The other week, I found myself in Kyoto for client-related work reasons. While I’d of course not pass up the chance to enjoy the city’s cherry blossoms, the primary purpose of my trip was professional. Still, I am a travel addict so you can bet your bottom dollar that I took a peek at Google Maps to see if there was a site near my hotel. Lo and behold, as is often the case, I found one that was just a stone’s throw away from my hotel. Known as Seimei Jinja or Seimei Shrine in English, this little sanctuary was dedicated to Abe-no-Seimei, an ancient enchanter who is often described as the “Merlin of Japan.”
Honestly speaking, I’ve been itching to introduce Abe-no-Seimei to all of you for a really long time. Alas, seeing as this is first and foremost a blog about travel, he’s a hard hero to weave into a story without completely derailing the narrative. In fact, the closest I’ve come to featuring the mysterious figure thus far was in this exposé on Shuten Doji, the Drunken Demon. Even when recounting this famous myth though, I only ever alluded to Abe-no-Seimei in passing and didn’t bother introducing the legend by name. Luckily for fans of folklore, my stumbling upon today’s hidden gem was the sign I needed to do a deep dive on this eminent character.
So, who was Abe-no-Seimei? Well, the long and the short of his backstory is that this powerful diviner was the foremost practitioner of Onmyodo, a system of natural science, astronomy, almanac, divination and magic. Loosely based on the concepts of yin and yang as well as Wuxing (the five Chinese elements of earth, wind, water, fire and metal), Onmyodo is often referred to as “geomancy” in English and first entered the Japanese archipelago around the year 700. Thereafter, it mixed with native concepts from Shinto as well as Buddhist and Taoist practices imported from the Asian mainland. Though Onmyodo was actually practiced until the 19th century, it was at its peak during the time of Abe-no-Seimei.
Unfortunately, much like with the Western wizard Merlin, Abe-no-Seimei’s history has been heavily mythologized over the years. While there was most definitely a figure by the name of Abe-no-Seimei (we even have some solid historical records remaining), his exploits have become so amalgamated with the legends that most would struggle to tell one from the other. For example, one story asserts that Abe-no-Seimei was not entirely human and that his mother was Kuzu-no-Ha, a popular fox spirit in the folklore of Japan. Another tale purports that he was also able to command low ranking oni to do his bidding (take that Muzan).
The historical Abe-no-Seimei most certainly played an important role in the imperial court of the Heian period (794–1185). That said, his more mythologized version is best known for a series of epic bouts with a rival named Ashiya Doman. This other wielder of onmyodo magic would often try to challenge “Japan’s Merlin” to divination duels. As fate would have it though, Abe-no-Seimei always managed to see through the tricky Ashiya Doman’s ruses, thereby leaving his adversary humiliated and defeated. Abe-no-Seimei also appears in a number of other fables such as the aforementioned story of Shuten Doji. Here, Japan’s Merlin” is said to have divined the location of the fearsome “Drunken Demon.”
Perhaps the bit of Abe-no-Seimei lore that most pertains to recent events is his alleged involvement with the unveiling of Tamamo-no-Mae. This nine-tailed fox spirit in human form was a courtesan of one of the Japanese emperors. Said to be a most beautiful and intelligent woman, the tricktress had the sitting emperor wrapped entirely around her finger. Thanks to the use of Onmyodo though, the court was able to unveil Tamamo-no-Mae for what she was. Thereafter, the nobles sent Kazusa-no-Suke, one of their finest warriors, to hunt the nine-tailed fox yokai. Kazusa-no-Suke slew Tamamo-no-Mae and her mischievous spirit was sealed inside the Sessho-seki (lit. “Killing Stone”) deep within the Nasu highlands.
If the name Tamamo-no-Mae sounds somewhat familiar, know that it’s likely due to recent headlines. You see, in March of 2022 Nasu’s Sessho-seki, which had thus far killed anything that came in contact with it, suddenly split in two. This led many to believe that the spirit of Tamamo-no-Mae finally escaped her rocky prison. Soon thereafter, the local government asked some Shinto priests to hold a ceremony to appease Tamamo-no-Mae’s spirit. Allegedly, a thick mist later covered the area after the ceremony was over. Perhaps this was evidence of something supernatural?
I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to decide…
How to Get There
Before I go too deep down the rabbit hole of Japanese mythology and folklore, allow me to return to the topic at hand. As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, Japan’s most famous practitioner of Onmyodo has his own shrine in the heart of Kyoto. You’ll find it just to the north of Nijo Castle, near the northwestern corner of the Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds. Seeing as it is conveniently located near both of these two popular attractions, a visit to the “Merlin of Japan’s” shrine combines well with either.
Now, there are more than enough dedicated guides on how to get to Kyoto from Tokyo and how to get around once you’re there. If this is your first trip to the ancient capital, I suggest you take a look online and plan how a visit to the topic of today’s piece fits into the rest of your trip. For example, if you’re intending to go to a location like Fushimi Inari Taisha, you’ll want to plan your route. Though it can feel like there’s an iconic temple on on every corner of Kyoto, many are situated a little south of Seimei Shrine.
Note that those coming via bus will want to get off at the Seimei Jinja Shrine Ichi-no-torii Gate stop. Whenever I am in Kyoto, I make a point of walking as much as possible so I cannot really comment as to which buses pull up to the entrance so refer to your service of choice such as Google Maps for further directions. If you are instead coming via Kyoto’s subway, know that the most logistically sound option will be Imadegawa Station in Kamigyo Ward. As always, refer to Jorudan or a similar service to calculate the best routes. Rather than parse the data yourself, tools like this will make your life so much easier.
The Shrine Grounds Today
All in all, the grounds of Seimei Shrine are quite compact. In fact, they are so slender that you will only need a few minutes to explore all of the shrine grounds. That said, this small shrine has over a millennia of history to it and was established as far back as the year 1007 at the behest of Emperor Ichijo. Though the existing current infrastructure dates only from the early 1900s when the shrine underwent a major reconstruction, the shrine’s legacy is an homage to just how important Abe-no-Seimei was to history.
While visiting, keep your eyes out for the following in addition to the complex’s main building…
Ichijo Modori Bridge
Situated just south of of the main hall area, this bridge is said to be a gateway between the human and spirit worlds.
The water drawn forth from the depths of this well is said to be magical and the team master Sen-no-Rikyu often came here to gather water for his brews.
The Seimei Star
All across Seimei Shrine, you’ll find a host of pentagram-shaped stars. These arcane symbols are an important symbol in Onmyodo and symbolize Wuxing (the five elements in Chinese philosophy).
Directly next to the main building, you’ll find a bust of a peach that also has a pentagram motif on it. It’s said to be magical and has some sort of connection with “Japan’s Merlin.”
This annual celebration is held at Seimei Shrine every year on the autumnal equinox. Consider checking it out if you’re in Kyoto during fall.
In addition to the above site of interest, there is also a small shop selling all sorts of paraphernalia related to Abe-no-Seimei’s appearance in popular culture.
Other Nearby Attractions
As noted, the shrine grounds are located directly in the middle of Kyoto near Nijo Castle and the former grounds of the Imperial Palace. Because of this, you should definitely consider adding them to the list should you visit Seimei Shrine. Alternatively, the lesser known Kamo Shrine’s lower half (pictured above) is also nearby as well. Seeing as this sanctuary, along with its upper sibling, was one of the most important shrines in Kyoto during the city’s time as the capital, it’s definitely worth checking out.
For more information about what to see and do in Kyoto, check out my in-depth primer on my adventures in the city during the pandemic.
Until next time travelers…