Tucked away on the quiet island of Omishima in the Seto Inland Sea lies Oyamazumi-jinja Shrine — ancient Shinto sanctuary, and holy pilgrimage destination for Japan’s warriors for more than 1,400 years.
Founded in 594, Oyamazumi-jinja Shrine serves as a place of worship for sun goddess Amaterasu’s elder brother, Oyamazumi no Okami — a god of mountains, oceans, and warfare.
As a result, samurai since ancient times have visited Oyamazumi to ask for success in battle. Upon finding their wishes granted, these warriors then returned to present their weapons and armor to Oyamazumi no Okami as an offering of thanks.
To my astonishment, the armaments on display date back as far as the 10th century, and comprise 80% of the samurai artifacts designated as National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties in Japan. In fact, some of the massive Odachi, or great swords, on display measure 180 centimeters and weigh nearly five kilograms!
Though Oyamazumi has expertly preserved and cared for all the artifacts in their collection, many of the weapons in the Homotsukan museum still bear the marks of those desperate conflicts the advance contemplation of which had compelled their owners to beseech the gods for victory — a reminder that you’ll find no reproduction pieces here. Magnificent armor, shimmering blades, intimidating helmets, and beautiful bronze mirrors line the glass cases, many of which belonged to some of Japan’s most celebrated figures, including Yoritomo Minamoto, Japan’s first shogun, and Tomoe Gozen, a famous female samurai of the 12th century.
An artifact of another famed woman warrior also graces Oyamazumi’s collection — a small, narrow-waisted breastplate bound with blue thread — the armor of Tsuruhime, perhaps Japan’s equivalent to Joan of Arc.
Born in 1526 as the daughter of Oyamazumi’s Chief Priest, Tsuruhime’s two elder brothers had already died defending Omishima from the Ouchi clan when her father passed away from illness in 1541. As a result, leadership of the shrine fell on her 15 year old shoulders. Yet no sooner had she assumed the role of chief priest than the Ouchi clan mounted a fresh invasion.
Having trained in martial arts since childhood, Tsuruhime took command of Omishima’s forces, proclaiming herself to be not merely the new chief priest, but an actual avatar of the shrine’s warrior god, Oyamazumi no Okami. In the ensuing battle, Tsuruhime and her forces routed the Ouchi, and drove them back into the sea.
When the Ouchi returned four months later, they once again met an insurmountable bulwark in the form of a teenage girl. According to legend, Tsuruhime’s fleet met the Ouchi ships on the open sea, with Tsuruhime herself leading a boarding party against the Ouchi flagship. Once onboard, she challenged the clan’s general, Takakoto Ohara, to single combat.
As the story goes, Ohara’s disrespectful words to Tsuruhime were sharp, but not half so sharp as the sword she drove through him in reply. To further punctuate her remark, Tsuruhime commanded her forces to launch a volley of horokubiya (grenades) at the Ouchi ships, once again repelling them back to the mainland of Honshu.
For two more years, Tsuruhime defended Omishima against its stubborn mainland rivals until at last her fiancé, like her brothers before, fell in battle to the Ouchi. Following this tragedy, Tsuruhime, at age 17, committed ritual suicide by drowning herself in the ocean.
Yet just as Tsuruhime chose to end her life in the sea, another famous figure from Japan’s history — also commemorated at Oyamazumi-jinja Shrine — in a way chose the sea as his place of rebirth.
Though little known outside Japan, Emperor Hirohito spent part of his time as a marine biologist. His vessel, the Hayama Maru, and numerous marine specimens discovered during his voyages in the Setouchi Inland Sea, sit on display at Oyamazumi-jinja Shrine’s Omishima Maritime Museum.
While a 1000 yen gate fee grants admission to the shrine’s museums, the shrine itself requires no cover charge, and exhibits numerous notable features all its own.
For a start, the guardian statues at the main gate, rather than sitting pacifically, stand regaled in armor and ready for combat — another mark of the shrine’s martial history.
Additionally, 200 of Japan’s oldest camphor trees surround the shrine, including two — 2,600 and 3,000 years of age respectively — adorned with shimenawa sacred ropes in reverence for their age.
The Gohonden, or main shrine building, rebuilt in 1378 after a war-induced fire, provides a striking example of nagare-zukuri (wave-style) architecture. There, beneath a roof made of Japanese cypress bark, ornamental woodwork carved with flowers graces the crossbeams of the shrine.
Through the generations, Oyamazumi-jinja Shrine received so much respect from the Imperial Court that, by the Nara Period, branches of it existed all over Japan. Today, it is the only Grand Shrine in the Shikoku region.
If you’re looking for a genuine glimpse into Japan’s warrior history, Oyamazumi-jinja Shrine will absolutely provide the slice you need.
Photographs & Text by Peter Chordas