Hidden gems: Azuma Shrine in Asakusa, Tokyo, & the legend of Prince Yamato Takeru

It’s possible that you’ll walk on or near Azumabashi if you decide to climb the Skytree (東京スカイツリー) in Asakusa, but you’d probably think it’s just a bridge. Don’t you know Japanese do nothing without reason? I don’t think that many tour guides will tell you this story, which includes Prince Yamato Takeru, so… I’m doing this, because now you know I like to tell stories.

photo credit: marumeganechan 安定感 via photopin (license)

The Azumabashi (吾妻橋) is one of the bridges on the Sumida River. Built in the Edo period, it was soon nicknamed Higashibashi: note that the kanji of Higashibashi can be read Azumabashi. The name Azuma comes from a nearby Shinto shrine.

photo credit: ai3310X Azuma bashi via photopin (license)

The area around here takes its name from Ototachibana, wife of the legendary Prince Yamato Takeru (kanji 大和武尊 or katakana ヤマトタケル), son of the king of Izumo, whose adventures are narrated in the Kojiki. His father, to try to calm his violent temper, decided to send Prince Yamato to exterminate the brigands who enraged in Kyushu, as soon as he reached the major age (at the time, sixteen years).
After he went to pay homage to the goddess of the Sun Amaterasu, his ancestor, and after receiving the blessing of the priestess his aunt, who gave him as a gift one of her robes, assuring that it would be useful at some point in his journey, Prince Yamato, his wife and soldiers, left. During the journey, the Prince realized that a real ambush would prove ineffective and decided to be crafty. He asked the help of his wife to wear his aunt’s robe, to style his hair and adorn himself with jewels: the mirror showed him the image of a beautiful maiden. So disguised, Prince Yamato entered the tent of the leaders of the brigands, the brothers Kumaso and Takeru. Kumaso was immediately attracted to what looked like a shy and reserved maiden and, after repeatedly asking to pour him some wine, he took a colossal hangover. At this point Prince Yamato pulled a sword out of his robe and killed him, only to pass to his brother, who was fleeing. The brigand, before dying, asked who that man was, because he thought he and his brother were the strongest men on the island. “I am Yamato and son of the King, who bade me kill such rebels as you!”, replied the Prince. At which the brigand replied: “Permit me to give you a new name. From henceforth you shall be called Yamato Takeru, because you are the bravest man in the land“.

photo credit: kirainet 金沢 – Yamato Takeru statue via photopin (license)

Not to make this article too long and since the story of Yamato Takeru is intertwined with other Japanese legends, I will write another article, but now let’s skip some passages.

The adventure that interests us in relation to Azumabashi is about the sacrifice of Princess Ototachibana. After years of travel, her skin was burned by the sun and her beautiful robes ruined and often muddy at the hem. To this was added the fact that Prince Yamato Takeru was all taken by various battles and there wasn’t much place for his wife in his life. While they were headed to Kazusa, Prince Yamato Takeru fell for Princess Miyazu, who, on the contrary of his wife, had a wonderful skin and her robes were always in order. So great his crush that, before continuing the journey, Prince Yamato Takeru, with all his following (including his wife), went to pay homage to Princess Miyazu and, in a rush, the promised he would return and marry her. Nonetheless, Princess Ototachibana continued to follow him faithfully.
Shortly thereafter, Prince Yamato Takeru and his following were to cross a strait: ingenuity and arrogance had the best. The King of the sea raged for the unflattering comments of the Prince and unleashed a violent storm. Understanding what was the ultimate purpose of the god, Princess Ototachibana asked him, in exchange for her life, that her husband could be saved and she plunged into the sea.
Prince Yamato Takeru continued his journey, completely forgetting about Princess Miyazu and having always dear the memory of his wife.
At one point, he found himself passing in the area of Tokyo that today includes Tachibana and Azuma: the suggestive panorama, with the sea in the distance, made him rethink of his lost wife. The sentiment of Prince Yamato Takeru was so intense that he cried out: “Azuma, Azuma, ya!”, that is “Oh my bride, my bride!”. The prince erected a mound under which he posed some of his wife’s personal belongings: Azuma Shrine (吾嬬神社 – Azuma Jinja) was born here.
Today Azuma Shrine is small, hidden and little known, compared to other buildings in the surroundings and compared to some time ago. Azumabashi, however, is definitely frequented and has had a discreet fortune over the years: despite some damage during floods and fires, it’s always been known to be a well-built bridge. The wooden structure was replaced in the 30s by the current in reinforced concrete, but the bridge is easily recognizable by its color.
In short, besides visiting the Senso-ji, as well as  the Skytree (it’s worth it, I’ll talk about it), take a little detour to look for the shrine.
How to get to Azuma Shrine: Hanzomon line or Asakusa line to Oshiage station, then walk for about twenty minutes.

You can decide to spend the day in Asakusa and visit Senso-ji, Azumabashi, Skytree and Azuma Shrine. I think it’s a tour de force, but I always see so many tourists doing things like that. Maybe you could book tickets for the Skytree or not get up there, even if it would be a pity!

Leave a Reply