December 4, 2017
by Yuri kamakura & Akane kaneta
Located on the southern banks of the Kamo river, Kamomioya-jinja both reflects and inspires Kyoto City. Even its common name is a product of the city. “Shimo-,” meaning lower, and “-gamo,” after the city’s central river, yields the familiar Shimogamo. The creator and guardian of the city, Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto, is enshrined in the main sanctuary of the shrine, along his daughter Tamayorihime-no-mikoto, a mythical figure with her own repute. Together these deities welcome and protect all who visit the shrine, from Kyoto and beyond.
The ancestor of the Kamo clan, Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto, is said to have descended to earth on the grounds of Mt. Mikage, a mountain east of Kyoto. According to Shinto beliefs, this god metamorphosed into the three-legged deity of the sun, Yatagarasu. In this form, he led the legendary first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, throughout the Kyoto countryside and finally settled at the future site of the Shimogamo shrine.
This great god’s daughter, Tamayorihime-no-mikoto, attended to her ritual duties on the shrine grounds. One day while purifying her body in the Kamo river, she saw an arrow floating downstream. Unknowingly, she picked up the arrow, placed it on the shore, which before her eyes turned into a beautiful god. Shocked and smitten, she married the god and begot a child. Her son took on another avatar of the Shinto arrow, as the thunder god. Worshipped at Shimogamo’s sister shrine, Kamigamo, the thunder god Wakeikazuchi is said to have all the power of thunder when it impregnates the land with life. His mother’s legacy is therefore one of productive marriage and parenting.
The history of the Shimogamo shrine extends at least two thousand years. A recent excavation of the Tadasu-no-mori, the shrine’s forest, unearthed artifacts from as long ago as the Yayoi period (4 B.C. – 3 A.D.). Fragments of plates and arrowheads from the Yayoi were found in good condition throughout the forest excavation site. Artifacts dating from later periods document the evolution of society around the shrine. Heian period artifacts include the head of a ceramic horse figurine and elaborate roof tiles, while Edo period artifacts range from simple bowls and nails to mirrors and money.
The shrine grew in stature as the powerful Hata family adopted Shimogamo and its sister shrine, Kamigamo, as two of their favored shrines. Since then, the shrine has enjoyed considerable attention from important and indeed, imperial, families. It was during the reign of Emperor Temmu (675-686) that the first shrine buildings were constructed. Surrounding the shrine was an ever-growing amount of land. Records from the Tempyo Shoho period (749-757) indicate one cho of land (about one hectare) was given to the shrine to cultivate food for religious offerings; three hundred years later, Shimogamo owned 689 cho of land, extending all over the country. The growth in this influence came as Emperor Kwammu moved his capital into a neighboring province of Kyoto and finally to the site of modern day Kyoto. At the founding of the imperial capital (then called Heian), priests gathered at Shimogamo shrine to worship for its success.
Imperial culture flourished in Kyoto during the Heian period (794-1185) and the Shimogamo shrine alongside. The shrine was its most prosperous during the reign of Emperor Saga (809-823). Many of the shrine’s elaborate architectural designs and traditions come from this time. Emperor Saga was the first to dedicate one of his daughters as a Sai-in, or maiden of the shrine, following a similar custom as established at the Ise shrine. The Sai-in would only come once a year, in a grand procession with an imperial messenger. The shrine priests would decorate the buildings and their own costumes with branches of aoi (hollyhock), and so started the Aoi Matsuri. This event became so famous than it was known as “the matsuri” or the festival, throughout Japan. It is mentioned under this name several times in the classic Heian-period Japanese epic Tale of Genji. Tempestuous love rivals rammed their ox carts in battle during one matsuri and contented couples strolled through another. Contemporary to the Tale of Genji, the Makura-shoshi, a compilation of the likes and dislikes of a noblewoman, lists the matsuri as one of her favorite events in Kyoto. Noble by noble, Shimogamo shrine cultivated the good favor of the imperial court and aristocracy for several hundred years.
The court began having financial difficulties in the 13th century. The emperor suspended the tradition of the Sai-in, and gifts grew fewer in number. The country fell into strife and was eventually engulfed in civil war in the 15th century. When the new shogunal government emerged, the Shimogamo shrines were still intact, but as vestiges of the imperial era, their power was considerably reduced. Emperors would still visit the shrine, but with less pomp than in previous eras.
Perhaps the most famous imperial visit during this time was that of Emperor Komei in 1863. Legend has it that he prayed for the return of the antagonistic foreigners to the land from which they hailed. This wish went unfulfilled, and as the shogunal government collapsed as the threat of Western invasion advanced, imperial culture was, at least nominally, brought to the fore once again. During this Meiji era, the government glorified the role of the emperor and provided generous stipends to the Shimogamo shrine, listing the Kamo shrines second only to the Ise shrine. However, the process of modernization stripped away the hierarchical social structure that the shrine relied upon and redistributed the shrine’s land holdings.
During the 20th century, the country faced a more hostile exchange with Western powers. As World War II consumed the national psyche, festivals were cancelled and supplies rationed. After the war, the emperor was left defeated and humanized, and the imperially favored shrines lost visibility. Though festivities resumed in 1953, the shrine needed to recast itself for the post-war era.
Today, the Shimogamo shrine is integrated into the Kyoto community. It hosts community wide markets, an old book fair, a lecture series on religious and historical topics, always bringing people together for social and spiritual purposes. People from the community volunteer in the forest on Earth Day, and flock to the many festivals throughout the year.