A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Unique New Year Offerings at the Kashima Shrine in Matsutsuka, Tsukuba (松塚鹿島神社)


Offerings to the 13 deities enshrined at the Kashima Jinja in Matsuzuka

At the base of a 6th Century tumulus, mochi rice cakes, live fish (funa) and sake (in the bamboo cylinders) are left on the home-made straw altars as offerings to the 13 deities
enshrined at the Kashima Jinja in Matsutsuka, Tsukuba (January 15, 2018)

Approaching the Kashima Shrine in Matsuzuka - note the tree-covered "key-hole" type tumulus from the 6th century.

Approaching the Kashima
Shrine in Matsutsuka – with the tree-covered 6th century “key-hole” type tumulus. The white building on the left is community center.

By Avi Landau

There are approximately 400 ancient KOFUN burial mounds within the Tsukuba City limits, broken up into about 50 different clusters. A dozen of the most interesting, the so-called “key-hole” type tumuli (because of what they look like from the air – old-fashioned key-holes) stand in a line along the Sakura River (between the Tsuchiura-Gakuen Road and Mt. Tsukuba). This is understandable, considering the fact that the local chieftains buried in them had come to this this area from distant Western Japan (Yamato or Kyushu) by ship back when Lake Kasumigaura was a big bay and the Sakura Rivers flooding created fertile agricultural soil along its banks (to this day these rice growing areas along the Sakura River are referred to by locals as AKUTO, a unique expression, totally incomprehensible to outsiders,, which has its roots in the Akutogawa River in Osaka, which floods its banks every year and filling the adjacent soil with nutrients).

A closer look

A closer look. Since this shrine was once part of a Buddhist temple of the Shingon Sect (the now defunct Yo-fukuji), a school of Buddhism which puts great emphasis on the inter-action between the male and female forces, we can interpret the circle of rope as representing the female and the rice-cake “tower” as representing the male. Note the tiny fish that were place on the straw altars live.

Perhaps the most beautifully shaped of these distinctive burial mound to be found in Tsukuba is one of the three tumuli located in Matsutsuka ( literally: Pine Covered Mounds) a hamlet of about sixty closely clustered houses surrounded by large swaths of farmland (and just near the river, of course). Its key-hole shape is perfectly preserved and the covered with majestic trees. At its base is a medium-sized Shinto shrine dedicated to the deity of Kashima (along with 12 other deities). there are dozens of Kashima Shrines in Tsukuba (they are the most common types of Shrine in Tsukuba) and this is of course significant. The mother of all Kashima Shrines is the Kashima Grand Shrine which sits near the mouth to what is now Lake Kasumigaura, the shrine past which all troops sent from Western Japan would stop to pray at before entering these part, a shrine that represent the power of the Yamato Empire and was believed to provide spiritual protection to the realm. It is no coincidence that there were in past ages six temples of the Shingon Sect in the imediate area (now this is only one : Tofukuji ) – it was the Kashima Shrines and Shingon Temple that were used to spiritually “pacify” this area after the 10th century uprising of the warrior Taira no Masakado (interestingly, Masakado`s daughter is, according to legend, buried just 300 meters from the Matsutsuka Shrine, just out in front of Tofukuji)

A n even closer look.

An even closer look.


A Hokyo-iin-to

A Hokyo-iin-to on top of the tumulus. Originally, such stone monuments contained a sutra inside the central cube-like section

On the second Sunday of January each year, the Ujiko (parishioners) of the Matsutsuka Shrine come to make offerings – and then have a have a New Year` s party (in other words get blasted on Sake).

You can imagine how surprised they were when I showed up! In fact I can`t help but chuckle now, we I think of how dumbfounded they looked as I approached. There was one gentleman though, a youthful looking 76 year old who, without skipping a beat began to show me the unique offerings that were made that day and then give me a tour of the tumulus and the surrounding area.

Looking back over the top of the tumulus

Looking back over the top of the tumulus

The Kashima Shrine in Matsuzuka with the tumulua behind it. Note the giant sacred oak.

The Kashima Shrine in Matsutsuka with the tumulus behind it. Note the giant sacred oak.

What struck me more than the straw altars they had woven, or the majestic “sacred trees” that covered the tumulus, was the fact that they had made offerings of LIVE fish, some of which, in their death throes, had wiggled off onto the ground.

As Mr. Suzuki led me over and around the tumulus and then around the neighborhood, I tried to conjure up the scene, more than 1,500 years ago of conscripted workers building the large tomb and surrounding it with HANIWA figurines. I  tried to imagine the stragglers from Masado`s defeated rebel army hiding out in the surrounding countryside as Sadamori and Hidesato`s forces hunted them down. I tried to picture the Meiji Period fanatics who like the cadres during China`s Cultural Revolution went around the area just after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and forced the Shingon Temples in the neighborhood to close down

This RYOBU-STYLE torii gate, identified by its red color, two supporting legs for each of the two main pillars and the roof-like element running across the type show that there was once a deep connection with Shingon Esoteric Buddhism (in this case the now defunct and gone without a trace Yo-fukuji .

This RYOBU-STYLE torii gate, identified by its red color, two supporting legs for each of the two main pillars and the roof-like element running across the type show that there was once a deep connection with Shingon Esoteric Buddhism (in this case the now defunct and gone without a trace Yo-fukuji .

It was so peaceful and quiet though, so perfectly bucolic, that I couldn`t actually bring any of these things to mind, and I gladly accepted Suzuki-san offer of a brimming glass of Sake.

The special straw alters the locals make for their O-Bon offerings

Special straw alters
the locals made for their O-Bon offerings last summer




  • Frank says:

    Hi Avi. I`m not sure I understand it when you say that there
    are thirteen deities enshrined at that Kashima Shrine you wrote
    about. I was under the impression that Kashima Shrines are dedicated
    to the warrior deity Takemikadzuchi no Mokoto. What are those other deities you mention? Please explain. I am curious. Cheerio!

  • Avi says:

    Hello Frank. You are quite right about the Deity of Kashima being the
    God of the Sword Takemikazuchi no Mikoto ( it`s no coincidence that the Kashima Grand Shrine, the main Kashima Shrine, is located on a spot rich in iron sand – perfect for sword-smithing (there is now a Sumitomo Steel
    Plant near there).
    The reason for the additional deities at the Kashima Shrine in Matsutsuka lies in what happened in the early Meiji Period (the 1870s and 80s) when the Japanese government was cutting down on the number of shrines (after shrine and temples had been separated). What happened was that if a village had several shrines, all were abolished and all the dieties that had been enshrined in them were brought together in one place.