Denise Stephens visits a shrine dedicated to rugby, in Kyoto
Shimogamo shrine is busy the day I visit. Worshippers are ringing bells and clapping their hands before praying to the kami, or gods, as they have done for centuries. I wander around the extensive grounds which are dotted with small sub-shrines here and there, following a path that leads through the Tadasu-no-mori forest. It's peaceful among the ancient trees, a surviving remnant of the forest that once covered Kyoto, with only a few people walking along the paths.
At a shrine office, there are good luck charms and wooden plaques known as ema for sale. The faithful write their wishes on the ema and hang them up on racks at the shrines, praying that their wishes will come true. Among the ema, I spot a symbol familiar to New Zealanders, but less often seen in Japan. There are ema shaped like rugby balls for sale at 500 yen ($5.70). I'm immediately curious about these because I haven't noticed them hanging at any of the sub-shrines.
When I inquire about where the shrine is for the rugby ball ema, the woman behind the counter directs me to a sub-shrine called Sawatasha. Following the map, I walk back into the forest where I spot a small bright red shrine. Although it has the traditional appearance of a Shinto shrine, when I take a closer look, I notice that the shrine bell is shaped like a rugby ball. This must be Sawatasha.
A sign explains the story behind why Sawatasha shrine is dedicated to rugby. According to this, the shrine's spirit communicated through the medium of the ball, leading to the first rugby match in the Kansai region being played here in 1910. The match took place on the nearby horseback archery ground between teams from Keio University and Third High School. A stone monument now marks the spot of the first kick of the ball, one of many notable events in Shimogamo's long history.
Sawatasha looks like a fairly recent addition to the Shimogamo complex, but it already seems to be popular. There are many rugby ball ema hanging on the racks by the shrine, bearing inscriptions in Japanese. I wonder what the prayers are for, perhaps the success of a favourite team, or becoming a better rugby player.
Many Japanese still go to Shinto shrines to pray for good fortune in various aspects of daily life, such as health, relationships, work and prosperity. Although the Shinto religion originated centuries ago, it has adapted over the years as life has changed. Today there are shrines where you can pray for your car, your computer, and here at Sawatasha, your rugby team.
At other Shimogamo sub-shrines, prayers are being offered for many different things. Kawai shrine, which I've just come from, is full of mostly young women. They are decorating ema shaped like hand mirrors which, according to information in the shrine office, will bring inner beauty as well as outer beauty. These are displayed on racks around the courtyard, rows of neatly drawn faces looking back at me.
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At Mitarashi shrine, people are soaking fortune papers in the stream to discover whether the future holds good or bad news. If it's bad news, they tie the fortune paper to a nearby rack, so they don't take the bad luck away with them. The stones at the bottom of the stream are clearly visible, appropriate for a shrine dedicated to purification and clean water. It's a picturesque scene, with a red half-moon bridge spanning the stream, surrounded by blossoming plum trees and fortune papers fluttering in the breeze.
Today Shimogamo is one of 17 Historic Monuments of Kyoto designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The first shrine buildings were constructed in the 7th century and Shimogamo enjoyed the patronage of Japan's emperors for many years.
The Aoi festival held here every year in early May is one of Kyoto's biggest festivals. Events over several days include a parade from the Imperial Palace in Kyoto to Shimogamo shrine, with the participants dressed in colourful traditional costumes. The horseback archery grounds are still used for this traditional sport, with archers galloping through the Tadasu-no-mori forest watched by crowds of spectators.
As I leave Shimogamo, I reflect on the modest crowd who would have witnessed that first rugby match, and how rugby in Japan has grown since then. Rugby now has its own grounds where matches are played, but Sawatasha keeps Shimogamo's link to rugby alive.
Getting there: 10 minutes walk from Demachiyanagi station, or no. 4 bus from Kyoto station.
Shimogamo Shrine is open from 5.30am-6pm in summer, and 6.30am-5pm in winter. Admission is free. For more information, go to shimogamo-jinja.or.jp/english.