki) is a credit to the will of the priests to preserve the shrines’ history in the face of what has no doubt been tremendous pressure over the years to do away with them. Aside from the obvious fire hazard that the roofs pose, the number of craftsmen capable of high-quality kaya thatching has dwindled in modern times to almost nothing. (Of course, all roofs in Japan were either thatched or covered in tree bark at one time, but while many shrine buildings still employ cypress-bark roofs, thatch is now quite rare.) 
           This group of shrine buildings begins with the two-story, three-bay romon gate, which at approximately forty feet tall, is not particularly large for its type. But the structure’s Momoyama-period polychroming, elaborate carving and its massive thatched roof make for a most impressive introduction to the shrine grounds. The gate has a hipped roof (yosemune or yotsuyane), usually associated with Buddhist temples or with thatched-roof farmhouses (minka). It is topped with okichigi, or crossed wood battens that sit on the ridge like chigi. The three-bay-wide gate was once lacquered mainly in black, with red bracket complexes (tokyo) in the zenshuyo (Zen-sect) style and details painted in white and green. Though mostly worn down now to the underlying wood, the once-bright polychrome will make a striking sight when restored. In the outer bays are small, primitive wooden zuijin and komainu figures. There are carvings around the gate above the transom depicting the “twenty-four paragons of filial piety,” a Chinese Confucian theme on the proper relations of children and parents that became a standard of Japanese pictorial art after it entered Japan in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century.
Finally, there are the mysterious and rather curious depictions of  heads of deities. There are four pairs, each in a kind of two-faced Janus composition in white, that sit at the upper corners on the tail rafters (odaruki) under the eaves. They appear to represent yin/yang or nigitama/aratama (protective/aggressive) pairs. The only carvings of this type known in Japan, they were termed “hitoyoshi-style” by Yazaki Yoshimori, a professor at Kyoto University, who undertook a study of the romon in 1944. Interestingly, the Roman two-faced god Janus was also a god of gates and doors. There are paintings of dragons on the ceiling, and legend has it that they came out to drink at a nearby pond and were drawn to the magnificent gate.
            Like the gate, the haiden has a thatched yosemune roof, with the ridge running left to right, and the five-by-three–bay building is divided into three rooms. The building also serves as a kaguraden, where performances of the Kuma Kagura (“Kuma dance”) are performed every 8 October. The front bay is an open “porch,” and the walls of the enclosed bays are of simple vertical wooden-board construction. The building was once painted in black lacquer. It has a very unusual step canopy, with a karahafu roof covered in copper tiles. The interior walls are painted black, with tatami mat floors. Behind the haiden and set perpendicular to it, is the three-by-five–bay heiden, also with a thatched roof and primarily lacquered in black inside and out. There are windows along both sides of this simple structure, giving it the appearance of a large room in a house. There is additional polychroming in red and green along the outer walls above the transoms, in a pattern typical of Buddhist temples. The fascinating design element here is the intricate wooden relief carving seen on the transoms located inside and outside the building. There is one panel for every bay on both the interior and exterior. They are of polychromed wood and depict pine trees, bamboo, plums, peonies, and birds. In addition, the interior has four elaborately carved and painted openwork transoms between the front and rear rooms. The center bay of the back wall comprises a doorway that opens to the one by one bay corridor which itself opens to reveal the front of the honden. This corridor is really no more than a canopy but is considered a separate structure also with a National Treasure designation. Attached to the upper corners of the door frame are carved reliefs of dragons, their faces turned toward the honden.
Heiden of Aoi Aso Jinja
            The honden is a three-by-two–bay nagare-zukuri structure with a copper-tile roof, which contains chigi and katsuogi. These are the only features of the honden that are obviously Shinto. The building is as elaborately polychromed and carved as the other structures, and employs a kozama motif usually found on buildings at Buddhist temples. The walls are made in a board and batten style, with the battens forming a large “X” shape in each bay. They are painted in red, and the same construction style is applied to the front and rear doors of the heiden as well. The gable pediments employ diagonal latticework and a rounded ridge support lintel (koyazuka) that is richly carved in a wisteria motif and lacquered in black. Between the roof and the lattice pediment are carved reliefs of dragons and cranes. All in all, one of the most eccentric and interesting groups of buildings you are likely to run across in a shrine.

Important spiritual features: Takeiwatatsu, Asotsuhime, and Kuni no Miyatsuko are a father, wife and son group who are considered the ancestors of the people of Kumamoto. Takeiwatatsu was the grandson of Emperor Jinmu, who was sent here from Yamato to "settle" Kyushu. While Takeiwatatsu is part of the Yamato lineage that flows from Ninigi no mikoto, the kami who descended to Mount Takachiho in neighboring Miyazaki Prefecture, Asotsuhime and her son are considered native kami of Kumamoto. The Kujiki (nineth or tenth century) states that during the reign of Emperor Sujin, Hayamikatama no mikoto was appointed the first local lord of Aso Province. Presumably, this is why the title "Kuni no miyatsuko" is added to the name of the kami here. The three kami are enshrined in one honden. They are also among the twelve kami enshrined in Aso Jinja and in other shrines in Kyushu. The legend of Takeiwatatsu coming to Kyushu is similar to legends found throughout the country whereby a kami representing the ruling clans conquers, negotiates with, or marries with local kami. Such legends had the effect of showing the dominance of the rulers while also preserving the traditions of the subordinated peoples.   

Kumamoto Aoi Aso Jinja
Arched bridge, lotus pond and torii
Description: The shrine’s name might seem somewhat misleading, since Aso is so strongly associated with the volcano of the same name far to the north. Aoi Aso Jinja is in fact located close to the southern bank of the Kuma River in the southern Kumamoto city of Hitoyoshi. It stands a short distance from Hitoyoshi Station, with the first torii just to the south before a stone bridge that spans a small body of water filled with lotus blossoms. The arched bridge leads directly to the second torii and the entrance to the grounds proper. Slightly further south is the Kuma River, said to be one of the three fastest flowing in Japan, and boat trips accompanied by a master poler are popular. Although the shrine claims a foundation date of 806, it is likely that some form of worship was practiced here from an earlier date. The present structures were rebuilt at the behest of Sagara Yorifusa (1574-1636), leader of the Sagara clan that ruled the area known as the Hitoyoshi Domain for seven centuries since it was granted to them by Minamoto no Yoritomo. It is a bunsha, (literally, “divided spirit”) or branch shrine of Aso Jinja. Formerly called Aoi Myojin, it was a shinbutsu shugo shrine combining Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. The legacy is clearly preserved today in the shrine’s architecture and in a similar building, the Shiyozen-in kannon-do, a Buddhist temple constructed by the Sagara in 1625. For more on shinbutsu shugo see my book, "Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion."
            Hitoyoshi became an important river-port town and acquired a castle in the twelfth century; the remains of the castle keep are now a tourist attraction. There are also about fifty hot springs located along the river. Late-Jomon settlements (400 b.c.) have been excavated in the area, and there are numerous tumuli from the Kofun period (a.d. 300–538). The region is rich in natural resources and attractions. Kyusendo Cave for example, is a natural limestone cave that, at three miles long, is one of the largest in the country. It runs under the city and can be explored in groups (tours around ¥1,050).

Festival: Okunchi Matsuri, 3–11 October. A number of events are held, including kagura dance performance. In one traditional event, children have their head put into the mouth of a wooden shishigashira (headdress used to perform a traditional lion dance), which is said to protect them from illness and other harm in the coming year.

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