Monday, December 17, 2012

Yahiko Jinja (Iyahiko Jinja)                                                                           UC
Yahiko Jinja
(photos courtesy of the shrine)
Date founded:The foundation date is not clear but at least before AD711. Current buildings from 1916.
Address: 2887-2 Yahiko, Yahiko-mura, Nishikanbara-gun, Niigata 959-0323
Tel/Information: 0256-94-3154 Yahiko Tourism Association, 0256-94-3154
How to get there: From Tokyo, take the JR Joetsu Shinkansen to Tsubame-sanjo Station. Transfer to the JR Yahiko Line to Yahiko Station. Then 10 minutes by foot.
Enshrined kami: Ame no kagoyama no mikoto.
Prayers offered: Success with new ventures
Best times to go: Early April to early May for the cherry blossoms, Late October to mid-November for the autumn colors in the adjacent Yahiko Park and on Mt. Yahiko and from 1 to 24 November for the Chrysanthemum Festival.

Important physical features: Yahiko Jinja is set in magnificent surroundings close to the Sea of Japan in the northern prefecture of Niigata. The train that takes you to the shrine crosses fertile plains, populated by small villages (the population of Yahiko Village is only about 8,500) and fields. Rising up a short distance behind the shrine is Mt. Yahiko—the original location of the shrine and the current location of the shrine's goshinbyo at 2,093 feet above sea level. A rope way takes five minutes to transport you to the summit, with its panoramic view, from Sanroku Station at the base. The station is reached by walking from the shrine along the Manyo Road, which is lined with magnificent cedar and oak and sixty varieties of plants mentioned in the eighth century poetry anthology Manyoshu. The road is part of the ground's 500 acres, most of which are covered in keiyaki (zelkova) and sugi (Japanese cedar), many between four and five-hundred-years old. The shrine is located in a clearing at the eastern edge of this forest. A kairo surrounds the flat, gravel-covered, inner grounds in front of the haiden. The entrance to this space is through a chumon with zuijin guardian figures. The haiden is an impressive irimoya-zukuri style building with an undulating bargeboard (karahafu) in the step-canopy (kouhai) over the stairs. The entrance is on the gable side but the unusual thing about this building is the additional roof surrounding an exterior portico (hisashi) that encircles three sides of the building, and connects to right and left wings toward the back of the haiden. This greatly extends the roof width and exaggerates the lifting effect of the roof above it. The honden is a two-bay wide nagare-zukuri style with a copper shingle roof. The overall effect is very elegant. The design is credited to Ito Chuta who designed many shrines in the early twentieth century. To the right of the shrine, a newer area has been built in a similar style to accommodate the shrine office and wedding ceremonies. For additional details of shrine construction, please see "Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion".
            Beside the honden and haiden there are over twenty other structures on the grounds. Among them is the sub-shrine (massha) called Tobashira Jinja, founded in 1694. It is an eighteen-foot-square building with a thatched roof and carvings on the rainbow beams, brackets, and frog-leg struts. This building, like most of the other buildings at Yahiko Jinja, is designated an Important Cultural Property. Near the entrance to the shrine grounds is the Tamanohashi Bridge, a curved, red, taikobashi with an unusual protective roof. Shrine documents record that this bridge was originally built in 711 along with an early rebuilding of the shrine. This record constitutes evidence for the belief that the shrine was founded before that date. The shrine is also known for the Shida no otachi, a sword with an approximately 7-foot blade, which was given as an offering to the kami in 1415. It is considered one of the longest swords in Japan and is on display in the shrine’s Treasure House.

Important spiritual features: According to the Sendai kuji hongi, the kami enshrined at Yahiko Jiinja is a son of Nigihaiyai who descended to earth in the “heavenly rock boat.” The Kojiki and Nihon shoki call the same kami Takakuraji but imply the name represents a person not a kami. All these ancient texts agree that Ame no kagoyama (or Takakuraji) was instrumental in helping Jimmu Tenno to overcome a spell that was placed on his troops, disabling his attempt to establish a nation. This was at a time when Jimmu had advanced to the Kii Peninsula, still far south of where he eventually ended his journey in Nara. Takakuraji had a dream in which the kami Takemikasuchi sent his sword Futsu no mitama to Ame no Kagoyama (through a whole in his storehouse roof) with instructions to deliver it to Jimmu. With the sword removing the spell they went on to defeat all resistance and establish the Yamato state. The Nihon shoki ends the story there but the Sendai kuji hongi has Ame no kagoyama originally being born in heaven as the son of Nigihayahi, later taking the name Takakuraji and marrying Hoyahime no mikoto and becoming the ancestral kami of the Owari clan. However shrine tradition continues the legend with the kami being sent to the Yahiko area by Jimmu to open the land and teach people how to fish and produce salt. This may be another case of the fledgling Yamato state conquering an area and enshrining its deities there. 
            This area was once known as Echigo and the shrine was once called Iyahiko, mentioned in a poem from the Manyoshu anthology of poetry from about 759. 

"Heavenly Iyahiko,
Even on a day
Of blue clouds,
A little rain"

This is considered another confirmation that the shrine existed from the early eighth century. On top of Mt. Yahiko, there is a mausoleum said to be for the kami and his wife called goshinbyo ("a burial place"). This is rather unusual since the top of a mountain is often considered the place where the kami originally descended and therefore the place where its okumiya (original shrine) is located. It is therefore rare to have a burial place for the kami on a mountain summit.  But shrine legend states that Ame no Kagoyama came here by sea so the lack of a mountain top okumiya is constant with the legend.
            The Sendai kuji hongi is a collection of mythical tales that are believed to be the handiwork of a member of the Mononobe clan that traced its ancestry to the beginnings of the Yamato state. This clan was centered in the Nara area close to the Isonokami Jinja, which was their family shrine. They were a powerful fighting clan and closely associated with the Futsu no mitama that is enshrined at Isonokami. The Mononobe lost influence after the clan was crushed in a war with the Soga clan of Korean immigrants who ushered in an era of continental influence in government and religion—including Buddhism.
            One issue that I have come across in relation to the kami enshrined here is some confusion over the name. The Chinese characters used by the shrine (天香山命are usually read as Ame no Kaguyama however the shrine reads them as Kagoyama. The confusion is thus in two parts. First, the pronunciation Kagoyama more properly uses different Chinese characters ( 天香語山命). While at first glance this is no more than another example of the haphazard assignment of pronunciation to letters in the Japanese language, the larger problem is that there are in fact other kami named Ame no kaguyama. For example (天乃香具山) is described as a small hill in Nara, one of the "Three Mountains of Yamato," and also mentioned in the Manyoshu. In the Kojiki, in the story of Amatarasu and the Heavenly Cave, it says that the shoulder bone of a deer and hahaka wood was brought from the mountain of Ama no kaguyama to use for a divination, as well as a sakaki tree whose branches were decorated with beads, cloth and a mirror. The mountain was said to have descended from heaven. Finally, the Nihon shoki confuses matters further by offering several versions of the birth of Ninigi no mikoto's son, Honoakari or Ame no honoakari who's son is Ama no kaguyama and said to be the ancestor of the Owari clan. Although I realize further research is needed to clarify this plethora of information, I have included it here in case someone with a more complete understanding of the kami involved would be kind enough to inform me. If not, I will try to clarify it with the shrine at a later date.

New Years at Yahiko Jinja
Description: Yahiko Jinja is a very old shrine and has always been one of the principle shrines in the area that is currently Niigata Prefecture. Besides a number of Nara period texts it is mentioned in the tenth century Engishiki. It occupies a position is in an old forest at the base of Mt. Yahiko, part of a small mountain range that sits parallel to the coast of the Japan Sea, separating the village of Yahiko from the ocean and protecting it against the severe winter weather that blankets the rest of the prefecture. To be sure it does snow here but less than other places and the weather is relatively temperate. The surrounding forest is thick with tall cedar and old keiyaki trees. One such tree on the way to the shrine is called the “octopus keiyaki” because the multiple thick branches, stemming from its base, flare out like the tendrils of an octopus. This tree is believed to be about 800 years old. The cedars come right up to the shrine, forming a natural wall just beyond the kairou. Coming from Yahiko Station, Momijidani and the forty-acre Yahiko Park are on your left. Particularly splendid in autumn color it is planted with enough varieties of flowers and flowering shrubs to make any season enjoyable. Following the street straight out of the station will take you to Jinja-dori where you turn right toward the shrine and soon cross the Mitaraigawa River that runs from Mt. Yahiko. To the left you can see the Tamanohashi Bridge. Walking a little further brings you to the stone-paved sando A turn to the left leads to the shrine, while a turn to the right brings you to the Shinen Garden where the abundance of cherry trees create a delightful scene in the spring.
            I suppose the better way to begin your journey would be at the train station prior to Yahiko called Yahagi Station. This is where the ninety-nine-foot tall torii is located. Though not technically a part of Yahiko Jinja, it was built by the town in 1982 to commemorate the opening of the Joetsu Shinkansen and mimics the first torii of Yahiko. It is built in the ryoubu style that is most closely associated with shrines that have a long history of shin-butsu shugyo (Shinto-Buddhism combinatory practice). In fact, Yahiko Jinja was part of a late-seventeenth century movement to separate shrines from Buddhist control by abolishing its jinguji (a temple for the purpose of enlightening the kami). But the attempt failed and Yahiko remained a Ryoubu Shinto shrine until the Meiji period. Be that as it may, the torii is reputed to be the largest ryobu-torii in Japan but the kind of competitive monument building it represents has less to do with religion than tourism. Nevertheless, it is an impressive sight with the mountain in the background. It is possible to walk to Yahiko from here but if you choose to get back on the train to go to Yahiko Station, you will be greeted by another monument of sorts. Yahiko Station itself was rebuilt in the style of a shrine and first opened in 1916, the year the shrine was rebuilt after a major fire that devastated the town. The town itself is well know for its onsen hot springs of which there are three, each with its own therapeutic value. Finally, there is the mountain itself. The view from the ropeway and from the top of the mountain is spectacular to be sure, but even here the unfortunate tendency toward monument building manifests itself in the form of a mini-amusement park and an observation tower that slowly turns as it goes up and down its tall shaft. It gives a great view of the Echigo Plains and Sado Island to the northwest when you are inside it, but like most such monstrosities, it totally mars the view when seen from the outside.

Lantern Festival
Festivals: Yahiko Chrysanthemum Festival, 1 to 24 November. Though not a shrine festival, this is Japan's largest chrysanthemum exhibition in terms of the numbers of participants and exhibits. Every size, color and arrangement with a contest held in each category. A flowerbed, in which 30,000 chrysanthemums create a large-scale landscape, is the main feature of the festival.

Lantern Festival, 25 July. This is the main festival of the shrine when its mikoshi is paraded.