When most people start searching for ancient shrines and temples their thoughts immediately turn to Kyoto. I mean, why not? After all, the city is famous for being known around the globe as the “old capital” Nevertheless, those on the hunt for hidden gems would do well to broaden their search parameters. Given Japan’s booming inbound tourism, popular attractions like Fushimi Inari Taisha are becoming akin to amusement parks unto themselves as hordes of travelers converge on their spiritual grounds.
Today, we will be examining an antediluvian shrine with roots dating back over 1,900 years. Known as Atsuta Jingu, or more simply just “Atsuta-sama,” this shrine has been revered since ancient times and ranks alongside the famous Ise Jingu. One would think that this shrine would attract throngs of foreign visitors but Atsuta Jingu is located in Nagoya and most pass the city by en route to Kyoto without a second thought.
Atsuta Jingu’s main claim to fame is that it is said to house the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, a sword that is considered one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan along with a jewel and a mirror. This legendary weapon has represented the authority of the Imperial line since time immemorial as the blade is a gift from the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. Unfortunately, the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi has not been seen by the public since the reign of Emperor Tenmu (673–686); the blade is said to remain in safekeeping at the shrine.
Over the years Atsuta Jingu has been maintained through the generous donations of many benefactors. Some of history’s greatest names such as Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi have contributed to Atsuta Jingu’s upkeep. In celebration of major victories on the battlefield during the Warring States period (1467–1603), these warlords and others would often offer aid to the shrine. Today, you can still see a wall that was gifted to Atsuta Jingu by Nobunaga (one of Japan’s three great unifiers).
Unfortunately, much of the present-day Atsuta Jingu complex is a reconstruction. During World War II, Nagoya suffered heavy damage at the hands of allied forces and consequently many of the shrine’s historical buildings burned to the ground. Despite this however, Atsuta Jingu is still a tranquil retreat with a legacy that is critical to the imperial line. Seeing as the shrine can be done in little over an hour, it’s worth overlooking the lack of any real historical buildings and paying a visit if you’re in the area.
Getting to Nagoya & Atsuta Jingu
For this high a caliber hidden gem, Atsuta Jingu is actually really easy to get to. The only traveling catch is making your way to Nagoya. Despite being a relatively large city, tourists often think of Nagoya as “no man’s land” sitting between Tokyo and Kyoto. However, if you are heading to an area that requires transit via Nagoya such as the Kiso Valley, it is definitely worth taking a detour and checking out Atsuta Jingu.
Once you arrive in Nagoya all you’ll need to do to is take the JR Tokaido Line to Atsuta Station. As always, check Hyperdia or a similar service to figure out the best timing for you. After arriving at Atsuta Station, you can reach Atsuta Jingu on foot in just a few minutes; it’s the only greenery in sight, you can’t miss it!
Here’s a link to the shrine’s English site in case you get lost…
Exploring Atsuta Jingu’s Grounds
Before visiting you should familiarize yourself with Atsuta Jingu’s layout. You can find a map on their website but securing your pamphlet at the shrine is another option. Honestly, without referencing a map, I would have missed a lot of cool nooks and crannies at the shrine so it’s definitely worth a examining in detail.
Moving on, once inside the shrine’s grounds, the first thing you are going to want to do is make your way to the temizuya (a water ablution pavilion) to purify yourself. If you have not been to a Shinto shrine and are not familiar with the purification process, here’s an excellent guide here for your reference. When traveling to Japan, it’s a good idea to memorize the proper procedures beforehand to avoid making any faux pas.
Once you’ve cleansed yourself, I suggest you continue by making your way to the Hongu or main sanctuary of Atsuta Jingu. You’ll find it in the upper lefthand corner of the aforementioned map. Supposedly, the buildings pictured above are where the shinto priests have enshrined the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. Historians have their doubts but more on that later.
After paying your respects, make your way to the pathway immediate to left of the Hongu. This walkway known as the Kokoro-no-Komochi, or “Path to Serenity,” was established to commemorate the 1,900th anniversary of Atsuta Jingu. The path is lined with a number of smaller shrines and passes by the backside of the Hongu, which is about as close to the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi as you’ll ever get.
Along the path you’ll also encounter Shimizu Shrine which is dedicated to the god of water, Mizuha-no-Menokami. Local legend says that since ancient times, natural spring water has gushed out of the back of the shrine thanks to this deity’s enshrinement. Furthermore, tradition also holds that this spring water has special healing properties making it good for the skin.
There are two other points of interest that you might want to check out at Atsuta Jingu. The first of these is the shrine’s treasure hall (pictured above) that exhibits numerous historical relics and inheritances of Atsuta Jingu. In keeping with the mythos of Atsuta Jingu, there’s a large collection of swords and daggers on display but of course you are not going to find the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi here. Nevertheless, viewing some of the ancient artifacts are well worth the price of entry.
Lastly, on the way out, you should check Atsuta Jingu’s companion shrine known as Betsugu Hakkengu. Originally built in 708, this shrine has been revered by many a great military family since its founding. I imagine that many a great warlord over the years has come here to pray for success on the battlefield.
Is the Sword Really at Atsuta Jingu?
Before ending this piece, I want to first examine whether or not the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi is even at Atsuta Jingu. I am sure some of you will have your doubts. The fact remains that as long as the Shinto priests’ refuse to unveil the sword, its existence cannot be confirmed. The sword’s last reported appearance occurred in 1989 during the Emperor’s ascendance to the throne. Unfortunately, all of the ceremonial Imperial regalia remained in their containers and thus its existence cannot be confirmed.
We do know that in 1945, Emperor Hirohito ordered one his right hand men, the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal of Japan, to protect the regalia at “all costs.” Due to the fact that Japan was being heavily bombed by Allied forces at this time, this suggests that the sword, mirror, and jewel do actually indeed exist. Nevertheless, there is no living person who can lay claim to seeing the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi.
The last person to supposedly see the blade was a Shinto priest by the name of Matsuoka Masanao. While performing various repairs at Atsuta Jingu, including the replacement of the wooden box housing the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, Matsuoka and several others caught a brief glimpse of the blade. A Wikipedia entry documenting his experience is as follows:
A stone box was inside a wooden box of length 150 cm, with red clay stuffed into the gap between them. Inside the stone box was a hollowed log of a camphor tree, acting as another box, with an interior lined with gold. Above that was placed a sword. Red clay was also stuffed between the stone box and the camphor tree box.
The sword was about 82 cm long. Its blade resembled a calamus leaf. The middle of the sword had a thickness from the grip about 18 cm with an appearance like a fish spine. The sword was fashioned in a white metallic color, and well maintained.
The surviving text tells all who witnessed the sword on that day died of strange illnesses except for the grand priest who was banished and Matsuoka himself. Given his account of the event dates back several hundred years to the Edo period, it’s hard to confirm the historical accuracy of Matsuoka’s retelling. Needless to say, after learning of this final sighting of the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, I am in no rush whatsoever to visually confirm its existence…