Legend of Mt Yahiko and the Yahiko shrine

Yahiko Shrine in Niigata Prefecture source: Wikimedia Commons

Yahiko Shrine in Niigata Prefecture source: Wikimedia Commons

According to the 8th c. old shrine tradition, in ancient times, Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto – a great-grandson of Amaterasu Omikami – sailed across the Sea of Japan and landed at the Nozumi shore (modern-day Nagaoka City) on the western side of Mt. Yahiko.

(An auxiliary shrine of Yahiko Shrine called Sakurai Shrine, marks the spot where, after landing at Yonemizunoura (modern-day Nozumihama) during his trip to conquer the Hokuriku region, Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto allegedly stayed here for a short while to clean up, before heading for Yahiko. In front of the small main shrine is a worship hall with a unique design in that its roof is supported by only four pillars. “Sakurai” means a spring. In the precincts of the shrine, we can still find the spring bubbling up which, together with three big, ancient keyaki trees, bears evidence to the history of the shrine. The name “Sakurai,” which appears in the Wamyo-sho dictionary entry for Kanbara-Go in Echigo Province, is believed to refer to this place.)

The deity, it is said, taught the local people to produce salt by boiling sea water and to catch fish by using nets and hooks. He then settled in Yahiko and established the industrial foundation of the region by providing know-how on agricultural and other industries.

An unusual festival called the boiling water “Yukake matsuri” is still held today at the shrine.The Yahiko “Yukake” Festival begins by receiving hot-spring water from Yu Shrine where a sacred spring has been running for thousands of years. A praying ritual is performed with a tub containing the water borne on the shoulders of the participants. Once the ritual is over, the tub containing the sacred hot water is mounted on a Yubiki-guruma cart, which is then wheeled through the hot-spring resort area as Kiyari chants are performed. As the sacred hot water is splashed over the spectators using bamboo branches with green leaves, those spectators pray for sound health, good luck, business success, and success in their exams.

Hot water deity in procession during the yukake festival.

Hot water deity in procession during the yukake festival.

The rituals of bringing out the deities of hot water and sprinkling hot water on festive participants for auspiciousness and good health are similar to yudate practices elsewhere at the Shohachiman shrine’s honmaturi, where the Water King and Earth King deities or demons are wheeled out to sprinkle water on the participants, or during the Fuyu Winter Festival of Sakanbe, Tenryu village, where “demons” asperse the community with hot water from a cauldron which has been refilled, boiled and purified, and after the mikoshi has been carried by young men who have performed ablution rituals in the Tenryu River to the Suwa Shrine (source: Matsuri: The Festivals of Japan)

Yukake matsuri

Yukake matsuri

After the god left, seven generations of his offspring continued to contribute to forming the basis of the Echigo culture.

O-yahiko-sama has been worshipped since the Manyo era

O-yahiko-sama has been worshipped since the Manyo era

This is why the supreme shrine of Echigo Province, dedicated to Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto, Yahiko Shrine, fondly referred to as “Oyahiko-sama,” has widely been adored and worshipped by the populace since the ancient Manyo era.

The Yahiko Chrysanthemum Festival is held from November 1 through 24 every year in the precincts of Yahiko Shrine, the supreme shrine of Echigo Province. The event is Japan’s largest chrysanthemum exhibition. Especially spectacular is a flowerbed in which 30,000 chrysanthemums create a large-scale landscape, the theme of which changes every year. It is the main feature of the festival that attracts many chrysanthemum aficionados. Yahiko in the autumn is also a spectacular fall-color viewing spot.

Daidai Kagura, a national important intangible folk cultural property, is a traditional dance and music performance that has been passed down for centuries by Yahiko Shrine. The shrine still carefully guards and maintains its traditional dance and music rites. Designated as a national important intangible folk cultural property on May 22, 1978, Daidai Kagura consists of seven Chigo dances by children and six other dances by adults. It is one of the representative dance and music rites preserved since ancient times in Niigata Prefecture. Being the largest shrine in the Echigo region and notable for preserving a distinguished and quaint style, Yahiko Shrine has long been worshipped ardently by the imperial court, Shogunate government, local ruling families and warlords, as well as by large numbers of the local populace.

This is why Yahiko Village is known as the birthplace of the Echigo culture. The village has prospered for many centuries as the temple town of Yahiko Shrine and a posting station on the Hokkoku-kaido (now known as the Hokuriku-do). Yahiko Shrine had cedar trees planted on both sides of the road bordering the land owned by the shrine, making for a 350-meter stretch of trees running north-south. The approach to Yahiko Shrine is still lined by cedar trees which are a Prefecture-Designated Natural Treasure and which since their planting, the cedar trees have been tended with great care.

Yahiko Village is situated on the Sea of Japan side of the central part of Niigata Prefecture. Its western side borders Niigata City and Nagaoka City with sacred Mt. Yahiko (634 meters) in between. There is a fertile grain-growing region abutting Niigata City on the northern side.

Yahiro village and its environs

Yahiko village and its environs

The Yahiko shrine stands in dense “divine” forest or sacred grove of tall cedar and keyaki trees on the south side and with its back against Mt. Yahiko, a volcano, which is the shintaizan or mountain that is the object of worship. This mountain and the nearby Mt. Kakuda, stand alone on the Japan Sea coast not far from Niigata City.

A verse about this shrine appears in Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest anthology of poems. After passing through the first red torii gate, which stands out against the surrounding foliage, visitors will soon cross the Mitarai-gawa River that runs from Mt. Yahiko. A little further up the river, there is a “divine bridge” called Tamano Hashi. On the right side of the stone-paved approach is the Shinen garden, where many Satozakura cherry trees stand among huge trees and produce pretty flowers in the spring, offering a feast for the eyes of worshippers. The Shinen garden is accompanied by the Rokuen garden, in which about a dozen deer are kept. The deer kept in this garden were called “Kami-jika” or godly deer (messengers of the gods) in ancient times, and Manyoshu also contains a verse about these deer.

Yahiko developed along with Yahiko Shrine which is thought to have been established in the 8th century or earlier. The present shrine was rebuilt in 1961 after a fire destroyed the shrine building. The earlier shrine buildings were destroyed by a 1912 fire which started in the village. Though the exact year of construction is not known, as the shrine is referenced in Manyoshu, an old poetic anthology dating back to 750 AD, it certainly predates that time. The shrine is devoted to Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto. Ordered by Emperor Jinmu (the legendary first emperor), Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto taught the people of Echigo region of Niigata prefecture various agricultural methods of fishing, salt making, rice farming, and sericulture amongst others, and contributed greatly to the development of the region.  In its museum, shrine treasures such as Shidano-Ootachi, a prominent long Japanese Katana and designated as an Important National Property, and armors that are said to have once belonged to Yoshiie Minamto and Yoshitsune Minamoto, both being legendary warriors from the 12th c.

About Ame no kagoyama no mikoto

Ame no kagoyama no mikoto, a.k.a. Takakuraji no mikoto, Kumano no Takakuraji- differing traditions exist according to Kumano Taisha where he is also enshrined in an associate Kamikura Jinja shrine, and according to the Sendai kuji honji account:

“According to Sendai kuji hongi, Amenokagoyama was born in heaven as the child of Nigihayahi and Amenomichihime, and was the elder brother of Umashimaji no mikoto, who in turn was the ancestral kami (sojin) of the earth-born clan Mononobe no Muraji. He descended from heaven together with his father, and adopted the names Tekurihiko and Takakuraji no mikoto. He took for wife his younger sister by a different mother, Hoyahime no mikoto, and thus became the ancestral kami of the clan Owari no Muraji. Amenokagoyama is enshrined at Kamikura Jinja, an associate shrine (sessha) of the Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

In contrast, Kojiki and Nihongi provide no genealogical information for this kami, and they recognize no relationship between him and the Plain of High Heaven. The name given in those two works is likewise limited to “Takakuraji(which literally means owner of the high storehouse)” omitting any title, and Kojiki adds a note to the effect that it was a “person’s name,” indicating that he was not recognized with the status of kami.” -Mori Mizue, the Encyclopedia of Shinto”.

The lack of genealogical divine connection notwithstanding, the Kumano tradition gives Ame no kagoyama, aka, Takakuraji a huge role in Yamato nation-building and in saving the more august deity Emperor Jinmu(a.k.a. Kamuyamatoiwarebiko), see account below:

“A kami which presented the sword Futsu no mitama to the emperor Kamuyamatoiwarebiko (Jinmu Tennō). By this act he helped save Jinmu and his army after they had fallen unconscious from the poison emitted by “rough kami” at Kumano. Takakuraji had the following dream: Amaterasu and Takagi no kami (Takamimusuhi) requested Takemikazuchi to assist the Heavenly Grandchild in subduing the Central Land of Reed Plains, but Takemikazuchi replied that rather than going himself, he would open a hole in the storehouse of Takakuraji, drop in the sword Futsu no mitama, and have that sword presented to the emperor by Takakuraji. When Takakuraji awoke, he found the sword just as the dream had foretold, and bore it to the fallen Emperor Jinmu. The emperor and his forces opened their eyes, and were enabled to subdue the rough deities..

 

Sources

Cultural heritage of Yahiko village

http://www.e-yahiko.com

Yahiko Travel youtube clip

shintaizan (Encyclopedia of Shinto)

Buddhism: Buddhism in China, East Asian and Japan, vol. 8, p. 140 on sacred spaces, shintaizan and earliest mention of the concept in Japanese texts Shoku-Nihongi, book10

 

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