Towering over the streets of Dazaifu city in Fukuoka prefecture, the Dazaifu Tenmangu is one of many shrines dedicated to Tenjin, the Shinto god of education.
While the shrine is a spectacular sight year-round, paying a visit during the school examination season – when students and their teachers flock to the grounds to pray for academic success – is a rare and moving chance to see how Shintoism plays a role in ordinary Japanese life. The busiest period is usually around January, though examinations are a regular feature of Japanese education so you’ll likely to spot at least some students when you’re there.
According to Japanese folklore, Tenjin is the reincarnated, deified form of a renowned scholar and poet known as Sugawara no Michizane. He was particularly known for his poetry, even in the realm of Chinese poets, and was especially prominent during the Heian Period.
While you’re at the Dazaifu Tenmangu-gu, you’ll notice an abundance of ume (plum) trees planted around its vicinity. This is no coincidence, as legend has it that Michizane was smitten with them. One ume tree, which is now on display at the shrine, flew from Kyoto to the shrine to be with him. It is known as the Tobiume, which can be translated as “The flying plum tree”. Keep an eye out for a pond that you’ll see immediately after you bypass the main torii gate, as it was built to resemble the Japanese kanji character for “heart”.
The food scene in Dazaifu Tenmangu is quite remarkable, serving up everything from piping hot bowls of udon to freshly grilled senbei crackers. One specialty that Dazaifu has to offer, however, is the umegae mochi, which is a grilled yuzu bean rice cake stamped with the plum tree insignia. Apparently, this was one of Michizane’s favourite foods.
Museum enthusiasts out there will enjoy three other stops nearby, the most famous being the Kyushu National Museum, which features a permanent exhibition of artifacts as well as special exhibitions, such as part of the Terracotta Army from China. There’s also a Dazaifu Tenmangu Museum dedicated to showcasing the shrine’s treasures as well as the Kanko Historical Museum, which features a truncated biography of Michizane in picture form. You can get ticket passes that give you a discount for visiting the museums together.