Sumiyoshi Taisha (built 211 C.E) is the most famous and important shrine in Osaka. For hundreds of years, Osakans have believed that Sumiyoshi Taisha has protected the city from numerous hardships, and delivered many blessings to those who have visited it. Each year around New Year’s approximately 2,500,000 people flock to the shrine for Hatsumode; a very important practice in Shinto, where an individual seeks to purify themselves going in to the New Year. It is the highest ranked shrine in the Settsu region (aka north/central Osaka).
Myth and History of Sumiyoshi Taisha
Sumiyoshi Taisha is home to the three gods of the sea. These gods were born during Izanagi’s purification ritual upon his return from Yomi (detailed myth here). Each of these three gods represents a different part of the ocean: Sokotsutsu-no-omikoto, the god of the deep sea; Nakatsutsu-no-omikoto, the god of the middle sea; and Uwatsutsu-no-omikoto, the god of the upper sea. These gods always act as a unit, and were very important in the myth of Empress Jingu.
Empress Jingu was the wife of Emperor Chuai, the 14th emperor of Japan. After the emperor’s death, Empress Jingu governed Japan and is one of the most prominent female figures in Japanese mythology. The tale of Empress Jingu even goes so far as to send the then pregnant ruler abroad to fight in a war with Korea (this war never actually happened). It was the Sumiyoshi gods who were responsible for protecting the empress during her military campaign, and then allowing her safe passage back to Japan. To show her gratitude to the Sumiyoshi gods for protecting her, Empress Jingu commissioned the construction of Sumiyoshi Taisha. Sumiyoshi Taisha enshrines each of the three Sumiyoshi gods, as well as Empress Jingu.
Getting to Sumiyoshi Taisha
From Namba Station it takes 10 minutes on the Nankai Main Line to get to Sumiyoshi Taisha, getting off at Sumiyoshi Taisha Station.
Alternatively, you could take the trolley on the Hankai Line from either Tennoji or Ebisu-chou Station, which also goes to Sumiyoshi Taisha Station. I personally recommend first time visitors to Osaka take the trolley, so you can see more of residential Osaka. The trolley also stops directly in front of the shrine.
Around the the entrance of Sumiyoshi Taisha are lines of gigantic toro, traditional stone lanterns. Many ship companies donated these toro to the shrine in hopes of currying favor with the Sumiyoshi gods.
One of Sumiyoshi Taisha’s most striking features is the large arched bridge called Soribashi[反橋]. Soribashi symbolizes the connection between the realm of mortals and the realm of the gods. As such, crossing Soribashi is an important act of purification for visitors to the shrine. This bridge is so significant that even Japan’s first literary Nobel Prize winner, Kawabata Yasunari, an Osaka native, named one of his books Soribashi.
Kawabata Yasunari once wrote that when he and his mother went to the shrine when he was young that “it is scarier going down Soribashi than up”. This quote became rather famous and is on the memorial to Yasunari just outside the inner shrine.
If you keep your eyes opened, you will see figure of rabbits at Sumiyoshi Taisha. It just so happens, that the shrine was built on the rabbit day of the rabbit year. Therefore, people believe that rabbits the apostles of Sumiyoshi Taisha.
An interesting characteristic of Sumiyoshi Taisha is the tori that stands guard before the inner shrine. This tori is unusually square in comparison to other shrines.
When you get to the inner shrine of Sumiyoshi, you will immediately see that there are four separate shrines. Three of the shrines form a line with one behind the other, and another one off to the right. The three shrines that form a line enshrine an individual Sumiyoshi god, while the other enshrines Empress Jingu. All of the shrines in Sumiyoshi’s inner shrine are Japanese National Treasures.
The shrines, or hongu, at Sumiyoshi are numbered by their order in their line up, with number one starting towards the back. The third and fourth are the first ones that greet visitors to Sumiyoshi Taisha with number four being the shrine for Empress Jingu. The arrangement of these shrines is meant to resemble a naval fleet.
You can easily distinguish if the shrine is for Sumiyoshi or Empress Jingu by looking at the “X” shaped beams behind each shrine. The “X” that is flat is for Empress Jingu, and the ones diagonal angles are the Sumiyoshi gods.
The architectural style of the shrines is called Sumiyoshi-tsukuri. This style is characterized by a bright orange fence surrounding the outside of the hongu, and inside each shrine are two separate areas.
Another unusual architectural feature at Sumiyoshi Taisha is one that probably not many people notice. In most Shinto shrines, the honden, faces either south or east, however, Sumiyoshi Taisha’s honden faces west; this is most likely because Osaka Bay is west of the shrine.
Once you finish walking around the inner shrine and head out the tori near the back right hand side.
Once you go through these tori, you will see a stone fence with a tall tree in the middle. This place is called Gosho-gozen. According to myth, when Empress Jingu was looking for a place to build Sumiyoshi Taisha, she looked up and saw three herons sitting in a cedar tree. Empress Jingu considered the birds a sign, and decided to build Sumiyoshi Taisha in that location. The tree protected by this stone fence is reminiscent of the same cedar tree Empress Jingu saw.
Around the tree are a lot of small rocks. Somewhere in the rocks you will find several small stones with [五] [大] [力] written on them. You can to stick your hand through the fence and search for these three rocks. By finding each of the three rocks you will receive strength, wisdom, happiness, fortune, and longevity. Once you have all these stones, you can purchase a pouch (from nearby Nankun-sha on the shrine grounds) to keep them in. It is acceptable to either tie the pouch on the fence around Gosho-gozen, or take it home with you.
There is so much at Sumiyoshi—be sure to give yourself plenty to time to walk around and appreciate everything. Check out the rest of the shrine grounds during the shrine’s regular festival, Hattatsu Mairi!
Coming next time,
One of the best places for seeing plum blossoms in Osaka
The adventure continues…