Kameido Tenjin was built in 1646 to enshrine Sugawara no Michizane, a 9th Century scholar and politician who served Emperor Uda. Despite his service ending in disgrace, with accusations of plotting against the throne, a number of shrines to his memory sprang up from the 10th Century to appease his spirit when several years of catastrophes followed his death.
Kameido is a favorite spot of students studying for examinations. The students will visit the shrine and write their prayers on a wooden ema, which they tie to a stand just outside the shrine’s main entrance. Students who are successful may return with a gift: a live turtle to leave in the shrine’s central pond. While it’s uncertain when this tradition started, it’s undoubtedly a reflection of the shrine’s name: 亀 (kame) means “turtle” or “tortoise.” Even the temizuya reflects this theme. (The name comes from the village where the shrine sits.)
The shrine has several festivals throughout the year: plum in February, wisteria in April and May, and the Chrysanthemum Festival from late October through November. In addition, once every four years, the shrine hosts the Reitaisai. In this festival, a bull pulls a horen (portable shrine) through the neighborhood. But of all these, Kameido is probably most famous for the wisteria festival.
藤まつり — Fuji (wisteria) Festival
Kameido Tenjin is home to about 200 wisteria trees. These have all been planted since the end of the Pacific War, as the temple was destroyed. When the trees blossom in late April and early May, crowds throng to this modest shrine. News broadcasts feature images of blossoms, which adds to the popularity.
As the wisteria are spread throughout the shrine grounds, they may not all bloom at the same time owing to differing amounts of sunlight received. But don’t wait too long in an effort to avoid the crowds: the blossoms may wither quickly in May if the weather turns hot.
Right amidst the wisteria in the center of the shrine grounds, a greenish pond is home to numerous turtles, enormous koi, and at least one heron. As mentioned, students will leave live turtles as a way of saying thanks for a successful exam, with the unfortunate result that cheap and readily available Mississippi turtles now outnumber the domestic variety.
The shrine’s final attraction is its large red taiko bridges, unusual (if not unique) in Tokyo. The Men’s Bridge, representing the past, greets visitors just inside the entrance torii, while the Women’s Bridge, representing the future, brings them to the steps of the shine itself. (The current bridges are concrete reproductions as the originals were destroyed during the war, along with the rest of the shrine. See a 1911 photo of one of the original bridges here.)