Japan's Oldest Shrine, Omiwa Shrine (Miwa Myojin)
Overview of Omiwa Shrine
The Omiwa Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Japan, with its establishment recorded in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, literally dating back to the age of mythology.
A typical Shinto shrine consists of the Honden (main hall), the Heiden (hall of offerings), and the Haiden (worship hall). The deities are enshrined in the Honden, and worshippers pray to the deities from the Haiden or in front of the Haiden.
However, Omiwa Shrine does not have a Honden. Instead, worshippers pray directly to Mount Miwa, where the deity resides, from the Haiden. This ritual, preserved until now, reflects the primal form of worshipping deities, contributing to why Omiwa Shrine is known as the oldest shrine in Japan.
2.The Enshrined Deity
According to the chronicles of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, Ohomononushi-no-kami, a separate spirit of Okuninushi, appeared and resides in Mount Miwa. This Ohomononushi-no-kami is the deity enshrined here.
Ohomononushi-no-kami is enshrined as a guardian deity of human life, known to promote and bring all forms of happiness in the world. As the god of nation-building, this deity supports the promotion of all industries, including agriculture, manufacturing, and commerce. Moreover, Ohomononushi-no-kami is venerated for promoting Houyoke, diseases cure, brewing, pharmacy, traffic safety, and matchmaking.
3.Mount Miwa, where the Deity Resides
Mount Miwa, standing with a well-formed conical shape among the mountains in the Nara Basin, is a sacred mountain covered by large trees, with a height of 467 meters and a circumference of 16 kilometers. As mentioned earlier, it is considered sacred because it is where Ohomononushi-no-kami, the enshrined deity, resides.
Scattered across Mount Miwa are rocks known as Iwakura, where the spirits of the gods are believed to actually reside. These rocks are worshipped.
According to old records of the shrine, Ohomononushi-no-kami resides in the Iwakura at the peak of Mount Miwa, Ohomunachino-kami in the Iwakura halfway up the mountain, and Sukunahikonano-kami in the Iwakura at the foot of the mountain. Hence, while Ohomononushi-no-kami is the main deity enshrined, Ohomunachino-kami and Sukunahikonano-kami are worshipped as sub deities.
Sightseeing spots of Omiwa Shrine
1.Haiden (Worship Hall)
The Haiden, where worshippers pray to the enshrined deity residing in Mount Miwa, was said to be established during the Kamakura period according to documents. However, the current Haiden was reconstructed by Ietsuna, the fourth shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, and is now designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan.
The area behind the Haiden of Omiwa Shrine is a sacred place known as a "prohibited area," where even shrine priests usually do not enter. Between this sacred area and the Haiden stands three divine Torii gates as a barrier, also designated as Important Cultural Properties. On days when no ceremonies are taking place, visitors can apply to view these at the Sansyū-den. Unfortunately, on the day of my visit, I was unable to view these, as it was the day of the monthly festival, and there were many worshippers.
Located diagonally forward right as you face the Haiden, you'll find a large cedar tree known as "Mi-no-Kami Sugi". It is so named because it is said to be the home of a white snake, considered an incarnation of Ohomononushi-no-kami.
In front of the Mi-no-Kami Sugi, offerings such as eggs, considered to be mineral of snakes, and sake are placed. The lower part of the cedar has a large hollow, from which the white snake is said to appear. It is said that those who see this snake will be blessed with good fortune.
Heading north from the Haiden and following the path at the foot of Mount Miwa, you will find a stone monument inscribed with the words "Kusuri Michi," or "Medicine Path". This is the approach to the Sai Shrine. Along The " Kusuri Michi ", medicinal trees and herbs are planted, which are donated by those involved in the pharmaceutical industry.
The Sai Shrine is a subsidiary shrine of Omiwa Shrine, dedicated to enshrine Aramitama of Omiwa Shrine. The deity here is known for its powerful divine power and is worshipped as a deity of disease healing. The Chinka Festival, held on April 18th, is the shrine's annual celebration and has been known since ancient times, also known as the "Medicine Festival."
To the left as you face the main hall, there is a well called Goshinsui Ido, or the sacred water well, where visitors can freely drink. Also, within the shrine grounds, they sell bottles filled with the sacred water. For those unable to visit the shrine due to illness, it might be a good idea to buy and take home some of this water.
4.Climbing Worship at Mount Miwa
To the right-hand side of the grounds of the Sai Shrine is the entrance for climbing worship at Mount Miwa. Upon paying the 300 yen climbing fee at the Sai Shrine's office, you can receive a white sash, which you can wear this over your shoulder and climb the sacred Mt. Miwa. It's said to take about two hours for a round trip.
Because the path through the mountain is narrow, only 1-2 meters wide, climbing worship had been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, and unfortunately, as of early February 2023, it was still prohibited. Once the pandemic ends and climbing worship is resumed, it would be a wonderful opportunity to climb and pray at the Iwakura, even from afar. However, as it is a sacred mountain where the deity resides, taking photos is prohibited.
The connection between Omiwa Shrine and rabbits
1.The Unohi Ritual (Omiwa Festival)
One of the festivals of Omiwa Shrine is the Omiwa Festival, which is also called the Unohi Ritual. This is because the Omiwa Festival started on the day of the rabbit in the eighth year of Emperor Sujin’s reign, and even now, a ritual is held every month on the day of the rabbit. From this, the rabbit is considered to be a zodiac sign with a deep connection to the gods at Omiwa Shrine.
Also, Ohomononushi-no-kami, as explained in the section on the enshrined deity, is considered to be the same god as Okuninushi-Kami of Izumo, and the famous myth that Okuninushi-Kami helped the white rabbit of Inaba is also speculated to be the reason why Omiwa Shrine has a deep connection with rabbits.
2.Symbols of the rabbits that have a deep connection
There are two places where you can see the symbols of the rabbits that have a deep connection with Omiwa Shrine. The first one is on the left side of the approach before climbing the stairs to the worship hall, past the second torii gate. There are two rocks called “husband and wife rocks” placed there, and many worshippers visit them. On the side of these “husband and wife rocks”, there are many ema (votive tablets) with pictures of two rabbits facing each other. The “husband and wife rocks” are symbols of marital harmony and good match, and at many shrines, ema for praying for marital harmony and good match often have hearts designed on them, but here, rabbits are designed.
The other one is the cute “stroking rabbit” placed in front of the “Sanshuden” on the left side of the worship hall. It is said that if you stroke the part of your body that is in pain, it will heal, and there are so many worshippers visit it.
With the “Unohi Ritual”, the “rabbit ema”, and the “stroking rabbit”, Omiwa Shrine is a shrine with a deep connection to rabbits. This year, which is the year of the rabbit, is a good year to visit Omiwa Shrine.
Fire prevention drill at Omiwa Shrine
On January 25th, a fire prevention drill was held at Omiwa Shrine with the participation of more than 100 people, including staff, shrine maidens, local fire stations and fire brigades. The drill was reported on online news and some newspapers with photos of shrine maidens doing a bucket relay in their costumes. Omiwa Shrine has important cultural properties such as the worship hall and the three torii gates, and this is a training that is held every year to try to deal with initial fire fighting by themselves, such as staff and shrine maidens, in case of emergency.
January 26th is the day for fire-prevention of cultural property, and many shrines and temples conduct similar training around this day. This Cultural Property Fire Prevention Day was established after the incident on January 26th, 1949, when the Golden Hall of Horyuji Temple, the oldest existing wooden structure in the world, burned down and the valuable wall paintings inside were damaged by fire. This is a topic that makes us think again that we, who visit shrines and temples, should not only strictly prohibit fire, but also engrave in our hearts not to damage precious cultural properties.