北野天満宮 Market of the Master of Disaster

There is a saying in Kyoto: “Fair weather at kobo-san, rainy weather at Tenjin-san“, however I was lucky enough to get sunny weather for both. This saying is intended to illustrate how changeable the weather in Kyoto is, though coming from England where we can get hail, sun and rain in a short period, Kyoto weather seems fairly normal to me. As it was so nice, I took the time to check out Tenjin-san market, which falls on the 25th, four days after Kobo-san market at Toji temple (see here).





Tenjin-san is a flea market held at Kitano Tenmangu shrine, a really beautiful old shrine located just North West of Gosho, the Imperial Palace Park. The flea market held there on the 25th of each month is very similar to Kobo-san of Toji temple, though I noticed that there are a lot more food stalls at Tenjin-san.  This is also a great place to find cheap clothes, I think the goods at Tenjin-san are slightly cheaper than at Kobo-san, though perhaps of lower quality – if you are looking for a rare find Kobo-san is probably your best bet, but if you want a cheap kimono, yukata, hapi coat or other Japanese garment, Tenjin-san is where to go. The market spills out of the main shrine tori gate and into the street – it’s pretty big, though I don’t know if is as big as Kobo-san.






As I had just been to Kobo-san I did not feel the need to buy much. I got the customary lava filled tako-yaki (this time with the wiggly flakes on top) and a nice niku man 肉まん. Nikuman are something I will definitely miss about Japan (I’m thinking of learning a recipe for making them at home), they are large steamed buns filled with pork; filling and delicious, they are a staple of any convenience store’s hot-fridge. The one I got was from a street stall, making it even more delicious than the Family Mart buns.






Kitano-tenmangu 北野天満宮 is a shrine dedicated to the god of learning, Tenjin. Unlike many gods, Tenjin was actually a real person, known in life as Sugawara no Michizane. Michizane (845 – 943) was a bureaucrat of the Heian court, accomplished in Chinese Poetry as well as Japanese waka poems. Though initially a junior ranking bureaucrat, he ascended due to his hard work, and some fortunate timing.







At this point in history, the Imperial family was pushing back against the steadily increasing power of the Fujiwara family over the court. Emperor Uda had reached majority and no longer needed a Fujiwara regent. To push back against the Fujiwara family, instead of appointing Fujiwara nobles he appointed other bureaucrats to serve the court, one of which was Michizane, who became Ambassador to China, along with a host of other titles. An interesting aside: Michizane couldn’t speak Chinese, only read and write it, so he encouraged the Emperor to scrap the Ambassadorial positions to China in order to save face (he said that Japan should withdraw due to the decline of the Tang dynasty), which did lead to the scrapping of the position. Amazing how one man’s embarrassment at being unable to speak Chinese affected the whole country’s official stance towards China. Also amazing how this guy became the god of students, a true hero to those who spend their lives trying to get out of doing homework.





When Emperor Uda abdicated in favour of his son, in 837, Michizane’s position became vulnerable. No longer under the protection of Emperor Uda (who had praised him as a mentor in his resignation testament), Michizane was demoted to a position in a distant province and died away from the city, effectively in exile. After his death there were numerous disasters in the country, including: drought, plague, deaths of Imperial family members, lightning repeatedly striking the audience hall of the Imperial Palace, and flooding in Kyoto. Clearly Michizane’s spirit was angered at his unjust treatment, and to appease him Kitano Tenmangu was constructed in 947. When the disasters did not abate he was deified as Tenjin 天神 (heavenly god) in 986.






Tenjin is very popular with students due to his status as an academic during his life, and Kitano Tenmangu’s Ema 絵馬 (prayer tablets) are full of wishes to 合格, pass exams. If you look at the pictures below you will see this phrase repeated constantly. There are rows upon rows of places to hang these Ema as students visit for entrance exams, finals, midterms and any other academic trouble. For just 300円 you can improve your chances of passing without actually studying! Who wouldn’t give it a try?







The grounds of Kitano Tenmangu are said to be beautiful in February (I’m kicking myself for not going at that time), when all the plum blossoms were in bloom. Plum blossom was the favourite of Michizane, so all shrines dedicated to Tenjin, usually called ‘something Tenmagu’, have plum blossoms planted in the grounds. Before leaving for his exile, Michizane wrote this poem:

東風吹かば 
にほひをこせよ
梅花
主なしとて
春を忘るな

kochi fukaba
nioi okose yo
ume no hana

 aruji nashi tote
haru o wasuru na

When the east wind blows,
flourish in full bloom,
plum blossoms!
Even though you lose your master
don’t  forget spring.








Kitano Tenmangu is a great temple to visit regardless of whether or not it’s the 25th of the month, though the market is a great experience. It strikes me how different shrines can be; Ise Jingu is beautiful in its total commitment to minimalist simplicity, while Kitano Tenmangu is an example of a majestic and ornate old temple. If you have spent this post wondering “why are there so many cows?“, see this post to be enlightened.

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