Outline of Sengen Taisha
Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha Shrine (often called simply “Sengen Taisha”) is located at the southwestern foot of Mt. Fuji, in Fujinomiya City, Shizuoka Prefecture. Since long ago, the shrine has been revered as ichinomiya, which roughly means “the first shrine people should visit,” or “the most influential shrine in the district.”
This shrine is a beautiful place surrounded by a lot of sakura trees (Japanese cherry trees), and is also known as one of the best Mount Fuji viewing spots. If you are thinking about exploring the southern side of Mount Fuji, I hope you will include this spot in your Japan tour itinerary.
Many famous generals and feudal lords throughout history prayed at this shrine and offered gifts. And in 1896, the Meiji government at that time gave the shrine the rank of kanpei-taisha, a government supported shrine of the first rank.
Also, Sengen Taisha in Fujinomiya City is the head shrine of 1,300 sengen shrines throughout Japan. Generally speaking, “sengen shrines” are the ones where Mt. Fuji is the main object of worship (although there are a few exceptions). The kanji characters for sengen (浅間) can also be read as asama, which is the name of the ancient kami (Shinto deity) of volcanoes. And in the Middle Ages, Mt. Fuji was the most violent and feared volcano in the nation. So the people built sengen shrines all around Japan and tried to appease the raging deity of Mt. Fuji by worshipping the mountain.
So, Sengen Taisha has been very closely connected with Mt. Fuji since long ago. The shrine used to be called the “gateway to Mt. Fuji” because it was the place where people prayed and performed ablutions before ascending the mountain.
In the old days, climbing Mt. Fuji was a kind of a religious act, rather than one of leisure. These activities of the medieval climbers are well documented in a religious painting from the early 16th century called Fujisan Mandara, which is kept at this very shrine as an important cultural asset of the nation.
The shrine also has a branch shrine at the summit of Fuji, which is called Sengen Taisha Okumiya Shrine. And surprisingly enough, the area above the eighth station (approximately the 3000 meter point) of the mountain is actually the part of the shrine’s precinct. And since olden times, the summit crater has been considered to be the place where kami actually reside.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Since the connection between Mt. Fuji and Sengen Taisha has been so strong, when Mt. Fuji was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2013, Sengen Taisha was also registered as one of the “component parts” of the sacred mountain.
Konohana Sakuya Hime
The principal deity of Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha is a goddess called Konohana-no-sakuya-hime-no-mikoto. Her name can be loosely translated as “cherry blossom princess.” So the cherry has been a holy tree of the shrine and it is said that now there are as many as 500 cherry trees in the precinct.
In former days, people considered Mt. Fuji itself to be a temporary manifestation of the goddess Konohana because the mountain had such an elegant figure, with long symmetrical sides (Asama, the aforementioned kami, was regarded as identical to Konohana. So, it can be said that in a spiritual sense, Asama, Konohana, and Mt. Fuji are basically the same thing).
But the goddess also had her fierce side. The following story is told in the ancient Japanese mythology: when Konohana’s pregnancy was revealed, Ninigi-no-mikoto, who was her husband, doubted her faithfulness. So, she locked herself in a doorless hut and set fire to it, saying that the child would be born safely even in the fire if it was truly her husband’s (if it was really divine). And eventually, she delivered triplets.
Konohana was regarded as having powers to control not only fire but also water. And it was these magical powers of her that were considered to keep Mt. Fuji from erupting. Today, when we worship at Sengen Taisha, the benefits which are believed to be bestowed upon us include: fire prevention, safety of ocean voyage, family harmony, and easy childbirth, among others. Obviously these benefits come from her special powers which are told in the mythical story.
Precinct of Sengen Taisha
Walking down the 150 meter approach toward the Romon Gate (the Main Gate), you will come to the small but charming pond called Kagami-ike (Mirror Pond). It is sometimes called Spectacles Pond due to its shape.
It seems that this pond, like a mirror, reflects everything that surrounds it. So, on the surface of this pond, you can see the beautiful reflections of the tree branches, the stone lantern, the Main Gate, and even the summit of Mt. Fuji if you are lucky. The arched bridge across the pond was rebuilt with stone, commemorating the enthronement of Emperor Taisho in 1915.
Beside the Mirror Pond, there is a bronze statue of an archer on horseback. This is based on a story about Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, the Shogun who established Japan’s first samurai government in Kamakura in the late 12th century. It is said that, when he held a large-scale hunting session at the foot of Mt. Fuji in 1193, he dedicated Yabusame to Sengen Taisha.
Yabusame is traditional Japanese mounted archery, where an archer on horseback shoots three arrows successively at the targets. It was one of the military practices intended to promote the shooting skills of samurai warriors, but it was sometimes done as a ritual to honor the shrine, too. And in commemoration of Yoritomo’s act, the shrine holds a Yabusame Festival in the early May every year, and it is when the Sakura-no-baba, a large horse-riding ground in front of the Main Gate, is crowded with spectators.
If you walk under the Romon Gate and enter into the graveled sanctuary area of the shrine, you will notice that the main buildings are all painted vermillion, and have thatched roofs of hinoki bark (hinoki is a Japanese white cedar). Since ancient times, the vermillion color has been believed to have the power to drive away evil spirits. And hinoki-bark roofs are one of the most ancient forms of Japanese roof construction. It’s said that in medieval Japan, they had a higher value than tiled roofs.
You may find several different symbols painted or carved on those buildings: the symbol of a chrysanthemum flower, which is the family crest of the Japanese imperial family; the symbol of the three leaves of hollyhock, which is Tokugawa’s; and the symbol of the shuro tree (a kind of palm tree) painted on the offertory box, which comes from the Fuji clan whose members had served as the high priests of Sengen Taisha for over a thousand years.
History of Sengen Taisha
The shrine tradition says that the 11th Emperor, Suijin, built a shrine at the slopes of Mt. Fuji in the year of 27 B.C, and enshrined Asama-no-ohkami there in order to quell the raging spirit of the mountain. That is said to be the origin of Sengen Taisha.
Then, in the year of 806, the shrine was moved to its current location from a place called Yamamiya, which was (and is) about 6.2 km (3 mi.) to the north. Yamamiya still has a shrine called Yamamiya Sengen Shrine, which was the precursor to the current Sengen Taisha, and Sengen Taisha still holds a festival every April, commemorating the spiritual relations with its counterpart in Yamamiya.
In former days, the big festivals were held twice a year and they included a ritual called Yamamiya-goshinkou, where a sacred hoko (鉾, an ancient weapon with a blade on the top. In this case, it is a ceremonial hoko with a long wooden handle) was carried back and forth between the two shrines on the left shoulder of a Shinto priest (it had to be held always on the left shoulder). A rock that was used as a hoko stand for the ritual is now displayed in front of the Main Gate of Sengen Taisha.
Shrine’s Main Structures
The shrine’s main structures we see today were built in 1604 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the ruler of Japan at that time. It is said that Ieyasu sponsored the building of 23 structures at Sengen Taisha to express his gratitude for winning a decisive battle at Sekigahara in 1600. But unfortunately, many of those buildings were destroyed by the great earthquakes in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only three of them still remain today–the Inner Shrine (Main Hall or Honden), the Front Shrine (Haiden), and the Main Gate (Romon). They are all listed as important cultural assets of the nation.
The Main Gate structure is about 12 meter high, and contains the carved statues of zuishin (guardians) on its right and left sides. They are protecting the shrine, and on their backs there are inscriptions saying that they were carved in the 19th year of Keicho, which is 1614 A.D.
With a height of about 13.6 meter, the Inner Shrine has an unusual shape. It is a two-storied building, each with its own roof. The first story has a roof which gently slopes downwards on four sides, and it is said to have been designed to resemble the shape of Mt. Fuji.
And the top story, with its asymmetrical gabled roof, might represent the celestial world where kami reside. They say that this type of two-storied shrine structure is very rare throughout Japan, and it is called the sengen-zukuri architectural style, which was named after this very shrine.
How to Get There
Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha is about a 20-minute drive from the Fuji Interchange on the Tomei Expressway, or about a 18-minute drive from the Shin-Fuji Interchange on the Shin-Tomei Expressway. If you use a railway, it is about a 7-minute walk from Fujinomiya Station on the Minobu Line.
Sengen Taisha Shrine is very close to Mt. Fuji World Heritage Centre. Shizuoka which is a museum introducing various aspects of Mt. Fuji. Omiya Yokocho is just in front of the parking lot of Sengen Taisha and you can try some of the local dishes there. And the mystical Wakutama Pond, the nation’s “Special Natural Monument,” is in the precinct of the shrine. If you drive north for about 21 minutes, you will arrive at Shiraito Falls which is another World Heritage Site.
If you are going to visit Japan and are looking for a private English-speaking tour guide in the Shizuoka area (or at the southern foot of Mount Fuji), please send an e-mail from the Rates/Contact page of this site.
Photographs: taken at Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha,
by Koji Ikuma, with Fujifilm X-T1
equipped with a Summar 5cm f2 lens,
unless otherwise noted.