Yushima Tenman-gū (also called Yushima Tenjin) is a small shrine in Bunkyo-ku’s western side just south of Ueno Park and is famous for praying for one’s academic success. Therefor it is neatly positioned near Ochanomizu, which has been traditionally Tokyo’s student town, while Tokyo University’s main campus is also within walking distance.
The shrine was established in 458 AD and is hence one of the oldest shrines in Tokyo. The shrine is since 1355 devoted to Tenjin, the god of learning. The current main shrine building is from 1995 and is made from cypress wood. But luckily some older items remain on the shrine precincts such as the front Torii copper gate from 1667, designated as a Tokyo Tangible Cultural Property.
Stroke that bull!
On either side of the chōzuya (the shed with water basin where you clean your hands and rinse your mouth) you will find a statue of a bull. That is because Tenjin is the deification of Sugawara no Michizane (845–903), a famous scholar, poet and politician. According to legend, during Michizane’s funeral procession, the bull pulling the cart bearing his remains refused to go any further than a certain spot, which was then built up into his shrine (source). Now there are 14,000 shrines in Japan dedicated to him called Tenman-gū shrines.
A statue of a bull lying down became therefor the symbol of these shrines. It is customary to rub them on the part where it hurts on your own body. That’s why the bull is called nade-ushi which translates as “stroking cow”.
Praying for school/academic success
Especially during exam season (January and February) the shrine is overrun by students, but young people praying for good results visit all year round. It’s at that time that the ema, the wooden plaques/tablets on which people write their wishes, pile on to epic proportions.
If you inspect these ema closely you see in large Chinese character 合格 written on them, which means “success” or “passing (an exam)”. Usually also the university name is written. It’s definitely not only the schools nearby, I feel everyone in Tokyo comes to this shrine.
As praying once at this shrine is not enough, they have a whole range of o-mamori (amulets to provide various forms of luck or protection) for sale that you can keep with you at all times. They have a listing on their website (Japanese only).
Visit early spring for plum blossoms
Sugawara no Michizane’s connection goes further than the bull and praying for academic success. As a poet he often wrote about plum blossoms, so plum trees became also a common sight at these Tenman-gū shrines. At Yushima Tenman-gū you can find 300 trees of 20 different varieties.
Haiku composed by Sugawara no Michizane at age 5 (ca 850) when he gazed at a plum tree in the family garden:
How beautiful the red plum blossom
I wish to color my cheek with it.
Poem written by Sugawara no Michizane in 901 just before he left Kyoto for Daizaifu and felt sorrow he would never see his plum tree again in Kyoto:
Should the east winds blow,
Carry me the fragrance
Of plum blossom;
And though your lord is gone,
Never forget the springtime.
What I further like about this shrine are the two approaches at the side, the onna-zaka (women hill) and the otoko-zaka (man hill). I recommend coming to the shrine from the onna-zaka as you see the shrine perched on an ancient looking wall, which provides a great view.
Do not be shocked by the small size of this shrine. It pays off to walk completely around the place to take in its beauty from each side, especially the back side.
Address: 3-30-1 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo
Entrance fee: free
Best time to visit: February and March when the plum trees are in bloom.
Hatsumode (New Year’s visit) 1 – 7 January
Ume Matsuri (Plum trees festival) 7 February – 7 March
Tenjin-sai (grand festival) 25 May
Kiku Matsuri (chrysanthemums flowers festival) 1 – 23 November
Web: http://www.yushimatenjin.or.jp/pc/eng-page/english.htm (limited English website)
Name in Japanese: 湯島天満宮 (Yushima-Tenman-gū) or 湯島天神 (Yushima-Tenjin)