October 14, 2017

Venerable Kashima Jingu

Kashima Jingu is a timeworn shrine in Ibaraki that has a history dating back nearly 3,000 years to the very origins of the Japanese empire.

A stone lantern outside of the main shrine hall of Kashima Jingu in Ibaraki Prefecture

And… we are off on another adventure! In this article we’ll take a look at one of my favorite hidden gems, Kashima Jingu. Much like Nagoya’s Atsuta Jingu, this ancient shrine hides a long-forgotten legacy. The shrine lays claim to roots dating to before the dawn of history. In fact, Kashima Jingu’s earliest records denote that it was founded by the legendary first emperor of Japan. If the chronicles are to be believed, this would place the founding of Kashima Jingu at around 660 BC. To put that in perspective, Kashima Jingu is over TEN times older than the United States!

Given that Kashima Jingu’s is located near the remote southern tip of Ibaraki Prefecture, its age may come as a surprise. After all, most people often incorrectly associate “old Japan” with the the likes of Kyoto and Nara. However, the truth of the matter is that eastern Japan also holds its own narrative that has been largely lost to the history books. While the nobility of the imperial court were busy bickering among themselves, pioneers to the east were boldly waging war with Japan’s indigenous populations.

The Japanese deity Takemikazuchi, the god of thunder and blades who is enshrined at Kashima Jingu

Kashima Jingu’s chief deity is Takemikazuchi, the god of thunder and blades. He is perhaps most famous for subduing the behemoth catfish Namazu who is said to be responsible for inciting all of Japan’s earthquakes. Legends hold that Takemikazuchi pinned the beast with a giant rock known as the Kaname-ishi to keep him from thrashing about. Supposedly, whenever Takemikazuchi lets his watch slip, Namazu gets loose and causes violent earthquakes. You can’t make this stuff up folks!

Monstrous catfish aside, the Kashima Jingu’s enshrinement of Takemikazuchi meant that it synergized well with the military. In the early years of the Japanese empire, the shrine served as a staunch frontline base during the imperial court’s war against the Emishi and Ezo populations. Just as with the Native American peoples, these two native groups heavily resisted the imperial court’s push for dominance over Japan. Along with the nearby Katori Jingu, Kashima Jingu played a central role in subjugating the northeast.

In addition to its military legacy, Kashima Jingu also has strong ties to the martial arts. The shrine has welcomed many a master swordsman over the years and even gave birth to its own school of fencing. Across the globe, various dojo of kenjutsu and kendo display a scroll emblazoned with the likeness of Takemikazuchi in honor of the shrine. To this day, Kashima Jingu continues to be significant ally for the martial arts and hosts numerous events throughout the year.

Getting to Ibaraki & Kashima Jingu

A Kashima Rinkai Railway train at Kashima Jingu Station in Ibaraki Prefecture

OK, I’m going to be upfront and say that Kashima Jingu is NOT easy to get to. You’re looking at a three or four hour excursion from central Tokyo out to the boonies. If you get an early start, the journey can be done in an aggressive day. But, prepare yourself for one very long day. Truth be told though, I don’t actually expect many of you to make the trek. Those intrepid few out there, be sure to check with Hyperdia. Trains are few and far between and missing one can mean being set back by over and hour.

Kashima Jingu is actually not that far away as the crow flies but its location makes for really poor access. All in all, it is strangely quicker to travel all the way up to Mito first because of the express trains. With that said, I’d recommend those interested in visiting Kashima Jingu do so as part of a two day itinerary. On the first day, explore Mito and Kairaku-en. Then, take the Kashima Rinkai Railway to Kashima Jingu Station.

For those flying out of Narita International Airport, Kashima Jingu also makes a good final stop before heading back home. The shrine is conveniently located approximately 50 minutes northeast of the airport making it an ideal spot for those those who have an evening flight as well as those who may have a long layover in Japan.

Kashima Jingu’s Torii & Main Approach

The torii gateway at the entrance to Kashima Jingu in Ibaraki Prefecture

Kashima Jingu is located high up on a hill about ten minutes walk from the station. You’ll find the shrine settled at the end of a lengthy shopping street called Omachi-dori. Until the 1930’s this approach was lined with traditional ryokan. During bygone medieval times, Kashima Jingu served as the centerpiece of the neighborhood. While there is limited English signage leading the way, the shrine is easy enough to find. Here’s a link to a Google Map just in case though.

You’ll know you’ve found Kashima Jingu when you come across the large torii gate pictured above. This iconic archway has long welcomed visitors onto the shrine’s grounds. Sadly, the original torii gate collapsed following the triple disasters of 2011 (damn that catfish…). As of just a few years ago, it has since been replaced by a new gate crafted from one of Kashima Jingu’s many massive cedars.

Kashima Jingu’s Main Shrine Hall

The main hall of Ibaraki Prefecture’s Kashima Jingu

After passing under Kashima Jingu’s gigantic torii, you’ll soon come upon the shrine’s massive two-story Romon gate. Historical records note that this towering structure was constructed in 1634 by the first lord of the Mito branch clan. It is said to be one of the three largest shrine entrances in all of Japan and has been registered as an Important Cultural Property. Unfortunately, during my visit, the Romon gate was undergoing some restoration work and I wasn’t able to get a shot devoid of ugly scaffolding.

Anyway, after passing through the Romon gate, you’ll enter the central area of Kashima Jingu. Here you’ll find the main shrine pictured above where Takemikazuchi is enshrined. Though the buildings were replaced every 20 years during the antediluvian shrine’s early history, the current structures date back to 1615. They were supposedly commissioned by the second shogun following the legendary Tokugawa dynasty’s consolidation of power.

The open space directly in front of the main shrine is often used for events related to the martial arts. If you’re a practitioner of kendo or any other Japanese fighting style, you’d do well to check out what events are going on prior to your visit. Depending on when you travel, you may even just be lucky enough to also catch a performance of the aforementioned Kashima Shinto-ryu. For more information, check out the official site (you’re going to need to use Google Translate).

The Serene Forests of Kashima Jingu

A stone lantern along a forested path at Kashima Jingu in Ibaraki Prefecture

One of my favorite things about Kashima Jingu is its tranquility. Despite being revered by martial artists, there’s an overwhelming sense of calm within the shrine’s grounds. I believe part of this is due in thanks to the fact that Kashima Jingu is nestled in the thick of thousands of towering cedar trees. The shrine’s location amidst this hilltop forest makes it easy to relax while perusing its sacred grounds.

While all of Kashima Jingu is indeed gorgeous, the best place to experience the shrine’s quiet serenity is along the 300 meter approach to its wooded interior. As can be seen in the picture above, this unpaved trail is lined on either side by mammoth-sized cedar trees that feel as ancient as Kashima Jingu itself. You’ll find this tranquil pathway just behind the main shrine area detailed in the previous section.

One of the deer at Kashima Jingu in Ibaraki Prefecture

Though the towering tree corridor is attractive enough on its own to warrant your time, this portion of Kashima Jingu is also home to a sizable deer pen. Though they are not free to roam about the shrine like their cousins in Nara, they are every bit as adorable. For the cost of a mere 100 yen, you can purchase a basket of carrots to feed the deer. Be careful though, these cute little critters can get rather frisky when it comes time for a snack!

Kashima Jingu’s Connection with Nara

A statue of a deer outside of Kashima Jingu in Ibaraki Prefecture

At this point, you might be asking yourself what the hell are these deer doing here. I too was taken aback by their presence but after delving into the mythology, it all makes sense. You see, the deer in Nara actually originally come from Kashima Jingu! That’s right, those mischievous little buggers up and moved all the way across Japan to take up residence in Nara. Given that even with modern transportation this trip takes hours on the bullet train, the deer’s migration is quite the feat.

Anyway, legends tell us that when the early Japanese empire was going to set up Nara as the new capital in the early 700s, they first sought protection from the mighty Takemikazuchi at Kashima Jingu. It is said that the imperial court somehow convinced the deity to uproot himself and move all the way down to Nara’s Kasuga Taisha where he has been enshrined since. Furthermore, if the myths are to be believed, Takemikazuchi actually rode across all of Japan on the back of a great white deer.

According to local folktales, the deer are messengers of the gods. As one might surmise, it’s therefore only natural to surmise that they too made the trip down to Nara with Takemikazuchi. To this day you can still find thousands of these heavenly servants freely roaming the grounds of Nara Park. Be sure to offer up a cracker to thank them for their hard work (they’ll harass you for it anyway so just get it over with!).

Venture Deeper into Kashima Jingu

The ancient inner shrine of Kashima Jingu in Ibaraki Prefecture

Anyway, back to Kashima Jingu. At the end of the aforementioned pathway you’ll come across the inner shrine. This was originally constructed in 1605 by the legendary founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The inner building was originally crafted to sit at the site of the main shrine following Ieyasu’s victory at the Battle of Sekigahara. However, this inner section of the shrine was later moved deeper into Kashima Jingu.

While both the main shrine and the inner shrine date back to the early 1600’s, I personally found the latter to feel much more antiquated. Perhaps this is due to the fact that unlike the main shrine, the inner shrine is located deeper in the forest. I mean just look at that thing! It almost feels as if the building could have been there since Kashima Jingu’s founding close to 2,700 years ago!

In addition to taking in the inner shrine’s beauty, be sure to also check out the MASSIVE cedar tree that is located right behind it. This, too, is part of the shrine and is considered sacred in the animistic Shinto religion. Once you’ve finished marveling at the inner shrine, you’ll need to make a choice. From here on out the road forks into two directions. While I suggest checking out both, the right path is the easier of the two, so let’s begin there.

Kashima Jingu’s Legendary Pinning Stone

A statue of the deity Takemikazuchi pinning the catfish Namazu at Ibaraki Prefecture’s Kashima Jingu

If you take the right hand path, you’ll soon find yourself standing in front of the rock carving pictured above. While there is no accompanying explanation, know that this is a depiction of the violent catfish, Namazu, being subdued by the god of Kashima Jingu, Takemikazuchi. You see, just beyond this spot is where you’ll find the legendary Kaname-ishi itself that is said to still be pinning the beast. Strangely enough, the area around Kashima Jingu is largely devoid of earthquakes so perhaps there is some truth to this crazy myth after all.

The Kaname-ishi and its spiritual trappings lay just beyond the rock chronicling Takemikazuchi’s eternal struggle with Namazu. Before you get your hopes up though, be aware that only the very tip of the Kaname-ishi is visible. The rest of the rock is located deep underground where it is said to still be pinning the beastly fish. While doing research for this piece, I came across the following anecdote in the Ancient History Encyclopedia:

One legend recounts that Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628–1700), perhaps in a fit of skepticism, attempted to excavate the Kaname-ishi stone and see just how deep it went, but he gave up after seven days of digging and after he still hadn’t found the bottom of the stone.

What’s more, it seems that many of the workers who were involved in this survey ended up getting injured or otherwise became ill. In Shintoism, this is often a sign of tampering with something sacred. Perhaps these tales lend a bit more truth to the Namazu story. If you want to be sure of avoiding disasters during your trip, it might be wise of you to offer a quick prayer at the Kaname-ishi before proceeding.

Kashima Jingu’s Heavenly Mitarashi Pond

Kashima Jingu’s eerily beautiful Mitarashi Pond in Ibaraki Prefecture

While the right hand path leads to the Kaname-ishi, the left hand path winds down a steep slope leading to my favorite area of Kashima Jingu. Known as the Mitarashi Pond, this spot is said to be imbued with spiritual energy. In years gone by, this location once served as the entrance to the shrine. Visitors would purify their bodies here first before entering the main shrine hall. Today, this ritual lives on albeit only once a year during a mass New Year’s ceremony.

The Mitarashi Pond is considered sacred by Shintoism. One of the peculiar things about the pond is that the body of water has never run dry even during times of extreme drought. Stranger still, despite producing 40 liters of water a day from its source, the the pond has never overflowed. Call it what you may but I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of the divine while marveling at Mitarashi Pond.

Oh, and before you ask, the above photo is not mine. That credit belongs to the professional photographer and Twitter user Shinji no Ji. After posting the shot on social media, it went viral and was ultimately picked up by SoraNews24. Truth be told, I originally found out about Kashima Jingu after reading this article. As soon as I saw Shinji no Ji’s work, I knew for sure that I had to visit in person.

The Master Sword from The Legend of Zelda looks like it belongs at Kashima Jingu’s Mitarashi Pond

While no doubt the photograph is stunning, the Mitarashi Pond is every bit as breathtaking in real life. For my fellow gamers out there, the sacred pool looks like something taken right out of the world of the Legend of Zelda. To be quite frank, I was half expecting to find the Master Sword embedded in the center of the pond. It’s just that freaking amazing!

Be sure you budget extra time to just sit and stare in wonder at the beauty of the Mitarashi Pond. It’s by far the best part of Kashima Jingu (in my opinion) and think I spent well over and hour just relaxing nearby.

Getting a Bite to Eat at Kashima Jingu

Ayu-no-Shioyaki roast over coals at Kashima Jingu in Ibaraki Prefecture

If you follow my recommendations up to this point, you’ll likely be tired and exhausted. After all, if you’re trekking from Tokyo to Kashima Jingu the trip alone is over three hours. Luckily for you weary travelers though there is a small restaurant located near the Mitarashi Pond that has some amazingly good fare that will re-energize your body. While I am not exactly sure of the history, it feels like an establishment of some sorts has been here for centuries.

When it comes to decisions about what snacks to order, I highly recommend the ayu-yaki pictured above. These fish-on-a-stick are slowly grilled by traditional means and come lightly salted. Of course, they taste just as good as they look. Not in the mood for fish? Try instead opting for some grilled mochi-on-a-stick and wash it down with a warm cup of amazake.

A heaping serving of tempura soba at Ibaraki Prefecture’s Kashima Jingu

If you’re feeling up for a full meal, I cannot more highly recommend their various soba noodle offerings. This complex carbohydrate will give you some much needed energy to complete the day’s journey while not inducing you into a food coma. With a three hour long trek back to civilization, you’d be wise not to pass on a good meal while you have the chance!

Note that this tiny little shop actually makes their own noodles on-site by hand everyday so it’s hard to beat their quality. If you arrive during the early morning, you might just get to see them at work.

Attractions Near Kashima Jingu

The main hall of Katori Jingu in Chiba Prefecture which is near Kashima Jingu

When it comes to other activities in the immediate area, there’s not THAT much available. Remember, Kashima Jingu is located way out in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, there is a nice park constructed on top of the remains of a former castle. Furthermore, the “floating” lakeside torii gate for Kashima Jingu is actually the biggest in Japan. This makes it larger than the famous one at Hiroshima’s Itsukushima. It’s definitely a hike but you can do it on foot if you want to check it out. Just hoof it to this spot on Google maps.

If you have time though, what I suggest you do instead is check out the nearby Katori Jingu pictured above. While it deserves a piece of its own, Katori Jingu, like Kashima Jingu, is heavily associated with warrior culture and the martial arts. The primary deity of Katori Shrine is the mighty Futsunushi, the god of swords and lightning. He is said to be a partner to Takemikazuchi who holds dominion over thunder. Together, the pair share ownership of bladed weaponry and are said to be generals of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Lastly, let’s not forget the amazing Narita-san temple complex. This hidden gem is located on the journey back and can be a good addition should you have time. The temple can be reach in only a few minutes from the JR Narita Station and is an easy but charming little detour to consider on the return trip. There’s much to do and see in this area; for more information, check out this post featuring the entire Narita area.

Until next time travelers…