KYOTO, June 4 — The ancient city of Kyoto is home to many a shrine and temple, many of them Unesco World Heritage sites.
One of the oldest — and surrounded by all manner of myths — is the Shimogamo Shrine in the northern part of the city. Expect streams that can tell your fortune, mirrors that can make you beautiful and more...
Located at the delta of the Kamogawa and Takanogawa rivers, Shimogamo Shrine is the revered place of worship for Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto, the guardian deity of Kyoto city.
According to legend, he was believed to have come to Earth in the form of Yatagarasu, the three-legged deity of the sun, and led the first emperor of Japan to settle at what is now the site of the shrine.
Whether you believe in this story or not, there is a whiff of the divine about Shimogamo Shrine. It goes beyond the usual throng of devotees praying and buying lucky charms. Something more than the vermilion columns, red parasols and strings of tied fortune paper.
No, there’s something else about the shrine and its surrounding forest that is quite magical and begs discovering.
Before offering prayers, you should purify yourself by washing your hands at the temizuya — a type of water fountain — near the entrance. The reasoning here is that you will wash away both impurities from your body as well as from your soul. As with many things in Japan, there is a correct way of doing this.
First, take one of the ladles leaning against the temizuya with your right hand. Scoop up water and pour water over your left hand. Next do the opposite: ladle in your left hand and water poured over your right.
Then pour some water into your cupped left hand and rinse your mouth; the ladle must never touch your lips directly. Finally, tip the ladle over to rinse it and you’re done.
Inside many devotees are busy offering prayers or admiring the shrine’s ancient architecture. Those of you who are curious about your fortune can try out the art of mizu uranai mikuji. You begin by purchasing an omikuji, which looks like nothing other than a blank piece of paper. The magic happens when you dip your omikuji into the stream flowing through the shrine and — voila! — your fortune is revealed. (You might need some help with the translation though...)
There is more to Shimogamo than its eponymous shrine. The Tadasu-no-mori Forest, a lush 12-hectare wood that surrounds it, is a serene and green oasis. During spring, the forest is famous for its plum and cherry blossoms.
Such its natural splendour that, independent of Shimogamo Shrine, Tadasu-no-mori Forest is a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site in its own right.
Like a scene out of a Japanese fairy tale, you will encounter a small tea shop in the middle of the shrine forest. This is actually a dessert shop specialising in mitarashi dango, a type of mochi covered with a sweet soy sauce glaze.
During cherry blossom season, there are special sakura mochi served on its own or in an adzuki (red bean) broth. Devotees stop for a rest; a bite of these sticky rice balls and a sip of hot tea help rejuvenate one’s soul and weary feet.
While most visitors only spend time at the main Shimogamo Shrine, there is another smaller shrine within its grounds that deserves a visit too. Located near the south gate of Tadasu-no-mori Forest, the Kawai-jinja Shrine is dedicated to
Tamayori-hime, daughter of Shimogamo Shrine’s great deity and the guardian spirit for women. Therefore many women gather at the shrine to pray for a good matchmaking, an easy delivery and above all — beauty.
Although the word “Kawai” in the name of the shrine sounds similar to kawaii — Japanese for “cute” — they’re not related. However, there is indeed a very cute practice here at Kawai-jinja Shrine that might just make you squeal “Kawaii yo!” (“So cute!”)
After passing through the red torii gate and past the model of the hut in which venerated author Kamo no Chomei lived, you can purchase a kagami ema — a hand-held wooden plaque that is fashioned after an old Japanese bronze mirror. Costing 800 yen (RM30) each, the kagami ema has a very basic outline of a face on its surface: just the eyes, nose and lips.
Now comes the fun part: You get to customise the kagami ema to resemble your own face — or rather, the ideal version of your face. The shrine provides crayons but you’ll notice some ladies using their own cosmetics — from a simple lipstick to mascara and even blush! — to create their own masterpiece. You can hardly blame them; they’re supposed to put their best face forward, so to speak.
When you’re done, don’t forget to write your name and your wishes on the back of the kagami ema. Now stand in front of the tiny mirror at the main altar. Bow twice with the kagami ema in hand, look at your reflection in the mirror, make your wish and bow again.
All that’s left to do is to add your kagami ema to the others already stacked on the racks. This is where everyone gets a little nosy and has a look at other visitors’ drawings. Some are quite simple. Others can be quite ornate and detailed. There are more than a few male faces, complete with beards and moustaches!
Oh, how kawaii!
Before you leave, be sure to drop by the shop beside the shrine entrance for a sip of their famous “beauty water” or bijinsui. Also known as karinsui, this health tonic is made from honey, spring water and fresh quince juice. The latter comes from quince trees grown on the grounds of the shrine — which may entail some additional blessed properties (or not).
Certainly the bijinsui has plenty of vitamin C which is good for the skin so the tonic may well earn its “beauty water” moniker yet. Priced at 350 yen (RM13), the bijinsui is served chilled in summer and hot in winter. It’s certainly a refreshing drink after a full day of exploring Shimogamo, and therefore a well-deserved reward.
Shimogamo Shrine & Kawai-jinja Shrine
59 Shimogamo Izumigawacho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 5:30am-6pm (summer) and 6:30am-5pm (winter); admission free
Tel: +81 75-781-0010