For those of you who haven’t been living under a rock (and maybe those of you who have been!) you’ve probably heard of the recent abdication of Emperor Akihito and the change of era from ‘Heisei’ to ‘Reiwa’. But did you know that the birthplace of Reiwa is right here in Fukuoka? For those of you feeling a bit lost, allow us at Fukuoka Now to get you up to speed with this once in a lifetime change so you can start Reiwa right!
Here in Japan, there are two calendar systems. One system is the “Gregorian” system, which counts years beginning from before and after Christ’s birth in order, the current year being 2019 AD. No surprises here, but you’re probably less familiar with the other calendar, the Emperor centred system, whereby the era’s name is fixed by the current ruling emperor, and the calendar years are counted in ascending order from that emperor’s coronation (e.g. Heisei 1 was 1989, while Heisei 2 was 1990). A Japanese era name is referred to as nengo or gengo. When an emperor dies or abdicates the name of the era changes, so that’s how we got from Heisei 31 in April 2019 to Reiwa 1 right here in May 2019.
So that’s the basics, but you still might be asking how the eras themselves are named. The systems have been changing throughout Japan’s turbulent history, but the current system whereby an era is named only after the succession of a new emperor has been in place since the Meiji era. The first recorded instance of the use of nengo was in 645 AD under Emperor Kōtoku, who declared that the period 645 AD to 650 AD would be known as ‘Taika’, to celebrate the Taika Reforms of the same time. Now, perhaps in the more democratic spirit, the name of an era is shortlisted by a committee of prominent individuals, decided on by the Cabinet and then released to the public by the Cabinet Chief Secretary.
That brings us, after a brief historical sojourn, to the name Reiwa and its connection to Fukuoka. Reiwa translates into “beautiful harmony” and is taken from ‘Man’yōshū’ (The Collection of a Thousand Leaves), an 8th century anthology of waka poetry by the court noble and scholar Otomo no Tabito (665-731). Otomo no Tabito’s official residence is rumored to have been nearby Sakamoto Hachimangu Shrine in Dazaifu, and it is at this residence, during a gathering to read poetry, where the poem which Reiwa was taken from was first composed.
This of course is not the entire history of Sakamoto Hachimangu, the shrine going through a series of changes since its establishment in the Heian period. During the Warring States period the old shrine was reportedly destroyed, only for the local community to build a new shrine on the grounds of the old one. Much like its old rocky history this newly connected imperial history has brought with it some fairly big challenges. Once receiving around 10 worshippers a day, the small shrine in Dazaifu was inundated with approximately 50,000 visitors during Golden Week. On May 7th the parishioners committee announced it would be suspending services at the shrine for the time being, the chair of the committee writing that “It was delightful but overwhelming and we are beyond tired. We need to recover so we can welcome people again”[*1]. Opening again on the 18th, to this day shrine services are still suspended on Mondays and Thursdays. Those wanting to get a goshuin, a proof of pilgrimage stamp for a goshuincho or pilgrimage stamp book, please bear this in mind.
Sakamoto Hachimangu itself is a quiet and refined shrine located in a little country idyll next to the historic grounds of Dazaifu’s former government office, its reflective mood only stirred by the Reiwa flags which newly adorn its entrance. The main shrine building is a fairly subdued and tasteful affair, with the normal collection box and bell set up in front for visitors and parishioners alike to pray at. It’s flanked on the left by the shrine office, set up in a clean white tent, and on the right by a purification fountain with ladles for ritual cleansing. Standing in front of this is a small stone torii (gate), gently crusted with moss. For those visitors in need of the modern conveniences of life there’s a toilet within sight of the shrine, just turn around 180 degrees at the entrance and you’ll see it right in front of you.
To get there from Tenjin Station take the Nishitetsu Express train to Shimo-Ori Station, then change to the Nishitetsu local train to go to Tofuro-Mae Station (one-way ¥340). Upon exiting Nishitetsu Tofuro-Mae Station, turn right and cross the bridge over the river directly in front of you. When you’ve done so, turn right and continue until you reach the fourth left. Turn left and you will see a paved path. Continue directly down this path until you get to an intersection with a car park on your right. The small shrine that you see before you is Sakamoto Hachimangu Shrine. There is also a map at Nishitetsu Tofuro-Mae Station which points visitors in the direction of the shrine.
When reflecting on this era’s new name, Nobel Prize winning stem cell researcher and nengo selection committee member Shinya Yamanaka commented “It’s a perfect fit for Japan as we venture into new territory while respecting tradition”[*2]. While small, at Sakamoto Hachimangu one gets a sense of history nestled within people’s everyday lives and the foundation of culture on which the current nation stands. Too long ignored Sakamoto Hachimangu is now the best link to Reiwa Japan has, and for that it’s well worth the visit.
Report and photos by Kenji Newton for Fukuoka Now