Located at the place where two Kyoto rivers—Takano and Kamo—meet, and bordered on every side by a forest of trees, some of which have stood for 600 years, is Shimogamo-Jinja (or Shimogamo Shrine). This is one of Kyoto’s most sacred Shinto shrines, alongside its sister, Kamigamo-Jinja. Together, the shrines host Aoi Matsuri, one of the city’s biggest festivals, and are often referred to as the Kamo-Jina (Kamo Shrines). Shimogamo-Jinja hides so much beauty and history that’s waiting to be discovered.
It’s not only the trees surrounding Shimogamo-Jinja that have seen hundreds of years of local history. The shrine itself is also an incredible piece of local history. Not only is it one of Kyoto’s oldest Shinto shrines, but it is one of the oldest in all of Japan. Originally constructed in the sixth century, it has stood for as long as Buddhism has been in Japan, such is the impressive age of the Shinto faith.
The shrine’s name, Shimogamo-Jinja, simply translates to the river which it sits beside; its name literally meaning “Lower Kamo Shrine.” The name of its sister shrine, Kamigamo-Jinja, similarly translates to “Upper Kamo Shrine”. Of the two, Shimogamo-Jinja is the oldest, having been built a full century before Kamigamo-Jinja was.
Every Shinto shrine has its guardian deity, and Shinto is home to an enormous pantheon made up of thousands of kami (gods or guardian spirits). The guardian spirit of Shimogamo-Jinja is Tamayori-hime, mother of Kamo Wakeikazuchi, (guardian deity of sister shrine Kamigamo-Jinja).
The surrounding 600-year-old forest is known as Tadasu no Mori (Forest of Correction). Despite its oldest trees being six centuries old, the forest’s origins can be traced back much further, classifying Tadasu no Mori as a primeval forest.
What to See at Shimogamo-Jinja
Getting to the shrine involves passing through Tadasu no Mori, an impressive primeval forest. This sets both of the Kamo Jinja apart from many other city-based Shinto shrines, allowing visitors to feel cleansed by a walk through the forest before emerging into the world of the shrine. Leave the city behind, treat the forest as a portal, and transport yourself to the ancient world of Shimogamo-Jinja. A walk to Shimogamo Shrine can feel like traveling to a realm of Shinto spirits.
While the surrounding Tadasu no Mori is an incredible sight and a wonderful walking experience, emerging to find the stark and vibrant red of the shrine’s romon gate is breathtaking. This is the first thing you’ll see once you pass through the forest. This two-story-tall gate is an impactful introduction to Shimogamo-Jinja.
Being a traditional Shinto shrine that has stood for more than a millennium, Shimogamo-Jinja represents a true Shinto experience. A pair of red torii gates, known as kawai-jinja, stand within the area of the shrine. Another red-painted detail is Taikobashi bridge, which crosses over a stream that passes through the shrine.
What to Do Nearby
Once you have fully explored the Shimogamo-Jinja, don’t forget to visit some of these interesting and historic places nearby.
Shimogamo-Jinja’s sister shrine, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not to be missed and it sits about half an hour’s pleasant walk upriver. Considered one of the oldest Shinto shrines, built in the seventh century, it has existed in Kyoto before the city itself. it is immediately noticeable from the two sand cones named tatesuna that sit in front of it which represents the divine mountain and serves as a purification method for the shrine.
You may also notice the white horses at the shrine's entrance, representing messengers to the gods. Before leaving make sure to explore the surrounding village of traditional houses where Shinto priests once lived. The area also hosts a handicrafts market on the fourth Sunday of every month
Tadasu No Mori Grove
A sacred and preserved ancient forest on the bank of the Kamo River surrounds the shrine covering 30.4 acres, perfect for quiet reflection and forest bathing before or after visiting the shrine. Frequently appearing in Japanese mythology, the forest is said to listen to the complaints of the villagers in the forest which led to the name "Forest of Correction."
Within the forest, you’ll be able to see more than 40 species of trees ranging between 200 and 600 years old. Species include the revered Japane cedar and elm trees as well as wild cherry, plum, and maple trees meaning the forest is colorful throughout most of the year. A number of streams run through the forest adding to the tranquility and beauty of the woods. Sitting on the grounds of the shrine itself, this is an easy addition to a day visiting Shimogamo-Jinja.
There are few things to bear in mind when you visit any shrine in Japan:
- Keep quiet and respectful at all time as people come to the shrine to pray
- At the shrine's entrance, you'll typically see a fountain with wooden ladles. Use a ladle to rinse your right and left hands. Some people will also then use it to place water into their cupped hand, rinse their mouths out, and spit it out elsewhere. Don't put any water from the ladle back in the fountain.
- It's generally acceptable to take pictures on the grounds but not inside. Keep an eye out for signs indicating either way
- Once you reach the shrine, bow twice, clap your hands twice, bow once more, and pray for a few seconds. You'll notice many people doing this.
You can reach Shimogamo Shrine via bus or metro. For metro, you’ll need to exit at Demachi-Yanagi Station which is on the Keihan Line and from there the shrine is a fifteen-minute walk. The bus will drop you immediately next to the shrine and can be caught from Kyoto Station, you’ll need Kyoto City Bus number 4 heading towards Kamigamojinja-mae. Shimogamo-jinga is open daily between 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer and 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter with free admission.