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.
For a few days in October 2018, I visited most of the major sights in northern Kyoto Prefecture and really enjoyed Kyoto away from the city of Kyoto.
Above is a map of Kyoto Prefecture’s municipalities. Shaded in aqua are the seven municipalities in northern Kyoto Prefecture that banded together under the “Kyoto by the Sea” theme: Ayabe, Fukuchiyama, Ine, Kyotango, Maizuru, Miyazu, and Yosano (綾部市、福知山市、伊根町、京丹後市、舞鶴市、宮津市、与謝野町). The city of Kyoto is in yellow.
Kyoto Prefecture also has at least two other tourism PR themes: “Kyoto in the Forests” (森の京都) and “Kyoto Infused with Tea” (お茶の京都). They are outside the tourist-crowded city of Kyoto. The areas outside Kyoto city have a tougher time to attract tourists since most tourists just stay in the city of Kyoto.
So it’s a good strategy to promote tourism collectively in each region outside Kyoto city. For multiple municipalities to band together to promote their region under a central theme is still kind of rare in Japan. Hope they will be able to attract more tourists and relieve the crowds in Kyoto city.
Amanohashidate, Bridge from Heaven
Amanohashidate (天橋立) is a narrow sandbar across the ocean from mainland Japan (city of Miyazu) to Tango Peninsula. It’s about 3.6 km long, totally flat, and you can cross it on foot or by bicycle (rentals available) on a dirt road in the middle. The road is lined with thousands of Japanese pine trees and closed to vehicular traffic. The above view is from the northern end (Kasamatsu Park). Location: https://goo.gl/maps/Ag5g2tBprcQ2
Amanohashidate has been one of Japan’s most famous tourist sights for centuries, well known as one of the Nihon Sankei (日本三景) or “Japan’s Scenic Trio.” (There’s no official English translation of Nihon Sankei, but I like to call it “Scenic Trio” in English. I like the word “trio” because it implies that they belong to a group of three. I don’t like what English Wikipedia calls it: “Three Views of Japan.”)
The other two Scenic Trio sites are Miyajima (vermillion torii and shrine on the ocean) in Hiroshima Prefecture and Matsushima (pine tree islands) near Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture.
So who decided that these three scenic sights were Japan’s Best Three? And Japan has so many of these “Best Three” or “Big Three” designations and Nihon Sankei is the most famous of them all. But why is it always “three?”
According to Japanese Wikipedia, Nihon Sankei originated in 1643 by Hayashi Gaho (aka Hayashi Shunsai), a Japanese Neo-Confucian scholar who wrote a book mentioning these three sights. The expression “Nihon Sankei” was later coined in 1689 by another Japanese Neo-Confucianist scholar, Kaibara Ekken in his travel diary. So “Nihon Sankei” goes way back to the 17th century.
It’s really amazing that it has stuck throughout these centuries even with Mt. Fuji excluded. With Japan having so many places of beauty, it would be nearly impossible for anyone today to unilaterally declare any three sights as the “Best Three.”
To the question of why the best always comes in threes, the answer seems to be more complicated. It seems the Japanese have had favorite numbers for many centuries. Many odd numbers are favored including one, three, five, and seven. This might sound familiar when you think about haiku and tanka poetry syllables, and the 7-5-3 (shichi-go-san) coming-of-age celebration for kids. But the number “three” for “Best Three” or “Big Three” has also stuck for centuries and still today.
The thing about Amanohashidate is that it looks very different from different lookout points. The most popular spots to view Amanohashidate are on the hilltop on the southern and northern ends. If you have time, I highly recommend that you see it from both the southern end and northern ends. Which means you should rent a bicycle and ride across Amanohashidate which I also highly recommend.
As seen from the southern end above, the left side is the west side with an enclosed, but connected ocean named Asoumi Sea. The right side is the east side with white-sand beaches facing the open ocean. Ships can still go through both sides of the sandbar through a narrow strait on the southern end.
On the lower right of the sandbar, notice the finger of sand extending into the ocean. This finger keeps growing as the northern sand erodes and drifts south to the finger. So every few years, they have to remove the excess sand. (Notice the power shovel and dump truck working on it.) Otherwise, this little sand spit will become another sandbar across the ocean, impeding local shipping.
On the southern end here, Amanohashidate upside down does look like a flying dragon (hiryu 飛竜). That’s the dragon’s head in the front and the slim tail in the back. When you see it upside down, the sandbar/dragon is in the sky right?
Amanohashidate also has these “Circle of Wisdom” everywhere. To gain wisdom, you supposed to crawl or look through it three times or buy and throw three small clay dishes through it. Tourist gimmick.
Before crossing Amanohashidate, stop by Chionji Temple (智恩寺) next to Amanohashidate’s southern entrance. With the imposing Sanmon Gate, you can’t miss it. Belonging to the Rinzai Zen Sect, Chionji worships the Manjushri bodhisattva (Monju Bosatsu) for wisdom and academic abilities. Many students pray here. The temple is not affiliated with Chion-in Temple in Kyoto city.
The temple’s beautiful Tahoto Pagoda with a round upper story and square lower story. It contains objects of worship.
Next to Chionji Temple is this Circle of Wisdom Lantern (智恵の輪 灯籠). No longer a lantern to guide ships, but this is the original Circle of Wisdom in Amanohashidate that has been copied everywhere. Across the water is the Amanohashidate sandbar.
It takes about 15 min. to cross Amanohashidate by bicycle without stopping. But there are a number of monuments, a shrine, pine trees, and sandy beaches to photograph along the way. So it took me 30-40 min. to cross. Amanohashidate has wedded pine trees (夫婦松) and other fantastically-shaped pine trees and commemorative pine trees (planted by so-and-so emperor, etc.).
After crossing the sandbar, visit Moto-Ise Kono Shrine (元伊勢籠神社).
To understand this shrine, you need to know about Ise Grand Shrines (Ise Jingu) in Mie Prefecture, Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrines. They are dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (Shinto’s most important goddess and legendary ancestor of the Imperial family) and Toyouke-Omikami (豊受大神), goddess of agriculture.
Before Ise Jingu was established around the 7th century (or earlier), a number of shrines for these two deities were temporarily or permanently established in various locations including this Kono Shrine. These pre-Ise Jingu shrines are prefixed with “Moto-Ise.” Moto-Ise Kono Shrine worships five gods and one of them is Toyouke-Omikami (豊受大神), the same goddess of agriculture worshiped in Ise.
The shrine is open 7:00 am to 5:00 pm. Free admission. The shrine is near the chair lift and cable car station (Fuchu Station) for the hilltop Kasamatsu Park (see below) for fine views of Amanohashidate from the northern end.
Directions to Moto-Ise Shrine By bus: At Amanohashidate Station (Kyoto Tango Railway), take a local bus bound for Ine, Kamanyu, or Kyogamisaki ([伊根・亀島] [蒲入] [経ヶ岬]) and get off at Jinja-mae stop. Parking also available.
By bicycle: Bicycles can be rented at a souvenir shop In front of Amanohashidate Station and at the entrance of Amanohashidate sandbar. Bicycle across Amanohashidate to the other end. Otherwise, walking from Amanohashidate Station will take at least 45 min.
Amanohashidate is a sandbar created since thousands of years ago by opposing ocean currents carrying sand. But according to Japanese mythology, Amanohashidate was created during the divine Age of Gods (before man appeared). The great creator god Izanagi in Heaven, built a long floating ladder-bridge from Heaven to Earth so he could see his wife (younger sister) the goddess Izanami who was living at Moto-Ise Kono Shrine on Earth. However, in a single night while he was asleep, the bridge collapsed and fell to Earth, where Amanohashidate is today. And so if you view it upside down at Kasamatsu Park, it’s supposed to look like a bridge to/from heaven which is what “Amanohashidate” (天橋立) means.
And so Amanohashidate symbolizes a link between Heaven and Earth and between two lovers. That’s why you may also see heart or love symbols at Amanohashidate.
Directions By bicycle: Bicycles can be rented at a souvenir shop in front of Amanohashidate Station and at the entrance of Amanohashidate sandbar. Bicycle across Amanohashidate to the other end. Otherwise, walking from Amanohashidate Station will take at least 55 min.
By bus: At Amanohashidate Station (Kyoto Tango Railway), take a local bus bound for Ine, Kamanyu, or Kyogamisaki ([伊根・亀島] [蒲入] [経ヶ岬]) and get off at Amanohashidate Cable-shita stop [傘松ケーブル下]. Note that buses do not run that often. Bus schedule in Japanese: https://www.tankai.jp/routebus/
Amanohashidate Cable Car / Chair Lift (Fuchu Station) Take the chair lift or cable car to go up to Kasamatsu Park. Round trip: ¥660 for adults, ¥330 for kids (age 6 to 11). Price is the same whether you take the cable car or chair lift. Hours: 8:00 am–5:30pm (till 4:30 pm or 5:00 pm during Nov.–Mar.)
Amanohashidate is thus the symbol of northern Kyoto and Kyoto by the Sea. It’s less crowded, slow-paced, and very scenic. One of Japan’s Big Three Sceneries, Best Three Picturesque Views, Big Three Sights, or Scenic Trio. Whatever you call it, it’s famous in Japan.
Kyoto Tango Railway (Kyoto Tango Tetsudo 京都丹後鉄道) is the main train network in northern Kyoto. (JR Railpass is not accepted.) Many places of interest are near a Kyoto Tango Railway train station. The trains usually have only one to three cars. From Fukuchiyama, you can get to Maizuru, Miyazu, Amanohashidate, and even Toyooka in Hyogo Prefecture. If you plan to ride Kyoto Tango Railways for a long distance, the one-day train pass is a good deal. Kyoto Tango Railway is operated by Willer Trains, a subsidiary of Willer Express that operates long-distance buses in Japan.
At Fukuchiyama Station, Kyoto Tango Railways operates a special tourist train named “Aomatsu” to Amanohashidate. It’s just one train car with a striking, wood-themed interior design. The floor and seat are made of wood. It has a bar for refreshments and a waitress. It’s a cafe train that serves drinks and light meals. As of this writing, the Aomatsu train runs once every morning (10:17 am) and afternoon (3:17 pm) from Fukuchiyama Station to Amanohashidate Station and requires no reservations nor extra train fare. Non-reserved seating. Aomatsu has a variety of seating arrangements like sofas, counter seating, and table seating (train fare is the same for all seats). https://trains.willer.co.jp/matsu/aomatsu.html
There’s also the “Kuromatsu” restaurant train that runs from Fukuchiyama to Amanohashidate Station on Fri., Sat., Sun., and national holidays. You can order a full dinner or confections or sake. The train fare includes the meal or drinks and obviously will be much more expensive than regular train fare. https://trains.willer.co.jp/matsu/
Kyoto Tango Railway has another cafe train named “Akamatsu” that runs twice a day (except on Tue. and Wed.) between Nishi-Maizuru and Amanohashidate. But this train requires reservations. https://trains.willer.co.jp/matsu/akamatsu.html
The Aomatsu, Kuromatsu, and Akamatsu trains were designed by Mitooka Eiji (水戸岡鋭治), a renown designer of many luxury trains especially for JR Kyushu.
After Amanohashidate, the next must-see place is Tango Peninsula, the main part of Kyoto by the Sea (northern Kyoto). On the east coast of the peninsula is Ine (伊根), a picturesque fishing village right on the water’s edge. The waterfront homes are unique for having built-in funaya “boat garages” (舟屋) to keep a boat next to the water.
The Ine waterfront has looked like this since the 1930s when they reclaimed some of the coastline, and fishermen rebuilt their homes right over the water. This village is designated as an Important Traditional Townscape Preservation District of Japan (重要伝統的建造物 群保存地区) and Japan’s first fishing village to be so designated. Ine has been used as a backdrop in Japanese movies like Tora-san movie No. 29 (1982) and Tsuribaka Nisshi movie No. 5.
Ine has 230 funaya boat houses on the waterfront stretching for about 5 km. Some of the funaya offer lodging where you can stay above the boat garage and have a view of the water. They get booked up quickly though. They let you go fishing by boat or from shore. (Lodging info here.)
You may think these homes are sitting ducks for high waves, typhoons, high tides, etc. But they are in a sheltered bay facing south, away from the Sea of Japan. Mountains shield the bay on three sides and a small island (Aoshima) on the bay’s entrance acts like a breakwater. Ine Bay is thereby largely untouched by the rough seas of the Sea of Japan and the water is very calm. Also, the ocean tide varies by only 50 cm at most. Ine’s location: https://goo.gl/maps/sXVERESwvMT2
A great way to see the Ine boat houses is by boat (called “sea taxi”). Small boats offer 30-min tours for only ¥1,000 per person. Our boat, seating 12 people, was the Kameshima Maru (亀島丸) operated by Toshikazu Yamada. He pointed out the boat houses and locations used in Japanese movies. Kameshima Maru boat cruises has no cruise schedule so you can just call and set a time for a cruise. There must be at least two people for a cruise to depart. Phone: 090-8579-1002 Website: http://kameshimamaru.server-shared.com/index.html
Kameshima Maru Ine boat cruise and Ine town tour Address: Kameshima 822, Ine-cho, Yosa-gun, Kyoto 〒626-0424 京都府与謝郡伊根町字亀島822番地
After the boat cruise, we had a guided walking tour of Ine village. Behind the funaya boat houses is this narrow coastal road and another row of homes across the road on the left at the foot of the hills. The homes along the left are the main homes where the fishermen’s family live. And their funaya boat houses are right across the road on the right.
Above is the boat house of Mr. and Mrs. Toshikazu Yamada (山田 敏和), a very friendly fishermen couple who runs Ine boat cruises and work as fishermen. This is what a funaya boat house looks like from the road. The boat house is not that big. It’s usually used as a second house for retired grandparents or for a young married couple who want some privacy. Or it can be used as a workplace, a guesthouse, or inn. First you see a normal car garage.
In the back of the car garage is the boat garage on the water’s edge. The small fishing boat is hoisted and secured by a power winch. Above the boat is just storage space (not another room). The family uses the boat to catch fish for themselves.
These boat garages were originally built to protect the boat from the elements. In the old days, boats were made of wood. They did not have a waterproof deck like modern boats do today. So the boat garage protected the boat from rain. The boat was also hoisted to dry in the garage. Since seawater tended to rot wood, drying the boat when not in use would make the boat last longer.
I asked about how it was during the recent typhoons in fall 2018. Mrs. Yamada said that the secured boat shook a lot, but there was no damage.
Mrs. Yamada also raises fish under their small dock. I asked what kind of fish, and she caught two to show us. They were Redspotted Grouper (アコウ、キジハタ), a luxury fish delicious as sashimi. They were feeding these fish until they get big enough for eating.
Further down along Ine Bay are a few more tourist spots.
Ine also had a sake brewery called Mukai Shuzo Sake Brewery (向井酒造株式会社) established in 1754. We didn’t tour the brewery. Just went to their gift shop and sampled their stuff. Their main sake brand is called Kyo-no-Haru (京の春). Nice big Japanese evergreen tree outside, 300 years old.
The brewery’s chief brewer is Mukai Kuniko (向井 久仁子) born in 1975 in Ine. She graduated from an agricultural college in Tokyo and took over from her dad. Her younger brother is the president of the company.
Closest train stations are Amanohashidate Station and Miyazu Station both on the Kyoto Tango Railway. From JR Kyoto and JR Osaka Stations, there are trains that go directly to Amanohashidate and Miyazu Stations.
From Amanohashidate Station or Miyazu Station, take a local bus (丹後海陸交通) bound for Ine Yubinkyoku-mae, Kama-nyu, or Kyoga-misaki ([経ヶ岬] [蒲入] [伊根郵便局前]). Get off at Ine Yubinkyoku-mae or nearby. Takes about an hour, bus fare is ¥400 from either station. Bus schedule in Japanese: http://www.tankai.jp/