May 28, 2020

Sacred Katori Jingu

Found not too far from Narita International Airport, Katori Jingu is a holy site in Chiba that pays homage to the legacy of swordsmanship.

The main hall of Katori Jingu in Chiba Prefecture

As I write this article, it’s the tail end of May 2020. Currently, Tokyo and the last few remaining prefectures have ended their states of emergency. The government is still calling for people to avoid cross prefectural travel though. Sadly, this means that I am still grounded and cannot source any new articles. So, with that in mind, I am going to make the best of this situation and use the time to properly introduce Katori Jingu, a place that I have only mentioned in passing thus far. Truth be told, I’ve actually wanted to do a stand-alone piece on Katori Jingu for some time but haven’t had the opportunity to do so.

Don’t recognize Katori Jingu from my other works? Don’t worry! All you really need to understand is that this shrine in Chiba Prefecture is about as ancient as they come. Per the official records, Katori Jingu was established over two millennia ago along with its sibling sepulcher, the similarly antediluvian Kashima Jingu in nearby Ibaraki Prefecture. Originally, these dual shrines served as jumping off points for the fledgling imperial army. When embarking on military initiatives to bring northern Japan under the heel of the imperial throne, oftentimes the expeditions would commence the campaign with ceremonies held at either Katori Jingu or Kashima Jingu.

In terms of deities, know that Katori Jingu enshrines Futsunushi, the god of lightning and blades. Along with the mighty Takemikazuchi of Kashima Jingu, Futsunushi was revered as a warrior god throughout history. Because of this, both Katori Jingu and Kashima Jingu were considered to be eminently important by the samurai. Additionally, both of these dual shrines also established their own schools of martial arts. For example, Katori Jingu gave rise to the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu school of swordsmanship. Today, Katori Jingu and Kashima Jingu continue to be sites of high regard in the eyes of martial arts practitioners everywhere.

Getting to Katori Jingu

The bus stop at Sawara Station that leads to Katori Jingu

Katori Jingu is conveniently located near Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture. Because of this, it makes for a great final destination before catching your flight home. Alternatively, Katori Jingu can also make for a suitable location for those transiting via Narita International Airport. Just make sure that your layover is long enough to allow for you to clear customs and make the journey to and from the shrine. All in all, you’ll probably need around a total of six hours or so in Japan when accounting for transportation and whatnot.

For those visiting Katori Jingu as a final stop before returning home, know that you’ll probably want to head down to Chiba Prefecture on the night before your flight. That way, you’ll be able to get an earlier start on the day and not need to deal with transportation in the morning. If you’re interested in giving this itinerary a shot, consider staying in one of the hotels around Narita Station. As outlined in this area guide, there’s a lot to do in the vicinity. Moreover, lodging closer to Katori Jingu will make the logistics of sneaking in a final shrine visit much less painful. Unless you want to be fretting over possibly missing your flight, you’d do well to heed my advice here.

Regardless of whether or not you’re visiting Katori Jingu as a last destination or during a layover, know that you’ll first need to make your way to Sawara Station via JR’s Narita Line. This can be accessed via the JR Narita Station (not to be confused with the nearby Keisei Narita Station). As always though, just refer to Hyperdia or a similar service when calculating the trains as this will do the heavy work for you. Once you’re in Sawara, you’ll want to make your way over to the number 2 bus stop. From there, you’ll need to take a fifteen-minute bus ride to Katori Jingu.

By the way, please be aware that while there is a station called Katori Station, this stop does not provide for easy access to Katori Jingu. When I first visited in 2018, I unfortunately made this newbie mistake. Unless you are enticed by the idea of hoofing it approximately thirty minutes through a number of rural rice fields, then elect to take the more convenient bus from Sawara Station.

Exploring Katori Jingu

A stone lantern with a deer on it on the approach to Chiba Prefecture’s Katori Jingu

The bus from Sawara Station will leave you off at a stop that is not far from Katori Jingu’s main approach. At its start, you’ll find the usual collection of eateries and gift shops much like those present at the entrances to many shrines across the country. Once you pass these vendors, you’ll encounter the picturesque lane captured above that is lined with multiple stone lanterns. What’s more, you’ll also find a vermillion torii gate at the start of the main approach. This archway allegedly dates from the 1700’s, thereby making it one of Katori Jingu’s oldest standing structures.

Katori Jingu’s grounds are dotted with a number of smaller sub shrines. You’ll encounter many of these as you ascend the aforementioned pathway. The main shrine for Katori Jingu can be found at the top of the approach. Just pass through the massive Somon gate and make a right. Shortly after, you’ll encounter the iconic black haiden and honden of Katori Jingu. Though I’ve seen some impressive shrine architecture during my days traversing the prefectures, few things can compare Katori Jingu. As can be seen in the imagery at the start of this article, the interplay of gold accents with the base obsidian hues is simply jaw dropping.

Note that while the idea of Katori Jingu may predate history itself, the current manifestation of the sanctum isn’t quite that old. Like with Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture, Katori Jingu used to uphold the tradition of renewing the shrine’s structures every twenty years. For some unknown reason though (that I just cannot find a good explanation for), this practice was discontinued during the earlier half of the Edo period (1603–1868). As a result, the current buildings date from the 1700’s, just like the torii that marks the start of Katori Jingu’s main approach.

Finally, when visiting, be sure not to miss Katori Jingu’s treasure hall. Inside, you’ll find an ancient copper-nickel mirror known as the Kaiju Budo Kagami that likely hails from China’s Tang Dynasty. The object is nearly identical to another mirror held by a treasury in Nara Prefecture. Additionally, be sure to keep your eye out for the hollowed out tree on the left hand side of Katori Jingu’s main buildings. This timber is believed to be what’s colloquially known as a “power spot” in Japanese and you can feel the spiritual energy emanating from its trunk.

Attractions Near Katori Jingu

A canal with a boat at Sawara in Chiba Prefecture

Given that Katori Jingu shares sibling status with the neighboring Kashima Jingu, I cannot more highly recommend that you visit both if you have the time. Though unbeknownst to many foreign tourists, Kashima Jingu is actually the original homeland of the deer that reside in Nara Park. According to primeval myths, when the imperial throne moved from Asuka to Nara in the year 710, they beseeched the god Takemikazuchi of Kashima Jingu for protection. Allegedly, the deity rode all the way down to Nara’s Kasuga Taisha on the back of a great white stag, bringing with him a herd of deer.

As if Kashima Jingu weren’t already enough to be hyped about, know that Sawara is also of historical significance. Along with my beloved Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture, this town is often hailed as “Little Edo.” This moniker comes from Sawara’s resemblance to what Tokyo (then called Edo) would have looked like in the days of yesteryear. In fact, Sawara is often given the title of Japan’s Venice due to its charming waterways (pictured above). If that isn’t reason to stop by, I don’t know what is!

In closing, if you can find enough time during your stay in Japan, I cannot more highly recommend that you explore Katori Jingu and the other nearby allures. I’ve already authored many individual pieces about these so for your convenience, I’ll list them below with the corresponding links…

Until next time travelers…