I’ve always been fascinated with the Shinto shrines in Japan mostly because Shintoism itself is a fascinating thing. I feel like it has and continues to play such a big part in molding the disciplined society of Japan. I often sense that it is because of this belief that the Japanese have this deeper understanding of the importance of respecting all the things around them, whether they be inanimate objects or people.
On any trip to Japan, I think it’s always nice to visit at least one Shinto shrine. Not necessarily to pray, but maybe to observe the sincerity in which the Japanese pray. Watching them go through their many rituals kind of compels me to say a little prayer too– bowing twice, clapping twice, holding the last clap and then bowing again. Showing respect aside, I think I’m secretly hoping that a little bit of this Japanese conscientiousness will rub off on me.
The Atago Shrine offers a marvelous sight for the eyes and the soul during spring. There’s a nice view of Fukuoka City from the courtyard (backyard?) of the shrine, aside from all the cherry blossoms you encounter on your way up.
Here’s a little peek at what you can expect when you go there, but more pictures and information can be found below the jump:
How to get here
You can take the Subway Kuko Line and alight at MUROMI STATION, then walk for 13 minutes to the shrine. Another option is to take the No. 1 or 9 Nishitetsu Bus and alight at the ATAGOSHITA BUS STOP. From here it’s an 8-minute walk. The path to the Atago Shrine is a mini trek up slopes through a residential area and then stairs, but the sights you encounter are certainly worth it. On the way, there’s actually a smaller shrine you can visit, and I’ll talk about it below.
Atago Otojiro Inari Shrine
We came upon this smaller shrine on our way up to Atago Shrine. It’s one of many Inari shrines within Japan that worship the Inari Okami, or the diety of fertility, agriculture, prosperity, and success. The deity Inari is one of the principal kami of Shintoism, so although the shrine here is small, it has all the important markers of an Inari Shrine.
Vermillion torii gates line the entrance to the shrine, where you will be met hello by a kitsune statue wearing a red bib or yodarekake. The fox statues are outfitted this way to show respect. Just like how Inari shrines are my favorite because of the torii gates, the kitsune are one of my favorite creatures out of Japanese folklore. I love the fact that no two statues are ever the same, even when they’re sitting across each other in the same shrine.
Before entering the shrine proper, make sure to perform Temizu by the washing basin in front. I normally just wash my hands and not do the part where I have to put the water in my mouth.
The aesthetic of this shrine is just lovely. The reds mix so nicely with the browns, greens, and grays of nature. It’s such a small shrine that you can easily walk around and uncover things on your own. I particularly like this small wall of ema. Japan does everything so artfully, don’t they?
There’s an elderly caretaker who welcomes guests into the shrine, and he can speak quite a bit of English. He passionately told us stories about the sacred objects and treasures of the shrine, which of course you can only find out if you come and visit! There’s actually a big tree here that was a gift from the government of Fukuoka City, and he was utterly pleased about it. Not a lot of people will pay a small shrine such attentions, he says.
I love how passionate he is in sharing his knowledge and how proud he is of this shrine. He says that it often gets overlooked in favor of the bigger Atago Shrine up ahead. I honestly think this place and the elderly man are such gems, I highly recommend a visit.
From the small shrine, keep following the path uphill until you spot the gate to Atago Shrine. One of the important Shinto deities the Japanese pray to is Atago-sama, or the god of fire. Fire gods are believed to be powerful guardians that normally live in the mountainous areas of Japan. Aside from this shrine in Fukuoka, there are several other major Atago Shrines located in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.
This sacred shrine regularly hosts cherry blossom festivals at the first half of April, but it is during New Year’s Day that Atago Shrine becomes really crowded. Apparently, over 500,000 people come to leave their prayers for a prosperous New Year. (It seems like a scary thing to be in the thick of that crowd.) During the time we visited, thankfully there wasn’t a lot of people.
The Atago Shrine also hosts summer festivals, children’s festivals, and of course, a fire festival. Believed to have healing powers, it is said that praying here can aid those who are struggling to give up smoking and drinking. Many homemakers pray to Atago-sama to ensure their homes and hearths are always warm and filled with good food as well.
I didn’t do any praying here, but I did spend quite a bit of time ogling some of the 2,000+ cherry blossom trees within the shrine grounds. The stairway leading up to the shrine is framed by tall cherry blossom trees that provide a marvelous backdrop for a photo.
Once you reach the top of the stairs, you will finally see the shrine. Congratulate yourself! That was a long and literally winding road up!
This shrine was first built in 72 A.D. but this version of it is the design from the 17th century. Like all of the shrines in Japan, the Atago Shrine has gone through many repairs and rounds of maintenance to look the way it does today. This is one thing I admire in the Japanese: They know how to keep old things pretty. I mean, the shrine kind of looks new!
There is a little resting space near the shrine where you can look out the windows to a beautiful crowd of cherry blossom trees. I can imagine people crowding in here for warmth during wintertime.
One of my favorite spots up here is the view overlooking the Fukuoka City skyline and Hakata Bay. I love all manners of cityscapes so this was no surprise!
If you get tired of the view, you can opt to watch the kids play with the birds. I have never seen birds with these kind of feathers. They switch from metallic green to metallic purple depending on the light.
After our visit to the shrine, we made our way back down. I honestly don’t know if there’s any easier way to get to the bus stop, but we had to walk downhill in the opposite direction where we came. Luckily we managed to take a break and have a snack before doing all that walking!
Where to have a break
Across the gate to Atago Shrine is a little teahouse called Iwaiya. We didn’t enter the teahouse itself, but I did see a ton of people coming and going, either on their way to or from the shrine. I found out that this teahouse has existed since the late 1600’s and it’s very cool that it feels like you’re part of history when you eat here haha!
Right outside they have a counter that sells mochi, and seeing them being made on the spot had our mouths watering. I’m not sure what this mochi is called in particular, but they’re flatter and larger than what we normally see being sold in boxes. They’re also filled with a lot of interesting things, making it hard to choose a flavor. My Dad is a fan of mochi and he decided to grab their assorted set of 4 for 1000 yen, if I remember correctly.
Because the mochi are freshly made by that smiling gentleman up there, they are given to you piping hot. This makes the mochi skin just perfect to munch on. It’s not rubbery and is just thick enough to hold the filling together without being overwhelming. I quite liked the toasted spots!
As you can see, apart from the normal red bean filling, they included chunks of sweet potato in one of their flavors to make it even more filling than it already is. What a fat mochi this made, filled to the brim. I like how the sweet potato cuts down on the sweetness of the red bean filling.
One of my favorites is this matcha mochi with red bean filling. I’m not super fond of red bean in sweetened paste form, but because I like matcha a lot I didn’t mind so much. I loved the scent of that matcha shell, and the bite or the chewiness of it too. I really gained a new appreciation for mochi here. I normally don’t care for it much, but now I know it’s different when it’s fresh and hot. (And maybe I was hungrier than I realized too haha!)
Well, that ends my first individual post for this series. I hope you are all ready because there is MORE to come. 😉
Visit Atago Shrine!