Many temples and shrines are scattered throughout Japan, but most of the “must-see” spots known to tourists are in famous areas like Kyoto or Nara. Yet, so many temples and shrines that boast fantastic histories, architecture, and gardens- and are FREE!- can be found a bit closer to home, in Fukuoka. So I went on a little religious quest to explore and observe some of this city’s religious treasures. And if you know anything about Japanese temples and shrines, I also got a ton of exercise!! The first three temples and shrines that I explored were all on the outskirts of Fukuoka, each about a half hour from downtown. The rest can be found buried downtown among the skyscrapers.
TEMPLES & SHRINES
So what’s the difference between a shrine (-jinja) and a temple (-ji)??
Temple: Temples are almost always associated with Buddhism, the religion originating in India. Temples are places where Buddhist ceremonies take place, such as the ever-popular new year rites, and advice or contemplation is sought on spiritual matters. Buddhist alters tend to be more ornate than their Shinto counterparts, and always contain images or sculptures of the Buddha.
Shrine: A shrine will house a kami (god) of the indigenous, ancient Japanese religion, Shinto. Shinto is concerned with earthly affairs such as success in study, health and wealth, farming, etc, and the Japanese people come to the shrine to make an offering to the enshrined god and ask for help or assistance. Many important cultural and familial events take place in Shinto shrines, including blessing newborn children and Japanese youth’s coming of age day. Shrines are recognizable by the large torii, or gates, that must be passed through when entering.
Dazaifu Tenman-gu (Shinto shrine)
- Dazaifu Tenmangu is a shinto shrine built over the grave of Michizane Sugawara venerated by the Japanese throughout the country as the Tenman-Tenjin (the deified spirit of Michizane), or the God of literature or calligraphy.
- There are approximately 6,000 plum trees of 197 varieties in the vicinity of Tenmangu, reflecting Michizane’s lifelong affection and regard for the trees and their blossoms.
- Dazaifu Tenman-gu is considered the number one pilgrimage site for high school students hoping to pass university entrance exams. Students come to pray for success and buy an ema (votive wooden board) to write their pleas for academic advancement.
Michizane, who had been a high-ranking government officer, was demoted because of the slander and political chicanery of his rivals, the Fujiwara clan. He endured a life of extreme hardship and misery in exile at Daizafu, yet preserved his character continuing his scholarly studies and never developing the hatred for those who had exiled him. He died in 903 at the age of 59. His funeral procession was a melancholy occasion, attended only by his faithful follower Yasuyuki Umasake and a few neighbors. The coffin was carried on a wagon hauled by an ox led by Yasuyuki, when, according to legend, the ox suddenly came to a halt and refused to budge despite threats and entreaties. The burial therefore took place on the spot, and this became the site of the Tenmangu’s main shrine visited today by so many admirer’s.
Nanzoin Temple & The Reclining Buddha Statue (Buddhist Temple)
- One of Japan’s 3 major prayer spots on the Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage Course.
- The temple features the world’s largest, lying bronze statue (although information on this reclining buddha is almost nonexistent) said to be about the same size as the Statue of Liberty in New York!
- Nanzoin is crowded with good citizens and pilgrims who pray for good health.
Located in Sasaguri Town, Nanzoin is the head temple of the Edo-era Sasaguri Shikoku. During an anti-buddhist period in 1886, the Fukuoka government ordered the destruction of the sacred places but local people petitioned the government for over 10 years for their continued existence, which the government granted on moving Nanzoin to Sasaguri from Mt. Koyasan in 1899. Hayashi Kakuin, the chief priest in the 19th century, was eagerly engaged in missionary work and thanks to local peoples’ effort and passion, nowadays Sasaguri Shikoku is one of the three major Shin Shikoku sacred places.
There is a pleasant walk to the temple site that’s situated along a shady hillside trail from the quaint village of Sasaguri. It’s a route that is clearly marked and notable for its many smaller statues of Buddha, as well as some picturesque streams, bridges, and gardens.
Undoubtedly, the biggest draw to Nanzoin Temple is the massive bronze statue of the Reclining Buddha. Nanzoin Temple has for many years sent medical supplies, milk, and stationary to children of Myanmar and Nepal. In appreciation, the Buddhist Congress of Myanmar presented to the temple a portion of the sacred ashes of Gautama Buddha and two of his leading disciples. The reclining statue, representing the Buddha’s final passage into nirvana, was built in 1995 and enshrines the ashes presented from Myanmar. The patterns on the soles of the statue’s feet show holy teachings and the merciful heart of Gautama Buddha. Said to be the world’s biggest bronze statue, it is 41m in length, 11m in height, and 300 tons in weight. If the Statue of Liberty in New York were laid down beside it, it’s believed the Buddha would be longer!!
Miyajidake Shrine (Shinto Shrine)
- The shrine which possess “The Three No.1’s” in Japan: the largest oshimenawa (sacred straw rope), a giant bell, and a giant Japanese drum.
- Many people gather here to pray for business success, transportation safety, and family safety.
Miyajidake Shrine has a head shrine which was built about 1600 years ago to represent the entire nation. The shrine itself is known as one to provide business prosperity and good luck. The sando path in front of the shrine extends in a straight line all the way to the ocean, and there is a torii gate which has the seashore and the mountains on either side of it. Within the shrine grounds, there are “The Three No.1’s” of Japan. The first being the largest shimenawa sacred rope measuring 2.5m in diameter, 13.5m in length and weighing 5 tons, hangs here acting as the symbol for the shrine. The shimenawa, which was woven from the straw of the rice cultivated in the shrine’s field, is replaced every 3 years. The second No.1 is the giant drum which boasts a diameter of 2.2m and is made of materials that were all provided domestically including raw cypress wood and the hide of Wagyu cows. The drum is hit every year at midnight on New Year’s Day, and the sound produced can be heard for kilometers. Finally, the last No.1 is the giant copper bell that weighs 450kg.
Tocho-ji (Buddhist Temple)
- Contains largest seated wooden statue in Japan of Kannon, goddess of Mercy (ONLY OPEN FOR PUBLIC VIEWING ON THE 28TH OF EACH MONTH!).
- The graves of several early members of the Kuroda Family (local feudal lords since 1600) are here.
Legend has it that this temple was founded in 806 AD by Monk Kobo Daishi Kukai upon his return from Tang (the present day China). The principal object of worship here is a thousand armed Kannon (Senju Kannon Bosatsu). This statue is designated as a national cultural asset. There is a small hexagonal building in the temple precincts which is essentially a sutra hall. Its interiors are engraved with calligraphy by prominent scholar of the day. There is also a beautiful and colorful five storied pagoda next to the main worship hall. Beside the pagoda, lie the graves of the Kuroda Family who are considered the feudal lords of Fukuoka from the Edo-period. They were also great promoters of the Tochoji Temple and the Fukuoka area.
The hallmark of this temple is the “Fukuoka Daibutsu” (Great Buddha of Fukuoka). The Buddha hall is located near the main entrance and is only open for public viewing on the 28th of each month!! This Buddha, entirely made from wood, was finished in 1992- after four years of carving.
Joten-ji (Buddhist Temple)
- Famous for its stone monuments and rock garden.
- Known as the site where the Hakata Gion Yamakasa, Fukuoka’s epic summer festival, originated.
Joten-ji was built in 1242 by the priest Shoichi Kokushi after his return from China, with the help of merchant Xie Guoming, a naturalized Chinese. The complex housed 43 smaller temples during its peak. Now, a road runs between the two precincts. There is a stone monument on the grounds on which is carved the inscription, “birthplace of udon and soba.” Among the souvenirs Shoichi Kokushi brought back from China was a diagram showing how to make flour using a waterwheel. The methods for making udon, soba, and manju using flour ground on a mill spread throughout Japan. The temple is also known as the site where the Hakata Gion Yamakasa, Fukuoka’s epic summer festival, originated. Legend has it that during a plague in Hakata in 1241, Shoichi Kokushi was carried around the city on a palanquin offering prayers for an end to the suffering and drove out the evil spirits. The festival floats are now carried around and pass the temple in continuation of this tradition.
Shofuku-ji (Buddhist Temple)
- Japan’s 1st zen temple
- The layout remains true to that of a traditional Zen temple, with the imperial envoy gate, temple gate, altar, and abbot’s living quarters all linearly aligned.
- Known as being the origin of Japanese tea.
Zen is the branch of Buddhism that employs sitting meditation to achieve enlightenment. It was brought to Japan by Yosai Zenji, who spent five years studying religion in China. After his return, Yosai built this temple on land given to him by Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate and the military ruler of the country. The framed motto on the temple gate was a gift from the Emperor Gotoba. In contemporary language, it means “the first Zen temple.” Now more than 800 years old, Shofuku-ji is known for upholding the teachings of Buddhism, its Zen dojo, and the rigor of its ascetics practices. The temple complex contained seven primary buildings when it was built, and in these were placed three statues of the Buddha. It is also recorded that the grounds held 38 smaller temples. In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi formulated a city plan for Hakata that required temples to slash their land area by 75%. Despite this reduction, the layout of Shofuku-ji’s gate, Buddhist sanctum, and priests’ chambers were maintained in the original Zen style; the imperial envoy gate, temple gate, altar, and abbot’s living quarters all linearly align.
The grounds are also noted for Tsushin Bridge which arches over Musen Pond, and a stand of camphor trees. This site is so peaceful and quiet, it’s hard to believe that a bustling business district is just on the other side of the temple’s walls. A path behind the sanctum leads to Genjyu-an and Sesshin-in before returning to the starting point. None of the buildings are open to the public but the temple grounds provide visitors a chance to take a stroll in a unique atmosphere.
Yosai Zenji also introduced tea to this country! He brought seeds back with him from China and planted them on the Shofuku-ji grounds. The temple is therefore the origin of all the tea in Japan.
Sumiyoshi-jinja (Shinto Shrine)
- Divinity protecting the safety of the seas and it has been worshipped by fisherman and others in the maritime industry.
- In addition to being worshipped for protecting travelers, this shrine has also become known for promoting Waka poetry since the middle ages.
- The oldest Shinto shrine of 2,129 Shinto shrines in Japan that have Sumiyoshi-no-Okami as the enshrined deity.
- Sumo wrestlers also dedicate the success of their matches here before they enter the sumo ring.
Officials and travelers going from Yamato to Korea and China would visit the main shrine, Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka, as the start of their pilgrimage. The travelers would then visit other Sumiyoshi Shrines along the Seto Inland Sea until their departure from the port in Hakata, Fukuoka. This shrine at Hakata would be the last shrine they prayed at before they left land.
The shrine is dedicated to the gods (kami) of Sokotsutsuo-no-kami, Nakatsutsuo-no-kami and Uwatsutsuo-no-kami. These kami are associated with safe sea faring. Legendary Empress Jingu is now enshrined here as legend tells of the oracles the Empress received from the Sumiyoshi-kami before her conquest to Korea in the second century. There is no record of this conquest ever happening- it’s most likely an embellishment of the history of the Empress. The three kami originated from an undersea dragon king associated with other cultures. There are minor shrines to Amaterasu (goddess of the sun) and Ebisu (god of fisherman) on the shrine grounds.
Even today, many boats are still christened with the name “Sumiyoshi-maru.”Being a major port city it’s no surprise that out of the 2,129 Shinto shrines in Japan with Sumiyoshi-no-Okami as the enshrined deity, Hakata’s own Sumiyoshi Jinja is the oldest! Today, the shrine grounds are located in the heart of Fukuoka City, but maps of Hakata from centuries ago show that the land on which the shrine stands was once actually on a cape near the mouth of the river. Entering through the western gate, you will find the main path to the temple. Tenryu pond, in front of the shrine’s western gate, was once part of the river mouth. The trees lining the path to the main sanctuary are several hundred years old. Passing through the stone torii, a peaceful, sandy path leads you to the hall of worship. The hall is where visitors come to pray in front of the the main sanctuary where the enshrined deities are placed. The shrine, designated an important national culture treasure, is built in a distinctive architectural style that has come to be known as Sumiyoshi-zukuri. The roof is unusual in that the eaves are not curved, and it is made from the bark of cypress trees more than 1,000 years old.
The statue of ancient SUMO wrestler: Known as the god of culture, fortune, prophecy and fishery, the Deity of Sumiyoshi is also worshipped as the god of sumo. Sumo, currently the national sport of Japan, was originally practiced as a Shinto ritual. This magnificent statue represents the sumo wrestler of ancient times. On both its opened palms, the lines form a Kanji which signifies power. It is said if you touch the well-built body and palms you can feel its energy and spirits.
Kushida-jinja (Shinto Shrine)
- This shrine is fervently revered to as god of immortality and success in business and academics.
- The starting point of “Oiyama,” the crowning event in the finale of Fukuoka’s most famous festival, Hakata Gion Yamakasa.
Kushida Shrine has the longest history as a village shrine in Fukuoka City, located at the heart of old Hakata. Shrines for each of the Shinto’s 3 gods (Ameratsu Omikami, Ohatanushi no Omikami, and Susano no Omikami) were built in 757 AD and 941 AD. These shrines were broad and magnificent, however, they were destroyed by fire in battle. The present shrine was rebuilt as part of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s reconstruction of Hakata in 1587. Locals refer to it by the name of O-Kushida-san and it has long been considered the guardian spirit for all of Hakata. Visitors appeal to the tutelary deity for prosperity in business and a long life.
Being an urban shrine, its grounds aren’t extensive, but every corner is packed with something interesting. There are several sub-shrines, a towering Gingko tree said to be over 1,000 years old, tons of statuary, and several huge rounded stones said to be anchors from the Mongol invasion fleet. One of the items of interest in this shrine is a Chinese astrological chart on the ceiling of the entrance gate as you walk through to the shrine. Every year on New Year’s Eve, the arrow pointer is turned to the sign for the upcoming year to show favorable direction.
Hakata Gion Yamakasa is the representative festival of Fukuoka said to have originated in an attempt to secure protection from a plague toward the mid-thirteenth century. The festival period is from July 1st- July 15th. The great-flamboyant decorated Yamakasa over 10m tall are built in a dozen places in the city. Through the Hakata town, the 7 gallant portable Yamakasa are carried by men from July 10th. In the early morning at 4:59am on July 15th, men dynamically carry the first portable Yamakasa to the Kushida Shrine. And then, 7 portable Yamakasa are carried one after another along about a 5km course in the city. Dolls and ornaments are produced by the traditional Hakata puppet makers and designed many times to look like characters from history and myths. Both the non-portable decorated Yamakasa and the portable Yamakasa are scrapped after the festival at once, with the exception of the decorated Yamakasa of the Kushida Shrine which is exhibited throughout the year.
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!