Last week I was in Omiya, the center of Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo. Saitama prefecture has a population of only 7.2 million people but if it was a country it would be about the 40th biggest economy in the world, just above the UAE in the Middle East, but it is much smaller even than the territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Amazing. Every time I visit Omiya (which is famous among Tokyoites for the great railway museum) I try to visit the large Hikawa Shrine, the mother shrine of all the Hikawa related shrines across Japan. In Tokyo most wards have one of these shrines. Naturally they also had one of the giant ema (votive plates) to celebrate the year of the dragon, but when I took a closer look at the regular ema I noticed a large proportion of ema that had been decorated with little drawings and anime characters! I’ve never seen this at any other shrine and the reason turns out to be very simple, Omiya city is the home of a major anime business college and it’s also one of the centers of the Japanese anime industry. The stuff you learn from just being curious about ema!
My favorite place in Saitama prefecture (the area just north of Tokyo) must be the huge and beautiful Hikawa Shrine (氷川神社) near Omiya station in Saitama City (yes, I had no idea either that Omiya was technically in Saitama City). Hikawa Shrine was given special status as the most important shinto shrine in the Kanto area by emperor Meiji in the late 1800′s, which is intersting because the the shrine built to honor the emperor himself turned out to become both bigger and more famous (see yesterday’s wedding post). This shrine is also the mother shrine of over 290 smaller shrines around Japan, one of which I blogged a lot about last week.
Omiya’s Hikawa shrine is not only very beautiful in itself, it is also a little bit out of the way and receives very few visitors, considering it’s size and importance, so if you want to see a major shrine that isn’t overwhelmed by hundreds of visitors, Hikawa shrine is the place to go, as you can see in my photos, I hardly met a handful of people there, and that was during a major festival very close to the front gates! During the popular hatsumode season (first visits of shrine during a new year) starting from midnight on December 31st to about a week or two into the new year this shrine receives over 2 million visitors. I think I will be one of them the coming hatsumode!
Even though I didn’t get any shots of it this time (but I blogged about one of the trees a couple of days ago), one of the most impressive features of this shrine is the beautiful tree lined avenue (called “sando”) with 680 trees of 30 different species, most of them being the gorgeous “Zelkova serrata”. During World War 2 some trees fell victim to poaching and traffic pollution has managed to make the remaining trees quite vulnerable. I hope that as traffic pollutants decrease the trees will recover and live for many hundreds of years from now on. Walking the full length of the sando can be a good way to get some exercise, it’s over 2km long!
In the third photo you can see some painted paper lanterns. These lanterns show the names of people or corporations that sponsor the shrine’s current or upcoming festival. Bigger contributions are honored in more permanent forms, such as engraved stone pillars or red “tori” gates.
Omiya and the Hikawa shrine is easily accessible from central Tokyo and it’s a great day trip of you happen to have a few hours free and want to see something a little bit more traditional than the big shrines in Tokyo (the arguments between the “red” shrines and the “brown” shrines can be very interesting but it will have to be discussed in another post). Enjoy!
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