Kameido Tenjin Shrine (亀戸天神社) is one of Tokyo’s most beloved Shinto shrines. It has pretty flowers, it’s photogenic, it’s historical, and it retains a local ambience.
From late April to early May, the shrine grounds will be colored purple during its annual Wisteria Festival (Fuji Matsuri 藤まつり). The shrine is central Tokyo’s most famous spot for wisteria, and people crowd the 15 wisteria trellises accenting the pond and two vermillion arch bridges. The flowers are daintily fragrant, and the vines spiral upward in fantastic shapes. Azaleas also bloom at the same time, making it very colorful in a compact place.
If you don’t have time during the day, come in the evening to see the wisteria lit up from sunset to midnight. The purple flowers are beautiful against the twilight or night sky. The crowd is also smaller in the evenings.
The shrine is in eastern Tokyo in a Koto Ward neighborhood called Kameido, not far from Akihabara (8 min. by train) and Tokyo Skytree. It has made Kameido synonymous with wisteria since the Edo Period (17th–19th centuries). Hiroshige’s 19th-century woodblock print of Kameido Tenjin’s wisteria made it especially famous. The wisteria and shrine buildings today date from after World War II since the shrine and much of Kameido were destroyed by firebombings in 1945.
Kameido Tenjin Shrine is one of the thousands of Tenmangu/Tenjin shrines in Japan that worship the famous Japanese scholar Sugawara Michizane (845–903) deified as Tenjin, the god of learning and scholarship. Many students pray here especially during January to February to pass school entrance exams or to do well in school.
Japan’s most venerated Tenmangu shrine is Dazaifu Tenmangu built in the 10th century over the spot where Michizane was buried in Fukuoka Prefecture in Kyushu. In the mid-17th century, Dazaifu Tenmangu’s priest (Michizane descendant) looked around eastern Japan to establish a branch shrine. He came upon Kameido village where there was a small Tenjin shrine. He decided to use it to worship a statue of Michizane carved from a sacred plum tree. Later, Shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna (1641–1680) donated the land for this shrine that became Kameido Tenjin Shrine.
By 1662, the shrine’s basic layout and buildings took shape based on Dazaifu Tenmangu in Fukuoka. We can see a red torii gate, Shinji Pond, two taikobashi arch bridges, and a flat bridge. The first arch bridge (named “Otoko-bashi“) represents the past, the flat bridge (“Hirabashi“) is the present, and the second arch bridge (“Onna-bashi“) is the future. Cross all three bridges to purify your heart before praying at the Haiden main shrine hall. The shrine grounds also has many monuments, a few smaller shrines, and plum trees.
Kameido Tenjin Shrine was initially named Higashi Saifu Tenmangu or Kameido Saifu Tenmangu before it was finally renamed “Kameido Tenjinsha” (commonly called “Kameido Tenjin”) in 1936. It is the only Tenmangu shrine established as a direct branch of Dazaifu Tenmangu. The other Tenmangu/Tenjin shrines were established independently.
The Kameido (“Turtle Well”) district was so named because it used to be a turtle-shaped island (Kamejima) and there was a well in a popular plum garden. By coincidence or intention, Kameido Tenjin’s Shinji Pond teems with turtles. There is a modern-day custom for worshippers whose prayers at the shrine came true to release a turtle into the shrine’s pond as a gesture of appreciation. Most of them bring red-ear slider turtles which are small and cute as pets, but are invasive species. They grow to a large size and crowd out native turtles. The shrine does not condone this custom, so don’t bring a turtle to the shrine after passing your school exam.
Besides wisteria, Kameido Tenjin is noted for plum blossoms from early February to early March. Plum blossoms are associated with Sugawara Michizane because he once wrote a poem for his beloved plum blossoms that flew through the air to follow him when he was exiled to Dazaifu, Fukuoka. Kameido Tenjin’s crest is also the plum blossom.
On March 25, Kameido Tenjin Shrine holds its annual Taimatsu Torch Festival to mark the anniversary of Michizane’s death on March 25. People carry a lit torch around the shrine along with priets.
In late October to November, the shrine holds a chrysanthemum festival displaying exotic species and sculptures of chrysanthemum.
The shrine grounds is open 24/7 and admission is free, but the main shrine hall is open only from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. With the pond, vermillion arch bridges, red torii, and Tokyo Skytree in the background, great flower pictures are waiting to be taken at Kameido Tenjin Shrine.
Kameido Tenjin is a 15-minute walk from JR Kameido Station‘s North Exit (JR Sobu Line or Tobu Kameido Line). Local shops and restaurants are along the way. Address: Kameido 3-6-1, Koto-ku, Tokyo
*This article is an expanded version of my article published in via magazine (Spring 2019 issue), the onboard magazine of the Airport Limousine bus in the Tokyo area and lobby magazine at all branches of Mizuho Bank in Japan.