By Bridget Ye
Although on the surface, many shrines may look similar in terms of building design, each shrine has its own interesting and unique story to tell. If you travel 16 minutes from Hanamaki Station on the Kamaishi line, there is a shrine that guards many historical features and philosophical stories inside its ancient grounds. The shrine is Kumano Shrine, located 4.5 km from Tsuchizawa Station in Towa City.
Towa City is situated between Hanamaki and Tono, two small cities located in Iwate Prefecture. Visitors will come across the beautiful scenery of wide rice fields that spread between the hills along the road to Kumano Shrine Bishamondo. The unique feature of this shrine is the huge wooden statue of one of the four guardian Gods of Buddhism (shitenno), Bishamonten.
Bishamonten is known as a God of war. He protects the north direction and is also a symbol of victory. Talking of the direction that this God protects, it has an indirect philosophical connection to the temple located on the same road before Kumano Shrine.
Inside the temple, there is a compound of stones which is known as Mandala. A spiritual symbol that has four guardian Gods in each direction; north, south, east, and west. The huge Bishamonten statue inside Kumano Shrine is the God that protects the north. If a straight line is drawn between the stone Mandala and Kumano Shrine, it can be seen that Kumano Shrine is located in a northerly direction.
This shrine was founded 1200 years ago. It was built when Saka no Ue Tamura Maro, a general of the early Heian period (792-1185) was still in power. The entire Bishamonten was constructed from one single tree. It is recognized as the largest wooden statue of Bishamonten in Japan, standing at 4.73 meters in height. This statue has stood indefatigably for at least 1000 years. Traditional and ancient colors that color the statue are still clear to the eye.
The helmet of Bishamonten is a unique feature. Originally, this huge statue was contained inside an old wooden building referred to as the Bishamondo, dating from the Muromachi period (1336-1573). The word ‘sando’ itself refers to an outer structure that is used to house a Buddhist God or smaller inner shrine. Although designated as a cultural asset, the building is not strong enough to protect this ‘protector’. Bishamonten and other other buddhist statues (butsuzo) have been moved into a purpose built building, situated on a slope above the Bishamondo.
The bottom part of this statue has a unique appearance. Usually, Bishamonten is portrayed as crushing demons beneath his feet, symbolic of conquering malevolence and evil. However, in this case, an earth Godess (Jitenjo) supports the huge Bishamonten with her two hands. This goddess comes from ancient beliefs which became fused with Buddhism.
There is yet another story inside the precincts of Kumano Shrine. Between the main shrine building and Bishamondo, there is an area where a traditional tournament called Nakizumo is held. “Naki” in Japanese means 'to cry' and “zumo” has the same meaning as 'sumo'. This tournament could be translated as ‘cry baby wrestling’ and is held annually.
The competition ensues when two adults dressed in traditional kimono each carry a baby into the ring (dohyo). After arriving in the center of the ring, they each face off with a one year old baby in each of their arms and start to shake them gently. The first baby to cry is the loser. By participating in this competition, it is hoped that the baby will grow into a healthy, strong adult and will lead a happy life. Another function of this tradition is to welcome an infant into the community.
Located on the slopes of a mountain and surrounded by tall and ancient trees, this shrine of more than 1,000 years still has many other secrets to share with visitors to its sacred grounds.
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