On Wednesday, February 5 Keiko and I, along with good friend Mikako Nishikawa the Yushima Tenjin Shrine. The picturesque shrine, dating back to 1478, is full of beautiful plum trees and sits on a high hilltop near Tokyo’s Ueno Park.
The purpose of our visit was to pray for our niece Mai who will soon be taking an exam to gain entry to the high school of her choice. Her academic, athletic and creative talents and experience speaks well for her continuing success and a bright future. She is among the top three students in her junior high school and served as the school’s student organization President.
Tenjin is the name of the deified spirit of the famous ninth century scholar Michizane Sugawara (845-903), a Heian Period high government official who is worshiped as the god of learning.
Yushima Tenjin, like all Tenjin shrines throughout Japan, is a scholar’s shrine. It is visited annually by thousands of students, and their family and friends, before an examination to pray for passing grades, a very competitive process to gain entry to the schools of choice. Students inscribe ema (small wooden votive tablets) with petitions to Michizane Sugawara’s spirit for success in examinations. The ema are then hung on special racks seen throughout the shrine.
I found it interesting that the ema depicts a picture of Michizane riding a cow, discovering a large bronze statue of a cow as I toured the shrine’s gardens. Known as a nade-ushi (“stroking cow”), it is believed to be the servant of the god Tenjin and that touching the cow will cure physical ills.
The shrine buildings are constructed in the shaden style of architecture entirely from Japanese cedar featuring brightly painted carvings of scenes from Japanese legend and surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. A highlight of the gardens are the hundreds of plum trees displaying magnificently colorful plum blossoms (ume).
The plum blossoms prompted memories of the two beautiful plum trees that populated our home property on Crystal Lake in Gray Maine. They were prominent features of our Japanese garden landscape along with a majestic Japanese weeping maple tree. It is wonderful now to live Tokyo, a city with so many natural and beautiful landscapes to enjoy.
We will return to Yushima Tenjin later this month for the spectacular spring blossom festival when the 300 trees of 20 different varieties are in full bloom.
There is also another Yushima Tenjin festival held on May 25. It is marked by drumming, dancing, and excited hoisting of Yushima Tenjin’s portable shrine, or omikoshi.