Approximately 30km southwest of Takamatsu, KOTOHIRA (琴平) is home to the ancient shrine Kotohira-gū, popularly known as Kompira-san. Along with the Grand Shrines of Ise and Izumo Taisha, Kotohira is one of the major Shinto pilgrimage sites, attracting some four million visitors a year. Despite the crowds, it is still one of Shikoku’s highlights. The town itself is pleasantly located, straddling the Kanakura-gawa at the foot of the mountain Zozu-san, so called because it is said to resemble an elephant’s head (zozu). Kotohira can easily be visited on a day-trip from Takamatsu, one hour away by train, or en route to Kōchi or the mountainous interior.
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Kotohira-gū (琴平宮), Kotohira’s star attraction, is usually known as Kompira-san. It’s a venerable shrine, dating back to at least the tenth century, but award-winning contemporary steel and glass buildings designed by Suzuki Ryoji lend a modern edge to the mainly wooden hillside complex, reached via 785 steps. You’ll see many people huffing and puffing on the lower slopes beside the tourist shops, but the climb is not so strenuous and shouldn’t take you more than thirty minutes.
The shrine grounds begin at the Ō-mon, a stone gateway just beyond which you’ll pass the Gonin Byakushō – five red-painted stalls shaded by large white umbrellas. The souvenir sellers here stand in for the five farmers who were once allowed to hawk their wares in the shrine precincts. Further along to the right of the main walkway, lined with stone lanterns, are three small museums housing different collections of the shrine’s artistic treasures: the Hōmotsu-kan (宝物館), the Gakugei Sankō-kan (学芸参考館) and the Takahashi Yuichi-kan (高橋由一館). Only the latter, displaying the striking paintings of the nineteenth-century artist Takahashi Yuichi, is really worth the entrance fee.
Before climbing to the shrine’s next stage, look left of the steps to see a giant gold ship’s propeller, a gift from a local shipbuilder. To the right is the entrance to the serene reception hall Omote Shoin (表書院), built in 1659. Delicate screen paintings and decorated door panels by the celebrated artist Okyo Maruyama (1733–95) are classified as Important Cultural Assets; they’re so precious you have to peer through glass into the dim interiors to see them. At the rear of the complex is a series of wall-panel paintings of crimson camellias by local artist Takubo Kyoji.
Returning to the main ascent, the next major building reached is the grand Asahi-no-Yashiro (Sunshine Shrine) dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, decorated with intricate woodcarvings of flora and fauna and topped with a green copper roof. Two flights of steep steps lead from here to the thatched-roof Hon-gū, the main shrine, built in 1879 and the centre of Kompira-san’s daily activities. Priests and their acolytes in traditional robes rustle by along a raised wooden corridor linking the shrine buildings. Many visitors stop here, but the hardy, and truly faithful, trudge on up a further 583 steps to the Oku-sha following a path to the left of the main shrine. When you reach this inner shrine, located almost at the top of Zozu-san, look up at the rocks on the left to see two rather cartoonish stone carvings of the demon Tengu.
From the main shrine area, head to the wooden platforms for magnificent views of the surrounding countryside – on a clear day you can see as far as the Inland Sea. To the left of the main shrine is the open-air Ema-dō gallery, which displays votive plaques, paintings and models of ships. These are from sailors who hope to be granted good favour on the seas. The commendations extend to one from Japan’s first cosmonaut, a TV journalist who was a paying passenger on a Russian Soyuz launch in 1990.
Kompira-san is one of only two places in Japan (the other is Kyoto) where you can see the ancient sport of kemari performed. Deemed an Intangible Cultural Property, this ninth-century forerunner of soccer is played by the shrine’s monks on May 5, July 7 and in late December.
Kompira’s Buddhist connection
Kompira’s Buddhist connection
Kompira-san, the unofficial but more commonly used name for Kotohira-gū, comes from the nickname for Omono-nushi-no-Mikoto, the spiritual guardian of seafarers. Kompira was originally Kumbhira, the Hindu crocodile god of the River Ganges, and was imported as a deity from India well before the ninth century, when Kōbō Daishi chose the shrine as the spot for one of his Buddhist temples. For one thousand years Kompira-san served as both a Buddhist and Shinto holy place and was so popular that those who could not afford to make the pilgrimage themselves either dispatched their pet dogs, with pouches of coins as a gift to the gods, or tossed barrels of rice and money into the sea, in the hope that they would be picked up by sailors who would take the offering to Kompira-san on their behalf.
When the Meiji Restoration began, Shinto took precedence, and the Buddhas were removed from the shrine, along with Kompira, who was seen as too closely associated with the rival religion. While there are no representations of Kompira at the shrine today, an open-air gallery decorated with pictures and models of ships serves as a reminder of the shrine’s original purpose, and the Chinese flavour of some of the buildings hints at the former Buddhist connection.