K is for 北野天満宮

K is for Kitano, or for the temple known as Kitano Tenman-gu. It was the first temple I ever went to in Kyoto, and was about ten minutes away from my first apartment. When I first walked around it, I wanted to do my homework there – I didn’t know at the time that the temple enshrines Sugawara Michizane, the patron deity of learning.

Kitano-Tenman-Gu is a temple with an interesting history. It enshrines Sugawara Michizane, who was favored in the late 800s by Emperor Uda for his great knowledge and learning. However, Sugawara was exiled from court due to slander, and in 903, he died in exile. Following his death, severe earthquakes and thunderstorms hit Japan. They never seemed to cease, culminating in 923 with the death of the Crown Prince Yasuakira at 21 years old. Rumors started that it was the wrath of Sugawara, who had been wrongly forced into exile even when he had been loyal to the crown, as the slanderers and their families as well met with disaster. In 930, a bolt of lightning struck the Imperial Palace (which was still in Kyoto at the time), deeply affecting Emperor Daigo’s health and well-being.

Because of prophecies spoken in 942 by Tajihi-no-Ayako, who claimed to have received an oracle from Sugawara in her own home, and of the priest Miwa no Yoshitane, who had also received an oracle, in 947, the Kitano shrine was built. Sugawara was deified under the name “Tenjin,” the God of Thunder and Fire. Many oxen were sacrificed in offering to Tenjin, which is why the temple has an abundant number of ox statues leading up to the main shrine. In the Kamakura period, however, Tenjin’s court rank was posthumously elevated once again and he ceased to be a vengeful spirit, instead becoming a state-protector deity. By the Middle Ages, Tenjin had also become the deity of other things, such as sincerity, filial piety, clearing the falsely accused and being the guardian of calligraphy and poetry. He is also important to Japan’s poetic forms (waka and renga) and is considered one of the three waka deities. Presently, he is worshipped as the God of Learning and Examinations. [1] [2]

The temple itself is absolutely gorgeous. Entry into the main shrine is free, and on the 25th of every month, the treasure house is opened for a small fee. Much of the artwork and paintings have been left to the open air, so the temple still feels much like a temple, instead of a museum. Some of the paintings are so worn by the weather that all remains are the reliefs of where the paint once was. Entering the shrine grounds, you pass a covered well, which is allegedly the same well used to draw the water for the Kitano Ocha-no-Yu (tea ceremony), a famous tea ceremony that commemorated Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s attack on Kyushu October 1, 1587. Sen no Rikyu (the father of the  Japanese Tea Ceremony) was in attendance. There are also a few maiko houses nearby, that train young girls up to be geisha.

Images hosted on Flickr. 




Plum Blossom Festival


Plum Blossom Festival










20 thoughts on “K is for 北野天満宮

  1. Keith Channing says:

    Alex, you really do make Japan look appealing. My (step) great-grandson (don’t ask – long, involved story) has been stationed in Japan with the US Navy for a few years, and loves the country, too. Sadly, it remains one of a long list of countries that, barring the assistance of the gods of lottery, I doubt I shall ever visit.


  2. noelleg44 says:

    I’m fairly sure we visited this temple when we were in Kyoto. I loved the history and how a man can be exiled, die, be reinstated and raised to god-like stature. Human nature! Wonderful post!


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