More than 1,900 years of living history
The fact that the “experienced traveller” usually rushes off to Kyōto, the moment she or he has touched Japanese ground in Tōkyō or Ōsaka, has been stated before with a certain degree of amazement on this website. And, naturally, the touristic and historic value of Kyōto shall not be challenged here. But it seems prudent to mention again that Tōkyō should also not be disesteemed when it comes to those qualities. It is far more than a vibrant megalopolis. Also it cannot be reduced to the usual Japanese cliché of coexistence of ancient traditions and dazzling modernity. Tōkyō’s multifaceted character, its ability also to surprise those who think they have “seen it all”, “done it all” shall once more be documented based on one of the most important shrines of the city that is – most likely – also one of the least known ones.
The Ōkunitama Jinja (大國魂神社 / おおくにたまじんじゃ) in the city of Fuchū (府中 / ふちゅう) in the prefecture of Tōkyō (東京都 / とうきょうと) is one of the most important ones in the region and at the same time one of the highest ranking in Tōkyō. In the strict hierarchy of Shintō shrines it is, as an “Imperial Shrine of the 3rd Rank” (官幣小社 / かんぺいしょうしゃ) only outranked by the Hie Jinja (日枝神社 / ひえじんじゃ) in Tōkyō’s Chiyoda district (千代田区 / ちよだく) and the Meiji Jingū (明治神宮 / めいじじんぐう) in Tōkyō’s Shibuya district (渋谷区 / しぶやく) – and the somewhat “not running in this competition” Yasukuni Jinja (靖国神社 / やすくにじんじゃ) in the city’s Chiyoda district (千代田区 / ちよだく).
And on top of all that, it may also very well be the oldest Shintō shrine in the whole region – at least it is the one that can look back on a more or less documented history. It is said that it was founded by the Keikō Tennō (景行天皇 / けいこうてんのう) in the year 111 AD. This emperor may “only” be one of the legendary emperors of Japan, but the old chronicles of Japan, the Kojiki (古事記 / こじき) and the Nihonshoki (日本書紀 / にほんしょき) – both dating from the early 8th century – consistently report that he was the 12th emperor of Japan (reigning from 71 AD to 130 AD).
Sound proof of the shrine’s importance can be found in the books of history from the early 11th century onwards, when the founders of the Kamakura Shōgunate did their prayers here. This was also the place where the sacred spirits of six shrines of the historic province of Musashi (武蔵国 / むさしのくに) (that covered the region in our days occupied by the prefectures of Tōkyō, Saitama and a small portion of Kanagawa) were merged and worshipped henceforth. The shrine was bestowed its present name in the year 1872 (one year after the rank-system for all Shintō shrines, the “shakaku” (社格 / しゃかく), was introduced).
Of more than just local impact is also the annual Kurayami Matsuri (くらやみ祭り / くらやみまつり) that is being held here from 30 April to 6 May. “Kurayami” means “darkness” and refers to the fact that the ceremonies of this shintō festival were carried out at night time in the old days (two of the main attractions of the festival are still being held partially at evening-/night time). There are reports that public manners used to be rather reckless during those nightly festival hours. Obviously they were that reckless that the festival had been put to a stop for a while during the Meiji era (1868-1912) (prude westernes and christian bigots had resented the alleged bawdiness). In 1959 the events in question were shifted to daytime and early evening hours.
In our days the festival attracts almost three quarters of a million people every year, while benefitting from the fact that the festival week is more or less identical with the so-called “Golden Week”, a period of time when Japanese can enjoy quite a number of national holidays in a row.
Among the highlights of the festival are the procession of the gorgeous “divine palanquins” or “portable shrines” (mikoshi / 神輿 / みこし) that leave the shrine on the evening of 5 May (from 6 pm) and return to it in the morning of 6 May by 9 am (the return of the “mikoshi” marks the religious end of the festival).
In the evening of 3 May a horse race (kamakurabe / 競馬式 / こまくらべ) is being held from 8 pm.
Via a long zelcova alley (ケヤキ並木 / けやきなみき) that forms the approach to the shrine’s grounds, one reaches the first building of the Ōkunitama Jinja, the grand Zuishinmon (隨神門 / ずいしんもん), that was built in 2011 (on the occasion of the 1,900-year-anniversary of the shrine). With its height of 8.5 metres, 25 metres width, a clearance of 4.5 metres and its lavishly wide roof it is not only one of the remarkable ones in the country, but also gives an impression of the dimension of the procession of portable shrines that have to pass it.
Maybe also a rather unconventional detail: Both sides of the gate are decorated by two elephant heads – elements that one would rather associate with Buddhist temples. Both sides of the gate are being “guarded” by colourful statues.
Passing the “drum tower” (鼓楼 / ころう) on the left hand side (1646 destroyed by fire, re-erected in 1854), you will approach the red Chūjaku-mon (中雀門 / ちゅうじゃくもん). With is total lenght of 80 metres it shields the complete northern edge of the shrine’s inner grounds. In its present form it was built in 1969.
While passing the gate, you are approaching the impressive Hall of Worship (haiden / 拝殿 / はいでん). In its present shape it was built in 1885 (renovated in 1978). The administration building on its right hand side is where you can also buy devotional objects and lucky charms. It had been designed for the 1,900-year-anniversary (2011) and was completed in 2006.
And while you are there, why don’t you have a little tour around the inner sanctuary of the shrine, the “honden” (本殿 / ほんでん)? You will pass the rather pretty and quaint-looking Tōshōgū (東照宮 / とうしょうぐう), built in 1618 to honour the founder of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康 / とくがわいえやす).
The present Main Hall, the “honden”, the shrine’s most sacred building, is probably based on an “intuition” by Minamoto-no Yoshiie (源義家 / もなもとのよしいえ); 1039 AD to 1106 AD) who in 1051 AD demanded the building of it at this very spot (isn’t it amazing that at this time in history a 12-year-old could simply demand something like that….). In 1590 AD the building was destroyed by fire, but re-erected in 1606 by the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康 / とくがわいえやす) – those of you, who have read the lines above carefully, know: That was the founder of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, that controlled the country’s fate for the next 260 years. Parts of the shrine were again destroyed by fire in 1646 – and again re-erected. In 1867 extensive restoration work was carried out. Also in 1968 some repair had become necessary after the building had been damaged by a typhoon in 1965.
Unfortunately, the “honden” is surrounded by a strong fence – but, if you keep searching and if you don’t mind bending your body a bit, you will find a spot that allows you to take a look at the building and the courtyard. Be prepared to be amazed by the quaint style this sanctuary – but also by its impeccable condition and looks. A truly mystic place – let the atmosphere work its magic on you!
During the Kurayami Matsuri there is also a large flower market on the northeastern side of the shrine’s premises that almost has a touch of southern France. Just next to it you will find a large temporary refreshment hall.
In addition to that, during the time of the festival also the extension of the Zelcova Alley that leads to the shrine’s northern main gate (i.e. the Zuishinmon) is lined with food stalls (have a look at the pictures at the upper part of this posting). If you cannot find anything to eat here, you’ll never find it…
Address of the shrine:
How to get there:
Take the Keiō line (京王線 / けいおうせん) to Fuchū (府中 / ふちゅう) and from there by foot for about 5 minutes in southern direction.
Take the JR Musashino line (JR武蔵野線 / JRむさしのせん) to Fuchū Honmachi (府中本町 / ふちゅうほんまち) and from there by foot for about five minutes in northeastern direction.
1 April to 14 September: 6 am to 6 pm
15 September to 31 March: 6.30 am to 5 pm