Flowers, the fount of knowledge at Kameido Tenjin Shrine

Early April sees the start of the Japanese academic year and for me as an academic, this seems the perfect time to seek out a Tenjin shrine and pay my respects.

Tenjin is the deification of Sugawara no Michizane, a 9th century poet/scholar who, in his later life, served the emperor as a diplomat and bureaucrat, but died in exile in Kyushu in 905. Thanks to a series of natural disasters shortly after his death, it was determined that his unhappy spirit needed mollification. As a consequence, he was deified, first as the god of storms and later, in a nod to his scholarly life, as the god of learning.

Even as a visit to a Tenjin shrine simply seems an appropriate way to launch the new academic year, I also thought it would be nice to find some place with pretty flowers.

What better way to combine my two goals than a visit to Kameido Tenjin Shrine, which is especially known for its wisteria, although it is home to many other flowers as well; so many, in fact, that it is popularly known as the “flower shrine”.

Kameido Tenjin Shrine was founded in 1646 in what was then the eastern outskirts of Edo. It sits about halfway between the Sumida and Arakawa Rivers, about a 15 minute walk from either Kinshicho or Kameido train stations. Between the shrine’s front gate and the shrine itself is a large pond that is bisected by the approach to the main shrine building, an approach that includes a couple of so-called “drum” bridges, steeply arched red bridges that add to the scenic appeal.

Large parts of the pond are covered with trellises holding venerable wisteria vines that are particularly beautiful this time of year as their purple blossoms drop in long bundles. It is both picturesque and soothing to wander through the shrine’s grounds and enjoy the beautiful flowers.

Not far from the main shrine building is a cute statue of Michizane at age 5, in traditional Heian garb. I hadn’t realized until seeing this that not only was Michizane a great scholar, he was also precocious.

If you can take your eyes off the wisteria blossoms long enough, you might also notice that the shrine is practically in the shadow of Tokyo Sky Tree.

There are Tenjin shrines across Japan and they are especially popular sites for students to offer prayers for success in their entrance exams. This means that Tenjin shrines are particularly crowded with young people in January and February, exactly the time when plum blossoms are brightening the landscape. The plum blossom was Michizane’s favorite flower, so most Tenjin shrines have lots of plum trees on their grounds, and Kameido Tenjin Shrine is no exception. It was fun to notice that by this wisteria season, the plum trees actually had plums growing on them.

The shrine ground is also home to azalea bushes–many covered with dark pink flowers–and even hydrangeas growing beneath some of the wisteria trellises. Their big balls of blooms will be out in another six weeks or so, just as the rainy season begins. Kameido Tenjin Shrine is also known for a chrysanthemum festival in the fall. In other words, any time of year, if you’re looking for flowers, you will likely find them here.

There are critters to be enjoyed at Kameido Tenjim Shrine, too. The pond is home to large, lazily swimming carp and turtles in all sizes, often competing for the best rocks on which to sun themselves. Gray heron drop by to feed on the smaller fish in the pond, too.

I was enjoying the flowers so much that I almost forgot that my original purpose was to make a wish for a successful academic year! I could soon rectify the oversight. What will I use next time as my excuse to visit this pretty spot?

© 2021 and Vicki L. Beyer
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