Sumiyoshi Shrine: A Guardian for Seafarers in Kyushu

Sumiyoshi Shrine: A Guardian for Seafarers in Kyushu

Louise Dupuy

Fukuoka City. Capital of the prefecture bearing the same name, and located on Kyushu islands’ northern shore, it is an oft-looked over gem. Let’s hone in on one of it’s oldest and most beautiful features, Sumiyoshi Shrine.

History

History is hard to come by online, but I did learn that it’s considered the oldest Sumiyoshi Sanjin (a God in the Shinto faith) shrine in Japan, and is almost certainly Kyushu’s oldest shrine. It’s position facing the Hakata Bay has seen it long revered as a guardian for sea voyagers. Travelers bound for Korea and China via Yamato City would begin their journey as a pilgrimage of sorts, paying homage firstly at the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine of Osaka, before visiting other Sumiyoshi Shrines located along the Seto Inland Sea, until their departure from Hakata port. Their last stop being the Sumiyoshi Shrine of Fukuoka.


One of the minor shrines of Sumiyoshi

In early history, the shrine was considered one of the highest ranking in all the land. The area surrounding it was originally a cape seated at the mouth of Nakagawa River as it entered Hakata Bay. There are no certain dates, but it’s believed to have existed in some form since the 8th century, with the current structures built around 1623 by Kuroda Nagamasa, first lord of the Fukuoka clan.


Main shrine

Kami (God) of the Shrine

As is practice in Shintoism, each shrine is dedicated to a Kami, or Kami’s; Gods. Sumiyoshi is dedicated to Sokotsutsuo-no-kami, Nakatsutsuo-no-kami, and Uwatsutsuo-no-kami. All three are associated with safe sea faring. The Empress Jingu is also enshrined here, as legend speaks of the oracles the empress received from the Sumiyoshi-kami prior to her conquest of Korea in the 2nd Century. Funnily enough, there is no solid evidence that this conquest ever took place! It’s most likely an embellishment of her history.


A moss covered guardian

As for the three kami, they originated from an undersea dragon king associated with other cultures. You’ll find minor shrines dedicated to Amaterasu and Ebisu within the grounds of Sumiyoshi; Amaterasu is the Goddess of the sun, and Ebisu the God of fishermen.


Ancient trees

Other Associations

Whilst it’s main purpose is the protection of sea farers, it became known in the Middle Ages for promoting Waka poetry. The main hall of the shrine is a designated important cultural property, and the site itself is a source for designated national treasures, including a copper axe and sword.


Sake barrels

There is also a strong association with sumo wrestling here. The iconic sumo statue depicts a powerful ancient sumo wrestler in a push stance, and it is said that if you touch his palms you can feel his strength flow into you. He sits to the right of the main shrine, an elegant man with piercing eyes. Make sure you pay him a visit. There is also a wrestling ring within the grounds.


Sumo statue

Visiting

Whilst the shrine isn’t as spectacular as some of its counterparts, it’s a beautiful site nonetheless. Pass through it’s stone torii and into a world of peace, a great escape from the hustle and bustle of modern Fukuoka. Trees line the entrance, swaying softly in the breeze, as if beckoning you in. Along the entranceway is a small shrine on the left, one of the several I mentioned earlier. After a visit to the main shrine, I recommend a visit around the grounds to take in the rest.


Ema boards

The main shrine is bright red and green, standing at a juxtaposition to the soft natural tones surrounding it. Here you can pray, dedicate an Ema (Japanese wishing plaque), greet our handsome sumo friend, and just enjoy the serenity.


Me with the sumo statue for context!

Within the rest of the grounds you will find a beautiful pond, an Inari shrine with it’s distinct bright red Torii, and plenty more nature.


Pond

Getting here is nice and easy. It’s a ten minute walk from Gion Station, a stones throw from Canal City (a shopping centre right by the river). Entry is free, though if you wish to purchase Ema or Omamori (lucky charms) you will need yen cash. It’s open daily from 6.00am until 9.00pm.


Kitsune guardian

Get away from modern trappings for a time, and envelope yourself into the tranquil world of the Sumiyoshi.


Torii Gate