You wouldn’t know it from looking at it, but Yushima Tenmangu (commonly called Yushima Tenjin), a small temple famed for its plum trees and tucked away just a stone’s throw from Ueno Park, was once one of Edo’s liveliest religious and entertainment quarters.
Time and weather had taken their toll on the Main Hall built in 1885, so it was rebuilt in 1995. The shrine was lucky enough to escape not only the ravages of the 1945 bombings of Tokyo, but the fires and destruction of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 as well. Shrine history dates back far longer than that and Yushima Tenmangu has been a popular destination for scholars for hundreds of years, many coming to venerate Tenjin, enshrined here as the Shinto kami of learning and knowledge.
However, Tenjin wasn’t originally known as such a benevolent god. Tenjin was feared as an onryo, a spirit returned to the physical world to seek vengeance. The downfall of the man who would be deified as Tenjin probably played a large part in this perception of the kami as a wrathful spirit.
From the highest of heights to the lowest of lows
In 903AD, at the age of 59, Sugawara no Michizane died a lonely death in exile, the victim of a rival’s schemes that took him from a highly respected scholar, poet, and senior minister serving at the Emperor’s side to a discredited minor official in a remote province far from the capitol. His funeral procession was “attended only by his faithful follower Yasuyuki Umasake and a few neighbors. The coffin was carried on a wagon hauled by an ox led by Yasuyuki, according to the legend the ox suddenly came to a halt and refused to budge despite threats and entreaties. The burial therefore took place on the spot…”
After his death, plagues became prevalent and drought spread, the palace was repeatedly struck by lightning, and the Crown Prince died of illness. It was felt that these were caused by the anger of Michizane’s spirit, and 20 years after his death, in order to placate his spirit, the Emperor posthumously restored Michizane’s position, promoted him in rank and deified him as the kami Tenjin – a god of thunder, lightning, and other natural calamities. A temple was built in Tenjin’s honor so that he could be worshipped and his spirit placated.
Belief in Tenjin as a vengeful spirit that needed pacification waned over the next several hundred years, and he came to be worshipped as a god of mercy and integrity. Because Micihzane was known as a famed scholar and poet in life, by the Edo period, Tenjin had come to be worshipped as the god of learning and knowledge.
Tenjin comes to Edo
Tenjin was enshrined in the temple now known as Yushima Tenmangu in 1355. The temple was originally founded in 458AD and dedicated to Ameno-Tajikarano-Mikoto, worshipped as the kami of strength and sports. In 1478, the temple was re-built by Ota Dokan, the warlord who built the first Edo castle.
Michizane was known to be very fond of ume (Japanese plum) trees – at the age of five, he composed his first poem and it was about a plum tree – and so Dokan also planted number of them here as well as at the bairin-zaka inside the walls of Edo castle in his honor. Yushima Tenjin holds a plum festival every year in late February through early March to celebrate the blooming of the plum blossoms, and most shrines dedicated to Tenjin have plum trees on their grounds.
In addition to being a destination for Confucian scholars, Yushima Tenjin was renowned in Edo for its spectacular views of the city. Sitting high on a hill, the temple overlooks Shinobazu Pond and Kan’eiji Temple (now Ueno Park) to the north, offered excellent views of TokyoBay and Edo Castle to the south and southeast, and the halls and pagoda of Sensoji could be seen to the northeast.
Center of intellectual pursuits and earthly delights
Yushima Tenjin had other reasons to be popular as well – it was home to “Temple Kabuki” – one of the three largest such districts in Edo – pulling in crowds from all over the city to see young and rising actors, with ticket prices being less than the three licensed kabuki theatres and being easier to access.
It was also the site of one of Edo’s legal lotteries. The Shogunate allowed these lotteries to be conducted as a way for the temples to raise funds for repairs, but limited them to only three temples. A winning ticket brought the holder $1,000,000 but that same ticket cost $250, about one quarter of a laborer’s monthly salary.
There was one final, more earthly attraction that brought people to Yushima Tenjin – prostitution. While there was only one licensed prostitution quarter in all Edo (Yoshiwara, tucked away into the backwater area behind Sensoji temple), there were numerous okabasho, illegal private prostitution areas, with many of them being on or near temple grounds.
Yushima Tenjin was no exception, and was well known for its kagema (male prostitutes). There were two reasons for this: one was linked to the temple kabuki theatres found here. Kabuki and prostitution had been linked from the very start of the art form – the first actresses were courtesans and after they had been outlawed, young male actors took over their roles both on stage and off.
The second was that Tenjin was seen as one of the guardian deities of nanshoku (men’s love). There was no moral or religious prescription on homosexual relations or love in Japan, they were simply considered another choice in the spectrum of human relations and same-sex love in both the monastic and samurai class were not uncommon.
Decline during the last days of the Shogunate and current incarnation
Yushima Tenmangu as a major center of entertainment in Edo began to end in August of 1840, when the Shogunate ordered the closing of all temple kabuki theatres as part of the Tenpo Reforms. Two years later in 1842, the lotteries were abolished, robbing the shrine of a major source of income and taking away more of the appeal of Yushima Tenmangu as a destination for the masses.
However, the shrine today is still sought out by scholars and students, who come here to offer their prayers to Tenjin for success in passing their exams. On any given day, one can see many students standing in front of the main hall, heads bowed and hands steepled in front of their faces or crowded in front of the temple office, buying charms thought to ensure their chances of passing.
Yushima Tenmangu: http://www.yushimatenjin.or.jp