The Lion of Namba: Namba Yasaka Shrine

Namba is home to a number of famous shrines, but one of the most popular is definitely Namba Yasaka Shrine [難波八阪神社]. Though not as old as some other shrines in Osaka such as Kouzu or Ikutama Shrine, Namba Yasaka Shrine is one of the most popular shrines for first time visitors to Osaka. In many ways Namba Yasaka Shrine is actually quite mysterious, and houses an unusual deity.   


The History of Namba Yasaka Shrine

Unfortunately, there are few surviving records about the origins of Namba Yasaka Shrine, however “Yasaka Shrine” should sound familiar to anyone who has ever attended Gion Matsuri. We know for certain that Namba Yasaka Shrine is a small sister to shrine to Kyoto’s Yasaka Shrine. Just like its Kyoto counter-part, Namba Yasaka Shrine originally housed the Buddhist Japanese deity Gozu Tennou [牛頭天王], who is believed to be the guardian of the Jetavana Monastery, or “Gion” Shouja [祇園精舎] in Japanese. This monastery is a very holy place for Buddhists. It is said that the Buddha spent many years in the Jetavana Grove teaching his philosophies to his disciples and performing miracles.

Described as being very tall and having the head of a cow with great big horns, Gozu Tennou’s appearance makes it sound like he is a very intimidating deity. Despite his appearance he is in fact a god that protects people from illness and disease.

You might be wondering, however: if this placed housed a Buddhist deity, then why is it a shrine and not a temple?

Good question!

Gozu Tennou

Prior to the Meiji Restoration, it was not uncommon for Buddhist deities to be merged with Shinto gods. After Buddhism was imported to Japan, people started to associate Gozu Tennou with the Shinto god Susano-o. How, and better yet why, these two gods began to be associated with one another is quite a mystery.

Some people refer to the tale in the Nihon Shoki, where after Susano-o was ostracized from the High Plane, he visited a place called “Soshimori” somewhere in Korea. Soshimori literally means “cow head” in old Korean, which lead people to assume that Susano-o was the same god as Gozu Tennou, whose name translates to “cow head king”. However, this explanation has faced a lot of criticism, so it is rather dicey whether this origin story is true or not.

The Tale of Somin Shorai

There is another very popular story about Gozu Tennou that dates back to the Kamakura Period.

The story goes that Gozu Tenno visited a small village, and in that village there were two brothers: Somin Shorai [蘇民将来] who was very poor and Kyotan Shorai who was very rich. When Gozu Tennou arrived in the village, Shorai was kind to Gozu Tennou and treated him with kindness and hospitality. However his brother Kyotan did not.

Later, Gozu Tennou returned to the village and gave Shorai and his family circles of woven hay called chinowa and instructed the family to wear the chinowa around their necks. Gozu Tennou then released a plague, killing everyone in the village except Shorai and his family. After all the other villagers were dead, Gozu Tennou revealed himself to the family as the god Susano-o. He told them that as gratitude of their hospitality he had bestowed them with these special chinowa that would shield them from any illness.

Over time, the chinowa mentioned in this story became the origin of the Nagoshi no Hare ritual, where people purify themselves by passing through a large circle of hay.

Chinowa for Nagashi no Hare at Daikaku-ji Temple . Kyoto, Japan.

You can even find special shimenawa that read “I am a descendant of Somin Shorai” throughout Japan. These special shimenawa are powerful charms against illness.

While stories of Gozu Tennou, especially those that connect him to Susano-o, are few and far between, we can also conclude from the story of Somin Shorai that Gozu Tennou does seem to share a common trait with Susano-o: unnecessarily violent tendencies.

Changes After Meiji

The Meiji Restoration, however, put an end to the practice of worshiping combined deities like Gozu Tennou. This decree forced institutions that had for centuries enjoyed the ambiguity of Shinto and Buddhism to essentially pick a side. Because of the association between Gozu Tennou and Susano-o, Namba Yasaka decided to enshrine Susano-o along with his wife Kushinada in 1872.

Namba Yasaka has been burned down a number of times throughout the centuries. The most recent was during the Osaka Air Raids in WWII. It took until 1974 before the shrine was rebuilt. The shrine also added its iconic shishi, or lion, head ema-den at this time.

Getting to Namba Yasaka Shrine

To get the shrine get off at the Nankai Namba Station and head towards Yotsubashi Street. Namba Yasaka Shrine is about one block east of Yotsubashi Street and it should take you about 5-10 minutes to get there on foot. The shrine is easy to get to, but you will need to keep your eyes opened! While Namba Yasaka is a decent sized shrine, but it can be a little tricky to find if you are not paying attention because it is surrounded by houses and tall buildings.


Shrine Grounds

Namba Yasaka Shrine, sando.

About 15 years ago, there were many omamori vending machines along the sando to the haiden! Unfortunately, they aren’t here anymore…


Standing at an impressive 12m tall big, the shishi ema-den attracts visitors to the shrine every day.

huge lion head ema-den of Namba Yasaka Shrine
Shishi head ema-den of Namba Yasaka Shrine

 Its eyes are lights and the nose is the microphone!

shishi ema-den of Namba Yasaka shrine lit up at night
Shishi at night. He looks pretty scary…

In the back of Namba Yasaka Shrine you will find a little shrine dedicated to Shinoyama Jyubei [篠山十兵衛]. Shiroyama is responsible for founding the Osaka Kizu Wholesale Market back during the Edo Period.  


Namba Yasaka Shrine

Address  2-9-19 Motomachi, Naniwa-ku, Osaka City, Osaka,
Admission Free
Hours of Operation Dawn to Dusk. No official holidays

While Namba Yasaka Shrine may not be as deeply steeped in history as some of the other shrines or temples in Osaka, but it is still a one of a kind experience that both excites and delights those who come to visit.

Coming next time,
Autumn’s iconic hagi flowers at Tokoin Hagi no Tera

The adventure continues…

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