[Star Shrine Kanji]

Star Shrines in Japan

By Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara

January, 1996


In Japan, the "unusual" natural phenomena almost invariably has a shrine nearby. The natural "object" may be a waterfall, an old twisted tree, an outcropping of rocks, or some other aspect of nature that ancient Buddhist and Shinto followers felt was associated with a particular deity. Star shrines are sometimes dedicated to the familiar Amaterasu (goddess of the sun). More often, they are dedicated to one of the three gods or deities who were said to be born from nothing and from which all came. Interestingly, these three deities have been associated with a number of "three star" asterisms in the sky including Orion's belt, the three stars that span Aquila's wings, and the three stars we associate with the head of Scorpio.

As you might guess from the foregoing, star shrines are usually associated in some way with a meteorite (real or imagined). Certainly, if an old twisted tree deserved deification, you can imagine what a "stone" falling from the heavens must have meant to local people in ancient times. Comets, while seen, were "intangible" and usually considered evil. Meteorites, on the other hand, were "tangible" and seen as a direct gift from the "heavenly deities". Of course, such associations for meteorites were not unique to ancient Japan.

Though in a somewhat different way, meteorites still inspire awe. Recent press reports of the furor raised by possible meteorite fragments in the Kanto area attest to the present day ability of these "visitors" to arouse wonder. This, of course, seems to happen all over the world when bolides have been seen or there is any reason to believe that a "stone" may have fallen.

Star shrines exist all over Japan, and there are about 80 in Kochi Prefecture alone. Some star shrines indeed were built around an actual fall and still have a meteorite or fragment of a meteorite enshrined. Some have had the original "stone" stolen (for which local people are usually quite embarrassed). In other cases, the original stone was (and is) not an actual meteorite but rather an indigenous (usually round) stone that locals found and thought must be a "stone from the heavens".

On the whole, star shrines seem simple in structure, not having the architectural flare often associated with temples and shrines in Japan. Most are usually located in wooded and quite peaceful areas. Star shrine construction, in terms of orientation and alignment, generally has no astronomical significance. Rather, it tends to reflect a mix of aesthetic choice and Confucian pragmatism.


[Steps to Godaisan Star Shrine]

From the din of a modern suburb of Kochi, steps to a particularly striking star shrine rise peacefully and disappear into the forests on the slopes of the town's namesake, "Godaisan" (Five Hill Mountain). Though not all star shrines are built in mountains, such settings were often sought as a place for "stones from heaven" to be placed.


[Star Shrine 3]

Star shrines can always be identified by Kanji (Chinese characters) like these that appear on this entry stone to a star shrine near the Kochi suburb of Tosa Yamada. The Kanji say "Hoshi Jinja" (Star Shrine).


[Godaisan Star Shrine]

At the top of mountain steps, the exhausted climber may find a structure such as this, a simple yet beautiful and peaceful star shrine. This one is complete with Shinto decorations (the white streamers are Shinto symbolic "offerings" and may be compared in some ways to stained glass in Western cathedrals). As is most often the case, legend has it that there was once a meteorite at this star shrine on Godaisan. Unfortunately, no trace remains.


References

Chamberlain, B.H. (trans.) (1981) The Kojiki: Records of Ancient Matters (Tuttle Edition). Charles E. Tuttle Co., Tokyo.

Hirose, H. (1972) Nihonjin no Tenmonkan. (The Japanese Astronomical View). NHK Books, Tokyo.

Okamura, K. (1995) Tosa Tenmon Sanpo. (Tosa Astronomical Promenade). Kochi Shinbun Co. Ltd., Kochi, Japan.


Please send comments to

Steven L. Renshaw

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