【Japan Travel Advice】Let’s Go and Worship at Shrines! -2. Wait, Gods have Animals as Helpers?

【Japan Travel Advice】Let’s Go and Worship at Shrines! -2. Wait, Gods have Animals as Helpers?
Last time, we talked about how Kami-sama (Shinto gods) have specialties (Commerce, Scholarship, and so on). They also spend a great deal of time every day listening to peoples’ prayers and pleas. So, some Kami-sama have special animals to assist them. These Shinshi (Divine Servants or Messengers) are well-liked and respected, so let’s learn a little bit about them now.
Japan Shrine Travel

■ Cows (Oxen)

Cows work as Shinshi at many Tenmangu Shrines. Ox statues can be found at almost all such shrines throughout the country. Legend has it that this is because Michizane Sugawara, the ancient scholar enshrined at Tenmangu Shrines, was born (according to the old lunar calendar) at Ox hour of Ox day of Ox month in the Year of the Ox (between 1 a.m to 3 a.m., August 1st, 845 AD).
Japan Shrine Travel

■ Foxes

Foxes (especially white foxes) work as divine servants at Inari Shrines.
In the last article, Oinari-sama was mentioned as a God of Good Harvests. In addition, an ancient tale has it that the reason foxes are considered divine servants of Oinari-sama is because of their living habits. In the old days, they could frequently be found near where people live and tended to eat other animals that were harmful to crops. Therefore they were seen as protecting the harvest. The statue of a fox holding an ear of rice in his mouth at Fushimi Inari Taisha is emblematic of this tale.
Japan Shrine Travel

■ Deer

Deer play the divine servant role at Kashima Jingu Shrine, Ibaraki Prefecture and at Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Nara Prefecture. According to legend, this practice began because a Kami-sama named Takemikazuchino-mikoto rode on a white deer to visit Kasuga Taisha Shrine. Although there are many divine animal servant statues on the grounds of the shrine, there are not any deer statues. Rather, live deer known as Shinroku are allowed to wander freely on the grounds and are considered sacred.
Japan Shrine Travel
Japan Shrine Travel
Sometimes imaginary creatures can also be divine servants. For example, Yatagarasu (a crow with three legs) serves at Kumano Jinja Shrine, Wakayama Prefecture, and Kirin (a hoofed creature) serves at Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, Fukuoka Prefecture. The former is on the crest of the Japan national football team, and the latter is known as the symbol of the Kirin Brewery Company.

Next time you visit a shrine, see if you can figure out what kind of animal serves as the Messenger of the Gods!

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