Kitano Tenmangu is one of the most popular shrines in Kyoto, among locals and visitors alike. Not only does it have a huge flea market (Tenjin-san) each month on the 25th, but many students of all ages visit before an important exam to pray to the God of Wisdom that is enshrined there. The year 2021 is an especially good year to visit Kitano Tenmangu because of its connection with the ox, this year’s zodiac animal.
Kitano Tenmangu enshrines a real historical person, Sugawara-no-Michizane as its main deity. Born in 845, he was a precocious child, writing poetry from a very young age. He became a renowned poet and scholar and eventually a courtier, where he was supported by Emperor Uda. However, after Uda’s retirement, rivals from the Fujiwara family slandered Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was forced into exile in Kyushu in 901. He died there two years later without returning to the capital, and was buried in Kyushu. Now, the story goes that after his death, Kyoto was hit by natural disasters and a number of Fujiwara courtiers and even the emperor’s family met with illness and personal tragedies. In search for the reason, Shinto priests reported that Sugawara-no-Michizane had appeared in their dreams. Thus, in 947, Kitano Tenmangu was built to appease the angry spirit of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was deified and enshrined as Karai Tenjin, the God of Fire and Thunder. In 987, he was elevated to Tenman Tenjin, the God of Scholarship, and today, Kitano Tenmangu is the head shrine of around 12,000 other Tenjin shrines all over Japan.
The approach to Kitano Tenmangu from the south starts at a large stone torii and follows a path lined with stone lanterns. At the end lies the shrine’s impressive romon gate, a bit elevated from the outer grounds and the main entrance. It is flanked by the common statues of komainu lion-dogs and zuishin warriors and is known for its beautiful carvings and the large lantern right above the path.
On the other side of the gate the precincts open wide. To the left lies the emasha exhibiting large wooden tablets, typical presents to shrines. During the New Year’s period people come here to write their very first calligraphy of the year, and the best ones are exhibited afterwards. Further down this path lies the plum garden of Kitano Tenmangu. These were the favourite trees of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and more than 1500 trees can be found in the precincts. The fruits are pickled and sold in December, to be put into tea on New Year’s day as a good luck charm.
To the right lies the shrine’s treasure house, where many valuable gifts that were presented to the shrine over the centuries are stored and exhibited. The most important treasure is the Kitano Tenjin Engi Emaki scroll below which depicts the origin story of Kitano Tenmangu.
However, the main buildings of the shrine lie straight ahead from the romon gate. You must pass through the sankomon gate, the “Gate of Three Lights”, behind which lies a lovely courtyard with the outer and main prayer halls straight ahead. At Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, these two prayer halls lie under a single, wood-shingled roof, which is very unusual and called the yatsumune zukuri style. The two main gates and the main hall show the typical architecture of the Momoyama period with intricately painted carvings, golden ornaments and pretty lanterns. They were donated to the shrine by Toyotomi Hideyori in 1607, and the main reason why Kitano Tenmangu is designated as a National Treasure.
Another historically important feature of Kitano Tenmangu is often overlooked by the casual visitor. It’s the so-called Odoi, a slightly elevated hill at the western end of the precincts that was once part of the city’s fortification wall. From there, you have a nice overview of the shrine to one side, and the lovely momiji valley on the other through which a little stream flows. As can be expected, this part is especially beautiful during the the koyo in autumn and the aomomiji fresh leaves in spring.
Okay, enough teasing: What’s the connection with the ox? Well, Sugawara-no-Michizane was born in the year of the ox, and thus, oxen or cows are seen as his messengers. Another story goes that when he was supposed to return to Kyoto, he died on the way, and the ox that was pulling his cart lay down on the street and would not get up anymore. In any case, throughout Kitano Tenmangu, you will find many statues of cows. These are called nade ushi, stroking cows, and the idea is that you first rub your ailing body part and then its counterpart on the cow to transfer your malaise to the statue and get rid of it for good. Definitely worth a try!
Because it is visited by so many high school kids preparing for their university entrance exams, Kitano Tenmangu is very busy throughout the year. Like at all other shrines, you can buy goshuin stamps and omamori charms, mostly related to scholarship. Since I like useful stuff, I bought a lovely wooden box of pencils with the shrine emblem and wise sayings on them. Not sure it helps with the wisdom though…