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Shrines & Shinto Tradition

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Shiogama Jinja Shrine and Shiwahiko Jinja Shrine

Shiogama Jinja Shrine is thought to have been founded before the Nara period (710–794), although the exact year is unknown. Shiwahiko Jinja Shrine was moved to its present location more recently in 1874. Today, these two Shinto shrines share the same grounds and some festivals.

Shiogama Jinja venerates three deities. Shiotsuchi Oji no Kami, who protects the ocean and taught people the secret of salt-making, is enshrined in the detached sanctuary (betsugu). The warrior deities Takemikazuchi no Kami and Futsunushi no Kami are respectively enshrined in the left and right sanctuaries (sagu and ugu). The main shrine buildings, from 1704, are constructed in the nagare-zukuri style, which has an asymmetrical sloping roof, longer at the front than at the back.

Shiwahiko Jinja is dedicated to Shiwahiko no Kami, the god of agriculture and prosperity, who is also the guardian deity of the Tohoku area. The lavish black- and vermillion-lacquered main shrine building was rebuilt in 1938.

Visitors approach the shrines by climbing a 202-step stone stairway, lined with stone lanterns and flanked by a thick grove of cryptomeria (sugi) trees. The stairs end at the stately Zuishinmon Gate (erected in the 1700s), which leads into the main complex.

The shrine grounds cover around 300,000 square meters of a hill overlooking the city of Shiogama and the islands of Matsushima Bay. In addition to 14 shrine buildings designated Important Cultural Properties, the grounds include serene Japanese-style gardens and around 300 cherry trees of 40 different varieties, including many Shiogama zakura, which are designated Natural Monuments of Japan. The fluffy blooms of these double-flowered cherry trees appear in late April to early May.

The shrines celebrate several festivals throughout the year. In the spring, the cherry blossoms are illuminated after dark, and during the Hana Matsuri festival, 16 men carry a 1-ton mikoshi portable shrine down the 202 steep stone steps. For the summertime Minato Matsuri (Port Festival), mikoshi for both shrines are loaded onto elaborate dragon- and phoenix-shaped boats and then floated around Matsushima Bay. During the Hatsuhohiki Harvest Festival, held on November 23, the plaza in front of Shiogama Jinja is filled with barrels of rice, huge fish, and vegetables, in gratitude for a bountiful catch and harvest. In early February, the shrines host a massive Setsubun Festival, with the bean-throwing custom (mamemaki), said to drive away evil, that marks the arrival of spring.

 

Shiogama Jinja Shrine Rituals and Mikoshi

Shiogama Jinja Shrine and Shiwahiko Jinja Shrine perform a variety of rituals and celebrate many festivals throughout the year. The mikoshi (portable shrines) of the two shrines are brought out for three of the biggest festivals.

During the Hote Matsuri in March and the Hana Matsuri in April, the mikoshi of Shiogama Jinja is paraded around the city. For the Minato Matsuri (Port Festival) in July, the mikoshi of both shrines are loaded onto elaborate dragon- and phoenix-shaped boats and then floated around Matsushima Bay. The rest of the year, the portable shrines are on display at the Shiogama Shrine Museum.

The black-lacquered mikoshi belongs to Shiogama Jinja and is over 280 years old. It weighs around one ton, but during festivals just 16 men carry the portable shrine down the steep, 202-step stone stairway that leads into the city. Shiwahiko Jinja’s mikoshi is more recent, built about 50 years ago, and is a brilliant vermillion color.

Besides the two mikoshi, the Shiogama Shrine Museum also has a collection of scrolls and prints from the Edo (1603–1867) and Meiji (1868–1912) periods, some of which portray ritual processions and festivals of the time.

Moshioyaki Salt-Making Ritual

The ancient moshioyaki salt-making ritual takes place once a year at Okama Jinja Shrine, located in the Monzenmachi area at the foot of Shiogama Jinja Shrine. The ritual was designated an Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Miyagi Prefecture in 1979, and is the only ritual of its kind still practiced in Japan.

The ritual is held over three days, from July 4 to 6. It honors Shiotsuchi Oji no Kami, the deity that taught people the secret of making salt from seawater.

On the first day of the ritual, Shinto priests collect seaweed from the bay by Hanabushi Jinja Shrine, in the nearby Shichigahama area.

On the second day, priests take a boat out into Matsushima Bay to collect water at high tide. They then replace the water in four iron cauldrons (kama) housed within the shrine. According to records from 1636, the color of the water may predict big changes or dangers in the days ahead.

During the final day, priests prepare a large flat cauldron, then pour in the seawater through a thick layer of seaweed. After lighting a fire beneath the cauldron, they stir constantly until the water evaporates. The salt left behind is then presented to the deities of Okama Jinja and Shiogama Jinja.
 
Visitors can watch a video of the ritual and learn more about Shiogama’s history of salt-making on the second floor of the Shiogama Shrine Museum.

The Sword Collection

The Shiogama Shrine Museum houses a splendid collection of swords. All of these swords were presented to the deities of the shrine by generations of the Date family, who ruled the Sendai domain (which encompassed present-day Miyagi Prefecture) during the Edo period (1603–1867). Records show that 39 swords were presented; 35 are displayed in the museum.

Each new ruler ceremonially presented three swords, one for each of the deities enshrined in Shiogama Jinja Shrine: Shiotsuchi Oji no Kami, who taught people the secret of salt-making, and the warrior deities Takemikazuchi no Kami and Futsunushi no Kami. It was thought that the gods would look favorably upon and protect the person who gifted the swords.

The swords show the evolution of sword-making during the period the Date family ruled the Sendai area. The intricate designs on the scabbards and guards, as well as the beauty of the hamon (edge patterns on the blade), are a testament to the skill of the Sendai domain’s swordsmiths.

In addition to the swords, the museum collection includes armor and helmets worn by lords of the Sendai domain, along with a wealth of maps, scrolls, and a large wooden board carved with tricky mathematical puzzles.

Monzenmachi

The term monzenmachi means “gate-front town” and refers to settlements established near the entrance gates of important shrines or temples. Shiogama’s Monzenmachi area sits at the foot of Shiogama Jinja Shrine and Shiwahiko Jinja Shrine and retains many reminders of its heyday.

Walking around the area, visitors will find businesses that have been serving customers for centuries: Urakasumi Brewery, which has been producing sake since 1724; the soy sauce and miso producer Ota Yohachiro Shoten, in business since 1845; and Tanrokuen, which was founded in 1720 as a marine supplier but evolved into a tea and sweets shop.

Shiogama was an important port of the former Sendai domain (which encompassed present-day Miyagi Prefecture), and Monzenmachi’s streets used to be lined with restaurants, shops, and ryokan inns catering to visitors. One remaining example is the carefully preserved Former Ebiya Ryokan, just across the road from Okama Jinja Shrine. Although the inn has been welcoming visitors since the Edo period (1603–1867), the current structure was constructed around 140 years ago during the Meiji era (1868–1912) after a fire destroyed the original. The upstairs is open to the public only on weekends, but the downstairs café regularly serves drinks and sweets.

Monzenmachi continues to evolve as new businesses join beloved shops with centuries of history. Along the flagged pavement, cafés welcome visitors and shops selling sweets, sake, and kamaboko (cured surimi fish cake) tempt passersby with some of the flavors of Shiogama.

 

Shiogama Sake: Fit for the Gods

As a port town, Shiogama was a bustling place in its heyday, with many ryokan inns, restaurants, and drinking spots where travelers, pilgrims and merchants would congregate to slake their thirst. Of course, this meant there was a great need for sake, and breweries sprang up around Shiogama to fulfill the need, making use of the bounty of rice that is still the pride of Miyagi Prefecture.

Two breweries remain in Shiogama, both located around the Monzenmachi area: Urakasumi and Abekan. Both breweries got their start making omiki (sake offered to the deities) for Shiogama Jinja Shrine, a tradition that continues to this day.

Visitors can enjoy daily tours of the Urakasumi Brewery, which has been in business since 1724. The brewery is housed in a large, white-walled building, and the entrance is framed by part of a former temple gate. Urakasumi uses at least 90 percent locally grown rice to make their elegant, light sakes, of which they produce around 40 varieties, many of which have won major awards at international competitions. A tasting set of three sake varieties is available for 300 yen (for those20 years old and above) in a small gallery attached to the brewery, so visitors can get a seasonal taste of the Miyagi terroir.

Abekan Brewery is slightly older; it started in 1716 to brew sake for Shiogama Jinja’s rituals. It specializes in a traditional style of sake-making called kanzukuri, which involves making sake by hand (with a few helpful modernizations) during the cold months from November to March. The brewery aims to create a final product that marries well with the fresh seafood for which Shiogama is known, so it is no surprise many of the sushi restaurants around the city carry Abekan sake.

 

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