The Salad Bowl. Vol. VI, No. 2. Feb. 1998. p. 1 - 4.
PHOTO: Munakata Shrine
Historic Sites in Shizuoka:    [ MAP ]

Munakata Shrine

About 350 meters east of the Okitsu JR Station and the same distance west of the Okitsu river is a patch of green with some massive pine trees. Sandwiched between Route 1 and the JR Tokaido rail line, Munakata Shrine is a nice place to stroll or pray.

No one knows when this shrine began. One account suggests it moved from a region in northern Kyushu known as Munakata-gun during the Kamakura era. With many Taira sympathizers in that area and this region under much firmer Minamoto control, this explanation seems plausible. The Munakata Grand Shrine in Fukuoka prefecture is an important pilgrimage point in south western Japan. There tutelary shrines known as Hetsumiya, Nakatsumiya, and Okitsumiya which once associated with different family clans stand to this day. As the imperial family gained ascendancy, the role of the various tutelary deities changed: they became subservient to the Sun Goddess, just as the people became subservient to the Emperor.

According to a myth dating sometime after the 4th center, when a sage named Takahayasusanou-no-Mikoto made a promise to the Sun Goddess to purify himself, she broke his sword in three pieces and washed it in a heavenly well, then ate the broken pieces. When the Sun Goddess exhaled, three goddesses were born from her breath. She commanded these goddesses to promote harmony, trade, and prosperity. The Hetsumiya, Nakatsumiya, and Okitsumiya shrines inside the Munakata Grand Shrine precincts are each dedicated to one of those goddesses.

The Munakata shrine of Okitsu also honors these goddesses. The forest surrounding this shrine is known as nyotai no mori (tr.: female-body-forest) and Okitsujima-hime-no-mikoto is especially revered. By some accounts, she is a manifestation of the Okitsu river. Other accounts suggest she commands the ocean waves. In a land with over eight thousand deities, the identity of one kami sometimes blurs with others. Many residents of Okitsu aren't really sure who is enshrined at Munakata: they simply come to this place out of habit. Since 1947 Maruo Funio has been the head priest and his son performs many Shinto ceremonies.

Originally, the Munakata Shrine was located near the old Tokaido highway, closer to both the Suruga Bay and Okitsu river sometime prior to the Meiji era. To protect this shrine from floods and tidal waves, it was reputedly moved further inland. The records of this shrine, however, have been destroyed by many floods and fires. This shrine was damaged by earthquakes in 1703, 1854 and 1944. Moreover, in 1872 a fire swept through the area and the wooden structures in this shrine were reduced to ashes. Tanaka Mitsuaki, a prominent army officer, provided funds for reconstruction.

Within the shrine precincts are memorials to those who perished in both world wars and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Near the main building, a tablet commemorating the 60th year of the Emperor Showa also stands. At the center of the shrine is a towering black pine tree. Indeed, one of the nicest aspects of this shrine is its range of botanical specimens: it has many fine camphor, white cedar, fir, hackberry, oak, alder, and sasaki trees. At one time the tall trees from this shrine served as a beacon marks for local fishermen.

Festivals are here twice a year: on July 31 and Dec. 31. Both festivals occur late at night, at a time when thatched talismans are burnt and placed in a ceremonial bowl. During the summer festival fireworks are also launched. Like many Japanese festivals, there is a carnival-like atmosphere.

- Tim Newfields
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Copyright 1998 by Tim Newfields and the Shizuoka City International Association