One of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, Shimogamo Shrine is one of a pair alongside Kamigamo Shrine that was constructed in the sixth and seventh centuries in order to protect against malign influences. One of seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, the shrine complex is surrounded by the Tadasu no Mori forest that shelters visitors in a world of green and winding streams as well as a small shrine used to pray for beauty. The Shimogamo Shrine buildings themselves are a lovely example of the classic white and vermilion colored architecture of Shinto, with a particularly striking two-storied gate and highly arched taikobashi bridge. The Mitarashi-sha subsidiary shrine on the property is located over a fresh underground spring and provides a picturesque scene, and visitors may also be interested in the small shrines dedicated to the Chinese Zodiac. One of the biggest festival parades in Kyoto, the Aoi Matsuri, also winds through and makes a stop at Shimogamo Shrine along their route to Kamigamo Shrine, serving as a reminder of just how important these shrines were considered by emperors in the past.
The shrine complex is surrounded by the Tadasu no Mori forest that shelters visitors in a world of green and winding streams.
Tadasu no Mori
Known by the name Tadasu no Mori, the reason for the moniker lost to time, the path towards the Shimogamo Shrine leads through the shady canopy of this forest. Once sprawling over what is now city, the area is still over 12 hectares… which might seem small in comparison until you realize it’s still three times the size of Tokyo Dome! The Tadasu no Mori remains a bastion of nature in the midst of the city and it’s hard to remember that cars and businesses are bustling outside of the quiet wood. Over forty species of trees, some as old as 600 years, can be found in the Tadasu no Mori, and small streams bubble merrily alongside the paths.
One of the first identifiable signs that you’ve made it out of the forest and reached the shrine, this rōmon gate is two stories tall and the vermilion makes a striking image after all that green. Rows of lanterns with the names of shrine supporters and businesses are displayed across the interior of the gate, and a few steps through leaves the entirety of the shrine proper to be explored.
Located over a cool stream that emerges from an underground source, the Mitarashi-sha is dedicated to the deity of purification and clean water. Purification rituals are performed in the stream, and the shrine’s famous Mitarashi Festival late each summer sees numerous people wade through the refreshing water in order to pray for respite from the heat and healthy feet.
Koto Zodiac Shrines
Most shrines have a single place to pray no matter who you might be, but the Koto Sub-Shrine at Shimogamo Shrine is divided into seven smaller shrines that address specific signs of the Chinese Zodiac. People come here to pray for success in their business ventures as well as for general good luck, but it might not come true if someone born in the Year of the Dragon makes their appeal to the deity in charge of the Year of the Horse… Check the terms below and find it on the placards placed beside each wooden altar.
Year of the: Rat (ね), Ox (うし), Tiger (とら), Rabbit (う), Dragon (たつ), Snake (み), Horse (うま), Sheep (ひつじ), Monkey (さる), Rooster (とり), Dog (いぬ), Boar (い)
Though the shrine’s history is difficult to date precisely, excavations in the Tadasu no Mori forest have unearthed artifacts that prove the site was in use as far back as 2,000 years ago, in the Yayoi period of Japan. Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine to the north were once one, but are now considered separate and the city has grown into the land between them. They are referred to as the Kamo Shrines.
The goddess Tamayori-hime and her father Kamo Taketsunumi are enshrined in Shimogamo Shrine, while Tamayori-hime’s child, Kamo Wakeikazuchi, is enshrined at Kamigamo Shrine. Kamo Taketsunumi no Mikoto, the legendary founder of the Kamo clan, is said to have assumed the form of a three-legged crow (yatagarasu) and guided the first Japanese emperor, Emperor Jinmu, to the plains of Yamato, founding the kingdom that would eventually become the modern nation of Japan.
Shimogamo Shrine was then first constructed as a complex with buildings, (as opposed to a worship site in nature), during the reign of the 40th Emperor, Emperor Tenmu (675-686). The Hata, a prominent immigrant clan powerful in the area that is now Kyoto, had ties with the Kamo clan and supported the Kamo Shrines, increasing their prestige.
Though the shrine had modest beginnings and was gifted with only about one hectare of land to grow ritual crops, it rose to prominence quickly once the capital of Japan was moved from Nara to Kyoto itself, with records from three hundred years later recording the shrine holdings as 689 hectares. After the move to Kyoto, then called Heian, the imperial family and influential priests began to patron Shimogamo Shrine for the purpose of keeping malign influence from the new capital.
During the cultural height of the Heian period the Shimogamo Shrine benefited from imperial patronage and the age of prosperity and wealth. Emperor Saga (reign 809-823) designated one of his daughters to be the Sai-in (sacred maiden) of Shimogamo Shrine, following in the footsteps of the tradition followed at the grand Ise Shrine, the most important site in the Shinto religion. An elaborate procession accompanied by an imperial messenger, which would take the maiden to the shrine once a year for purification and ceremonies, began the custom that would evolve into the Aoi Matsuri still performed to this day. Shimogamo Shrine also adopted the system of shikinen sengū, a Shinto concept of renewal that dictates the shrine complex be rebuilt every 21 years.
Unfortunately, as Imperial power waned so did that of Shimogamo Shrine, and as Kyoto’s elite devolved into civil war, then to a shogunate system that took power from the Emperor, the shrine lost its support system. Despite a later return to Imperial rule in the 1800s Western modernization also threatened the shrine’s status, though it was classified as a kanpei taisha and received government support during the era of State Shinto. During the war period a lack of funds and rationing led to the cancellation of festivals and the suspension of shrine activities. Thankfully for the people of Kyoto, Shimogamo Shrine has managed to preserve itself through those times and stands today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site adapting skillfully to the modern world.
|New Year’s Kemari Game (Kemari Hajime)|
|Mounted Archery Ritual (Yabusame Shinji)|
|Saiō-dai Purification Ritual (Saiō-dai Misogi no Gi)|
|Archery Ritual (Busha Shinji)|
|Aoi Matsuri Procession|
|Firefly Light Tea Ceremony|
|Mitarashi Festival (Mitarashi-sai)|
|Moon Viewing Festival|
〒606-0807 京都府京都市 左京区下鴨泉川町59
- General Admission: Free
- General Admission: 6:30 – 17:00 (may change depending on the season)
- Closed: No closing days