If you have been wanting to see beautiful torii gates (鳥居) for a long time but have not had the chance to go to Kyoto yet, the Hie Shrine (日枝神社) is a good alternative. It is located strategically around Akasaka area, in central Tokyo, between Akasaka (business district) and Nagatacho (national government building residence).
The Hie Shrine is a Shinto shrine established by Ota Dokan in 1478 who originally built the castle in 1457. From 1871 through 1946, the Hie Shrine was officially designated one of the Kanpei-taisha (官幣大社), meaning that it is in the first rank of government supported shrines. The present shrine was rebuilt in 1958 after being destroyed in World War II. The Hie Shrine holds 14 important cultural assets: 13 swords and one traditionally made Japanese blade (naginata).
The kami (God/spirit) of the Hie shrine is Oyamakui no kami of the Susano-o lineage (also called Sanno). Sanno’s messenger is the monkey, and that is why when most of the shrine is guarded by lion-dogs (koma-inu) or foxes (kitsune), Hie Jinja has monkeys. You will see two monkeys in front of the shrine as well as the wooden carving of a monkey in its main gate. These animals are considered patrons of harmonious marriage and safe childbirth, and to this day women come to this shrine to pray for these benefits.
You will only find torii gates at the entrance of Shinto shrines, not at Buddhist temples. The purpose of torii gates is to divide our world and the spirit (kami) world. Torii gates mark the entrance to a place where the spirits hear your prayers. The word torii derives from the phrases which mean “pass through and enter” and “bird perch”. Torii gates are often said to be influenced by other Asian cultures that have similar gate structure near holy sites, however, torii adds a sense of wonder to the Japanese landscape.
There are entrances to the shrine on the east (main) and south (back) sides of the shrine. All have large Sanno torii, distinguished by a roof structure above the upper lintel. Interestingly, the west entrance takes you up through a tunnel of red torii. It is probably the most photographed spot and many mistakenly take this as the main image of the shrine because of its beauty.
The famous festival held by Hie Shrine is called the Sanno Matsuri. It is held on June 15th when the year falls on an even number. The main festival (Reisai) of Hie Shrine have more than 500 people with a portable Shinto shrine (mikoshi) of Akasaka Hie Shrine, that leave the Shrine at 8 in the morning and parade around Imperial Palace, Tokyo station, and other landmarks, before returning to the shrine around 5 in the afternoon.
The head priest will enter the Imperial Palace and pray for the well-being of the Imperial family. Hie Shrine is the only shrine who has the permission to do so since the Edo era.
You can access Hie Shrine from Tameike-sanno Station (walk 5 minutes) or Akasaka-mitsuke Station (walk 5 minutes). Other options are from the Akasaka Station and Nagatacho Station. The admission to the shrine is free.
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