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Mythical Spirits, Shinto, and Smallpox.

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

As we struggle through the past couple of years effected by covid-19, it's interesting to look at how the world dealt with epidemics and pandemics in days gone by, before the days of vaccines and modern medicines. Japan has had its share of viruses in centuries past, especially smallpox, a blight to the whole world taking the lives of millions of people. During one such epidemic of smallpox all four house heads of the courtly influential Fujiwara clan lost their lives.

So how did Japan deal with these issues, well in many cases they turned to religion, Shinto, and shrine building.

One such shrine that was constructed specifically due to the small pox epidemic of 790 is Hakusan Shrine in Uji, Kyoto. To understand why this action was taken it is important to think about how the source of smallpox was viewed and its connection to Japanese folklore.

In the 8th century smallpox was considered to derive from a mythological spirit such as an onryo, a vengeful entity, or the ‘smallpox demon’ that returned to the physical world to cause harm due to some wronged act in a harsh form of re-address.

Unfortunately, prayers at Hakusan Shrine did not turn out to be a long-term solution as the next smallpox outbreak was in 810 and further outbreaks continued at intervals through the centuries until the disease was finally eradicated globally in the 20th Century.

The shrine, the buildings of which are reached by ascending a set of stone steps, would later become the guardian shrine of the temple Konjiki-in. Hakusan Shrine is also dedicated to the deity Izanami no Mikoto. A cultural asset of a wooden statue depicts the deity. Surrounded by rich forest along the upper streams of the Uji River, Hakusan Shrine is an Important Cultural Property. The shrine dates back to the 8th Century (Heian Era) though the main hall of worship was rebuilt in 1277, in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333).

The location is connected to walking and hiking trails and offers some wonderful nature surroundings. It is a place to go to find peace, quiet, and calmness away form the city or town life. There are no buses or trains close by so the only way to reach Hakusan is to have a good old walk! (Pictured below, HIDDEN PATHS on location!)

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