A Place Where Young Michizane Spent His Leisure Time
Travelling around in Japan, you'll see shrines called "such and such Tenmangu". Written in kanji, it goes like "天満宮". In Kyoto Prefecture alone, you can find seventeen Tenmangus. The number soars to as many as 12,000, nationwide! And even in my town, there are some. The Tenmangu forms a large shrine group, headed by Dazaifu Tenmangu in Fukuoka Prefecture.
So, what do so many Tenmangus do? Just as any shrine would do, they are dedicated to someone. That is Sugawara Michizane, a historical figure in the Heian Period (794 - 1192) and later sanctified as a "Patron of Academy". And this Nagaoka Tenmangu, located to the south of Kyoto, was a place where Michizane used to spend his leisure time, together with Ariwara Narihira (his buddy poet).
But don't picture them hanging around for fun or engaging in lazy chats over cups of Sake (rice wine). Nor dancing to upbeat Gagaku with pretty Jūni-Hitoe-clad sweethearts. As typical good, noble people, their way of spending free time was making Kanshi (a Chinese-style poem using only kanjis) and Waka (a Japanese verse of five-seven-five-seven-seven syllable units). Through these activities, they showed their intellectual profundity as well as artistic sensibility. Michizane was so good at all this that he would earn his posthumous reputation as an "academic guardian".
Nagaoka Tenmangu was built in 901, but the War of Ōnin (1467 - 1477) burned it down. Obviously, the present building is a reconstructed one.
Meet Handsome Oxen
Now passing through the central Torii gate, what you'll find there are oxen images, instead of a pair of Koma Inu (shrine lion-dogs)! Comfortably sitting on the podium, they look adorably handsome. But this is not unique to this Tenmangu, and almost all Tenmangu shrines have ones. Why oxen? Here are several accounts of their origin.
One of them says that Michizane was born in 845, the Year of Ox, and on the night of his Gempuku (coming-of-age ceremony), a white ox appeared in his dream. In it, this ox had its horn accidentally damaged, and died because of this injury. The dream was so real to him that he was concerned about it. So he drew a picture of this ox and offered Sake in front of the drawing to console the animal's soul. Other versions say that he met a beautiful ox on a hunting journey and took it home, or he was saved by a white ox from attackers on his way to exile to Dazaifu.
Also, don't forget to check plum blossom crests (Tenmangu shrine emblem) attached to their bodies.
Spanning from the north to south on the east side of the shrine is "Hachijō Pond". It's like a small lake serving as home to colourful carps and small tortoises. The pond took its name from Prince Tomohito of Hachijō, who used to own its surrounding lands in the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). Created in 1638 and since then, it had served as an agricultural reservoir until recently.
If you visit here in early summer, enjoy a gorgeous walk between vermilion blossom lines over the pond. Called Kirishima (derived from Mt. Kirishima in Southern Kyushu), this azalea species is the designated flower of Nagaoka City. For its similarity to a wild one, Kirishima grows relatively tall (2.5 to 3 meters high). The shrubs here are between 100 to 150 years old.
You can also please your eyes with Yae Zakura (cherry blossoms with multiple petal layers) seen to the north of the shrine, from the passageways on the pond in late April.
For those who love "Dumplings rather than flowers", there are some food stalls in the yard vending typical Japanese festival snacks.