July 3, 2018

Iwashimizu Hachimangu

Located around 30 minutes south of Kyoto, Iwashimizu Hachimangu is a hidden gem that played an integral role in the Minamoto's rise to power.

The main hall of Iwashimizu Hachimangu in Kyoto

As long time readers, you may have noticed by now that I typically try to steer clear of introducing attractions in Kyoto. For one, the city is overcrowded with visitors to the point where it has become akin to a cultural amusement park. Furthermore, unlike other more rural areas of Japan, there’s already a plethora of articles detailing the many charms and allures of Kyoto. As such, there is really no need for another piece of content on the likes of Kiyomizu-dera or Arashiyama’s bamboo forest. After all, this is first, and foremost, a blog about about getting off the beaten path!

Nevertheless, despite the massive amount of publicity Kyoto has garnered over the years, numerous hidden gems remain that have avoided the limelight. For reasons I am unable to comprehend, one of these gems is the highly esteemed Iwashimizu Hachimangu. Located only about 30 minutes south of Kyoto’s famous Gion district, this shrine is dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war and archery. Over the years, the shrine has played an important role in the history of both the Imperial family and the illustrious Genji clan (also known as the Minamoto clan) who went on to found the Kamakura shogunate in 1185.

Buddhism and Shinto mix at Iwashimizu Hachimangu’s progenitor shrine in Oita

I first learned of Iwashimizu Hachimangu when following the lost narrative of Oita Prefecture’s Usa Jingu (pictured above). It’s a long and complicated tale so rather than try to retell it here, I’ll instead direct you to this post. While not entirely necessary for understanding the significance of Iwashimizu Hachimangu, it’s a bittersweet story that has never been told in English before. If you have the time, I’d definitely recommend that you give it a read. Though it’s a wee bit on the long side, trust me when I say that you won’t be disappointed!

Anyway, back to Iwashimizu Hachimangu. As told in the aforementioned article, the spirit of the god Hachiman was partially transferred from the progenitor shrine of Usa Jingu to Iwashimizu Hachimangu shortly after Kyoto (then called Heian-kyo) was made the capital in the year 794. According to legend, the shrine was established back in 859 at the behest of Emperor Seiwa. Allegedly, he heard from a Buddhist monk that Hachiman himself expressed the desire to be closer to Kyoto so that he might better watch over the Imperial family.

Getting to Kyoto’s Iwashimizu Hachimangu

The cable car up to Iwashimizu Hachimangu in Kyoto

Iwashimizu Hachimangu sits atop Mt. Otoko in Kyoto Prefecture’s city of Yawata. To get there, you’ll need to hop on one of the Keihan trains bound for Yodoyabashi to Yawatashi Station. This can most easily be done from the Gion-Shijo subway Station but if you’re coming from somewhere else be sure to consult a service like Hyperdia for the best connections. The entire journey should take no more than a half an hour from central Kyoto. Be sure to budget for around three or four hours including transportation time.

Once you arrive at Yawatashi Station, you’ll be faced with a bit of a choice. You can either hoof it up the long set of stairs to the summit where Iwashimizu Hachiman resides or you can take easy way out and ride the cable car. While gluttons for punishment might enjoy the hike, I’ll instead suggest that you opt for modern transportation. While it will cost you 200 extra yen each way, it’s probably best that you save your stamina for other attractions in Kyoto. After all, the city has a lot to see and you’ll be pressed for time trying to cover all your preferred venues.

The main approach to Kyoto’s Iwashimizu Hachimangu

Anyway, regardless of how you plan to make your ascent, you’ll find Iwashimizu Hachimangu located at the end of the long row of stone lanterns pictured above. While the path from the cable car will take you to the end of the approach, it used to be the only way to reach the shrine before the advent of modernity. If you opt to not take the stairs, I suggest you take the time to peruse this area as it really gives Iwashimizu Hachimangu an added layer of majesty that you’ll miss should you make a beeline for the shrine.

Before moving on, note that Iwashimizu Hachimangu offers tours in Japanese at 11 AM and 2 PM. The tours run about thirty minutes and offer a rare opportunity to enter the shrine’s inner areas. If the timing works out, I highly suggest you fork over the 1,000 yen for a chance to peep inside. Though the language barrier is likely to be an issue, I’ve read that there’s one priest who can speak basic English. Be sure to inquire in advance at the shrine’s office if you are not able to bring a friend along to help translate.

Iwashimizu Hachimangu & the Minamoto

A woodblock printing showing the Minamoto clan who are deeply tied to Iwashimizu Hachimangu

While Iwashimizu Hachimangu is intricately tied to the history of the Imperial family, the shrine is also bound to that of the powerful Minamoto clan. The reasons for this are simple. In addition to being the deity of war and archery, Hachiman is also said to be the protector of the Minamoto and their kin. During the Heian period (794–1185), Iwashimizu Hachimangu was integral to the clan’s rise to power. In fact, the patronage of Hachiman was so important to the Genji that they relocated part of his spirit enshrined at Iwashimizu Hachimangu to Kamakura when setting up their shogunate in the late 1100’s. Today, it? continues to reside in the magnificent Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura.

Connections to the divine aside, it’s easy to see why the Minamoto chose to align themselves with the likes of Iwashimizu Hachimangu. The shrine is the crowning jewel atop Mt. Otoko and commands an impressive panorama of the surrounding area. In fact, it can easily seem as if the towering, castle-like structure is far more defensible than many of Japan’s proper medieval fortresses. What’s more, Kyoto’s three main rivers, the Kizu, the Uji, and the Katsura, all converge nearby into the Yodo River. Historically, this made the surrounding area an important junction for transportation between Kyoto and Osaka. With a location like that, it’s no wonder that Iwashimizu Hachimangu and the Genji became as politically influential as they did!

Iwashimizu Hachimangu’s Intricate Carvings

A baku carving at Kyoto’s Iwashimizu Hachimangu

While exploring Iwashimizu Hachimangu, be sure to look up! The shrine is adorned with a stunning array of detailed masterpieces but unless you examine it with purpose, they are easily missed. Those who have some experience with other destinations in Japan may feel a bit of deja vu at Iwashimizu Hachimangu. This is because most of the carvings are credited to the master sculptor, Hidari Jingoro, who is responsible for the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko as well as Chichibu Shrine. Boy, that guy really managed to get around didn’t he!

Anyway, if you’re lucky enough to be able to take the tour of the shrine’s interior, you’ll be introduced to the following peculiarities. If the timing doesn’t work, don’t fret, the exterior still has plenty to see!

  • The Nail-Eye Monkey
    This treasure is hidden on the upper levels of the western corridor. As the name suggests, it’s a carving of a monkey however it’s real claim to fame is that it supposedly came to life and caused a bit of a raucous. According to local folklore, the piece of art was so lifelike that the monkey took on a life of its own. Thereafter, the monkey started stealing offerings to Hachiman and damaging the crops belonging to nearby villagers. Eventually, everyone had enough of his monkey business and antics so they put a nail in his eye to keep him from running amuck.
  • Imagined Squirrels
    Throughout Japan, you’ll find all sorts of animal carvings that were created only from verbal descriptions. You see, when Buddhism entered Japan it brought with it many tales about the beasts roaming throughout Asia. The problem rests in that many Japanese had or would never see the likes of an elephant or giraffe. The result? These creatures became mythologized into beings quite different from their real world counterparts. Iwashimizu Hachimangu is host to two such squirrel carvings that were fashioned by someone who never had seen one. As such, they are depicted with rat-like faces and have tails that resemble tendrils.
  • The Tomoe Blunder
    If you’ve explored Japan to any extent, chances are high that you’ve come across a tomoe symbol before. It’s that circular design that is made of three comma-shaped dots? Yeah, well, Iwashimizu Hachimangu has a couple of these symbols but one is mistakenly backwards. Was this an accidental mishap? Actually no, at least according to what I’ve read. Supposedly, the shrine was thought to be built to perfection and this oddity was intentionally added to give it something to strive towards.

Iwashimizu Hachimangu & Thomas Edison

A bust of Thomas Edison at Yawatashi Station in Kyoto near Iwashimizu Hachimangu

OK, so we still haven’t addressed how the hell this shrine, on the outskirts of Kyoto, is connected with Thomas Edison. You may be surprised to learn that Iwashimizu Hachimangu is actually home to a small memorial honoring the prolific American inventor. Why you ask? Well, as it turns out, some of the first filaments for Edison’s light bulbs came from the bamboo groves of this shrine. The filaments were collected by an assistant in 1880 and reportedly lasted over 1,000 hours, far longer than any other substance Edison tested.

Even today, annual festivals are held in honor of Edison’s birth and death. Moreover, you’ll find all sorts of references to the man who gave us the electric light bulb scattered about the town. Be sure to keep your eyes out for hidden markers, especially in the area around Yawatashi Station!