February is usually the coldest month in Kyoto, and the ancient setsubun festival is meant to dispel various demons trying to invade the city. The most popular of Kyoto's setsubun festivals takes place in Yoshida Shrine on February 2nd and 3rd.
Yoshida shrine is quietly tucked away on one of the Higashiyama mountains, and its proximity to Kyoto University makes it a popular spot for students for a stroll or a quick prayer before an exam.
Yoshida shrine was founded in 859 by Fujiwara Yamakage. It is home to four main deities, the kami of Kasuga: Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto (the god of thunder) and Ihainushi-no-mikoto (who both ward off evil and grant good fortune), Ame-no-Koyane-no-Mikoto (a scholarly god) and Hime-gami (a goddess giving special blessings to women); the latter two are married and bestow their blessings on other married couples. In 991, Yoshida shrine was added to the 22 shrines of the Japanese guardian deities. During the Muromachi period, so-called Yoshida Shinto was founded, with the goal to re-establish a clear distinction between Shinto and Buddhism. Thus, throughout the end of the Edo period, Yoshida shrine was granted the right to award ranks to almost all of the shrines and priests in Japan. Between 1871 and 1946, Yoshida shrine ranked among the Kampei Chusha, special government supported shrines.
Yoshida Shrine is located on Yoshidayama, a part of the Higashiyama mountains in the east of Kyoto. The precincts are extensive and embedded into the forest, which gives the shrine a very quiet, serene, and cool atmosphere. The honden of the shrine is accessed over steps at the eastern end of Higashi Ichijo Dori, which passes by Kyoto University. The main structure contains four smaller honden, each housing one of the four enshrined main kami. They are built in the traditional Shinto style with Japanese hinoki thatched roofs and red coloured wood beams.
On leaving this part of the shrine towards the south, there is the statue of a deer. Deer were seen as messengers of the gods, which explains their presence in large temple and shrine complexes like Nara or Miyajima. As for this particular one, the four kami of Kasuga first descended from heaven in Nara, and then rode further to Kyoto on a deer.
Walking further to the south, uphill, there is the Saijoshi Daigengu (literally: Ceremonial Site and Shrine of the Great Origin). The Daigengu, now a national treasure, was built in 1484 by Yoshida Kanetomo, the founder of Yoshida Shinto. This octagonal building with traditionally thatched roof is very unusual, and it enshrines all 3,132 kami of Japan. It is said that when praying there, one simultaneously prays to all the Shinto gods of Japan, a potent prayer indeed. Usually, the grounds of the Daigengu are closed to the public, but they are opened at New Year, Setsubun, and on every first day of each month.
As usual in Shinto, many smaller shrines can be found on the precincts of the shrine. For example, both Fujiwara Yamakage and Yoshida Kanetomo are said to be buried here. And, if you are into cooking, the Yamakage shrine is home to the god of cooking, and Kaso shrine to the deity of sweets.
Yoshida Shrine has close ties to Kyoto University, ever since the priests of the shrine performed the school's groundbreaking ceremony. Some people ascribe the great success of Kyoto University – a large number of Japan's Nobel Prize winners are its alumni – to the tutelage of the shrine. In any case, there is a popular dormitory song called Kurenai Moyuru, singing about the beauty of Mt. Yoshida. Its text is inscribed on the Kurenai Moyuru Monument that can be found on the grounds of Yoshida Shrine. It was erected in 1957 by the 3rd Higher School Alumni Association to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of that school – now known as Kyoto University.
Not only is Yoshida shrine popular among students, professors, and alumni, its quite central location and quiet surroundings attract many couples for their wedding ceremonies. And even though the shrine offices close at 17:00, the grounds remain open and the surrounding trees make strolling the mountain very pleasant at any time.
If you're in town for the setsubun festival, Yoshida Jinja is the place to go. If not, well, it is always wise to pray for more wisdom, of course.
Below is a list of more events taking place in Yoshida Jinja over the year. You can find even more in our main event calendar. Enjoy!
1, 7:30 Prayers for the New Year This is part of the hatsumode celebrations.
2 and 3 Setsubun The setsubun celebrations at Yoshida Jinja are the largest and most popular in Kyoto. More than 800 food stalls are set up each year in the shrine precincts, and the Daigengu is open for prayers on both days. Find out more about the setsubun ceremony in our February 2017 Highlight. On February 2nd, from 18:00, the ceremony to drive out the demons is taking place. And on February 3rd, from 23:00, an enormous bonfire will be lit, ritually burning old charms from the year before.
11, 10:00 Kigen sai This ceremony takes place to commemorate the founding of the nation.
18, 10:30 Reisai Festival Catch a glimpse of the history of Yoshida Shrine in this very special and solemn ceremony in memory of the founding of Yoshida Shrine. Note that the public is not allowed to participate, but may watch from the back of the shrine.
19, 10:30 Kasojinja Festival This is the spring festival of the god for confectionaries. Maybe go and ask for less temptation?
8, 14:00 Yamakage Shrine Festival Yamakage Shrine offeres blessings and protection to Kyoto's restaurants and food industry. Today, a special ritual, the shiki-bouchou, is performed, where a large fish is cut using only knife and chopsticks to honor the gods.
30, 16:00 Nagoshi no Harae In this summer ritual, people walk through a large chinowa wreath to purify themselves for the rest of the year. More than 1000 people are taking part each year, and all participants will receive a small chinowa to take home. For more information on the Nagoshi no Harae ceremony, see our Highlight of June 2017.
8, 10:30 Kencha-sai Tea Festival.
Last Sunday, 10:30 Kaguraoka Shrine Festival A lovely small festival where three mikoshi are carried through the neighborhood by students of Kyoto University, accompanied by local children. The mikoshi depart at around 11:00.
daily Shichigosai Children aged 7, 5, and 3 are presented to the shrine. You can see little kids in their best outfits praying at the shrine all through November
3, 9:30 Meiji-sai Special prayers and offerings are made in remembrance of the Meiji emperor.
11, 11:00 Kasojinja Festival This is the fall festival of the god of confectionaries.
31, 15:00 Oharae-sai A final purification ritual takes place before the new year starts.
Photos # 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8 copyright Yoshida Jinja.
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