Kamigamo Shrine and the Ancient Gods of Kyoto - Kansai Odyssey
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  • Kamigamo Shrine and the Ancient Gods of Kyoto

    In north Kyoto is Kamigamo Shrine [上賀茂神社] , the head shrine in the Yamashiro region. Coupled with Shimogamo Shrine to the south, these shrines are the guardian shrines of the old capital. For many reasons this shrine is one of the most popular and important shrines in Kyoto.

    The History of Kamigamo Shrine

    Officially known as Kamowakeikazuchi Shrine [加茂別雷神社], Kamigamo Shrine, together with Shimogamo Shrine, enshrine the gods of the Kamo clan that once lived in this region. The main deity of Kamigamo Shrine is Kamowakeikazuchi no Ookami [加茂別雷大神] (henceforth Wakeikazuchi), who oddly does not appear in the Kojiki. But according to the Yamashiro-koku Fudoki [山城国風土記],this god is so powerful that he can split thunder, as his name suggests (雷= thunder and 別=divide).

    The Myth of Wakeikazuchi

    When Princess Tamayori,who is enshrined in Shimogamo Shrine, was playing in the river, she found an arrow, which she picked up and brought home. Somehow, she then later conceived Wakeikazuchi.

    One day, Wakeikazuchi’s father asked him for a cup of sake. Since his father had always been suspicious of the boy’s parentage he asked Wakeikazuchi, “Point to where you real father lives.” The boy then pointed to Mt. Koyama and flew into the sky, never to return. From that day forward, everybody knew his true father must be a god.

    Later, hoping to see her dearest son, Tamayori received a vision that she could see him if she wove a crowns of hollyhock and held a festival on his honor.

    koyama mountain in background near parking lot of kamogami shrine
    Koyama (under yellow arrow… it is pretty small)

    She followed these instructions, and Wakeikazuchi came down to Mt. Koyama. Soon after, in the 7th century, Kamigamo Shrine was made to enshrine this mountain.


    Getting to Kamigamo Shrine

    Since Kamigamo Shrine is located in the north most part of Kyoto city, it will take some time to get there. The easiest way is to take either the 4 or 46 Kyoto city bus. You can access these buses from the following stations:
    Kyoto, Kawaramachi, Kitayama, Kawaramachi, Shijo and Nijo


    Our Recommendation

    My recommendation is to take bus 4 from Kitayama Station, and it should only take about 15 minutes to the shrine. If you take a bus from Kyoto or Kawaramachi, it take entire an hour to Kamigamo Shrine, since both 4 and 46 run through the middle of the Kyoto City. Those buses will also make many stops, but if you use a bus from Kitayama Station, bus only makes one stop.


    Shrine Grounds

    large vermilion torii of kamigamo shrine in kyoto
    Entrance of Kamigamo Shrine

    Near the entrance of the shrine is a small stream. This stream is part of a river system made of two rivers that flow along side of the shrine merge into the Nara no Ogawa. Nara no Ogawa then flows into Kamo River.

    In front of the Saiden, are two mounds of sand mountains called “Tatetzuna”, which represent Mt. Kouyama. On top of the Tatezuna, are pine needles, but the reason why is unclear.

    Saiden of Kamigamo Shrine

    Once you pass the Saiden, then you will see Romon Gate and Kusu Bridge.

    Romon gate and kusu bridge of kamigamo shrine
    Romon Gate, built 1628.
    Kusu Bridge: Allegedly this bridge is made from fossilized camphor tree. If you cross it, you can lie a long life.

    Once you go through the Romon Gate, you will see the takakuraden and behind it the honden, the main shrine building. However, unfortunately, you can only get close to the honden if you pay 500 yen.

    Takakura-den: no pictures beyond this point.

    There are two building behind Takakura-den: Honden and Gonden. Honden is indeed for the main deity, Kamowakeikazuchi, and Gonden is for when Honden is not available. Both Gonden and Hoden were built in 1863.

    Traditionally, Kamigamo Shrineis underwent a process known as sengu [遷宮], where all its major structures get rebuilt once every 20 years. However, because it is a Japanese National Treasure, now they only replace things like roofs and worn statues.

    Yatagarasu, the mythical three-legged raven that guided Emperor Jimmu safely on his journey is also associated with Kamigamo Shrine. The omikuji of him is to cute!

    Points of Interest

    Kataoka Shrine [片岡社]

    Kataoka Shrine is a little shrine that enshrines Princess Tamayori, the mother of the main deity Kamowakeikazuchi. Lady Murasaki, the author of The Tales of Genji, even visited this temple many times in hopes of finding true love. There, she recited the following poem:

    「ほととぎす 声まつほどは 片岡の 森のしずくに たちやぬれまし」

    [Hototogisu Koematsuhodo-wa Kataoka-no Mori-no shizuku-ni Tachiyanuremashi.]

    “While waiting for the sound of the cock’s crow, I got drenched standing in the forest of Kataoka”

    Because of this poem, Kataoka Shrine is very famous for finding true love.

    The shrine’s ema looks like a heart, but it’s actually a hollyhock leaf.


    Around Kamigamo Shrine is home to Shake-machi, a collection of many traditional and unique Japanese houses, once the residence of many Shinto priests. used to live.

    collection of traditional style Japanese shinto priest homes near Kamigamo Shrine
    Shake-machi: registered as Traditional Buildings in Japan

    Among those houses is Nishimura House, which is open to pubic (except in winter). If you want to see what the homes of these priests looked like, go in and take a look.

    Nishimura House


    Kamigamo Shrine

    Address339 Motoyama, Kamigamo, Kita-ku, Kyoto City,
    Kyoto  Prefecture〒 603-8047
    Hours of OperationMon-Sun:
    Admission FeeMain shrine grounds: Free
    Inner shrine tour: 500 yen

    Coming next time,
    Shimogamo Shrine!
    The adventure continues…

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