Located in the southern area of Nagoya, part of Japan’s third largest metropolitan area, sits the famous Atsuta (Hot Field) Shrine. Surrounded by trees that are up to and over 1000 years old this shrine epitomizes of Japan’s tendency to have the modern situated beside the ancient and is deeply loved by the people of Nagoya and Japan.
According to the Kojiki, Japan’s earliest historic record (more often than not based on myth), the shrine was chosen by Miyasuhime-no-Mikoto in the third century to house the sacred sword Kusagagi-no-tsurugi (Grass Cutting Sword). The shrine’s most cherished artifact has been shrouded in legend and mystery from the very beginning, and even today the public may not see the original sword.
In 1893 the shrine was remodeled in the same style of the Grand Shrines of Ise. Again in 1935 the shrine began remodeling so as to reflect the magnificence of Atsuta Jingu. However during the bombings of World War II most of the buildings were destroyed. Those that stand today were rebuilt in 1955 to hold the Hondensenzasai.
The legend begins that the sword was found in one of the eight tails of Orochi by the storm god Susanou after he slew the beast. Susanou in then gave it to his sister the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, who was the original ancestor Japanese race. She, in turn, handed the sword down to the Imperial Family.
The sword’s name is said to originate from when Prince Yamato-Takeru, the first emperor, was attacked in a field of tall grass. As the grass was set ablaze Yamato used the sword to clear an area around himself, thus avoiding a fiery death. From this point the sword became part of the Imperial Regalia, along with the sacred Mirror of Amaterasu, kept at the Ise Shrine, and the Sacred Jewels, kept for centuries at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, and from 1868, in Tokyo.
Of course every good legend has to have some tragedy and Kusanagi-no-tsurugi’s tale is no different. The original sword was supposed to be lost at sea in the battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1168. The story then breaks into several parts and depending on which you want to put stock into the sword at Atsuta is merely a copy while the real sword is being kept by the Dragon King at the bottom of the sea. There are also versions of the story that say that the sword found its way from the Dragon King back to the Imperial Family.
Regardless of what tale you wish to believe the shrine has always held a place in the hearts of the people of Japan. It has enjoyed favor with nobles for centuries and even had the support of Nobunaga and the Tokugawa Shogunate. The common people as well have always held Atsuta in high regard. Over 9 million visitors come to Atsuta every year, 3.5 million of them on the 5 day period of the Japanese New Year. Given the fertility of the Owari Plain, the shrine has come to be considered the guardian shrine of agriculture. Several of the sixty traditional festivals and ten religious events held here every year lend testimony to the shrine’s connection to agriculture. Along with being the sanctuary for Kusanagi-no-tsurugi, this relationship with agriculture is the chief characteristic of Atsuta Jingu.
Strolling on the 200,000 square meter grounds of the shrine will give you a bit of relief from the hustle and bustle of Nagoya. Enjoy the afternoon among the ancient trees and make your way around the 28 shrines in the complex. Also be sure to take in a bit of history in the Houmotsukan, a museum that boasts over 4000 items from the Nihon Shoki (Japanese Historical Chronicles). While you are check out the 7.4-meter high stone lantern and stone wall donated by Nobunaga Oda in 1560 in memory of one of his many military victories.
If you happen to be there on a weekend be sure to stop off at the Nohgakuden, a Noh theater that not only holds several Noh Dramas but also hosts several other types of traditional performances, as well as to pray for a good harvest.
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