Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Yoshino Mikumari Jinja                                                       UC                                                                       
Yoshino Mikumari Jinja
The three honden of Yoshino Mikumari Jinja
(photos courtesy of
Nakamura Satoshi www.yamato-gokoro.com)
 Date founded: Founded in the reign of Emperor Sujin (r. 97–30 b.c.), according to shrine tradition. The current buildings are from 1604. 
Address: 1612 Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara 639-3115
Tel/Information: 0746-32-3012 
How to get there: Take the Kintetsu Yoshino Line from Yoshino-guchi Station to Yoshino Station. Then take the Yoshino ropeway (¥600 round trip) to Yoshinoyama Station. From there it’s about 70 minutes on foot.
Enshrined kami: Ame no mikumari no kami, Hayaakitsu hiko no mikoto, and Kuni no mikumari no kami. 
Prayers offered: Anything related to water, abundant crops, and the health of children.
Best times to go: For the cherry blossom season from early to late-April, or for the autumn color in November.

Yoshino Mikumari Jinja
The torii and romon
Important physical features: Yoshino Mikumari Jinja is part of the World Heritage Site called “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” (for more on this, see “Kumano Sanzan” in "Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion").
            The present form of Yoshino Mikumari Jinja is due to rebuilding at the behest of Toyotomi Hideyori in 1604 (the order would actually have been given by someone else in his name, since Hideyori was only eleven at the time). Like emperors and shogun before and after this time, the Toyotomi worked to ensure their position both through force of arms and the moral force lent by support of shrines and temples (though the latter also entailed the political support of religious sects and their associated clans). Toyotomi Hideyoshi was very active in rebuilding shrines and temples during his lifetime, as well as creating some new ones—including a Great Buddha Hall and a statue both of which were reputed to be larger than the great Buddha of Nara and Todaiji temple. After his death, his wife, Yododono, carried on this legacy in his name and in that of his son. The three honden of this shrine are designated Important Cultural Properties and are a splendid example of Momoyama-period architecture. The shrine is also somewhat unusual in that it combines three separate kasuga-zukuri-style honden under one elongated roof. The entire structure is nine bays wide by two bays deep. It has a nagare-zukuri roof covered in Japanese cypress bark. Though said to be ikkensha-zukuri associated with the kasuga style, it is a little difficult to see the similarities. Whereas kasuga-style honden have the gabled end facing to the front, Yoshino Mikumari’s long roof has the non-gabled side forward. Instead, three chidorihafu false dormers stand to the front, giving the impression of a front-facing gable, but without the pent roofs typical of kasuga-zukuri. There are also no chigi or katsuogi, as one would expect to find on a kasuga-style structure.
            It is interesting to compare this group of honden with that of Uda Mikumari Jinja. Here, as in Uda, the bracketing is more complex than the typical kasuga-zukuri style, as is the decoration. However, unlike Uda, Yoshino has not been repainted in quite a long time, and it is difficult to see the detail in the darkened wood. The honden are raised about three feet above the ground and stand behind a latticed tamagaki fence. The shrine’s other structures include a haiden, heiden, romon, and kairo constructed at the same time as the honden, and all designated Important Cultural Properties.
            Unfortunately, some of the most noteworthy treasures at this shrine are not available for viewing. The shrine is said to house twenty sculptures of the deities, which have never been displayed. These rare Shinto sculptures, called shinzo, are thought to be the work of a minor member of the Kei school of sculptors. The school is best known for the work of two of its finest practitioners, Unkei and his father Kokei, who were active from the late twelfth to the early thirteenth century and are renowned for works such as Unkei’s nio guardian figures at the nandaimon gate of Todaiji in Nara. The only sculpture from Yoshino Mikumari that has been studied is a thirty-three-inch seated female figure with polychromed surface, identified as Tamayorihime, made in 1251 and designated a National Treasure. She has a plump, doll-like face, glass eyes, and wears Heian-style “twelve-layer” robes (juni-hitoe). On her parted red lips is a faint smile. Interestingly, this Tamayorihime is associated with childrearing and therefore with the Mikomori misreading of the deity’s name detailed below. Of the other sculptures it is known that there are male, female, and child figures and that some date from 1224. Amongst the treasures that are on display is a small sculpture of the poet Saigyo, who lived in a hut that still exists not far from the shrine, in the oku-senbon area of cherry trees. The lifelike sculpture from 1785 was probably placed here in the Meiji period and is not one of the twenty shinzo sculptures. Also on view are two very old mikoshi.

Important spiritual features: The shrine is one of the four Yamato Yonsho Mikumari mentioned in the Engi shiki, written in 927 and promulgated in 967, as important places where the Mikumari deity was enshrined. By that time the Yoshino and Omine ranges were the home of a combinatory practice that closely identified the various Buddha with different native kami.  The Mikomori deity was identified as one of the “eight gongen of Yoshino.”  The great Shinto scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) took an interest in the deity, perhaps because his father had prayed fervently to it for a child, after which, he was born. Therefore he felt a special connection to the deity and determined to understand its source.  So he began to research the connection between Mikumari and Mikomori no kami, also called Komori Daimyojin. In his day, the Mikumari deity had come to be worshipped as a child-protecting kami (which is the meaning of the word “mikomori”), due to a mistaken pronunciation that had happened sometime during the late Heian period. Mikomori was often depicted as a court lady with children, and the distortion of the original deity together with its appropriation by Buddhism made Norinaga upset. Mistaken or not, the Mikumari deity is still regarded as a protector of children to this day.  And after all, the deity has proved its worth in this respect by answering a father’s prayer and delivering Norinaga himself.

Description: This is probably the most celebrated of the four ancient Mikumari shrines. The layout is rather unusual. Passing under a torii and climbing a flight of stone steps brings you to the red and white romon that is the entrance to the grounds. Where one would normally expect to see a haiden with the view of the honden obscured behind it, here the honden are to the right and facing left, while to the left of the entrance and facing right is the haiden. The heiden is in the rear, facing the entrance. There is a small rectangular garden in the space between these structures, with a great weeping cherry tree near the heiden. It is recorded that Emperor Monmu (r. 697–707) offered a horse to the kami of Mount Yoshino in 698, asking the deity for rain. The mountain’s water kami is not actually a kami of rain; nevertheless black horses were offered to it in times of drought (a common custom at that time), and white horses were offered to pray for the cessation of rain. Horses offered in this way were sometimes given as a gift or paraded and left at the shrine for a short time. Mount Mikumari is also mentioned in the Manyoshu anthology of poetry from the mid-eighth century. Water kami were often associated with mountains, from which water travels to irrigate the valleys and plains below, and were among the most ancient and important in the lives of the people.
            Yoshino was not only a place of prayer and meditation. The area became the capital of the so-called Southern Court during the Nanbokucho period (1336–92). Emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339) tried to overthrow the Kamakura bakufu, but was thwarted and exiled to the Oki Islands. He managed to escape and raise an army to recapture Kyoto. However, he was again forced to flee after which he set up government in Yoshino. When he "retired", his son Go-Murakami continued the struggle, but to no avail. By the time Go-Murakami died in 1368, the Southern Court had been further weakened, and his successor, Emperor Chokei, moved his base of his activities to Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka (where he was enthroned). After his abdication in 1383, Chokei returned to Yoshino, where he died and was buried in 1394. It was not until the Taisho era (1912-26) that his reign and those of other Southern Court emperors was reconfigured as the legitimate line.
            These days, Yoshino is perhaps best known for the cherry trees that bear its name (Prunus yedoensis, the Yoshino cherry). Although this variety was developed elsewhere, the mountains and valleys of Yoshino are covered with about two hundred varieties of cherry and some thirty thousand trees, with intense clusters known as the senbon (“thousand trees”). There are four separate clusters called the oku-, kami-, naka-, and shimo-senbon (the later being at the lowest altitude). Walking tours and bus tours are available, but expect crowds. After all, the cherry trees bloom for only about two weeks. It is this ephemeral quality that came to be associated with the (supposedly) beautiful and (frequently) brief life of the samurai during the medieval period. Yet it was the monk and mountain ascetic who planted the tree in such profusion in the precincts of shrines and temples. In this way, the mountains of Yoshino have brought together ascetic, warrior and natural beauty, thereby leaving their mark on the culture of Japan.

Festival: Otaue Festival (Planting Festival), 3 April. An ancient rice-planting festival with music and dance.

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