Tuesday 24 March 2020

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine: Praying for Good Luck and Cats Bringing Good Luck

In these tough times, plenty of people turn to prayer to wish for better luck and this is particularly common in Japan, where Japanese practice diverse "religious" practices and rituals (though these are actually more lifestyle customs and cultural habits than "religion" per se - see previous post here). Some of the most ubiquitous shrines in Japan are the 14,000 or so Tenmangu (天満宮) shrines which are dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a poet and scholar who was exiled from Kyoto to Kyushu in the 10th century where he died. He was later deified as Tenjin, meaning "sky god" (天神), though Tenjin is actually the patron of scholarship and learning. Residents and visitors to Fukuoka City, the main city in Kyushu, will recognise Tenjin as a bustling area full of shops, restaurants, and bars, not to mention the beautifully named Oyafuko (親不孝) Street. Oyafukō is a term from Confucianism meaning lack of filial piety - kids who don't obey or respect their parents - and it is therefore no surprise that this street is the nightlife hub of Fukuoka (I remember the Happy Cock and the Crazy Cock clubs fondly!).

One of the most famous of these many Tenmangu shrines (alongside Kitano in Kyoto and Egara in Kamakura) is located in Dazaifu, a 40-minute train ride from Fukuoka City. Because Tenjin is considered particularly helpful in securing academic success, the shrine is usually packed with students preparing for or taking exams (jukensei =受験生). After praying (and donating) at the shrine they will often buy a lucky charm (omamori=お守り) which they can hang on their bag or splash out on a wooden ema wooden wish plaque on which they write a message and hang up at the shrine (explained here).

Michizane was very fond of plum (ume=) trees, writing a famous poem (waka=和歌) from exile in which he lamented the absence of a particular tree he had loved in the capital (translated here). In fact, legend has it that the tree - known as the flying plum tree or tobiume - flew from Kyoto to Dazaifu to be with him! Today the descendant of the tobiume can be seen just to the right of the main shrine (pictured below - not in bloom unfortunately) and it is said that it is always the first plum tree to bloom in Japan (in February, coincidentally around the same time many exam results are announced). His fondness for plum blossoms means that Temmangu shrines often have many such trees: Dazaifu reputedly has 6,000 of them, comprising 167 varieties!
The main shrine at Dazaifu Tenmangu with the "Flying Plum" tree on the right
An interesting feature at Dazaifu is the pond in the shape of the Japanese character for "heart" (kokoro=心) which is crossed by two arched bridges and islands which are said to represent the past, present, and future. The animal particularly associated with Tenjin is the bull/ox because, according to legend, during Michizane's funeral procession, the animal pulling the cart bearing his remains refused to go any further than a certain spot, and his remains were buried there marking the location of the shrine. But the bull/ox is not the most visible animal at Dazaifu: there are far more cats! Here I am talking about the maneki-neko (招き猫) or "beckoning cat" sold in every shape and form in the shrine shops (note that the beckoning or inviting gesture in Japan is actually the opposite of that used in Western countries). These cats are supposed to bring good luck - something we all need in these trying times.

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