The seaside town of Atami may be best known as a hot spring resort, but there are attractions to be found inland from the train tracks as well. Kinomiya Shrine is situated just uphill from the train tracks and, according to legend, just beyond where human ears pick up the sound of the sea.
Although Kinomiya Shrine is not a large site, it is so packed with traditional and distinctive shrine features that it could almost (almost!) be considered as a shrine theme park. The shrine and its grounds are lovingly maintained and so picturesque that it is particularly popular among Instagrammers. The shrine recognizes this and has placed smartphone stands at various strategic spots on the shrine grounds.
A Shrine Steeped in Legend
Kinomiya Shrine was founded in 710 when, according to legend, a local fisherman watched a small wooden statue float into his nets and morph into a child who identified himself as Itakeru no Mikoto, the ancient god of trees and nature protection. The child/god instructed the fisherman to find a place just out of earshot of the sea where there were seven camphor trees growing and to establish a shrine there dedicated to Itakeru no Mikoto. If this was done, the god pledged to protect the village and all those who visited the shrine.
With the help of the villagers, the spot was found and the shrine duly established. Since the child/god had appeared on June 15 (July 15 by the modern calendar), that became the date of the shrine’s annual festival, which continues to this day.
Today Kinomiya Shrine is dedicated to three gods. In addition to Itakeru no Mikoto, they include Daikoku—one of Japan’s seven lucky gods and the god of business prosperity—, and Yamato Takeru no Mikoto. Yamato Takeru (81-113) was the third son of the legendary Emperor Keiko (13BC-130AD). Takeru fought and won numerous battles on behalf of his emperor/father and, after his untimely death at the age of 33, was deified as the god of bravery and determination. Yet, if a visitor takes the time to check various nooks and crannies, other gods are also honored here.
Shrines to multiple gods
In addition to the main shrine building, there are a number of subordinate shrines dotted around the grounds. Just to the left behind the shrine’s temizusha (hand washing basin) is a tunnel of vermillion shrine gates, the easily recognizable entrance to an Inari shrine. Inari is the god of the harvest, fertility and general prosperity. At Kinomiya Shrine, seven small shrines are lined up alongside the tunnel of gates — dedicated to the pre-war shrine, which burned in 1933 — with the Inari shrine (only slightly larger) standing at the end of the tunnel, guarded by two fox statues, the fox being the traditional familiar or messenger of the Inari god.
To the right before visitors reach the main courtyard is Mitsumine Shrine, a small, but visually distinctive shrine fronted by a black torii gate. Mitsumine Shrines, popular in the Kanto region, are dedicated to the wolf as guardian again theft and disaster.
In one corner of the courtyard in front of the main shrine is a small pond with colorful carp swimming languidly. The pond is fed by a trickle of water coming over a large boulder atop which is a small shrine to Benten, the goddess of music and culture. Benten, another of Japan’s seven lucky gods, is thought by some to be the consort of Daikoku, which may explain her presence here. Benten’s familiar/messenger is the snake (or dragon) and a small statue of a coiled snake also sits on the boulder overlooking the pond. While it is most common to toss coins into the collection box in front of shrines, some supplicants have placed coins on the snake’s coils when making their prayers.
The hillside grounds of Kinomiya Shrine, although relatively compact, are heavily wooded. In keeping with the legend of the shrine's establishment, there are two notably ancient camphors still standing. They are two of the original seven; the others were cut down about 120 years ago to make a wooden statue for the village.
Both massive trees are believed to be around 2,100 years old. The so-called “No. 2 Camphor” is located across from the shrine’s temizusha. It leans heavily, partially hollowed out not with age but due to a lightning strike. Parts of the trunk are blackened from the burn of the lightning. The tree is adorned with a shimenawa (sacred rope), from which shide (white paper zig zag streamers) have been hung. A tiny shrine has been placed at its hollow base.
The No. 1 Camphor, sometimes called the Great Camphor, stands further up the hill, behind the main shrine building and at the end of a charming bamboo-line pathway. It is a giant of a tree, with a circumference of more than 24 meters (yes, you read that right: meters). It is a nationally-designated natural monument that is also widely regarded as one of Japan’s leading power spots.
There is a legend that when the woodcutter went to cut down the No. 1 Camphor 120 years ago to make that statue for the village a gray-haired old man appeared between the woodcutter and the tree, arms outstretched as if to block the woodcutter from approaching the tree. Although the apparition soon vanished, the woodcutter got the message and the tree was left standing.
It is believed that one circumnavigation of the tree will extend your life by one year. Making a wish while on that circuit and not telling anyone the content of the wish will result in the wish coming true. There is a boardwalk around the tree for those wishing to take advantage of those opportunities.
One reason camphor trees are thought to be life-giving is that they are evergreen. They are regularly in a cycle of growing new leaves and dropping old ones. The way that the old leaves hang on until the new ones are established is thought to be an analogy to the cycle of life, with one generation handing off to the next.
It is worth noting that there are 10 Kinomiya shrines dotted across the Izu region, each with at least one camphor tree more than 1,000 years old.
Relaxing with refreshments
Unusually for a shrine, there are multiple places where visitors can relax with refreshments or just soak up the shrine’s pleasant atmosphere. There are two cafés/coffee shops in the shrine’s administrative building, offering a modern ambience and views of the main shrine as well as the Itokawa creek that forms the western boundary of the shrine grounds.
Uphill, above the No. 1 Camphor, is Saryo Goshiki-no-Mori, offering matcha, Japanese sweets and ice cream with comfy outdoor seating where visitors can relax under the tree canopy. These woods, also referred to as the Goshiki no Mori, are strung with lights and illuminated from 17:00 to 23:00 as “The Kodama Project”, making them magical at any time day or night.
Kinomiya Shrine is an 18-20 minute walk from Atami Station or a 5 minute walk from Kinomiya Station.
Visitors to Atami, whether day-trippers or overnight guests “taking the waters” should be sure to pay a visit to this fascinating shrine with so much to offer.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com© Japan Today