Aso Jinja UC
|Romon and yakuimon of Aso Jinja|
(photos courtesy of the shrine)
Address: 3083-1 Ichinomiya-machi Miyaji, Aso-shi, Kumamoto 869-2612
Tel/Information: 0967-22-0064. The shrine is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
How to get there: JR Hohi Honsen Line to Miyaji Station, then 15 to 20 minutes on foot.
Enshrined kami: Takeiwatatsu no mikoto.
Prayers offered: Safety on the seas and the roadways, a good marriage, and academic success.
Best times to go: Mid-March for the Hifuri Matsuri, or 28–29 July for the Onda Matsuri.
Important physical features: Aso Jinja’s most important physical feature may be its proximity to the Aso Volcano. The volcano actually has two caldera—the small “inner” one that is still smoldering, and the huge “outer” one that is a broad and flat plain bordered on all sides by a natural wall that constitutes the difference between the original (higher) elevation of the ground and the lower elevation following the eruption. In other words the elevation at the rim of the outer caldera (3,600 to 3,900 feet) is roughly equivalent to the height of the remaining peaks in the center (3,600 to 4,500 feet). The shrine lies in the northeastern part of the outer caldera—one of the largest in the world at approximately eighty miles in circumference, and the largest in which people are actually living. One of the craters near the center is active, and though the occasional eruptions are small, it does smolder constantly and emit enough gas to warrant color-coded warnings to alert visitors to the level of danger. It is thought that the eruptions that produced the caldera happened between 90,000 and 300,000 years ago.
Like most shrines with a long history, Aso has been rebuilt numerous times—the last in the mid-1800s. It has a magnificent, two-story romon gate about sixty-seven feet tall that is said to be one of the three largest shrine gates in Japan (the others are at Hakozakigu in Fukuoka and Kashima Jingu in Ibaraki). It is three bays wide and unpainted, differing from the other large romon in having a wide pent roof surrounding it at the height of the first story—a feature more often seen in Buddhist architecture. The lower roof is wider than the irimoya roof that caps the structure, and it contains a karahafu over the center bay. Both roofs are covered in copper tiles but were originally surfaced in shingles made of tree bark. A long covered fence extends from both sides of the gate, and smaller roofed gates (yakuimon) punctuate the fence to the right and left. The impressive two-tiered romon leads to a small courtyard that faces the nearby haiden. The haiden has an irimoya-zukuri roof, the ridge of which runs from the entrance side back toward the honden. Large chidorihafu (false dormers) emerge from just under the roof ridge to both the left and right. A step canopy completes the front side. A fence with a broad roof extends to the right and left, and is also punctuated by entrance gates with karahafu. A four-by-two–bay room is positioned at the front corners of the fence. From this point, the fence is lower and the roof smaller as it wraps around the inner compound containing the honden.
The inner compound contains three honden, though there is only one “god seat” (shinza). It is an unusual feature, which is discussed below. Two of the honden (called geden) stand side by side with a space of about ten feet between them, while the third is in the center and to the rear. The two front honden (geden) are identical five-by-two–bay nagare-zukuri structures, but with irimoya gabled roofs and chidorihafu and karahafu on the front side. The roof configuration is unusual but not unheard-of for a honden. The main ridge has chigi and katsuogi, with chigi on the chidorihafu as well. The third building is a much smaller two-by-two–bay structure with only a chidorihafu on the front side of the irimoya roof. The roofs of all the structures are copper tile, and all the wood is unpainted.
Another tradition of the shrine is that of the juniza (Aso junisha), or twelve god seats of Aso shrine. These include Takeiwatatsu, his wife and son, his father-in-law, and other relatives. So it is that the honden to the left is said also to contain six male deities, and the honden to the right six female deities. The honden in the middle rear is called the shoshinden (once called Moromoro Jinja) and enshrines all 3,132 deities mentioned in the Engi shiki. The arrangement seems to date from the last reconstruction in the nineteenth century.
One thing about this shrine that has been remarkably constant is its priesthood. The Aso clan claim descent from the son of Emperor Jinmu, and their leader once held the title of kuni no miyatsuko (provincial governor or country chieftain). This is the same Hayamikatama no mikoto who is enshrined at Aoi Aso Jinja, and he is considered a great-grandson of Jinmu. They were vast landholders and controlled the province until the fourteenth century, thereafter continuing as the priestly family of Aso Jinja (from where the clan name was eventually taken). Although the Meiji government abolished ancestral control of shrines, several families managed to stay in position. The Senge of Izumo Taisha are one example; they claim eighty-four generations as chief priests of the shrine. The Aso clan are another and claim ninety-one generations.
Description: The Aso area of Kyushu is currently being promoted for “ecotourism,” and with good reason. It is largely unspoiled and has unique natural assets. The black volcanic soil is rich and fertile, producing an abundance of crops, and the water here is said to be some of the best in the country. The ancient volcanic pumice provides a natural purification mechanism for the water that flows through the city of Kumamoto toward the sea. It is the largest city in the world to have its primary needs met by spring water. Of course, the magma under the volcano means that there are also a large number of onsen hot springs in the area. The shrine is located in Aso City, a relatively small community surrounded by farms and fields, in the outer caldera of the volcano. The long, straight road that passes in front of the shrine from north to south crosses the railroad line about half a mile south of the shrine. In other words, the long approach is perpendicular to the direction of the shrine, which faces east toward the sunrise. The long, straight road is used for shrine ceremonies such as horseback archery (yabusame) and fire swinging in the Hifuri Matsuri. The shrine’s torii are also along this road, so that if you look southward, the peaks of the inner caldera of Mount Aso are framed by them. One theory is that the shrine originated on the side or the top of the mountains—though its own tradition eschews this theory. Nevertheless, the volcano continues to loom large in the background, and the earthquakes it generates have had a major impact on of the life of the people. There are currently about five hundred Aso shrines across the country of which this is the principal one.
Onda Matsuri, 28–29 July. A traditional planting festival. Fourteen women called unari, wrapped in white from head to toe, carry offerings of rice on their heads, accompanied by a procession with mikoshi, shishimai (a lion dance), and oxen.