Exploring Kyoto’s Kifune Shrine

The Kifune Shrine, also called Kifune/Kibune Jinja (貴船神社), of Kyoto, is an ancient place of worship. Enshrining several deities sacred to the Shinto faith, it protects the waters around Kyoto and all of Japan. It has matchmaking, wish-fulfilling, luck-inducing, and fortune-telling powers.

Leading up to the complex beyond the torii gate is a huge stone stairway lined with vermillion lanterns on each side. The view is gorgeous and there’s always something to do during each season.

About the Kifune Shrine

Seated at the foot of Mount Karama, the Kifune Shrine rests at the spot where the Kamogawa River originates.

This is one out of 450 nationally recognized sub-shrines. Even though the shrine belongs intrinsically to Kyoto, it actually resides in the town of Kibune, which is about 30 minutes north by train.

The place is full of indescribable nature and, by all accounts, brings about a sense of serene spirituality as you walk up the massive stone staircase.

It has been a place of great importance to the Imperial family, who pray to the deities to stop rain, bring rain, halt epidemics, and for comfort during crises.

Kibune; Kifune

At one time, the shrine and town were both Kibune. But today there’s a clear distinction between the town and the shrine, with the annunciation of “f.”

This is because the ancient Japanese didn’t distinguish between the town and the shrine, believing them to be one and the same.

Modern spellings in Japanese kanji use the characters 貴船. But, earlier documentation depicts it as 氣生根. Both spellings mean the “source of power for all living things.”

Kifune’s Origin Myths; Legends

We don’t have exact records of its original construction but we do know Kifune had reconstruction done about 1300 years ago.

So, it’s very likely that it existed for much longer than that. Some estimates place it at 1600 years old while others say it’s possibly nearly 2000 years old.

Tamayori-hime: Emperor Jimmu’s Mother

These estimations come from the various myths, legends and other stories passed down throughout the ages.

For instance, one myth relates that Emperor Jimmu’s mother, Tamayori-hime, declared control over the wind and rain to influence the land. She rode her boat from Osaka to the Yodogawa, Kamogawa, and Kibunegawa rivers.

Entrance To Kifune Shrine In Winter

She then found the sacred spring and many say this was the official start of the Kifune Shrine. People believe this spring has never ceased since a water deity called Takaokami took up residence.

He inhabited the shrine after descending from the heavens into the mirror rock, or kagami-iwa, halfway up Mount Kibune.

Three Sacred Deities Enshrined at Kifune

Three deities are sacred to this place: Takaokami-no-kami, Iwanaga-hime-no-mikoto and Tamayori-hime-no-mikoto. But Takaokami-no-kami (龍神様), or Takaokami for short, is the main centerpiece of the shrine.

Takaokami’s Story

He goes by many names such as Okami (淤加美神 or 龗) or Kuraokami-no-kami (闇龗). Takaokami controls protect and brings water to the people.

Ruling over water as well as snow and ice, he is an ancient and legendary white dragon. His story is intrinsic to the Japanese conception of creation.

Izanagi and Izanami birthed the islands and gods of Japan. After giving birth to the deity of fire, Kagu-tsuchi, Izanami died from the burns she sustained from the child.

Enraged and disgusted, Izanagi killed his son. The blood that dripped from Izanagi’s sword created several new deities; Takaokami is one of these.

The other name for Takaokami, Kuraokami, is interesting in understanding the inborn nature of this god. Kura () means “dark” or “closed.” Okami () translates to “dragon ruler (or tutelary) of water.” These make Takaokami ubiquitous and he can see through anything.

This includes lies and deceptions as well as the past and the future. He can bring what’s hidden into the sunlight and blesses those who honor him.

Prayers; Rituals to Takaokami at Kifune

Many rituals and prayers center on his abilities. Therefore, one of the more popular things devotees do is regularly offer omikuji to the sacred flowing waters of the place along with ema, or wooden prayer plaques, and take a small pilgrimage throughout the complex.

Fortune Telling with Omikuji

Omikuji, or fortune-telling slips are available to buy at any shrine. But the ones at Kifune are a little different because they incorporate the use of water.

Called, mizu-ura mikuji, it’s a blank piece of paper you place onto the water that flows from the Mizu-ura-yuniwa stream. Shortly after, words appear which deliver your fortune.

Drinking Sacred Water

The water is a particular feature and you can drink it for free or take a bottle home. You can even buy a bottle from the shrine for ¥300 (about $2.50 USD).

It’s alkaline, mineral-rich spring water, so it has natural healing abilities that include bestowing one with vigor.

Other Prayers

Another thing people do are writing out their wishes on an ema, which are wooden votive plaques. Devotees offer these with their wishes written on them by hanging them up.

There are three designs: a horse, a dragon, and Izumi Shikibu (a famous Heian-period poet known for her love affairs).

The practice of ema began during the Heian Period (794 to 1185 AD). For prayers of rain, the emperor sacrificed horses in hopes of receiving a blessing from Takaokami.

Black horses gave rain while white or red horses stopped the rain. But ema replaced this practice.

Prayer Hall Pilgrimage

However, the highlight of worship at Kifune is taking a small pilgrimage to the three prayer halls: Honmiya (main shrine), Okumiya (rear shrine), and Yui-no-yashiro (shrine of bonding).

A devotee must visit all three in this order and offer a series of prayers at each. Visiting all three, called Sansha-mairi (三社詣), will make wishes come true.

Honmiya

The main shrine, called Honmiya, is the first stop. Built in a style called nagare-zukuri, its primary resident deity is Takaokami.

But what’s there today isn’t the original location of this shrine. Erected in 2005, it marked the 950th anniversary of the move to its current location.

Okumiya

Five minutes from the Honmiya is the Okumiya, or back/rear shrine. Said to be in its original spot, it not only enshrines Takaokami but also Tamayori-hime, Emperor Jimmu’s mother.

They say it’s the most spiritual spot in the whole shrine complex.

Legend has it that an enormous hole, or ryu-ketsu (“dragon hole”), exists under the shrine but it’s not permissible for people to look into it.

This is because a Takaokami lives there and it brings misfortune to anyone who attempts to look into it.

There’s one legend that talks about how a carpenter lost one of his tools down this dragon hole while building the Okumiya.

As he went to reach for it, the tool blew out of the hole with a great force of air. Ever since no one has looked into it.

Yui-No-Yashiro

The Shrine of Bonding, or Yui-no-Yashiro, is the last stop on the prayer pilgrimage. Also called the “shrine of love,” this is the place for “matchmaking between lovers, friends, and opportunities,” or en-musubi.

Since the Heian Period, this place is famous for blessing people with love and friendship. Takaokami and his sister Iwanaga-hime-no-mikoto enshrine here.

Virtual Tour Of Kifune Shrine

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.