Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine

Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine

Sanno Torii Gate photo

The Hiyoshi Taisha shrine complex contains forty individual shrines in total—seven major shrines and thirty-three lesser shrines. The first record of religious practice in the area is found in the eighth-century chronicle Kojiki, which notes that the deity Ōyamakui no kami dwelled in a rock near the summit of Mt. Hachiōji, a foothill along the eastern side of Mt. Hiei. Over time, many more deities came to be enshrined in what was once the largest shrine complex in Japan.


For centuries, religious practice on Mt. Hiei was a syncretic fusion of Buddhism and Shinto. Hiyoshi Taisha has a long association with Enryakuji Temple, which was established in 788 and is the head temple of Tendai Buddhism. The shrines of Hiyoshi Taisha gradually became part of the Enryakuji religious complex and remained so until 1868.

Enryakuji was one of the largest and most influential Buddhist institutions in Japan until 1571, when the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) had the entire temple complex burned to the ground, including the shrines of Hiyoshi Taisha. Nobunaga’s successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) supported the rebuilding of the seven major shrines, and all were completed by 1601.

Sannō Ichijitsu Shinto

The buildings of Hiyoshi Taisha were not the only things that had to be reconstructed after the fire. All the shrine records were lost, and only one priest survived who still remembered the traditional rites.

After the fire, the shrine became closely associated with Sannō ichijitsu Shinto practices, which were created by the influential monk Tenkai (1536–1643). Tenkai oversaw the rebuilding of Enryakuji after the temple was destroyed in 1571 and used Sannō ichijitsu as the foundation for the burial and deification rites of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), the first shogun of the Edo period (1603–1867). The Tōshōgū Shrine at Hiyoshi Taisha was the prototype for the magnificent Tōshōgū Shrine in Nikkō where Ieyasu is enshrined.

Today, Hiyoshi Taisha is the head of nearly 4,000 shrines throughout Japan.

Hiyoshi Taisha Today

Many features of present-day Hiyoshi Taisha—from its physical placement and hierarchy of major deities to its rites, including the Sannō Festival—were reconfigured beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century. An 1868 government edict ordered the separation of Shinto and Buddhism, leading to the removal of Buddhist objects from shrines throughout the country. At Hiyoshi Taisha, more than 1,000 items, including statues of Buddhist deities, bells, and sutra scrolls, were destroyed on April 1, 1868.

The policy of Shinto-Buddhist separation also changed the hierarchy of the deities at Hiyoshi Taisha. During the centuries of combined Buddhist and Shinto worship, Shinto deities were believed to be manifestations of Buddhist deities. The Buddhist aspect often determined the placement and hierarchies of deities. After the separation edict was issued, four of the seven primary deities at Hiyoshi Taisha were moved to reflect a new hierarchy of deities independent of their previous Buddhist counterparts. This reorganization of deities also resulted in a reimagining of the Sannō Festival.

Seven Shrines

Sanno Mandara photo

Hiyoshi Taisha’s seven major shrines are divided into two groups, one clustered in the west portion of the shrine precincts and the other in the east. The names of the shrines and identities of the deities enshrined within have changed on several occasions over the centuries. The current configuration of shrine names and deities dates from approximately 1869, following an edict to “clarify” religious sites by separating Shinto from Buddhism. Shinto and Buddhism were previously practiced together at religious sites throughout Japan, including at Hiyoshi Taisha. Under the separation edict, Buddhist practices were banned, and Buddhist objects were removed from Hiyoshi Taisha and destroyed, leading to a reconfiguration of the deities and a reimagining of ritual practices.

The Number Seven

The major shrines are not the only things at Hiyoshi Taisha that total seven. There are seven steps in each of the staircases of the main sanctuaries, and all the komainu guardian dogs in front of the halls have seven tails.

According to Tendai Buddhism, the seven shrines of Hiyoshi Taisha are a manifestation of the seven stars that make up the Big Dipper constellation. The Big Dipper is thought to determine the life spans of emperors and all other sentient beings.

Western Cluster

The western cluster contains the highest-ranking shrine at Hiyoshi Taisha, Nishi Hongū, along with two smaller shrines: Usagū Shrine and Shirayamahime Shrine. The area is the main location for ceremonies held on the last day of the Sannō Festival. Monks from Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei visit Nishi Hongū to present offerings, and the chief abbot recites the Heart Sutra before the Hiyoshi Taisha deities.

Nishi Hongū (Western Main Shrine)

Until 1868, this shrine was called Ōmiya Shrine, or “great shrine,” and it is still the highest-ranking shrine at Hiyoshi Taisha. The deity enshrined in the main sanctuary is Ōnamuchi, also known as Ōkuninushi, the leader of the earthly deities and a descendant of Ōyamakui no kami, the deity enshrined in Higashi Hongū (Eastern Main Shrine). Ōnamuchi, who has been venerated in the Yamato region (now Nara Prefecture) since the seventh century, has strong ties to the ancient Japanese court and is considered one of the divine protectors of Japan.

The main sanctuary is designated a National Treasure.

Usagū Shrine

Usagū Shrine is located just to the east of Nishi Hongū. The deity venerated there is Tagorihime, the wife of Ōnamuchi, the deity enshrined in Nishi Hongū. The same Tagorihime is enshrined at Usa Hachimangū Shrine in Oita Prefecture, where she is venerated along with her two sisters. All three are children of the deities Susanoo and Amaterasu.

Tachibana orange trees, which are considered a symbol of perpetual youth and longevity, stand to either side of the main sanctuary. A tachibana tree paired with a cherry tree is a customary decoration among the tiered rows of dolls displayed on Girls’ Day (March 3).

Shirayamahime Shrine

Just east of Usagū Shrine is Shirayamahime Shrine, where the deity Kukurihime is venerated. Kukurihime is the deity of Mt. Hakusan on the border between Gifu and Ishikawa Prefectures. She appears in the eighth-century chronicle Nihon shoki as the intermediary during a clash between the creator deities Izanagi and Izanami.

Eastern Cluster

The eastern cluster comprises four shrines: two near the summit of Mt. Hachiōji and two on the plain below. The deities enshrined are a divine couple who have gentle and violent manifestations. The violent manifestations are enshrined on the mountaintop, while the gentle versions are in the shrines below. The two deities are considered betrothed, and their union, along with the birth of their divine child, is the focus of the Sannō Festival held in April.

Higashi Hongū (Eastern Main Shrine)

Higashi Hongū is the second-highest-ranking shrine at Hiyoshi Taisha. It is sometimes called by its earlier name, Ninomiya, meaning “second shrine.” The deity enshrined in the main sanctuary is the gentle manifestation of Ōyamakui, an ancestor of the deity Ōnamuchi.

The main sanctuary is designated a National Treasure.

Ushiogū Shrine

Ushiogū Shrine is located near the summit of Mt. Hachiōji. The enshrined deity is the violent manifestation of Ōyamakui, whose gentle manifestation is enshrined in Higashi Hongū.

Jugegū Shrine

Jugegū Shrine is located on a site that was considered sacred long before shrine structures were ever built on the mountain. The main sanctuary was built over a natural spring at the base of Mt. Hachiōji. The mountain itself is considered a shintaisan (a mountain where a deity dwells), and the deity Hachiōji is thought to reside in a rock near the summit.

The deity enshrined in the main sanctuary of Jugegū, however, is not Hachiōji but the gentle manifestation of Kamotamayorihime, a daughter of the chieftain of the Kamo shrines in Kyoto and mother to Kamo Wakeikazuchi, Ōyamakui’s son.

Sannomiya Shrine

Sannomiya Shrine is located near the summit of Mt. Hachiōji. The enshrined deity is the violent manifestation of Kamotamayorihime.

Great Golden Rock, Sannomiya Shrine, and Ushiogū Shrine

Mt. Hachioji photo

Mt. Hachioji

Sannomiya Jinja photo

Sannomiya Shrine

The boulder near the summit of Mt. Hachiōji was named the “Great Golden Rock” because of the way it glows in the morning sun. The name first appears in the eighth-century chronicle Kojiki. Originally, the rock was the abode of the deity Ōyamakui no kami, and it is considered the first place where a deity was enshrined within the Hiyoshi Taisha shrine precincts. During an earthquake in 1662, a large piece of the rock face broke away and rolled down the mountain to its current location near the road that leads up to the summit of Mt. Hachiōji.

Flanking the Great Golden Rock are two shrines built on top of platforms projecting from the side of the mountain, much like Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto. The shrines were built in a modified gongen-zukuri style, in which both main sanctuary and worship hall are joined under a single roof. The shrines look out over Lake Biwa, and on clear days, Mt. Mikami (nicknamed Ōmi Fuji) can be seen in the distance beyond the lake.

The two shrines are believed to be the dwelling places of the violent manifestations of two deities. Left of the rock is Sannomiya Shrine, where the female deity Kamotamayorihime is enshrined. People pray to her for safe childbirth, the well-being of children, good health, and a long life. To the right is Ushiogū Shrine, where the male deity Ōyamakui is enshrined. People pray to him for the protection of mountains and forests, flood control, civil engineering, and for household health and prosperity. The deities’ gentle counterparts are enshrined in Jugegū Shrine and Higashi Hongū (Eastern Main Shrine), respectively.

These two deities are thought to be betrothed and are brought together once a year during the Sannō Festival, when they are reunited at Higashi Hongū. In preparation for the festival, their portable mikoshi shrines are carried up the mountain and placed in these two halls on the first Sunday in March. This marks the beginning of a symbolic “courtship period,” and lanterns on the exterior of each shrine are lit during this time. On the night of April 12, the two mikoshi are carried down the mountain at breakneck speed to Higashi Hongū.

Both Sannomiya and Ushiogū are designated Important Cultural Properties.

Ōmiya Bridge, Ninomiya Bridge, and Hashirii Bridge

Ōmiya bridge photo

Ōmiya bridge

The Ōmiya River marks the southern border between Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine and the outside world. The three historic bridges that span the river—Ōmiya Bridge, Ninomiya Bridge, and Hashirii Bridge—mark the entrances to the sacred area.

All three were originally made of wood, but they were replaced with granite structures in 1669. The granite replacements faithfully replicate the original wooden bridges. All three bridges were collectively designated Important Cultural Properties in 1917.

Ōmiya Bridge

15.3 meters long, 6.7 meters wide

This is the largest and most elaborate of the three bridges at Hiyoshi Taisha. It stands on the approach to Nishi Hongū (Western Main Shrine), formerly called Ōmiya Shrine. It is used in many of Hiyoshi Taisha’s festivals.

Ninomiya Bridge

15.3 meters long, 5.7 meters wide

This bridge stands on the main approach to Higashi Hongū (Eastern Main Shrine), formerly called Ninomiya Shrine. It is now used only during the Sannō Festival in April.

Hashirii Bridge

14.5 meters long, 4.6 meters wide

Unlike the other two, this simple bridge has neither railings nor decorative elements. It runs parallel to Ōmiya Bridge, only a few meters away, and is used by those who require purification before entering the shrine grounds, especially during important shrine rituals and events. It takes its name from Hashirii spring, which is located near the northern foot of the bridge. Purification rites are held in the river near the bridge at the beginning of the Sannō Festival.

Sannō Festival

Sanno Festival photo

The Sannō Festival is held every spring against a backdrop of cherry blossoms at Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine. It is a celebration of birth and new life through the veneration of the shrine’s seven main deities.

The festival begins on the first Sunday in March, when the mikoshi portable shrines for the deities Kamotamayorihime and Ōyamakui no kami are carried up Mt. Hachiōji to Sannomiya Shrine and Ushiogū Shrine. More than a month later, on the evening of April 12, the deities are carried back down the steep path to Higashi Hongū (Eastern Main Shrine).

The deities Kamotamayorihime and Ōyamakui are considered to be husband and wife. They dwell separately in their own shrines and only meet once a year during this festival. After the deities arrive at the worship hall of the Higashi Hongū, the poles of their mikoshi are tied together, symbolizing the physical union of the couple. During the night, it is believed a divine conception occurs.

The next morning (April 13), the two mikoshi are transported to a nearby hall called the Ōmandokoro along with two more mikoshi bearing the deities of Higashi Hongū and Jugegū Shrine. Celebratory events are held throughout the day in anticipation of the imminent birth, including a flower parade, an offering of tea grown in Hiyoshi Taisha’s sacred tea field, and the presentation of gifts from worshippers, many of which are children’s toys.

That evening, all four mikoshi are rocked back and forth with great energy and vigor for about two hours, symbolizing the labor of Kamotamayorihime. Finally, upon a signal, the poles of all four mikoshi are slammed forward, indicating the birth. The mikoshi are then carried at breakneck speed to Nishi Hongū (Western Main Shrine), where they join the mikoshi of the other three shrines.

On the following day (April 14), Buddhist monks from Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei visit Hiyoshi Taisha. The monks place offerings before Nishi Hongū, and the chief abbot recites the Heart Sutra.

During the afternoon, a huge sakaki tree branch is pulled up the road to Hiyoshi Taisha, symbolizing the arrival of Ōnamuchi, the deity of Nishi Hongū. The seven mikoshi then depart the shrine precincts for the shore of Lake Biwa, where they are carried by barge to nearby Karasaki Jinja Shrine. After a brief sojourn there, the mikoshi wind their way through the local neighborhoods on their return to Hiyoshi Taisha. In the evening, the mikoshi are all returned to their storehouses at their respective shrines.

This series of events is the culmination of the efforts of hundreds of local people, and serves to maintain and strengthen community ties, in addition to celebrating the deities of Hiyoshi Taisha and a heavenly birth.

Mikoshi Portable Shrines

Mikoshi Portable Shrines photo

Mikoshi are temporary shrines for deities and are used to carry them from one place to another. Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine is thought to be the first place where mikoshi were used, following the gift of two palanquins by Emperor Kanmu (737–806) in 791. Before the Emperor’s gift, deities were transported on sacred tree branches.

Each of the seven shrines of Hiyoshi Taisha has a mikoshi. They are adorned with animal motifs, crests, hanging mirrors and bells. Dragons, phoenixes, shishi lions, and monkeys are thought to be messengers and servants of the deities.

The mikoshi used today are replicas of ones made in the late 1500s. The older mikoshi have been designated Important Cultural Properties and are kept in a storage facility near the trail to the summit of Mt. Hachiōji. The facility is open to public viewing in November.

The modern mikoshi are the same size as the originals but significantly lighter. They weigh about 800 kilograms compared to their predecessors’ 1,500 kilograms. It takes about 30 people to carry one mikoshi. Each one is maintained by a different team of townspeople living near the shrine, and it is these teams who carry the mikoshi on their shoulders during the Sannō Festival held each spring.

Karasaki Jinja Shrine

Karasaki Jinja photo

Karasaki is a small promontory on the western shore of Lake Biwa, not far from where the imperial court was located from 667 to 672. According to legend, the deity Ōnamuchi landed ashore here one day in a fishing boat, having traveled from Miwa (in present-day Nara Prefecture). He asked Koto no Mitachi Ushimaru, a warrior who lived on Karasaki, where he could find a suitable dwelling place. Ushimaru told Ōnamuchi that the lapping of the waves sounded like the murmuring of verses from the Nirvana Sutra. Ōnamuchi sailed out into the lake to hear the waves for himself, and when he returned, he flew his boat up into the boughs of a large pine tree. Seeing this miracle, Ushimaru suggested that Ōnamuchi would find a suitable location on Mt. Hiei, and that he, Ushimaru, would follow him there, build a shrine for him, and serve as the shrine’s priest. The hall built by Ushimaru was the first structure to enshrine a deity on Mt. Hiei. Other deities were already believed to dwell on the mountain, but they were enshrined in natural objects such as large boulders or trees. Over the next 1,400 years, that first hall was rebuilt many times and is now the main sanctuary of Nishi Hongū (Western Main Shrine) and part of Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine.

Karasaki Jinja Shrine was established in 692 on the Karasaki promontory. Although it is separate from Hiyoshi Taisha, it has a special relationship to the shrine as the site of the divine revelation that led to Hiyoshi Taisha’s founding.

Karasaki Jinja enshrines Ushimaru’s wife, Wakesuki-hime no Mikoto. She is known for healing gynecological disorders and sexually transmitted diseases. The shrine precincts are the location for one of the closing events of the three-day Sannō Festival in April. During this event the seven Hiyoshi Taisha mikoshi portable shrines are brought to Karasaki Jinja by barge, reenacting the arrival of Ōnamuchi.

Behind the shrine stands a remarkable pine tree. It is believed to be the third-generation descendant of the tree from whose branches Ōnamuchi spoke to Ushimaru. The pines of Karasaki appear across Japanese art and poetry, including in a poem from the eighth-century collection Man’yōshū and in the works of the haiku poet Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694). Bashō’s poem about the second-generation pine is inscribed on both a stone stele and a wooden plaque posted near the current tree. The second-generation tree was also the subject of one of the iconic Eight Views of Omi by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858).