The city of Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years and is perhaps one of the best places to get a flavor of old Japan. In preserving Japan’s old traditions, Kyoto is the city of quiet temples, sublime gardens, colorful shrines and geiko. But, perhaps the most interesting temple among Kyoto’s vast collection is the one that deals with the darker elements of Japanese culture.
The Seimei Shrine, founded in 1007 is dedicated to the onmyoji, Abe no Seimei. It is said that the shrine was constructed on the site of his house just two years after his death. An onmyoji is a person who practices the traditional Japanese esoteric cosmology known as onmyodo (陰陽道) or “The Way of the Yin and Yang.” Based on the Chinese philosophies of Wu Xing (Five elements) and Yin and Yang, it is a mixture of natural science and occultism.
Onmyodo was introduced to Japan during the early 6th century and was accepted as a practical system of divination. It came under the control of the Imperial government and later the Tsuchimikado family where elements of Taoism, Buddhism and Shintoism were incorporated. Onmyodo was practiced until the middle of the 19th century after which point it was classified as superstition and its practice prohibited. Interestingly, the mid-19th century was also the time when Admiral Perry came to Japan demanding that Japan open its ports to foreign trade and when the Meiji Restoration came into existence.
Abe no Seimei was a Heian era (794-1185) astronomer who served the Emperor by performing divination and various ceremonies. To his contemporaries Seimei was a genius with second sight, able to perceive an invisible world of demons and spirits. He could also see star constellations others could not. He continues to be the subject of a variety of colorful legends including one which claims that he was able to instantaneously cure the Emperor of an illness. Further, Seimei himself enjoyed a long and healthy life which led people to believe that he actually possessed magical powers. Although Seimei’s life is well documented, his lineage remains unclear. Abe no Seimei’s two sons, Yoshihira and Yoshimasa were also onmyoji, like their father.
It is said that the famous well (Seimei-i) located on the Seimei Shrine grounds were Abe no Seimei was buried retains Seimei’s divine power. Anyone who partakes of its water will receive a blessing for good health. The well is in the shape of a 5-pointed star known as the Seimei star (Pentacle in the Western world) and one of its vertices acts like a water intake. This water intake points in a lucky direction and each year during the beginning of spring (February 4th), the orientation of the well is changed. Abe no Seimei reputedly designed the star in the 10th century to symbolize the Chinese Five Elements. You will find its image throughout the shrine.
There are two gates (torii) which lead up to the relatively small shrine. The main building (honden) was restored in 1925. Within the shrine grounds, you will find pictures and text relating the legend of Seimei. There is a bronze statue of a peach which visitors are invited to stroke to ward off evil. The ancient Chinese believed that peaches were talismans to guard against evil. Today, many Japanese people know the story of Momotaro (A boy born from a peach who conquered the land of demons.) which was derived from this belief. There is a small bridge said to be a replica of the original Ichijo Modori Bashi. The actual bridge located just south of the shrine is said to be a gateway between the human and the spiritual realms.
The shrine draws many visitors who view it as a potent “power spot.” Each year during fall, there is a Seimei Matsuri.
So the next time you are in Kyoto, why not include the Seimei Shrine as a potential stopover and get to know Japan’s Merlin!
Web page: http://www.seimeijinja.jp/
Address: 806 Horikawadori Ichijo agaru Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-8222, Kyoto