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SHIRAHIGE-JINJA

Pining for things past

by Sumiko Enbutsu

The accompanying 1830s woodcut print depicts Shirahige-jinja Shrine nestling in a pine grove beside the upper reaches of the Sumida River. In the center of the print is an embankment where pilgrims would descend the stone stairway on the left to a torii gate and then pray at the modest shrine to the right. Through the pine trees on the left, the pagoda and roof of Asakusa Kannon Temple can be glimpsed in the distance. And on the left, rice paddies are depicted by a quickly sketched grid pattern.

The history of small and rustic Shirahige-jinja goes back to 951 A.D., when it was founded as a branch of the Shirahige Daimyojin shrine on Lake Biwa, east of Kyoto. It was reportedly established by Buddhist priest Jikei while on his journey to eastern Japan from Kyoto. The Lake Biwa basin had a large population of Korean immigrants who introduced Shirahige, their white bearded god of tutelary, to Japanese inhabitants who then spread the cult further afield.

Along the Sumida and its main tributary, the Arakawa River, there are many shrines dedicated to Shirahige. One of the major ones is Koma-jinja in Saitama Prefecture, a shrine whose origin can be traced back to the early eighth century. The wide distribution of this god indicates the pioneering instinct of the early Korean settlers and how they helped develop eastern Japan through their advanced skills in land reclamation and farming. Recently it has been suggested by many historians that these Korean settlers founded Asakusa Kannon Temple, one of Japan’s most venerated places of worship.

Originally, the Sumida’s mouth was in the area depicted in the print, discharging itself into a shallow sea that was dotted with many small islands. Mukojima — introduced in this column last month — was formerly one such island, its name meaning “Yonder Isle.”

Due to reclamation, the river’s trunk became longer and longer, and today it reaches as far as Tsukiji.

The old Sumida was crossed at a a promontory further upstream, where it makes a sharp bend from west to south. The crossing spawned a prosperous village that gained strategic importance in medieval times as ferry services were crucial in supporting military operations. The tutelary shrine was Ishihama-jinja, and it commanded a fine view from all sides as it was built on raised ground.

In 1180, Minamono-no Yoritomo (1147-99), future shogun of Kamakura, crossed the Sumida here in his uprising against the Taira clan that ruled from Kyoto. Advancing from Chiba — where he had been in exile — Yoritomo and his army marched west from the Sumida, eventually defeating the Taira in 1185.

On this month’s walk, we will explore the two shrines on either side of the Sumida, looking for lingering traces of history amid modern urban development.

We start at Higashi Mukojima Station on the Tobu Isezaki Line, three stops from Asakusa.

Leaving Higashi Mukojima Station, turn right then immediately right again and walk back beside the station building. Just past a permanent outdoor exhibit of old train cars, turn right and walk straight until you reach Meiji-dori. Cross the street and Mukojima Hyakkaen Garden will be on your right. Originally created in 1805 by an Edo antique dealer, it is now owned by the metropolitan government and is famous for its collection of plants that relate to classical Japanese prose and poetry. Late blooming varieties of cherry blossoms can be seen well into April. (For further details of the garden, see the Flower Walk, The Japan Times, Sept. 6, 2001.)

Exiting, go right and pass an auto-repair shop on your left. Then take a left at a small T crossing and you will find the torii gate of Shirahige-jinja just ahead and also see that the stone stairway is pretty much the same as it was in the 1830s print. The narrow road leading left from the bottom of the stairway follows the old embankment.

The shrine’s wooden structure must have been rebuilt many times since its foundation in 951. The last wooden building was built in 1864, but was burned down in 1989 by political activists who were protesting the succession of Emperor Akihito. Stone monuments, including a pair of charming guard dogs, are silent witnesses to the bygone days when this place was frequented by literati who loved the tranquillity at this shrine’s idyllic setting.

Exiting the shrine on the highway side, turn right and walk straight until you reach a major intersection, and then head left to visit Ishihama-jinja, which is off to the right of Shirahige-bashi Bridge.

Modern urban development has deprived us of many of the historic structures that once stood in this area. The area was bombed heavily during World War II and even before the war, a large railroad depot was built nearby along with factories that were attracted to the locale because of its easy access to major transport routes out of the capital. The relatively modern shrine building houses another local shrine, Massaki Inari, in its right wing.

The main attraction here is igniting one’s imagination by standing next to a heap of lava that represents the once prevalent worship of Mount Fuji. From here you can gaze out across the Sumida. Over on the far bank, a drab expressway and apartment buildings hide a Buddhist temple on the far left end. The temple, called Mokubo-ji, originated from a 10th century burial mound of Umewaka-maru, a nobleman’s son who was kidnapped in Kyoto. Dragged to the Sumida, the poor boy died in captivity. His mother traced him down to this riverside only to hear of her dearest son’s death. Stricken by grief, she promptly killed herself by plunging into the river.

The tragic story was adapted in a noh play, “Sumidagawa,” which in turn has inspired an opera, “Curlew River,” composed by Benjamin Britten (1913-76). While standing here, it is apt to ponder a millennium of human passion, good and evil, that has left impressions on this spot, in forms ever changing with the passage of time.

Backtrack toward the bridge and turn right to follow Meiji-dori to the Namida-bashi intersection, where you should turn right to reach Hibiya Line Minami-Senju Station over the pedestrian bridge.