A Mysterious World within Japan: Kyoto Seimei Shrine
What comes to your mind when you hear of “things in Japan that have special powers”? There may be many things that you think of such as ninja, or the fox which is sometimes considered to be a yokai (ghost). The Japanese would also think of the “onmyoji”. Today we introduce some stories of the onmyoji; individuals who are said to possess special powers. We also introduce a shrine in Kyoto that has a close connection with the onmyoji. Photo: https://www.flickr.com
What is the Onmyoji
Onmyoji are a people who worked in the Onmyo-ryo or the Bureau of Onmyo, an actually existing bureaucratic office during the Heian Period (794-1185). The people who worked here were responsible for divination. Onmyo refers to an ancient principle that originated in China and believes in the duality of things; that there is a light and dark side to things. The “on” refers to dark; the “myo” refers to the light.
The Heian Period was a period of time before warrior class called samurai seized power. Japan was ruled by an aristocratic class with the emperor at the center. The aristocratic class believed strongly in Shinto and Buddhism. They practiced rituals called “mono-imi” or “katatagae” which were practices based on superstition.
- Monoimi (物忌み): To stay confined in one’s home for a certain period of time to avoid calamity.
- Katatagae (方違え): To avoid travelling to a particular direction that was determined inauspicious through divination. One would travel in a different direction first, and then take a turn to reach the final destination.
Nights were very dark in Kyoto at the time. There were bandits in the neighboring areas (it is said that the legend of the yokai called “oni” originated from tales of bandit leaders), dead bodies resulting from disease and starvation were often seen lying on the streets, so much so that the main gate into the city, the Rajyomon was an area where dead bodies that could not be identified were collected. Given this situation, the aristocracy was extremely terrified of yokai and curses. During power struggle wars, it was not uncommon for someone to place a curse on their opponent.
The Most Powerful Onmyoji: Abe no Seimei
Among the Onmyoji, Abe no Seimei (921-1005) was said to be the most powerful. In addition to the various stories about his divination there are also tales of his many duels with his rival Ashiya Doman (also known as Doma Hoshi). There’s another tale that shows a family-oriented side of him. In Buddhism, the 12 deities that have the role of protecting Buddha are known as the “Shikigami”. This was done through paper figures shaped like humans that could be manipulated by onmyoji. Because he knew his wife was frightened by this, he did not keep the paper figures in the home, but hid the puppets under the Ichijo Modoribashi Bridge near his house.
Onmyoji often appear in movies, comic books and games in Japan. Novels that portray him as the main character often become bestsellers. He is so popular that he has an asteroid named after him. In recent works, the Gokadoin Clan, or the Onmyoji family that appears in Nurarihyon no Mago (Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan) is based on Tsuchimikado Clan, who originated with Abe no Seimei.
Seimei Jinjya Enshrines Abe no Seimei
There are many shrines in Japan that enshrines Abe no Seimei but do try to visit the main shrine, the Seimei Jinjya in Kyoto. Seimei Jinjya is about a 12 minute walk from the subway station, Imadegawa Station in Kyoto. Nearby, there is the Ichijo Modoribashi where the shikigami was hidden. This is also where oni appears in other tales.
Tale Involving Oni:
A hero was trying to cross over the Ichijo Modoribashi. There, he sees a woman who wants a ride on his horse. Though suspicious the hero let her on his horse. The woman turned out to be an oni. She reveals her true identity and tries to eat the hero. The oni grabs on to the hero’s beard, but he was able to get away by chopping off the oni’s arm.
Nowadays, Kyoto’s evenings are much better lit with the help of electricity. If you can imagine how dark Kyoto was back during those times, you can see a glimpse of how Kyoto may have looked in the old days – how people feared yokai roaming about and onmyoji worked their special powers.
Some Things to Know to Better Enjoy Seimei Jinjya
The Seimei Jinjya Shrine is located a little further back from the main street where the Ichijo Modoribashi is located.
The star shaped emblems that are depicted on the lanterns over the “torii” gate is well known in Japan as the mark of the onmyoji.
Within the premise, there is a well called the Seimei-i with a star shaped emblem on the water intake. Water can still be drawn from this well. It is said that drinking the waters from the well can heal illness. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who succeeded in unifying Japan during the Warring States Period (1467 – 1603) is said to have drunk tea using water from this well. There is also a peach made of metal, said to have talismanic powers. It is said that by stroking the peach, you can rid yourself of any evil by rubbing the evil off onto the peach.
Additionally, within the premise, you can see pictures that tell the legacy of Abe no Seimei. You can also take pictures with a miniature replica of the initial Ichijo Modoribashi, and the Shikigami Statue that is placed next to it. So you see that the Seimei Jinjya Shrine of Kyoto is a great place to experience the world of Japanese divination. Information: Map