Many people visit Kyoto in search of Japanese history. Indeed, Kyoto historic and beautiful, but Nara rivals Kyoto in many way. Since Japan’s very first government was made in Nara, there are plenty of Japanese history in Nara that predates as far as the country was made. One such example is Isonokami Shrine [石上神宮]. Together with Omiwa Shrine, Isonokami Shrine is an ancient shrine that played a major role in ancient Japan. In addition to the shrine’s historic value, its unique architecture and its rare wari-haiden, make it one of a kind.
The History of Isonokami Shrine
Isonokami Shrine enshrines a number of mythical swords, and each sword possess the soul of a Shinto god. While there are many swords is Isonokami, two in particular are arguably the most important. One is the Futsu no Mitama no Tsurugi [布都御魂剣], which is Isonokami Shrine’s principle object of worship. Two of the most powerful people who owned the sword were the god Takemikazuchi, and Emperor Jinmu. The other sword is Totsuku no Tsurugi [十拳剣] or Ame no Habakiri [天羽々斬], which Susano-o used to slay the eight head dragon, Yamata no Orochi.
As you can imagine, this shrine’s primary focus is swords. It even played a major role in the Yamato Government as a weapon storage unit.
Originally, this shrine did not have a honden at all, much like Omiwa Shrine, another ancient shrine in Nara. Instead, they worshiped a little hill where the sacred swords were buried.
However, in the end of Edo or early Meiji Period, the head priest deiced to excavate the sacred hill. Inside the hill he found many sacred and legendary swords. Today, the shrine’s honden enshrines the gods residing in those mythical swords.
Since we were going to walk on Yamanobe no Michi trail, we arrived at Isonokami Shrine quite early, but there were already a lot of people there.
Once you enter Isonokami Shrine, you will see (or hear) chickens happily walking about.
In Isonokami Shrine, there are as many as 30 chickens freely walking around the shrine ground.
Actually these chickens were not always here, but were donated to the shrine in 1970. Some of them are very tame and even walk with you, or guide you around the shrine.
After you admire the chickens, you will see the gate of the Isonokami Shrine.
While some say that Emperor Shirokawa donated Isonokami Shrine’s haiden in Heian Period, the architecture suggests it was built in the Kamakura Period. In any case, its haiden is one of the oldest in the country, so of course it is a Japanese National Treasure.
Points of Interest
Izumo Takeo Shrine
This little shrine that enshrines Izumo-takeo no Kami, the god who resides in the Kusanagi no Ken, the sword Susano-o found in the tail of the dragon Yamata no Orochi. Since it is a little shrine, not many people pay attention to it.
Surprisingly, the haiden of this shrine is another Japanese National Treasure at Isonokamu Shrine. The haiden is special because it is a wari-haiden, which is a divided haiden with an open corridor through the middle. This wari-haiden dates back to 1147 and was originally part of a nearby temple.
Wari-haiden are very rare, and in fact only two of the few remaining wari-haiden in Japan are Japanese National Treasures. These two haiden are this one in Isonokami Shrine, and Sakurai Shrine in Sakai.
Information: Isonokami Shrine
Furumachi 384, Tenri City, Nara Prefecture
The closest stations to Isonokami Jingu are either the Kintetsu or JR Tenri Station. Since the Kintetsu service is more frequent than JR, it might be better to take Kintetsu. It takes roughly 20 minutes to get to Tenri Station from Nara, and keep in mind that you have to change trains at Yamato Saidaiji for Tenri. Once you get off at Tenri Station, you have to walk 30 minutes to the shrine. There is a shopping street that goes from the station to near the gate of the shrine, so you won’t lose your way.
dawn to dusk
Also, since Isonokami Shrine is located on the Yamanobe no Michi trail, many people drop by Isonokami Shrine before following the trail all the way to Omiwa Shrine.