Friday, January 17, 2014

Dazaifu Tenman-gū (太宰府天満宮) and Fukuoka

Entrance gate to the Dazaifu Tenman-gū with a "Happy New Year" message on the banner.
As soon as I arrived in Fukuoka, I had about six hours to kill by myself before meeting up with my friend Erik. He suggested that I go just outside of the city to Dazaifu, where a famous Shinto shrine and some temples are located. Though the directions he gave me were meticulous, I can't deny that I was a bit nervous about journeying all by myself from the port terminal to a mountain town an hour away. Fortunately, I encountered no mishaps as I took one bus and two trains and found myself walking up a cute street lined with souvenir shops and bustling with tourists toward the shrine.

The first thing I did was get something to eat; a long line had formed outside one of the many food shops. I realized that they were all selling essentially the same thing: rice cakes made with ume, or Japanese plum (梅, and 매실 in Korean). But I got into the longest line, because if there's one thing I know about street food, it's that long lines means a worthwhile wait.
Me in front of the main shrine at Dazaifu Tenman-gū.
I then walked the grounds of the shrine itself and marveled at its beauty. Dazaifu Tenman-gū is a shrine dedicated to the worship of Tenjin (天神), a kami (spirit or, in this case, deified human) in Shintoism who represents scholarship. Most pilgrims to this shrine come to pray for success in passing important exams; I briefly considered buying a token as good luck for getting into grad school, but the blatant commercialism of the entire enterprise turned me off a bit. Still, I enjoyed walking around and taking photos of the beautiful details all around the shrine.
These talismans are for writing down your wish. It's the 26th year of the current emporer, and also the Year of the Horse on the East Asian zodiac!
Torii, sacred gates.
The grounds of the shrine are actually quite large. Besides the main shrine, there are smaller shrines and also a few Buddhist temples. I walked along a path I found near the back and followed it up a hill, passing some teahouses along the way. The gravel path led to a stone path lined with torii, the red gates that symbolize entrance into sacred ground (but in this case were built to bring prosperity, which is why you see so many of them in a row).

I ended up on a hiking trail that wound through the hills and passed a very small theme park complete with a rollercoaster, a racing track, empty stalls, and very creepy carnival music playing despite there being almost no guests in the park. I almost wanted to stumble upon a Spirited Away-esque adventure.

The Kyushu National Museum was also located next to the shrine, but I wasn't feeling it, so I took the trains back to central Fukuoka, got very lost in the underground shopping malls, and finally met Erik at a Starbucks. He took me on a quick tour of the Things To Do in Fukuoka, including eating ramen at a yatai (which are very much like the ubiquitous Korean food carts, 포장마차, but apparently are only found in Fukuoka in Japan), being solicited (...) in Nakasu, and shopping at the Tokyu Hands department store, the Don Quijote everything-store, and the various chikagai (underground shopping centers). It was a long evening after a long day, and I was tired but happy when I finally went to sleep. And that was Day 1 in Japan!
Steaming, umami-licious ramen from a yatai. At this particular booth we made the acquaintance of a Japanese-American and her Taiwanese-American boyfriend who studied at Berkeley. Small world.


  1. Whoa, those horse talisman things! I have one that looks a lot like those (same shape, in particular), with a carved wooden horse on it. I've had it since I was a kid, I assumed because I was born in the Year of the Horse. I should ask my mom where it actually came from...

    1. Cool! I wouldn't be surprised if yours came from a shrine or temple... or maybe a souvenir stall... :P Well, happy Year of the Horse to you!

  2. Those things are called e-ma, and they usually have a horse on them, even when it's not the year of the horse. Originally, people used to make an offering of a real horse to the temple, but since everyone couldn't do that, some people offered pictures of horses instead. Now a days, especially around New Year, the e-ma picture changes to the current Zodiac animal, but this year is the year of the horse so it doesn't change!

    1. I read that the bull is the animal most closely associated with Tenjin, hence the many bull statues around the shrine. Did people used to sacrifice a horse because the bull was considered too sacred? Or was the horse just standard?

      Hm... how did horses get to Japan, anyway? Via the Mongolians?

  3. Hey, so I asked my mother about my horse plaque. When I told her it seemed to be a Japanese thing, she at first thought she'd gotten it at a Japanese department store in Seattle, but then she posted a picture of it on Facebook for Chinese New Year, and our family friend reminded her that she'd brought it back for me from Japan! I guess we'd all forgotten it was a gift. Judging by the characters on it, I think it may have come from Hida-Takayama.

    1. You've had a piece of Japanese culture with you for your whole life and never knew it... cool!