Kushida Shrine, referred to affectionately by locals as Okushida-san, has been home to the city’s guardian deity since olden times. Although Kushida Shrine has been mentioned several times in this column over the years, oddly, it has never been officially showcased. Kushida Shrine traces its history of protecting Hakata back more than 1,260 years to the year 757 when it was first built. Amaterasu, the sun goddess and the highest deity in Japanese mythology have been enshrined here since before the shrine was erected.
There are many things to see inside Kushida Shrine. If you are going for the first shrine visit of the new year, remember to check the lucky direction on the etoehoban, a disc depicting the 12 signs of the zodiac which can be found on the ceiling of the Sakuramon gate. Every New Year’s Eve, the disc is rotated to align with the coming year’s zodiac animal and show the lucky compass direction for that year. Known as Kushida no Ginan, the massive ginkgo tree in the shrine is sacred. (Note: Ginan is the Japanese name for ginkgo nuts.) Considered a symbol of longevity, the tree’s leaves turn golden yellow in the fall.
Next to the main hall, you will find the Sacred Crane Well. The underground spring water that feeds this well is said to grant longevity and eternal youth. (But the water tastes salty and bitter like seawater.) Kushida Shrine is also famous for its seasonal festivals. The largest otafuku mask in Japan is erected ahead of Setsubun in February, and the Hakata Gion Yamakasa held in July is renowned throughout Japan. Dating back over 700 years, this festival, which features men in loincloths racing massive floats, has been inscribed by UNESCO on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Other local festivals include the Hakata Matsubayashi in May and the Hakata Okunchi in October.
Kushida Shrine is also the only place where you can see a kazariyama (decorative float) year-round. These are typically only put on display during the Yamakasa festival period. The kazariyama is replaced with a new one every year before Yamakasa begins. If you want to learn more about Kushida Shrine and Yamakasa, then stop by the Hakata History Museum located on the shrine grounds. The displays feature high-quality historical documents and shrine treasures. In fact, Kushida Shrine is home to the Kushida Bunko, thought to be Japan’s oldest library.