Dedicated to Tenjin, the god of learning, Kitano Tenmangū is a popular destination for those wishing to pray for success in scholarship and studies. Tenjin was once a man named Sugawara no Michizane who was an accomplished statesmen, poet, and scholar before he fell out of favor and was banished from the capital, dying in obscurity. When disasters began to strike Kyoto after his death it was determined that his wrathful spirit was the cause and he was deified in order to pacify his anger. Kitano Tenmangū serves as the head shrine for the various Tenjin shrines throughout the country, and is definitely worth the visit - even more so if you have an aspiring scholar among you. Cattle are considered the messengers of Tenjin, and statues of them dot the shrine grounds. The main gate is a beautiful construct, and within the grounds are famous groves of plum trees, said to be Michizane’s favorite. The central inner gate and main hall of the shrine are decorated with wood carvings and golden lanterns, and it is especially busy around exam time and plum blossom season in late winter. Be sure to check it out when you’re in the area or in need of some help on a test or scholastic pursuit!
There are over 1,500 plum trees on the Kitano Tenmangū grounds, and over 50 different species are represented, visible in white, pink, and red during late winter.
Deities in Japan are sometimes considered to have a sacred animal messenger (otsukai) serving them, such as the famous white foxes you can find at Fushimi Inari Taisha. In the case of Tenjin, his otsukai are… cattle? While some people might have trouble thinking of oxen as dignified enough for the position, there’s a story behind this belief. When Sugawara no Michizane’s remains were being taken for burial after his death in exile, the ox pulling the cart stopped and went to its knees at a certain spot and refused to move any further, which was taken as a sign that Michizane wished to be laid to rest there, in what is now the Dazaifu Tenmangū shrine. In addition, Michizane was born in the Year and on the Day of the Ox, and the shrine was likewise founded on the Day of the Ox. Because of this connection ox are often featured in the shrine’s emaki illustrated history, and over time people began to consider the animals as the messengers of Tenjin. Now Kitano Tenmangū's grounds are home to several statues of various cattle in many sizes and materials, always depicted lying down like the ox from the legend. People rub the statues for good luck in places related to their wishes, such as rubbing its head if you have headaches, or its stomach if you are pregnant. The largest messenger is located near the central gate, kneeling beneath a lovely white plum tree. See how many you can find during your visit!
"Viewing the plum blossoms on a moonlit night
The moon glitters like pure snow.
The plum blossoms resemble twinkling stars.
How charming! The golden orb crosses the heavens
And the jewel petals perfume the garden."
(Sugawara no Michizane, age 11)
Sugawara no Michizane is said to have loved plum trees from a young age and admired their beauty so much that he often wrote about them in his poetry. Before he left the capital, he wrote a particularly famous poem urging his beloved plum tree to continue blossoming in his absence, which is why there are so many ume (plum) trees planted on the Kitano Tenmangū grounds. In fact, there are over 1,500 plum trees on the property, and over 50 different species are represented, visible in white, pink, and red. From February to March a special plum garden is open to the public with an admission price of 700 yen, allowing visitors to enjoy a space filled to the brim with the colorful trees. There is even a famous outdoor tea ceremony held every February called Baikasai where visitors can enjoy green tea served by geiko and maiko.
Outer & Central Gates
One of the first things visitors encounter at Kitano Tenmangū is its large and impressive rōmon, a two storied gate that was built in the Momoyama period (1573 - 1600). A placard hanging above the gate entrance declares that Tenjin is the “Founder of Literature and Poetry", and on either side of the entrance are statues of Zuishin guards, a type of warrior that typically accompanied distinguished persons . When the new year season rolls around you can expect to see a large ema (votive tablet) hanging from the gate with a painting of the next year’s zodiac animal on it as well.
Passing through the rōmon gate, you will soon come across the Sankōmon, the Gate of Three Lights. This central gate is so named because the sun and moon are inscribed upon it with the stars above in the sky. Constructed in 1607 by Toyotomi Hideyori, son of the second great unifier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the gate boasts colorful wood carvings of animals both mythical and real as well as figures from Chinese mythology. Look for the Immortal with the Toad, the baku who consumes dreams, or the Sage Tekkai blowing his spirit from his body.
Go through the Sankōmon and you will find yourself in front of the shrine’s shaden, or main sanctuary. This large building serves as the front of the inner sanctum housing the spirit of the god Tenjin where only priests and select persons can enter. Visitors line up in front of the shaden to ring the bell above the offerings box, toss in a coin, and pray, while rituals and official prayers are read inside the honden, visible just slightly over the walls of the shaden surrounding it. Toyotomi Hideyori had the structure built, and its architecture is reminiscent of the grand style of the Momoyama Period. The wooden carvings on the hall are attributed to Hidari Jingorō, the possibly fictitious legendary artisan. Gold lanterns line the alcoves of the surrounding covered walkways, and flanking the hall are a plum and pine tree.
As he was a prominent scholar and statesman in his life, Michizane became known as the god of scholarship and learning upon being deified as Tenjin. Above all other prayers Tenjin shrines are most popular among students praying for luck in school, particularly during exam time. During early spring Tenjin shrines are packed with students about to take tests, particularly those worried about university entrance exams. Omamori, portable charms, are popular among Japanese people for a variety of specified uses, and the charms for success in examinations and good luck with studies are particularly famous at Kitano Tenmangū- something to consider if you have a test coming up yourself!
Monthly Flea Market
On the 25th of every month a flea market is held on the grounds of the Kitano Tenmangū shrine, the 25th being the day of the month when it’s said Sugawara no Michizane passed away. From morning to sunset, vendors set up and sell everything from antiques to street food to handicrafts. The flea market is particularly popular for secondhand kimono and other traditional items like masks, tea items, and religious paraphernalia. Cute craft items, old cinema magazines, and modern clothing can be found side by side, and exploring the flea market is a fun activity even if you end up not buying a thing. Though the market is held monthly, the last and first markets of each year are particularly large.
The Kitano Tenmangū Treasure Hall (Hōmotsu-den), located just inside the main gate on the right, is where the shrine stores and displays some of its most valuable artifacts. Receiving patronage from the imperial family as well as famous warrior clans from around the country, over time Kitano Tenmangū amassed a great collection of priceless artworks and ornamental objects dedicated to the shrine. The most famous item in their collection is the Kitano Tenjin Engi Emaki, an illustrated scroll manuscript of the shrine's history classified as a National Treasure. In addition to this emaki, the shrine also possesses a great number of ancient documents, sacred swords, maki-e lacquer artworks, folding screens, and tea ceremony utensils. In addition to their permanent collection the shrine occasionally holds special themed exhibitions, such as the Guardian Statuary and Japanese Treasure Swords Exhibition (July 1st - August 31st, 2016). The Treasure Hall is open for viewing outside of themed exhibition times on the 25th of each month, during plum and autumn leaf seasons, on December 1st, January 1st, and from April 10th to May 30th. It costs 300 yen for adults.
The history of Kitano Tenmangū begins with the history of a mortal man, Sugawara no Michizane (845 –903). The son of an established family with a scholastic reputation, Michizane was himself fated for a career in literature and governance. Over the years Michizane rose rather rapidly through the ranks of both the established education system of the time and at court as well, being well-known for his skills in classical Chinese, his poetry, and his historical knowledge. His rise was partially due to the favor of Emperor Uda, whom Michizane sided with in a power struggle between the Emperor and the politically influential Fujiwara family. Unfortunately, when Emperor Uda abdicated the throne Michizane was left vulnerable to retribution from his rival Fujiwara no Tokihira, and through slander and political intrigue was eventually demoted to a low-ranked post in Dazaifu, Kyūshū, in 901, a form of exile in everything but name. In 903, Sugawara no Michizane passed away without ever having returned to Kyoto.
The story might have ended there, but in the years after his death drought, plague, and natural disasters continued to strike the provinces. Sons of Uda’s successor, Emperor Daigo, met with sudden deaths, and lightning repeatedly struck palace buildings, leading to the deaths of some prominent politicians who had been involved in exiling Michizane- including Fujiwara no Tokihira himself. Rumors that these tragedies must be the result of Michizane’s wrath began to gain credence, and in the 940s several Shinto priests as well as monks reported Michizane appearing to them in dreams. With this as evidence of Michizane’s wrath being the cause of the current state of affairs, a shrine was dedicated to him in the Kitano area in 947. At this time he was acknowledged as Karai Tenjin, a god of thunder in charge of protecting the capital. His titles and rank were posthumously restored, and all mentions of his exile were struck from official record. Fujiwara no Morosuke, descendant of the one who wronged Michizane in life, donated to the shrine’s enlargement in 959. However, this still did not cause the tragedies to abate, and in 987 the title of Tenman Tenjin was conferred by Emperor Ichijō, deifying Sugawara no Michizane as a god of scholarship.
The shrine’s annual festival, the Kitano Matsuri, began from 987 and continues to this day, held every August 4th. The first Imperial visit occurred in 1004 with the arrival of Emperor Ichijō, and the shrine was later elevated as one of the only twenty-two shrines designated to receive official Imperial patronage.
Throughout its history Kitano Tenmangū received support from various Emperors, regents, and Shoguns. The second great unifier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and his son, Hideyori, were also powerful patrons of the shrine in the 16th and early 17th centuries, contributing to construction of the main hall and gates in the Momoyama period style of architecture favored by Hideyoshi. A famous tea party called the Kitano Ōchakai hosted by Hideyoshi in 1587 on the grounds was attended by such prestigious masters as Sen no Rikyu and is the basis for the modern Baikasai festival held today.
From 1871 through 1945 Kitano Tenmangū was ranked as kanpei-chūsha, a second ranked government supported shrine under the State Shinto system. Not only respected by nobles, Tenjin is strongly supported by people of all ages as well, mentioned in children’s games and folk songs still sung today.
|Saitan-sai (New Year’s Ritual)|
January 2nd - 4th
|Fudehajime-sai and Tenmagaki|
|Guardian Statuary and Japanese Treasure Swords Exhibition|
|Setsubun and Tsuina-shiki|
|Plum Orchard Opening|
|Baikasai (Plum Blossom Festival)|
|Guardian Statuary and Japanese Treasure Swords Exhibition|
|Haru Matsuri (Spring Festival)|
|Guardian Statuary and Japanese Treasure Swords Exhibition|
|Ake no Matsuri (Celebration of Sugawara no Michizane’s Acquittal)|
|Nagoshi no Harae (Summer Purification Ritual)|
|Mitarashi-sai and Tanabata|
|Daifuku Ume Doyōboshi (Plum Drying)|
|Reitai-sai (Kitano Festival)|
October 1st - October 5th
|Maple Garden Opening|
〒602-8386 京都府京都市 上京区馬喰町
- General Admission: Free
- Treasure Hall:
- General Admission: ¥300
- Junior High School, High School: ¥250
- Primary School: ¥150
- General Admission: 09:00 – 17:00 (07:00 – 21:00 on the 25th each month)
- Closed: No closing days