In the English-speaking world, we sometimes talk about the “Chinese zodiac” and its 12-year system. So you might be surprised to learn that not only is this zodiac system used all over Asia, including Japan, but the full cycle is actually 60 years! The Eastern zodiac uses 12 animals and the five elements, which means that 2023 is not just the year of the rabbit, it’s the year of the water rabbit, called “mizunoto” (癸卯) in Japanese. Traditional Japanese beliefs say that the year of the Water Rabbit is “a year not to give up, or to try to hard. A year when hopes and wishes will sprout up from a stagnant world.” After a few very stagnant years of pandemic, maybe this Water Rabbit year will bring some positive change!
This fall, on a short trip to Kyoto to see the koyo, the Japankuru team heard talk of a local “bunny shrine.” With the year of the rabbit coming up so soon, we knew that this spot was going to be a hit in the coming months, and so we headed over to take a look.
Located about 10 minutes on foot from Heian Jingu Shrine, this “bunny shrine” is properly named the Higashitenno Okazaki Shrine (東天王 岡崎神社), referring to the area of Kyoto where the shrine was established. So why all the rabbits? No matter where you go in the world, rabbits share the same reputation for, well, breeding like rabbits. In Japan, the rabbit’s tendency to multiply makes it a symbol of fertility, and so Okazaki Shrine is thought to bring luck to anyone hoping for lots of healthy babies.
Rabbits Everywhere You Look
Okazaki Shrine’s rabbit theme can be seen all over the grounds, from the moment you step through the shrine gate. In the place where any other shrine might have the statues known as guardian lions (also called foo dogs, or komainu), this shrine instead has guardian bunnies, standing on their hind legs to examine visitors as they enter the sacred ground. For sightseers who have checked out a lot of Japanese shrines, these unusual guardians are a refreshing departure from the usual – and they’re just the first sign of all the rabbits to come.
When it comes to lucky animals, Japan often defaults to the fortune-bringing maneki neko – the waving lucky cats often seen in restaurants. At Okazaki Shrine, rabbits have taken that place, and while most serious prayers at the shrine concern children and childbirth, a healthy child is a stroke of luck in and of itself. In recent years, the shrine has begun selling omikuji fortunes that come inside a small ceramic rabbit figurines, and after removing the paper fortune, some visitors now choose to add their little rabbit to the collection forming at the heart of the shrine. Perhaps these little ceramic bunnies have earned the title “maneki usagi” (rabbit).
A Rabbit Shrine for the Year of the Rabbit
With so many rabbits all around Okazaki Shrine, you’re not likely to find a more auspicious place to visit during the year of the Water Rabbit. If you can make it to Kyoto this year, you’ll definitely want to add this spot to your itinerary! Then again, no matter when you next make it to Kyoto, you might want to stop by Okazaki Shrine. How could you say no to all those cute faces?
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