Suwa taisha

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Suwa Grand Shrine
諏訪大社 (Suwa taisha)
Suwa taisha harumiya13bs3200.jpg
The hei-haiden of the Harumiya, one of the two component shrines of the Lower Shrine or Shimosha
Dedicated to Suwa Myōjin (Takeminakata), Yasakatome
Founded circa 6th century?
Address Chino City, Nagano (Kamisha Maemiya)
Suwa City, Nagano (Kamisha Honmiya)
Shimosuwa, Nagano (Shimosha)
Shinto torii icon vermillion.svg Glossary of Shinto

Suwa Grand Shrine (Japanese: 諏訪大社, Hepburn: Suwa taisha), historically also known as Suwa Shrine (諏訪神社 Suwa Jinja) or Suwa Daimyōjin (諏訪大明神), is a Shinto shrine in Nagano Prefecture, Japan. It is considered to be one of the oldest shrines in existence, being implied by the Nihon Shoki to already stand in the late 7th century.[1]


The entire Suwa shrine complex consists of four main shrines grouped into two sites: the Upper Shrine or Kamisha (上社), comprising the Maemiya (前宮, old shrine) and the Honmiya (本宮, main shrine), and the Lower Shrine or Shimosha (下社), comprising the Harumiya (春宮, spring shrine) and the Akimiya (秋宮, autumn shrine).[2][3] The Upper Shrine is located on the south side of Lake Suwa, in the cities of Chino and Suwa, while the Lower Shrine is on the northern side of the lake, in the town of Shimosuwa.[4][5]

In addition to these four shrines, some sixty other auxiliary shrines scattered throughout the Lake Suwa area of various sizes (ranging from miniature stone structures to medium to large sized edifices and compounds) which are the focus of certain rituals in the shrine's religious calendar are also part of the shrine complex.[6]

Historically, the Upper and the Lower Shrines have been two separate entities, each with its own set of shrines and religious ceremonies. The existence of two main sites, each one having a system parallel to but completely different from the other, complicates a study of the Suwa belief system as a whole. One circumstance that simplifies the matter somewhat, however, is that very little documentation for the Lower Shrine has been preserved; almost all extant historical and ritual documents regarding Suwa Shrine extant today are those of the Upper Shrine.[7]


The Kamisha Maemiya's honden, built in 1932 using timber originally used in the Grand Shrine of Ise. This honden replaced a different structure that originally stood in the same spot.[8]

The god of the Upper Shrine, often referred to as Suwa (Dai)myōjin, is most commonly identified with the god Takeminakata recorded in the Kojiki (720 CE) and the Sendai Kuji Hongi (807-936 CE); his consort, the goddess Yasakatome, is enshrined in the Lower Shrine.

Although these are the official identities of the shrine's gods, most of its rituals are actually not so much concerned with their identities but with their character as Mishaguji, local agricultural and fertility deities.[9] Indeed, historical records of the Upper Shrine's religious rituals (specifically, those held at the Maemiya) refer to the Mishaguji as the focus of worship rather than 'Takeminakata', its official deity, who is not mentioned at all in these texts.[10][11][12]

Like others among Japan's oldest shrines, three of Suwa Shrine's four main sites - the Kamisha Honmiya and the Shimosha's two main shrines - do not have a honden, the building that normally enshrines a shrine's kami.[13]

Historically, the Ōhōri, the shrine's high priest who was considered to be the living incarnation of Suwa Myōjin during his term of office, and two Buddhist structures that originally existed in the precincts - a large stone pagoda in the Kamisha Honmiya's inner sanctum and a sanctuary to the bodhisattva Samantabhadra (considered to be Suwa Myōjin's honji or original state) on the sacred mountain behind the Honmiya - all functionally served as the Upper Shrine's objects of worship or go-shintai.[14][15] In addition to priest and sanctuary, the god was also considered to descend upon a certain sacred rock (磐座 iwakura) within the shrine.[16][17] As both the Ōhōri and the Buddhist structures have been rendered obsolete with the upheavals that occurred with the rise of State Shinto during the Meiji period, the sacred mountain itself is now currently held to be the Upper Shrine's go-shintai.[13][17]

The Lower Shrine, meanwhile, have sacred trees for their go-shintai: a sugi tree in the Harumiya, and a yew tree in the Akimiya.[13][17][18][19]


In myth[edit]

Suwa Daimyōjin as depicted in the Butsuzōzui (originally published 1690).

In both the Kojiki and the Sendai Kuji Hongi, Takeminakata, a son of Ōkuninushi, the god of Izumo, fought against Takemikazuchi, a messenger sent by the gods of heaven to claim Ōkuninushi's land in the name of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Losing against Takemikazuchi in a test of strength, Takeminakata fled to "the sea of Suwa in the province of Shinano," where he finally agreed to surrender, promising never to leave the region.[20][21][22][23]

While these two chronicles depict Takeminakata as a disgraced god from Izumo driven into exile, other conflicting myths about the Suwa deity exist. According to one such story, Suwa Myōjin was an outsider who came to the region and conquered it by defeating various local deities who resisted him.[24][25][26][27][28] A story of medieval origins, heavily Buddhist in tone, portrays the god of Suwa as a king from India whose feats included quelling a rebellion in his kingdom and defeating a dragon in Persia before becoming enlightened and travelling to Japan, where he manifested himself as a native kami.[29][30] A third myth concerns itself with the foundation of the Upper Shrine and its high priesthood: here, the Suwa deity, a bodiless entity, appears to an eight-year old boy and consecrates him to become his priest and physical 'body'.[31][32][33][34] The Kamisha was, according to the legend, established by this divine priest, who was also the ancestor of its high priestly lineage.[35][36][37][38]

In yet another medieval story concerning Suwa Myōjin, he is originally supposed to have been a warrior named Kōga Saburō who returned from a journey into the underworld only to find himself transformed into a serpent or dragon.[22][39][40][41]

Early history[edit]

The shrine's first historical attestation is in the Nihon Shoki, where envoys were said to have been sent to worship "the wind-gods of Tatsuta and the gods of Suwa and Minochi in Shinano"[a] during the fifth year of the reign of Empress Jitō (691 CE).[1] This record testifies to the worship of the god of Suwa as a water and/or wind deity during the late 7th century, on par with the wind gods of Tatsuta in Yamato Province (modern Nara Prefecture).[42]

Heian period[edit]

In Heian period documents, the shrine is mentioned in the Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku's entry for Jōgan 7 (865 CE) as 'Takeminakata-tomi-no-mikoto Shrine' (建御名方富命神社),[43] and as 'Suwa (Shrine) of Shinano' (信乃須波) in the diary of Minamoto no Tsuneyori (976/985-1039), the Sakeiki (左経記).[44] The 'Register of Deities' (神名帳 Jinmyōchō) section of the Engishiki (927) meanwhile lists the 'Minakatatomi Shrine(s)' (南方刀美神社) as enshrining two deities and being the two major ('eminent') shrines of Suwa district.[b][45]

By the late Heian period, the shrine became designated as Shinano's chief shrine or ichinomiya.[46][47] The Ryōjin Hishō, an anthology of songs compiled in 1179, names the shrine of Suwa among famous shrines to martial deities in the eastern half of the country.[48] Another testament to Suwa Myōjin's fame as a god of war is a legend about his apparition to the 8th century general Sakanoue no Tamuramaro during his campaign to subjugate the Emishi of northeastern Japan; in thanksgiving for the god's assistance, Tamuramaro was said to have instituted the religious festivals of the shrine.[49][50]

Kamakura period[edit]

The Kamakura period saw the shrine(s) of Suwa split into two entities, the Kamisha and the Shimosha. Terms such as Suwa-kamisha (諏訪上社), Suwa-jōgū (諏訪上宮), Suwa-shimosha (諏訪下社) or Suwa-gegū 諏訪下宮) begin to appear in written sources from the period such as the Azuma Kagami.[47] Both institutions would remain technically independent of each other until the Meiji period.

During the Middle Ages, under the then-prevalent synthesis of Buddhism and Shinto, the deities of the Kamisha and the Shimosha were identified with the bodhisattvas Samantabhadra (Fugen) and Avalokiteśvara (Kannon), respectively.[51][52][15] Buddhist temples and other edifices (most of which belonged to the esoteric Shingon school) were erected on the precincts of both shrines, including a small pagoda called the Tettō (鉄塔 "iron pagoda") - symbolizing the legendary iron tower in India where, according to Shingon tradition, Nagarjuna was said to have received esoteric teachings from Vajrasattva - and a sanctuary to Samantabhadra (普賢堂 Fugendō), both of which served at the time as the Kamisha's main objects of worship.[15]

Buddhist ethics, which opposed the taking of life and Mahayana's strict views on vegetarianism somewhat conflicted with Suwa Myōjin's status as the patron god of hunting; elaborate theories were then devised that legitimized the hunting, eating, and sacrifice of animals such as deer, a beast held to be sacred to the god.[53] The shrines produced special talismans (鹿食免 kajiki-men "permit to eat venison") and chopsticks (鹿食箸 kajiki-bashi) that were held to allow the bearer to eat meat.[13][54]

In the meantime, devotion to Suwa Myōjin (especially as god of war) became more widespread, thanks in part to the rise in prominence of the Suwa clan - originally a priestly clan which held the office of chief priest or ōhōri of the Kamisha that later branched out into military affairs - as vassals (gokenin) of the Kamakura shogunate and the Hōjō clan. The shrines of Suwa and the priestly clans thereof flourished under the patronage of the Hōjō, which promoted devotion to the god as a sign of loyalty to the shogunate. The religious festivals of the Kamisha and the Shimosha attracted many of the samurai caste as well as other social classes, both from within Shinano and outside.[55] Suwa branch shrines became numerous all across Japan, especially in territories held by clans devoted to the god (for instance, the Kantō region, traditional stronghold of the Minamoto (Seiwa Genji) clan).[56]

The cult of Suwa Myōjin was also propagated by wandering preachers, the oshi (御師), who traveled around Shinano and neighboring provinces, preaching stories about the god of Suwa (i.e. the Kōga Saburō legend and other such hagiographies) and his benefits as well as distributing kajiki-men and kajiki-bashi to the populace, collecting offerings and donations in exchange. The Suwa oshi also carried with them hand bells made of iron, miniature replicas of the bells known among various names such as sanagi-suzu (佐奈伎鈴) or tettaku (鉄鐸) which were used to call forth Mishaguji in some rituals as well as seal promises and agreements in Mishaguji's name.[54][57][58]

Muromachi and Sengoku periods[edit]

After the collapse of the Kamakura shogunate, the Suwa supported the Southern Court, while the Kanasashi clan, ōhōri of the Shimosha, chose to side with the Northern Court. This and other reasons contributed to the state of war between the Suwa and the Kanasashi, as well as other clans allied with them, during the Muromachi period. During a war between the two factions in 1483, the shrines of the Shimosha were burned down by the Kamisha's forces; its high priest, Kanasashi Okiharu (金刺興春), was killed in battle.[59]

Around the same time, the Suwa was also involved in an intra-clan strife between the priestly (ōhōri-ke) and military branches (the main house or sōryō-ke) of the family, which ended with the sōryō-ke vanquishing the priestly branch and taking the office of ōhōri for themselves. With this (and the eventual downfall of the Kanasashi), the Suwa emerged as a regional power, coming to clash with their former allies, the Takeda of Kai Province, which eventually defeated the Suwa and conquered Shinano before the clan itself was destroyed in the aftermath of the Battle of Nagashino in 1575.[60][61]

The Sengoku daimyō Takeda Shingen - ironically, the man who drove the main branch of the Suwa clan to extinction - was especially notable for his deep devotion to Suwa Myōjin. Some of Shingen's war banners bore the god's syncretized Buddhist name: Suwa-nangū hosshō-kamishimo-daimyōjin (諏方南宮法性上下大明神 'Dharma-Nature Daimyōjin of the Suwa Upper and Lower Southern Shrines').[62] In 1565, he also issued an order for the reinstitution of the religious rites of both the Kamisha and the Shimosha (諏方上下宮祭祀再興次第 Suwa kami-shimosha saishi saiko-no-shidai).[63][64]

Edo period[edit]

A shikyakumon (四脚門) at the Honmiya donated in 1608 by Tokugawa Ieyasu.[64]

During the Edo period, both the Kamisha and the Shimosha were recognized and supported by the Tokugawa shogunate and the local government. Land grants by the shogun and the local daimyō were allocated to the shrines and temples in the complex. The third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, for instance, granted five villages (equals 1,000 koku) to the Kamisha and 500 to the Shimosha. The third daimyō of Suwa (aka Takashima) Domain, Suwa Tadaharu, gave the Kamisha 50 koku and the Shimosha 30 in 1663, while his successor, Tadatora, granted an additional 100 koku to the Kamisha and 60 to the Shimosha in 1695. The daimyō of Aizu and Iemitsu's brother, Hoshina Masayuki, also donated 100 koku to the Kamisha and 60 koku to the Shimosha.[63][64]

The period saw escalating tensions between the priests and the shrine monks (shasō) of the Suwa complex, with increasing attempts from the priesthood to distance themselves from the temples. By the end of the Edo period, the priests, deeply influenced by Hirata Atsutane's nativist, anti-Buddhist teachings, became extremely antagonistic towards the shrine temples and their monks. In 1864 and 1867, Buddhist structures in the Shimosha were set on fire by unknown perpetrators; in the latter case, it was rumored to have been caused by the shrine's priests.[65]

Meiji period onwards[edit]

The establishment of State Shinto after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought an end to the union between Shinto and Buddhism. The shrines of Suwa, due to their prominent status as ichinomiya of Shinano, were chosen as one of the primary targets for the edict of separation, which took effect swiftly and thoroughly. The shrine monks were laicized and Buddhist symbols either removed from the complex or destroyed; the shrines' Buddhist rites, such as the yearly offering of the Lotus Sutra to Suwa Myōjin (involving the placing of a copy of the sutra inside the Tettō), were discontinued. The now laicized monks at first tried to continue serving at the shrines as Shinto priests; however, due to continued discrimination from the shrine priesthood, they gave up and left.[66]

The priests themselves were soon ousted from their offices as the state abolished hereditary succession among Shinto priests and private ownership of shrines across the country, being replaced in their duties by government appointees. A side effect of this change is that the secret tradition passed down to the jinchōkan of the Moriya clan (held to be descended from the god Moreya), one of the high priests of the Kamisha, were lost to oblivion, it being passed down via word of mouth only to the heir to the office.[67][68]

By 1871, the Kamisha and the Shimosha - now under government control - were merged into a single institution, Suwa Shrine (諏訪神社 Suwa-jinja), and received the rank of kokuhei-chūsha (国幣中社), before being promoted to kanpei-chūsha (官幣中社) in 1896 and finally, to the highest rank of kanpei-taisha (官幣大社) in 1916. After World War II, the shrine was listed as a special-class shrine (別表神社 beppyō-jinja) by the Association of Shinto Shrines and renamed Suwa Grand Shrine (Suwa-taisha) in 1948.


Before the Meiji period, various local clans (many of which traced themselves to the gods of the region) served as priests of the shrine, as in other places. After hereditary priesthood was abolished, government-appointed priests took the place of these sacerdotal families.


These are the high priestly offices of the Kamisha and the clans which occupied said positions.[69][70][71]

  • Ōhōri (大祝, also ōhafuri) - Suwa clan (諏訪(諏方)氏)
The high priest of the Kamisha, considered to be an arahitogami, a living embodiment of Suwa Myōjin, and thus, an object of worship.[72] The Suwa were in legend considered to be Suwa Myōjin's descendants,[24][54] although historically they are probably descended from the same family as the Kanasashi of the Shimosha: that of the kuni-no-miyatsuko of Shinano, governors appointed by the Yamato state to the province.[73][74][75]
  • Jinchōkan (神長官) or Jinchō (神長) - Moriya clan (守矢氏)
The head of the five assistant priests (五官 gogan) serving the ōhōri and overseer of the Kamisha's religious rites, considered to be descended from the god Moreya, who in myth originally resisted Suwa Myōjin's entry into the region before becoming his priest and collaborator.[24][54] While officially subservient to the ōhōri, the Moriya iinchōkan was in reality the one who controlled the shrine's affairs, due to his full knowledge of its ceremonies and other rituals (which were transferred only to the heir to the position) and his exclusive ability to summon (as well as dismiss) the god(s) Mishaguji, worshipped by the Moriya since antiquity.[76][68]
  • Negi-dayū (禰宜大夫) - Koide clan (小出氏), later Moriya clan (守屋氏)
The office's original occupants, the Koide, claimed descent from Yakine-no-mikoto (八杵命), one of Suwa Myōjin's divine children.[71] The Negi-dayū Moriya meanwhile claimed descent from a supposed son of Mononobe no Moriya who fled to Suwa and was adopted into the Jinchō Moriya clan.[77]
  • Gon-(no-)hōri (権祝) - Yajima clan (矢島氏)
The Yajima clan claimed descent from another of Suwa Myōjin's offspring, Ikeno'o-no-kami (池生神).[71]
  • Gi-(no-)hōri (擬祝) - Koide clan, later Itō clan (伊藤氏)
  • Soi-no-hōri (副祝) - Jinchō Moriya clan, later Nagasaka clan (長坂氏)


The following meanwhile were the high priestly offices of the Shimosha.[78][70][71]

  • Ōhōri (大祝) - Kanasashi clan (金刺氏)
The high priest of the Shimosha. The original occupants of the office, the Kanasashi, traced themselves to the clan of the kuni-no-miyatsuko of Shinano, descendants of Takeiotatsu-no-mikoto (武五百建命), a grandson (or later descendant) of the legendary Emperor Jimmu's son, Kamuyaimimi-no-mikoto.[78] During the Muromachi period, the Kanasashi, after a long period of warfare with the Suwa, were finally defeated and driven out of the region, at which the office became effectively defunct.[61]
  • Takei-no-hōri (武居祝) - Imai clan (今井氏)
The head of the Shimosha's gogan. The occupants of this office, a branch of the Takei clan (武居氏), traced themselves to Takei-ōtomonushi (武居大伴主), another local deity who (like Moreya) originally fought against Suwa Myōjin before being defeated and submitting to him.[79][80][81] After the fall of the Kanasashi, this priest came to assume the functions once performed by the Kanasashi ōhōri.[82][61]
  • Negi-dayū (禰宜大夫) - Shizuno clan (志津野氏), later Momoi clan (桃井氏)
  • Gon-(no-)hōri (権祝) - Yamada clan (山田氏), later Yoshida clan (吉田氏)
  • Gi-(no-)hōri (擬祝) - Yamada clan
  • Soi-no-hōri (副祝) - Yamada clan

In addition to these were lesser priests, shrine monks (shasō), shrine maidens, other officials and shrine staff.

Branch shrines[edit]

Suwa-taisha is the head shrine of the Suwa network of shrines, composed of more than 10 thousand individual shrines.[3]


Suwa Taisha is the focus of the famous Onbashira festival, held every six years. The Ofune Matsuri, or boat festival, is held on August 1, and the Senza Matsuri festival is held on February 1 to ritually move the spirits between the Harumiya and Akimiya shrines.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 「遣使者、祭龍田風神、信濃須波・水内等神。」
  2. ^ 「諏方郡二座 並大 南方刀美神社二座 名神大


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  3. ^ a b "Shrines and Temples". Suwa-taisha shrine. Japan National Tourist Association. Retrieved 21 September 2010. 
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Coordinates: 36°04′31″N 138°05′29″E / 36.07528°N 138.09139°E / 36.07528; 138.09139