From ancient times, Fukuoka bay served as a gateway to the outside world. That includes Itoshima—once a small fishing village, now a popular Instagramable tourist spot. Twin rocks at the shore of Sakurai area symbolize Izanagi and Izanami, two lovers and, at the same time, most powerful deities of Shinto.
Sakurai Jinja is a small, yet majestic, wooden shrine hidden in the forests of Itoshima. It has been a popular destination for pilgrims for centuries. Nowadays, even if it may seem to be a bit abandonded, it is a thriving “power spot” luring those who want to experience something deeper than the typical touristic places of Shinto worship. The tranquility of Sakurai Jinja makes it fascinating. After all, it’s home for the gods of purification.
The precincts welcome visitors with a massive stone torii gate and a stone pathway with slim trees growing along the road. Though usually serene, the shrine can get quite busy during annual festivals or New Year’s celebrations. During the latter, an unusual custom is held at night—”naked” men (wearing only a small piece of white cloth wrapped around their hips) fight for mochi thrown into the crowd by one of the Sakurai priests. Such naked matsuri are popular in Kyushu as a part of the New Year’s festivities. They help the local men to form a strong bond and test themselves in extreme weather conditions. It is considered to be the greatest honor to be accepted in the matsuri community. Yet, it requires a lot of courage to strip off the clothes in front of neighbours and survive in piercing cold of January.
Tadayuki Kuroda 黒田忠之公, the second daimyo (feudal lord) of Fukuoka domain, founded Sakurai Shrine in the Edo period. The main gods enshrined, besides Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, are Kamunaohinokami (神直日神) and Oonaobinokami (大直日神). Both of them take care of purification, exorcisms, and warding off disasters. The funder is, of course, enshrined as a kami, as well. This powerful lineup of deities makes it an excellent place to start a new path in life. Many pilgrims favour Sakurai Jinja as a “power spot”. The phrase “power spot” became an essential vocabulary in Japanese to describe Shinto shrines or natural formations that resonate with unusual energy coming straight from the gods. As not all of the Shinto kami are friendly spirits, some of the power spots may give a creepy feeling and pump negative energy into the body and soul. Most power spots, though, are believed to provide an energizing vital power and became asylums for those exhausted with the modern world.
In June 1610, a great thunderstorm occurred in the Sakurai village. After a strong thunder struck the hill nearby, local farmers gathered to look for the potential damages. Surprisingly, they found a big hole inside the hill. After examinating it with a long bamboo pole, they noticed that the thunder formed a small cave with a stone carved like a door to the outside world. A mountain shaman was immediately called to the site. Upon entering the cave with a torch, villagers realized that the rocks inside are completely smooth, as if they were seashore stones polished by the waves and winds. This discovery was beyond comprehension for the countrymen. A supernatural occurrence and a presence of gods was ruled.
The cave quickly gained popularity and Fukuoka pilgrims started to visit Sakurai and pray to the stone god. The cave, however, became off limits. A few cases of trespassing revealed a new oracle, Urahime 浦姫, and a few miraculous acts to the peasants. Kami’s miracles eventually reached the ears of Kuroda lord. Eventually, Kuroda daimyo started consulting the Sakurai’s oracle with every minor case. As fortunetelling and magic rituals were extremely important for the authorities back then, Kuroda decided to build a wooden shrine in 1629. To ensure the high status of Sakurai, Kuroda associated the construction with Ise Jingu, the most important Shinto sanctuary in Japan, connected with Amaterasu (the protoplast kami).
Due to this honorable connection, Sakurai Shrine had been relocating every 20 years, in accordance with the purification rules of Ise Jingu (new place = “clean” start). After 13 times, in 1866, the relocation tradition ceased and the current shrine was constructed just where the mysterious cave was discovered by the villagers 200 years earlier.
But what happened to Urahime? The girl who notably disturbed kami and was taken to the sea kingdom by the sea deity, Watatsumi, secured an influential position as the oracle serving lord Kuroda. Urahime loved performing magical rituals and had been very spiritual since childhood. Her mother passed away when Urahime was a teenager. On her deathbed, Urahime heard: “You will be worshipped by people one day.” Her mother wasn’t wrong at all. Urahime became one of the region’s most powerful oracles; her words determined political moves and power balance in Southern Japan. Urahime died on December 2, 1636 at the age of 68 and it seems that at the time of her death various mysterious events happened.
After Urahime’s death, her son became a Shinto priest but passed away shortly after. His younger brother shared the same fate. The youngest son, Urasei, feared the curse, yet he successfully completed his Shinto training at Yoshida Shrine, the only Shinto school back then. The daughters of Urahime married into noble samurai families connected with the influential Kuroda clan. Their offspring became consecutive head priests of the Sakurai Shrine.
Sakurai Jinja is the maternal shrine of the Futamigaura’s “Married Couple” rocks. “Married” rocks can be found in various locations domestically. Yet, Fukuoka’s ones may be the most famous, or at least most photogenic, with its snow-white torii gate shining in the sun. “Married” rocks or trees are a popular motif in Shinto. There’s nothing more intertwined in nature than love. Mating into couples is a part of human nature, widely celebrated and encouraged by Shinto. Therefore, a pair of kami dwellings is especially auspicious. A single unusual rock or tree may be powerful, but it emits even more spiritual energy if it’s double, like Futamigaura.
And Futamigaura (or 夫婦岩 meotoiwa) hosts especially important kami. Izanami and Izanagi, the main gods of destruction and creation, are enshrined inside the married rocks. The one on the right represents male kami, the one on the left is believed to be home of the female god. Firmly connected with a sacred rope (連縄 shimenawa), the lover deities bless the pilgrims who pray for a good marriage, happy encounter, or even fertility. The large shimenawa is replaced occasionally, but it’s not a light task. It requires a special ritual to perform by the Sakurai priests and engages the most muscular men in the village since this shimenawa weighs around 1 ton and is 30 meters long.
The epic view of Itoshima’s Futamigaura was selected as one of “Japan’s 100 best sunsets”. I recommend visiting it around the summer solstice, as the sun sets directly between the sacred rocks, with the torii gate as a frame.
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櫻井神社 Sakurai Jinja
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