The shrine legends of Shinojima island, the island of sea bream and puffer fish

Shinmei Shrine retains the magnificence of the Ise Grand Shrine. Once every year, the male spirit of Hachioji Shrine is said to visit Shinmei Shrine (a female shrine). On that day, all the lights on the island are turned off awaiting the ritual’s end. Photo credits: The Yomiuri Shimbun

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“In the Edo period (1603-1867), travel and transportation were restricted under the Tokugawa shogunate, and the only major trip most people could take was to visit the Ise Grand Shrines in Mie Prefecture once in their lifetimes. Surprisingly, the famous shrines apparently weren’t the final destination for the worshippers.

After visiting the Ise Grand Shrines, pilgrims crossed Ise Bay by boat to reach a shrine on Shinojima island off the Chita Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture. Their worship is completed with their visit to the island shrine. At least, that’s the story passed down on the island, even if the Ise shrines deny the legend. The discrepancy intrigued me.

Amid the gusting winter winds, I disembarked from a high-speed boat onto Shinojima. I noticed a sign reading “The island of onbe-dai and fugu.” Onbe-dai is a salted preparation of sea bream, which is made as an offering for the Ise shrines.

Legend has it that Yamatohime no Mikoto, a daughter of Emperor Suinin, once paid a visit to Shinojima island. The princess, who is said to have established the Ise Grand Shrines, loved sea bream caught near the island so much that she decreed Shinojima to be the sole source of sea bream to be presented at the grand shrines. For more than 1,000 years since, exactly 508 of the chosen sea bream are devoted to the shrines each year, spread across three separate occasions.

Certainly, there must be lean years. But the designated number of sea bream of very specific sizes must be collected for the offering each year. It must be a difficult duty.

“We want to give good fish to the gods. I can’t call it a hard job,” said Yoshichika Kinoshita, 54, of the Shinojima fishery cooperative association, who has been responsible for the work for more than 30 years. …

The one fishing town on this small island, which has only about 6 kilometers of shoreline, is like a labyrinth. The roads are so narrow that I can touch either side with my arms outstretched. The alleys twist in irregular turns. And at one corner of this labyrinth stands a magnificent shrine—which seems somewhat out of place with the rest of the island’s scenery. It’s the main structure of Shinmei Shrine, which enshrines some of the same gods enshrined at the Ise Grand Shrines.

Thanks to this auspicious background, one of the old halls from the Ise Grand Shrines is given to Shinmei Shrine, once every 20 years, in the year following the regular renewal of the Ise shrine halls. That’s why pilgrims in the past headed to Shinojima to pray, and why islanders have passed down the lore.

When Shinmei Shrine receives a new hall from the Ise shrines, its existing hall is moved a short distance to Hachioji Shrine, whose hall will be moved to another shrine in turn. The halls, made of 200-year-old Japanese cypress, have been recycled this way over many long years. ”

Read more about the legends of Shinojima island here..

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