When visiting a Japanese shrine, you must have seen those wooden plates with people’s wishes written on the back, hung on one side of the precinct. If you ever wonder where those wooden plates originated, then visit Niukawakami Shrine (丹生川上神社) in Nara‘s Yoshino District. Furthermore, you get to act like a Shinto priest swinging the stick with paper strips attached to purify yourself!
Niukawakami Shrine, established in 675, enshrines Miduhanomenokami (罔象女神), the god who controls water. From the Asuka period (538 – 710), after the shrine was erected, until the Sengoku period (1467 – 1615), Niukawakami Shrine had been deeply revered by the imperial court and locals. When the imperial court needed to pray for rain-related matters, it was also where they used horses for rituals. When more rain was required, black horses were used. If they were praying for the rain to stop, white horses were used to deliver the prayers.
The practice of using horses to deliver people’s prayers is the origin of the ema. So nowadays, instead of sourcing a live horse before we head to a shrine to pray, all we need to do is get the wooden plates from a shrine’s office and write our wishes on the back before we tie it up at the designated area!
Speaking of offering horses to pray for rain, it is also the case at Kifune Shrine in Kyoto. Although they claim Kifune Shrine is the birthplace of ema, Niukawakami Shrine has a longer history (which makes sense as the capital of Japan was in Nara before the imperial court moved to Kyoto).
For more information about Kifune Shrine, you can refer to our article on Kurama and Kibune!
The Reason Why There Are Three Niukawakami Shrine
In the mountains of Yoshino District, there are three Niukawakami Shrines. To distinguish them apart from each other, Kamisha (上社), Chūsha (中社), and Shimosha (下社) were added to the name of each of the three shrines.
The three shrines are located far away from each other, which might lead some to think the two other Niukawakami Shrines were built as a branch of Niukawakami Chūsha, the original Niukawakami Shrine.
That theory isn’t true. In the Sengoku period (1467 – 1615), rain-related rituals were abolished due to conflict. Eventually, even the location of the shrine became unknown.
In the Meiji period, research was conducted to find out the Niukawakami Shrine’s location. In 1871, it was thought that the current Niukawakami Shrine Shimo Shrine in Shimoichi Town (下市町) was the Niukawakami Shrine. In 1896, evidence suggested it should be the current Niukawakami Shrine Kamisha in the Kawakami Village (川上村).
However, none of the two shrines was the real Niukawakami Shrine. Research in 1922 concluded that the Aritōshi Shrine (蟻通神社) in Higashiyoshino Village (東吉野村) is the original Niukawakami Shrine. It was named Chūsha, and shared the same shrine office with Shimosha and Kamisha before the changes in the shrine’s system after World War Two.
Now, the Chūsha is registered as Niukawakami Shrine, whereas the other two shrines remain as Niukawakami Shrine Shimosha and Niukawakami Shrine Kamisha.
Niukawakami Shrine’s Worship Halls
The first worship hall visitors encounter is the Haiden (拝殿). Its reconstruction was completed in 1830.
In front of the Haiden, there are some plain wooden sticks with white strips attached to them. They are called “Haraigushi (祓串)” and are used in Shinto shrine’s ceremonies. At Niukawakami Shrine, pilgrims can use Haraigushi to purify themselves before meeting the gods in the worship hall.
To do so, bow lightly to them first, then take one of the sticks. From the middle of your body, swing the stick left, right, and left.
And that is it!
You are now purified! You will then need to return the stick and bow to it again.
When you enter Haiden, remember to look up instead of walking straight through it. There is a large wooden plate with a white and black horse drawn on it. This large ema is called Kiushiukigan-ema (祈雨 止雨 祈願絵馬).
It was gifted by Tokyo Electric Power Company (東京電力株式会社) and Kansai Electric Power Company (関西電力株式会社) upon the completion of Kurobe Dam (黒部ダム) to pray for a stable water source for hydroelectric power generation.
For more sightseeing information regarding Kurobe Dam, please read our Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route article!
In addition, there is a 2.6-meter-tall stone lantern (石灯籠) in front of the east hall (東殿). It was made in 1264 by a famous craftsman, the same man who made the stone lanterns in Tōdaiji (東大寺) Temple.
The lantern became a National Important Cultural Property in 1963.
Niu’s Mana Well (丹生の真名井)
On the side of Haiden, there is a well, known as Niu no Manai. The water in the well is said to be the sacred water from the main god of Niukawakami Shrine – Miduhanomenokami (罔象女神).
Want to source some sacred water? Place some money into the donation box, and use the bucket to scoop the water out of the well and fill your water container! For those who don’t have a water bottle, buy one from Niukawakami’s office.
To the right of the well, there is a wooden owl statue. Owl, enunciated as Fukurō in Japanese, can be written as “happiness coming (福来朗 or 幸福ろう)” in Chinese characters. So the bird has been treated as a sacred bird that bestows happiness. It is said that if you stroke this wooden owl, you will receive some happiness from god!
Himukashi no Taki Falls (東の瀧)
Around a 5-minute walk from Niukawakami Shrine, crossing the red suspension bridge – Yumehashi (ゆめはし), is where the sacred waterfall of the shrine is located.
It is said that a dragon god lives here. The ritual that people usually do here is to throw the Ryūtama Ball (龍玉) into the waterfall. It is said that by doing this, the dragon god will give you luck.
The Ryūtama Ball can be purchased from the shrine’s office for 300 yen. Before throwing the ball, remember to pray to it, then blow into the hole at the bottom of the ball three times.
Also, near Himukashi no Taki Falls, there is an abyss called Yumebuchi (夢淵), where Takami River (高見川), Hiura River (日裏川), and Shigō River (四郷川) join. The emerald-green water here is just amazing to see.
In autumn, it is a terrific place to hunt for the fall foliage!
Niukawakami Shrine’s Opening Hours and Access Information
- The precinct of the shrine can be accessed 24/7.
- The office is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm usually but will close early at 4:30 pm in winter.
- To get to Niukawakami Shrine, please get to Kintetsu’s (近鉄) Haibara Station (榛原駅) first.
- On weekdays, take Nara Kōtsū’s (奈良交通) bus bound for Higashiyoshino Murayakuba (東吉野村役場) and get off at Higashiyoshino Murayakuba. From there, take the community bus’s Oomata Ogawa Line (大又小川線) and get off at Aridōshi (蟻通).
- On weekends and public holidays, take Nara Kōtsū’s (奈良交通) bus bound for Utano (菟田野) and get off at Utano. From there, take the community bus’s Oomata Utano Line (大又菟田野線) and get off at Aridōshi (蟻通).
- Nara Kōtsū’s service is HERE. For weekdays, you can also refer HERE and click “奈良交通路線バス時刻表” for a complete timetable (in Japanese only).
- For the timetable between Higashiyoshino Murayakuba and Aridōshi, please refer to HERE and click “コミュニティバス利用のてびき” (Japanese only) and scroll to pages 10 and 11. You will also find the timetable between Utano and Aridōshi on page 20.
- Please note that the Oomata Utano Line operating on weekends requires a booking in advance to board. To book, please give Higashiyoshino Murayakuba (東吉野村役場), which is the village’s office, a call at +81-746-42-0441 by 7 pm the day before.
Niukawakami Shrine Kamisha (丹生川上神社 上社)
After a 30-minute drive from Niukawakami Shrine, you can get to Niukawakami Shrine Kamisha. The main god here, Ōyamatsumi no Kami (高龗大神), is a dragon god who controls rain and water.
Differing from Niukawakami Shrine, the Kamisha that is situated above Ōtaki Dam’s (大滝ダム) dam lake will give you a wide view of the surrounding mountain range.
The shrine was built between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th century. You might also notice the architecture of Kamisha doesn’t look hundreds of years old. And you are right! The shrine was relocated to its current location in 1998 due to the construction of the Ōtaki Dam. So the buildings on the precinct look shinier!
For more information about the shrine, please check out their official website HERE. You can translate it using Google Chrome’s translation function at the right of the address bar.
How to Get to Niukawakami Shrine Kamisha
From Kintetsu’s (近鉄) Yamato-Kamiichi Station (大和上市駅), take Nara Kōtsū’s bus (奈良交通) bound for Yumori Onsen Suginoyu (湯盛温泉杉の湯) and get off at Tsuburoko-guchi (津風呂湖口). From there, it is around a 40-minute walk.
For the service’s weekday timetable, please search on Nara Kōtsū’s website HERE.
Niukawakami Shrine Shimosha (丹生川上神社下社)
Located on the other side of Yoshino District is the Niukawakami Shrine Shimosha. Also enshrining the god of water, the most exciting and unusual fact about the shrine is probably the two sacred horses dedicated to the shrine.
Remember the black and white horses used as messengers in rituals for rain-related matters? Niukawakami Shrine now has horses in each color!
As cool as they are, please don’t try to touch them unless a staff member is around and has permitted you. This is for your safety.
How to Get to Niukawakami Shrine Shimosha
From Kintetsu’s (近鉄) Shimoichiguchi Station (下市口駅), take Nara Kōtsū’s (奈良交通) bus bound for Dorogawa Onsen (洞川温泉) or Kasagi (笠木) and get off at Nagatani (長谷). The shrine is within a one-minute walk away.
Again, you can search for Nara Kōtsū’s timetable HERE.