🐇 The Rabbits’ Shrine in Kyoto
Okazaki-jinja is a Shinto shrine located on Marutamachi-dori avenue, in Okazaki district in the east of Kyoto. Initially named Higashi-Tenno, it was built in the early Heian Period (794 - 1185) to ensure protection for the Emperor and the capital Heian-kyo. This old shrine is nowadays famous for its countless and cute rabbit statues, an animal symbol of fertility and safe childbirth.
Okazaki-jinja is one of the kawaii shrines of Kyoto that is visited for its cute aspects rather than for its historical significance. However, it was one of the four main Shinto shrines built in 794 by Emperor Kanmu to protect Heian-kyo, the new imperial capital. Named Higashi-Tenno, as it guarded the east cardinal point of the Imperial Palace, it was first located in Shirakawa district, then relocated in Okazaki after a fire. Its last reconstruction dates back to the 16th century.
The shrine is also nicknamed Usagi-jinja, which means "the rabbit’s shrine." The long-eared animal is the divine messenger of the kami deities worshiped here, namely the couple Susanoo-no-Mikoto and Kushinadahime-no-Mikoto, and their numerous offspring. The rabbit is the perfect symbol of the place:
- In the Chinese astrology, it is associated with the direction of east,
- It symbolizes fertility and reproduction,
- At the times, it was a very common wild species in Okazaki area.
So, it is quite naturally that bunnies are pictured everywhere and under various shapes throughout the shrine’s grounds.
🐰 Looking for kawaii rabbit statues
In addition to the usual komainu, the statues of half-dog half-lion guardians at the entrance of the shrine’s precincts, visitors are welcomed by two Koma Usagi, gently sitting before the main pavilion. One hare has its mouth opened, and the other the mouth closed, they represent the male and the female and petting their heads is said to ensure a happy marriage. Then, next to the sake 🍶 barrels offerings and lanterns adorned with rabbits, two stone statues of Maneki Usagi are here to bring happiness and luck. Around the pavilion are several small altars, some of which are ornamented with small figurines called Usagi Dorei, made of ceramic embedded with a small bell.
On the site, a counter sells omamori amulets and ema votive plates. All are decorated with bunny images, and it is hard to decide which is the cutest. The lucky charms offer the choice between: a good couple’s chemistry, conception of a child, a happy pregnancy, or a healthy child. Once the wish was written on the ema plate, just hang it on the dedicated place, which is, for this shrine, next to the purification basin chozuya (or temizuya).
Above the purification basin where one purifies hands and mouth, a statue pictures a black rabbit sitting on its hind legs and watching the moon. It is called Kosazuke Usagi, and it is said to help have an easy childbirth. To benefit from its virtues, just sprinkle the statue with the chozuya’s water and rub its belly.
A quiet visit in a touristic neighborhood
Located at the foot of Mount Yoshida, Okazaki-jinja is surrounded by the green and located away from the sightseeing tours, but not very far: the large Heian-jingu shrine and Nanzen-ji temple are located about one kilometer away. It makes the visit easy, without crowds and imbued with serenity. Times appears to have stood still and the countless bunny statues contribute to create a very unique atmosphere.
One the torii ⛩️ gate is passed, the shrine’s precincts unfolds on a larger scale than what one could expect from outside. It is also easy to move around in a wheelchair or with a stroller. Despite its prestigious imperial past, Usagi-jinja is a neighborhood shrine, attended by the locals and Shinto wedding ceremonies are frequently celebrated.