Kamigamo Shrine lays claim to the oldest shrine in Kyoto. This UNESCO World Heritage shrine in Kyoto is a hidden gem in the treasure of the ancient city’s historic sites.
In this article:
Kamigamo Shrine 「Kamigamo-jinja, 上賀茂神社」 is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is officially called Kamo-wake-ikazuchi-jinja 「賀茂御祖神社」 and together with Shimogamo Shrine「Shimogamo-jinja, 下鴨神社」 form the Shinto shrine complex called Kamo Shrine 「Kamo-jinja, 賀茂神社」.
The kanji used in the colloquial name 「上」 is the character for up and the kanji in Shimogamo-jinja’s name 「下」 is the character for down. These names could be interpreted as upper and lower Kamo shrines.
Both shrines are situated close to the Kamo River 「Kamo-gawa, 鴨川」 and both have small streams leading off the Kamo-gawa into the shrine precincts.
Kamigamo-jinja is a peaceful shrine that is free to enter and is usually empty of the normal tourist crowds.
Explore Kamigamo Shrine
Kyoto City Bus #4 arrives outside the main torii gate leading toward the inner shrine. When I arrived a temporary art installation (the golden triangle in the background of the photo above is one of the art pieces) was on display on the lawn between the 1st and 2nd torii gates.
In the photo above you can also see the 2nd torii, at the end of the path in the right side of the photo.
Path from first to second shrine gate
The path to the 2nd torii is about 150 metres long and the surrounding lawn contains historic buildings, such as the geheiden seen below. All of Kamigamo-jinja is within a preserved historic landscape area and many of the trees, such as the weeping cherry blossom tree on this lawn, are very old.
This route is called the sando, and is meant to be a clear space to be used as a kind of walking meditation in preparation for entering the inner shrine.
The geheiden is one of two historic buildings on this lawn. On the 4th Sunday of every month markets are held around this building, with over 200 stalls selling local handicrafts and produce, sweets, snacks and souvenirs.
Behind the geheiden, to the west of this area, is the 3rd shrine gate. Beyond this gate are some old buildings and a tiny sub-shrine.
This log store house, azekura, is a few steps beyond the 3rd torii. This building was used for storing precious shrine artifacts and is positioned away from other buildings, to reduce the risk of a fire.
The tiny Nara-jinja is a sub-shrine located near the 3rd torii. This shrine is named after the sacred Nara-no-ogawa 「Nara Stream, 奈良の小川」 which runs through this area of Kyoto, including through Shimogamo-jinja.
Admittedly this is a terrible photo, but I’m sure you can make out the shrine!
Passing through the 2nd torii brings you into an area of the shrine where the most important buildings are located. The white gravel of this area is meticulously curated by monks, as it is sacred ground where the deities of the shrine are said to have touched the earth.
Near the 2nd torii is the Gaku-noya. Built in 1628 this hall was used for musical ceremonies.
The decorative sake barrels 「kazaridaru, 飾り樽」 are found at many Japanese shrines and are a form of offering to the shrine. This stand of sakedaru is on the opposite side of the 2nd torii to the gaku-noya. Sake is an important element in rituals and ceremonies at Japanese shrines.
Most Japanese shrines will have a Shinto deity enshrined, the center of all worship at the shrine. Kamigamo-jinja’s deity is Kamo-no-Wake-Ikazuchi-no-Mikoto, 「Young Thunder Prince of Kamo, 賀茂別雷命」 who is said to be the son and grandson of the two deities at Shimogamo-jinja.
The two cones of sand in front of the hoso-dono have spiritual and religious purification powers. The cones are called tatezuna 「立砂」 and represent the sacred Kami-yama 「Mount Kami, 神山」. The shrine is located at the foot of this mountain, and the shrine’s deity is said to have descended from the heavens to reside on this mountain.
Like other Shinto shrine shops, here you can buy:
- Amulets/talismans: 「Ofuda, お札」
- Good luck charms: 「Omamori, お守」
- Prayer boards: 「Ema, 絵馬」
- Good fortune paper slips: 「Omikuji, 御御籤」
- Sacred demon destroying arrows: 「Hamaya, 破魔矢」
The sacred arrow has special importance to Kamigamo-jinja. Myth says that Princess Tamayori was bathing in the Kamo River and found a red arrow floating nearby. She kept the arrow, and through its powers gave birth to the Young Thunder Prince of Kamo, the deity of Kamigamo-jinja.
This small sub-shrine is dedicated to Princess Tamayori, the mother of the Young Thunder Prince of Kamo. Read more about the Kataoka sub-shrine.
Auxiliary Shrine: Suwa Shrine
「Sessha: Suwa-jinja, 摂社：須波神社」
This is another small sub-shrine, located next to the Kataoka-sha sub-shrine.
The rōmon 「Tower gate, 楼門/玉橋」 and Tama-bashi 「Tama Bridge, 玉橋」 are the icons of Kamigamo-jinja. The rōmon stands at the entrance to the shrine’s most sacred grounds, where the main shrine 「Honden, 本殿」 is located.
The gate and bridge are painted in a rich vermillion colour, typical of the features found at many Japanese shrines.
Every year different chainsaw art sculptures are displayed at the shrine. These sculptures represent the animals of the Japanese zodiac and are offerings to the shrine.
The sakedaru 「decorative sake barrels」 and ofuda 「talisman」 are also shrine offerings, and together with the chainsaw art are located inside the rōmon close to the main shrine.
Gold Hanging Lanterns
These golden hanging lanterns are hung under the eaves of shrine buildings. The lanterns can be purchased, or basically rented, to be hung at the shrine as a form of prayer. These lanterns are hanging in front of the honden.
The Chū-mon gate is closed and stops public entry into the most sacred area of the shrine, the Honden. Worshipers stand at the Chū-mon and pray to the main shrine. The middle gate is only open once a year, during Japanese New Year celebrations, and is so sacred that photos are not allowed.
At the time of my visit this area was undergoing restoration, which is due to be completed in 2015 and was the only restoration happening at the shrine.
Most of the buildings that stand today were constructed in the 1600s. All the buildings are carefully maintained and often restored, and you can tell just how old they are, moss and small plants are growing on top of the main shrine building.
… one final photo of the tower gate before leaving!
Kamigamo Shrine map & main buildings
The numbers above correspond to the photos in this article. Clicking on a number on the map above or on a link below will take you to the corresponding photo:
- First Torii Gate「Ichi-no-torii, 一ノ鳥居」
- Outdoor Hall of Offerings「Geheiden, 外幣殿」
- Third Shrine Gate「San-no-torii, 三ノ鳥居」
- Ancient Store House「Azekura, 校倉」
- Auxiliary Shrine: Nara Shrine「Sessha: Nara-jinja, 摂社：奈良社」
- Second Shrine Gate「Ni-no-torii, 二ノ鳥居」
- Music Hall「Gaku-noya, 学屋」
- Decorative Sake Barrels「Sakedaru, 酒樽」
- Long Narrow Hall「Hoso-dono, 細殿」
- Shrine Shop「Juyosho, 授与所」
- Kataoka Auxiliary Shrine and Suwa Auxiliary Shrine
- Tower Gate and Tama Bridge「Rōmon/tama-bashi, 楼門/玉橋」
- Middle Gate and Main Shrine「Chū-mon/Honden, 中門/本殿」
How to get to Kamigamo-jinja
The easiest way to get to the shrine is by bus.
- Kyoto City Bus #4 is the only bus that runs to the shrine from Kyoto Station.
- Kyoto City Bus #46 goes to the shrine from downtown Kyoto, Gion, Higashiyama, Kyoto Imperial Palace and Nijo Castle.
See how to use Kyoto City Buses for more information, and tips on how to save money on bus travel.
Opening hours and admission cost
Kamigamo-jinja free to enter and is open every day.
Opening hours below, outside of these times the gate at the 2nd torii is closed:
- 8AM to 5PM April to October
- 8:30AM to 5PM November to April
Other things to do in Kyoto
- Visit the sister shrine Shimogamo-jinja
- Visit any number of the 16 other UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto
- Hire a bicycle in Kyoto, and see the city like a local
When to visit Kamigamo-jinja (events & festivals)
- Kurabe-uma-e-Jinji, May 5: The Ritual of the Racehorses originated in the 1200s and is said to be where horse racing in Japan begun.
- Aoi Matsuri, May 15: The Hollyhock Festival is the main festival for this shrine and one of the biggest festivals in all of Kyoto. Dating back to the mid-500s A.D. the Emperor of Japan sends a messenger on his behalf to worship at the shrine as part of the festival.
- Nagoshi-no-harae, June 30: The Summer Purification Ritual is almost 1000 years old.
- Karasu-zumo, September 9: The Crow Sumo Ceremony is a very unique one – shrine officials imitate the voice of crows and children perform sumo.
The above event information is from the festivals section of the official Kamigamo-jinja website.
Market stalls also take place on the 4th Sunday of every month.