More than 900 years of vivid Shintō tradition
It wouldn’t be the first time, if things were taken care of here, that otherwise may go unnoticed, even though their historical or cultural value is immeasurable or despite the fact that they are simply too beautiful to be treated with that much disregard. The Konnō Hachimangū (金王八幡宮 / こんのうはちまんぐう) definitely falls into all those categories. Just five minutes walk away for the paradise of all manga- and cosplay fans, the screamingly colourful and screamingly noisy Dōgenzaka district of Shibuya, most of the poeple don’t seem to make to this island of tranquility.
And since most of the relevant travel guides also seem to be too shy to mention it (even the omniscient Wikipedia offers just a succinctly rough posting in the Japanese language) it is high time to contribute my mite in order to seize this treasure. An study trip organised by the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde” (OAG) was a welcome opportunity to do so.
With its more than 920 years of history, the Konnō Hachimangū is surely one of the oldest in Tōkyō – which is even more astounding, if one keeps in mind that there wasn’t any really considerable settlement around the shrine’s grounds until about 150 years ago. At that time, Shibuya (渋谷 / しぶや) was a place far outside the gates of Edo/Tōkyō – most likely, they didn’t even grow rice around here. But be that as it may, it is a fact that the since the year 1092 AD the spirit of the Ōjin-Tennō ( 応神天皇 / おうじんてんのう), more commonly known with his “divine” name, “Hachiman” (八幡 / はちまん), has been worshipped here. The Ōjin-Tennō is said to have lived from 200 AD to 310 AD and is, since the death of this mother, the Empress Jingū (270 AD), regarded as the 15th Tennō of Japan. Those of you who have read one of my last postings (Sumiyoshi Taisha) carefully know: This Empress Jingū is said to be the “founding mother” of the Sumiyoshi shrines – not half bad either, as a mother… The Ōjin-Tennō’s body has been entombed in one of the biggest mausolea of Japan in the Ōsaka prefecture – not much unlike the mausolea of the Emperors of modern times.
In the old days the clan of the Shibuya family had built a fortress around the Hachiman shine whom they worshipped as their patron. It is said that one stone of this fortress still exists on the grounds of the Konnō Hachimangū. Otherwise only little is known about the shape and the scale of the fortress (a model of how it may have looked like can be seen at the shrine’s museum). Nevertheless, the sphere of influence of the Hachiman is still reminiscent of the Shibuya clan’s tribal area reaching to nowadays Shibuya’s districts like Aoyama (青山 / あおやま), Shōtō (松濤 / しょうとう), Maruyama (円山 / まるやま) and Kamiyama (神山 / かみやま).
Initially called “Shibuya Hachimangū”, from the Edo era the name gradually changed into “Konnō Hachimangū”, as it also became a place to remember a legendary son of the Shibuya clan, Konnōmaru (金王丸 / こんのうまる) (1141-1185?). The “Konnō Cherry Tree” (金王桜 / こんのうざくら) on the right side of the shrine’s main building is his “memorial” so to speak. It was planted by the first shōgun of Japan, Minamoto no Yoritomo (源 頼朝 / みなもとのよりとも) (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura shōgunate. And this tree is not just of historical interest, but of botanical as well, as it carries single and double flowering blossoms on each branch. For more than 800 years the priests have seen to it – and they are continuing to do so – that always new generations of this tree are available to succeed the old tree should its days be over somewhen. The conservation and the securing of continuity is obviously one of the ultimate objectives here – as everywhere in Shintō.
Obviously the main shrine of the Konnō Hachimangū is the actual gem of the compound. The building you can see nowadays dates back to the early Edo era (1612) and was built in the so-called “gongen-zukuri” (権現造 / ごんげんづくり) – the “Gongen style”. I guess, you could say, it is the slightly more modest, older brother of the Tōshōgū (東照宮 / とうしょうぐう) in Nikkō (日光 / にっこう), in which the founder of the Tokugawa shōgunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu, is being worshipped as Tōshō Daigongen (東照大権現 / とうしょうだいごんげん). And that’s where the name “gongen zukuri” derives from. One of the characteristics of this style – and that was really “state of the art” at that time – is not just the elaborate, colourful woodkraft, but essentially the lavish lacquer work that carefully protects the wooden construction. Here is where form has a function and function has a distincly beautiful form.
The building of the main shrine consists of three main sections:
- the Haiden (拝殿 / はいでん), the prayer hall that is open to visitors participating in ceremonies,
- the Heiden (幣殿 – / へいでん), the hall for offerings, reserved for priests only, and
- the ultimate sanctuary, the Honden (本殿 / ほんでん), the main hall to which even priest have access only on particular days of the year.
The fact that the shrine is in an overall good condition is easily explained: It received an interior repainting in 1983 and an external one in 1995. With other words: In a few years new colour and lacquer work will required, should the shrine’s building be preserved for future generations – after all, the building may not just owe it to its structural solidity that it miraculously survived the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, but also the devastating air raids of World War II.
In addition to the stage-building and smaller sub-shrines on the Konnō Hachimangū’s grounds, also the main gate should not go unmentioned. The “Aka-Mon” (赤門 / あかもん), the “Red Gate” that was built somewhen in or shortly before the year 1769. It is a particularly well-preserved example for a shrine gate of the 18th century.
Two years ago an older administrational complex on the northeast-side of the main shrine had been replaced by a new building that also houses an exhibition hall for the shrine’s treasures. Don’t miss that! You’ll not only find one of the gorgeous seven portable shrines or “deity’s palanquins” (Omikoshi / 御神輿 / おみこし) of the Konnō Hachimangū, but also the oldest Omikoshi in the city. With its respectable age of more than 400 years it may be to fragile to participate in the annual pageants, but it is still in a rather handsome state.
Should you wish to learn more about those Omikoshi and what they are “good for”, have a look at my postings related to the Sanja Matsuri in Asakus:
Sanja Matsuri (三社祭) (Engl./dt.)
– Ein Fest für die Götter, das Volk, die Augen und das Ohr
– A festival for the gods, the people, the eyes and the ear
Sanja Matsuri (三社祭）– Video
The close relation of the Konnō Hachimangū with the founder of the Tokugawa shōgunate is also being documented by the fact that the shōgun’s woodcarver, Hidari Jingorō (左 甚五郎 / ひだり・じんごろう) – he is said to have created the world-famous “nemuri-neko” (眠り猫 / ねむりねこ / sleeping cats) at the Tōshōgū in Nikkō – in the early days of the Edo era created two of the golden lion masks (獅子 / しし) that can be seen in the shrine’s exhibition hall.
Don’t miss the numerous works of art and witnesses of a grand past that are on display there!
But, most importantly, like at other religious places in Japan (especially at Shintō shrines): Let the atmophere sink in, try to enjoy the contrast of the hustle and bustle of modernity and a living tradition. And if you behave properly, also the divine spirits will enjoy your presence. Should you feel uncertain as to how to “behave properly” at a place like this – and should you be in command of the German language, have a look here: “Allgemeine Hinweise zum Aufenthalt in Japan: Gute Sitten beim Besuch religiöser Orte“. Should you require a translation, let me know…
And just in case you thought the Shintō priest in the pictures above looked rather “exotic”, your impression didn’t fool you. The Konnō Hachimangū is not just one of those time-honoured shrines, but obviously also one that hasn’t lost connection to the presence when it comes to preserving the continuity in the services for the “deity”. The priest in the pictures comes from Upper Austria, is named Florian Wiltschko and is the first and (so far) only non-Japanese in this rather unusual profession. He started is career as a priest in 2007 with an internship at the Ueno Tenmangū Schrein in Nagoya, during which he also obtained the qualifications of a “kannushi” (神主 / かんぬし / Shintō priest) and was registered as a fully qualified “kannushi” with the association of Shintō shrines. After undergraduate Japanese studies (in Vienna) and the successful graduation from a one-year specialised course at the Shintō faculty of the Kokugakuin University (2012), he accepted a post as priest at the Konnō Hachimangū. Already in January 2013 it was him, who conducted the New Year Ceremony when I was there.
How to get there:
Take one of the numerous trains of private railway companies or Japan Rail or of the subways lines to Shibuya (渋谷 / しぶや). Have a look at the map below for further navigation.
Address of the shrine:
The shrine’s compound is accessible daily around the clock.
No admission fee
Appointments for personal ceremonies can also be made by telephone (etc.).
And should you like to read more about Hachiman…
Tomioka Hachimangū (富岡八幡宮)
– Deities’ palanquins and Sumō wrestlers