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Ushi in the new year: Lottery of the lucky cow at Kyoto’s Kitano Tenmangu

Ushi in the new year: Lottery of the lucky cow at Kyoto’s Kitano Tenmangu

Kitano Tenmangu (北野天満宮) in Kyoto (京都市 Kyoto-shi) is one of the city’s major shrines. It was built in 947 to appease the spirit of the exiled scholar Sugawara no Michizane (菅原 道) but entered Imperial patronage in 965. Sugawara was highly intelligent and skilled in the art of poetry. Today he is revered as the god of studying and learning in Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion (神道). His favourite flower was the plum (梅 ume), so the priests planted an abundance of plum trees on the shrine grounds. These blossoms resemble closely to Japan’s famous sakura (桜) but bloom much earlier during winter. Many students in Kyoto visit this shrine before the important National Center Test in January that decides what university they can attend to get their blessing from Michizane and the plum blossoms.

 

(Image credit: Ilse Montald)

 

But there is another god on these grounds that has gained much importance in 2021. Yes, the Year of the Ox has set the spotlight on Michizane’s divine messengers…the ox itself. When Michizane posthumously became a deity, he was granted the name Tenjin (天神) and the right to a sacred animal messenger, or Otsukai (お使い). The story goes that during Michizane’s burial, the ox pulling the cart with his body stopped and refused to move on the location that is now Kitano Tenmangu. This happened on the Day of the Ox. With Michizane born in the Year of the Ox and on the Day of the Ox, the people saw it as a divine sign that this was where his body should be. There are many oxen statues on the shrine’s grounds, the most popular being the Nadeushi (撫で牛) with red eyes near the main entrance.

 

(Image credit: Ilse Montald)

 

With 2021 being the Year of the Ox and only coming once every 12 years, Kitano Tenmangu has many reasons to celebrate. To curb the spread of Covid-19, the shrine has decided to sell its special New Year’s votive plaques earlier and for a longer period. This year’s design features Tenjin’s beloved oxen and plum trees. Households usually decorate their home shrine with a small statue of the year’s zodiac animal and Kitano Tenmangu decided on a very special version of their Nadeushi that can only be bought during the first two weeks of January.

 

(Image credit: Ilse Montald)

 

But the real secret was the special lottery that went unannounced on the official website or platforms, and was only shared by word of mouth: Kitano Tenmangu would have special good-fortune slips (おみくじ omikuji) in the form of real solid miniature oxen. The Japanese custom practised during New Year’s is to pull random slips of paper which will decide on your fate and fortune for the coming year. Just as how “great fortune” (大吉 daikichi) is a rare occurrence, the statues had a 1/100 chance of being a golden ox. As a once-in-a-lifetime chance, we tried our hand in pulling our fates from the closed boxes to see if we could get lucky. And to our surprise, in addition to a standard silver ox, we had pulled the rare golden ox!

 

The shrine told us that they will periodically restock the cows until the end of January. So if you’re in the area, don’t forget to bring home your own precious, divine ox. 

 

Kitano Tenmangu (北野天満宮)
Address: Bakuro-cho, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-8386
Nearest station: Kitanohakubaicho Station (北野白梅町駅)
Nearest bus stop: Kitano Tenmangu-mae (北野天満宮前)
Opening hours: 5am–6pm (Apr–Sep), 5:30am–5:30pm (Oct–Mar)
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81-75-164-0005

 

Header image credit: Ilse Montald

 

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