Taga Shrine is one of Japan’s major shrines, and pilgrims visit here from all over Japan seeking a long life, happy marriage, and protection from ill fortune. The shrine and its grounds are imposing, and you can enjoy weeping cherry and other blossoms in spring, and dramatic red and yellow foliage in autumn. It’s the leading shrine in Shiga Prefecture, attracting about 1.7 million visitors a year. It’s known familiarly as “Otaga-san”.
The shrine is sacred to the major deities Izanagi and Izanami. According to the Kojiki, the oldest book in Japan, they began their married life early in the age of the gods. They gave birth to the land of Japan, followed by eight million gods, including Amaterasu the sun goddess and the most important deity of the Shintō religion. Praying to these gods is thought to result in a lasting, happy match.
In the middle of the Muromachi period, Shintō and Buddhism increasingly amalgamated, and in 1494, Fudō-in, a Tendai Buddhist temple was established at Taga Shrine where the syncretic deity Taga Daimyōjin was worshipped. The priests promoted the joint religion by distributing leaflets nationwide. Along with Ise, Kumano, and Konpira, the shrine became the object of pilgrimage for common people from the Middle Ages to the early modern era. There was a folk song that went “If you visit Ise, visit Taga, Ise is the child of Taga”, and “Visit Ise seven times, Kumano three time, and Taga once a month”. This refers to the legend that Izanagi and Izanami who are enshrined at Taga gave birth to Amaterasu who is enshrined at Ise Jingū Shrine. Priests travelled around the country with a mandala showing the various gods, which they used for proselytising. Taga Shrine also prospered because Ōmi Province was a transportation node.
There are several other legends associated with Taga Shrine which are reflected in today’s worship.
When the Empress Genshō was ill, a priest from Taga Shrine cooked rice and beans for her and served it with a spatula made of wood from the hornbeam tree. The Empress was immediately cured. The hornbeam tree still exists, and the spatula (‘jakushi’) is today celebrated as the otaga jakushi. Incidentally, the Japanese name for tadpole (‘otamajakushi’) derives from its resemblance to the restorative spatula of Otaga-san. Visitors purchase these spatulas as talismans and votive plaques.
Shunjōbō Chōgen was a monk of the Kamakura period. When the 41-year-old Chōgen was ordered to rebuild Tōdai-ji Temple in Nara, he realised that it would take twenty years. So he went to Ise Shrine to pray for success at the start of construction, when Amaterasu appeared in a dream, saying “If you want to extend your life for success, pray at Taga Shrine”. When he came to Taga Shrine, he received an omen indicating that his life would be extended by twenty years. He rejoiced and encouraged by the sign from God, he continued his efforts for another twenty years, succeeding in completing Tōdai-ji Temple. He travelled to Taga Shrine to give thanks. Sitting down on a stone in the shrine precincts, he passed away as though falling asleep. This is called the Stone of Life, and believers write wishes on stones that they leave here.
About six kilometres east of the shrine at Sugisaka Pass is a cedar tree with three trunks called the Sanbonsugi. The Sanbonsugi is the sacred tree of the shrine. In the age of the gods, when Izanagi descended from the plain of heaven after completing the great work of creating Japan, he rested at this pass. An aged peasant offered him a meal of rice and millet. The deity gladly ate the food, and when he finished, he stuck his chopsticks in the ground. They took root there and became this great tree.
In 1588, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was a strong believer in the faith of Taga Shrine, prayed for his mother to live longer, asking for “3 years, and if that’s not possible, 2 years, or at least 30 days”. Since it was fulfilled, he renovated the shrine and made a large donation of rice, equivalent to the stipend of a daimyō. The humped Taikōbashi bridge in front of the shrine and the Okusho-in Garden were built using this donation.
Over the centuries, the shrine was repeatedly destroyed by fire and storms, but it was always rebuilt with generous donations from the Hikone Domain and the Shogunate. The Kurumado family were priests of the shrine since ancient times. At the end of the Tokugawa period, priests from this family interceded on behalf of the various factions who were vying for power. In the early Meiji period, there was strong movement to abolish ‘foreign’ Buddhism. Taga Shrine’s Buddhist temple was secularised in 1868 and all temples on the grounds were removed. Taga Shrine was promoted to a government-managed shrine in 1914 and in 1947, its name was changed to Taga Grand Shrine. The current shrine buildings date from 1972, and renovations have been made since then.
The shrine has a large collection of ema votive plaques from its many illustrious visitors including national politicians and personalities. These are on display inside the main building, and they feature fine illustrations and calligraphy worthy of their donors. The Okusho-in Garden is open to visitors in the spring and autumn. The route that most visitors take to the shrine starts at Tagataishamae Station following a road lined with souvenir shops and restaurants.