Shiramine Shrine

April 13, 2006

by Chiaki Imanaka

Shiramine shrine in northwest Kyoto is very popular among sports devotees, especially soccer fans, as Seidaimyojin is enshrined here. This deity is known as the spirit god of ball sports, and the shrine “store” is the only one in Japan which sells “fighting spirit” amulets. Therefore, famous sportspersons and club members visit this shrine to buy them and carry them for luck in competition. In 2002 and 2006, the Japan Football Association offered up to the shrine the official balls used in both the World Cups of those years, and the Japan Women’s Volleyball Association also offered up a ball which they had used in the trials for the Athens Olympics.


There are two former emperors of Japan buried in this shrine: Emperor Junnin and Emperor Sutoku. Emperor Junnin was born in 733, and was known as Haitei, or the unthroned emperor. He did not appear on the official list of Japanese emperors until the late 19th century, and was given the name of Emperor Junnin by Emperor Meiji. Emperor Junnin was responsible for great work, however, such as relief for the poor, tax reductions, and the striking of new currency. Nevertheless, following an epic battle, he was exiled to Awaji Island and died there in 765.

Emperor Sutoku was born in 1119, and came to the throne as the 75th emperor of Japan in 1123. After a long reign, he lost a major battle in 1156 and was exiled to the Shikoku region. Unfortunately, he died there in 1164 and was buried on Mt. Shiramine in Sakaide, Shikoku. After his death, severe famine and war were to plague his home province, and many believed these to be acts of vengeance by his spirit. During his life, he displayed a real talent for poetry and wrote a lot of famous poems. He was also a good Gagaku musician. Gagaku is ceremonial court music and is used to accompany many traditional dances in Japan.

Many years later, Emperor Koumei attempted to have the grave of Emperor Sutoku relocated to Kyoto in order to calm the wrath of his vengeful spirit. Unfortunately, he was unable to achieve this in his lifetime. Therefore, it was left to the Emperor Meiji, the second child of Koumei, to complete the task. The present shrine was established by the Emperor Meiji in September, 1863, and Sutoku’s grave given a new home. Following this, in 1873, the grave of Emperor Junnin was also relocated to the shrine, away from Awaji Island. Originally the home of the nobleman, Asukai, the shrine became the base for the ancient game of Kemari and a form of Japanese poetry known as Waka.

Kemari is a traditional game in which several players (usually eight priests) form a circle and try to kick a ball back and forth between themselves, without allowing the ball to fall to the ground. No player is allowed to use their hands. When the players kick the ball, they call to each other in way of encouragement. Special traditional clothing is worn, and there are no winners or losers, and no time limits. Therefore, it is important for the players to kick the ball to each other as accurately as possible. Anyone can really play this game, regardless of sex, skill level or age. It is a game to be played and enjoyed. This game is thought to have come to Japan from China around 1400 years ago.

Shiramine shrine can boast a number of interesting events on special days throughout the year. I will introduce just a few of the more important ones here.

April 14th

This day is reserved for celebration of the Emperor Junnin. People play Kemari in order to receive blessings from the deity of this shrine, and everybody joins in and plays together.

July 7th

This day is the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and plays host to the Tanabata festival (Star festival). This festival is born of a Chinese legend and held on the night of the 7th of July. Slips of colored paper with prayers written on them are attached to bamboo branches, mainly by courting couples. This is really considered a festival for lovers, by many people. In Shiramine shrine, people play Kemari and some local girls wear kimono and dance. The girls carry a small drum in their left hand and a drum stick in their right, and beat the drum in time to music.

September 21st

This day is reserved for celebration of the Emperor Sutoku. In the evening, a Noh play and a Noh farce are performed on a special stage.

November 23rd

On this day, a special tea room is set up, and people can drink white sake. White sake is made from sake and rice malt.

December 31st

This is the last day of the year, so people visit the shrine to pray and wish away all the bad things that have happened throughout the year.

At sunset, many lanterns are lit around the shrine, and the atmosphere is quite beautiful. The lighting of lanterns signifies a sincere service to the god of the shrine. I recommend you visit on at least one of these occasions, if you are in Kyoto at such a time.

Address: 261 Imadegawa-dori, Horikawa higashi hairu, Asukai-cho, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, 602-0054

Tel: (075) 441-3820

Fax: (075) 441-3820

E-mail: [email protected]


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