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Egara Tenjin

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Egara TenjinScholars and Sprites at the Egara Tenjin Shrine in Kamakura

Jan Fornell (Sweden)

Among the countless temples and shrines in Kamakura, I'm rather fond of the smallish Egara Tenjin shrine, a short walk northeast of the vast Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu.
The deity worshipped here was originally a historical person, the Heian period statesman and scholar Sugawara no Michizane (845–903). Falsely accused by jealous rivals, Michizane was demoted and died in misery in exile. Shortly afterwards, however, Kyoto was visited by a series of calamities that were believed to be caused by Michizane's vengeful ghost, and the emperor ordered that he be deified as the thunder god Tenjin to placate his spirit. Over the years, his reputation as a poet came to eclipse that more wrathful aspect, and he was transformed into the patron deity of scholarship. Today, there are over 10,000 shrines dedicated to him all over the country. They are especially popular among students, who come to pray for successful examination results.

Somewhat surprisingly, the unassuming Egara Tenjin is considered one of the three major shrines of the cult (the other two are Kitano Tenman-gu in Kyoto and Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Fukuoka). It is also one of the few religious establishments in town that predates the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Legend has it that the shrine was founded when a scroll depicting Michizane fell from the sky here during a storm in 1104. There is a huge gingko tree on the grounds that is as old as the shrine itself, and several plum trees, since Michizane was particularly fond of those.

But it's slightly to the left of the main hall that it starts to get weird. First, there is a large stone that supposedly looks like the head of a kappa – and when garnished with a sacred shimenawa rope, indeed it does! The kappa is a mythological, amphibian creature with webbed feet, a shell on its back, and a plate filled with water on its head, which makes for a curious hairstyle, not unlike the tonsure of old monks in Europe. Although cute, kappas mostly create mischief as such imps are wont to do, and may lure the unwary to a watery grave. This stone is actually a monument raised in 1971 to worn-out brushes. On the front is a drawing of a kappa by the famous cartoonist Kon Shimizu, and on the back it says “Kappa fudezuka" (Kappa brush monument) in the hand of the Nobel literature prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata. Both were residents of Kamakura.

Even odder is the 3.2 m high, paintbrush-shaped bronze monument on a mound behind it. This was erected in 1989 and features 154 different pictures of kappa painted by cartoonists in homage of Shimizu. Scholarship comes in many forms!
Jan Fornell
Born in Malmö, Sweden, in 1959. Lives in Japan since 1987. Linguist, translator, diversologist, art collector, traveler, gourmet.


Address: 74 Nikaido, Kamakura
Access: About 20 minutes walk from Kamakura station.


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