The Spiritual Southern Port – 5 Temples and Shrines in Hakata, Fukuoka
Visitors to Fukuoka City will undoubtedly spend much time in Hakata ward, originally a historically important port town for Kyushu, and indeed, Japan at large. In contemporary times, Hakata-ku is the home of Hakata Station and its enormous shopping complexes, as well as nearby Canal City and nightlife district, Nakasu-Kawabata. Within easy reach of these popular locations are five Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that will satisfy spiritually curious and tranquility-seeking travelers. This article will outline the history and significance of three Buddhist temples–Jyotenji, Tochoji, and Shofukuji–and two Shinto shrines–Sumiyoshi and Kushida Jinja.
Just a five-minute walk from Gion subway station, itself one stop from Hakata Station, Jyotenji Temple holds several significant places in the history of Fukuoka and Japan. Constructed in the mid-1200s, the temple is considered by many to be the birthplace of soba and udon. Allegedly, the founder, Enni Ben’nen, brought back knowledge of these noodles from China after a long journey studying Zen Buddhism. Visitors to Jyotenji can look at the stone tablet dedicated to this story and as well as another recording the origins of Yamakasa, the most important annual festival in Fukuoka. This legend describes how the founder of the temple was carried throughout the town praying on a float and successfully warded off a plague that had struck the area. Every year, the residents of Fukuoka recreate this event and stop by Jyotenji in recognition of this marvelous feat.
Like Jotenji above, Tochoji Temple is another spiritual site whose origins have a Chinese connection. After a pilgrimage to China to study Tantric Buddhism, Kobo-Daishi Kukai returned to Fukuoka to found this temple. Unlike the others on this list, however, the current location of Tochoji is not where it was originally founded, closer to the seaside. Nevertheless, the temple and its grounds house several culturally important artifacts and buildings for visitors to see, such as the magnificent five-story pagoda. Specifically, tourists should be sure to check out the Great Buddha of Fukuoka completed in 1993 which sits serenely at almost eleven meters tall and the tallest seated wooden Buddha statue in Japan. In the Main Hall of the temple, on the founder’s birthday, you can also catch a glimpse of the eighty-seven-centimeter tall Senju Kannon carved from a single piece of Chinese black pine.
While Buddhism was introduced to Japan via China as early as the 500s, Zen Buddhism arrived much later and made its first Japanese home here at Shofukuji Temple in 1195. Although there remain few examples of its original construction, Shofukuji and its surrounding complex have been faithfully rebuilt and restored multiple times over the course of their lifetime. Recreated most recently in 1911, visitors will not be able to miss the large Sanmon Gate which compliments a nearby picturesque bridge and pond. Another highlight is the collection of wooden and gold Buddha statues which reside in the Butsuden Hall just on the other side of the gate. Inside, be sure to look up at the ceiling to see a beautiful painted dragon hovering overhead.
The history of Kushida Shrine stretches back well over a thousand years and its significance to Hakata is just as impressive. The most important function of the shrine is its role in the annual Yamakasa festival. In the weeks leading up to Yamakasa, visitors can marvel at the enormous floats adorned with mythical Japanese figures, as well as popular culture references. If you show up at the shrine at the beginning of the festival, which takes place in the middle of the night before sunrise, you will be treated to the start of the race whose route zig zags throughout Old Hakata. If you aren’t planning on traveling to Hakata in the summer, fear not! There is plenty to see and do year-round, including testing your strength by trying to lift one of the designated stones traditionally used to tell fortunes and drinking water from the well watched over by three cranes near the entrance of the shrine for good health and longevity.
Historically, Sumiyoshi Shrine was the most important site of worship in the Chikuzen (present day northern Fukuoka) region and thought to be the oldest of all of the Sumiyoshi shrines in Japan. It was primarily dedicated to safe maritime navigation; indeed, individuals making the trip from the Japanese archipelago to Korea or China often stopped at Sumiyoshi to wish for safe passage as they departed from Hakata Bay. As such, the main shrine, as well as several smaller ones within the complex, are devoted to sea-based deities and the sun goddess. Since it is also thought to enshrine the kami of waka [traditional Japanese poetry], it was a key site of worship for the imperial court in the Nara period. Like the other sites on this list, the current Sumiyoshi Shrine is a reconstruction, which dates to the early 1600s. Visitors interested in comparing and contrasting the architectural styles of the buildings in this article can note the differences between the main hall's roof and those of the Buddhist temples on this list.