Testing your Luck – Goukaku

The coldest days of winter bring the greatest challenges for any third-year student in junior or senior high school…pass the entrance exam to the high school or university of their choice.

What’s the trick to their success?  Bookwork…cram schools…and a whole lotta luck.  Thousands of students flock to shrines, especially the Tenjin 天神 ones, to pray and  get some lucky charms for goukaku 合格, or success in passing the exam.

Why the Tenjin Shrines?  They are dedicated to Tenjin the god of scholarship, who is actually the deified spirit of Sugawara no Michizane, a court official and poet who lived in late 9th century.  Known for his beautiful poetry and equally outspoken opinions, he rose to power under Emperor Uda, but was demoted and exiled to Kyushu by the Fujiwara family who wanted political power wrested away from the Imperial court.  Upon Michizane’s death, the capital was plagued by disasters and the death of Emperor Daigo, and Kitano Tenmangu Shrine (北野天満宮) was built in Kyoto to placate Michizane’s angry spirit.  He later became the god of scholarship, and now there are Tenjin and Tenmangu shrines all over the country.

Since entrance exams are held from January to March, many students will use their first shrine visit of the new year (Hatsumoude 初詣) to pray for goukaku.

This is Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto.

This is Osaka Tenmangu in Osaka.

(Tenjin is used for any branch shrine of this type.  Tenmangu denotes the main Tenjin Shrine for a city or region.)

It’s not enough to just throw coins and clap your hands twice while wishing, “Tenjin, just give me 10 more points on math and make the reading comprehension for the English part simple!!!”  Divine intervention requires something more tangible, so time to buy an o-mamori お守り and ema 絵馬.

Every temple and shrine has a counter to buy charm amulets (o-mamori お守り), votive tablets to write wishes (ema 絵馬), and other luck-bringing items.
These are o-mamori for goukaku.  Tie one on your schoolbag or backpack and Tenjin’s wisdom will rain down on test day (um, well, something like that)
The Tenmangu shrines offered sets for a pretty price…a simple o-mamori, an ema tablet, and a white 0-fuda お札 (talisman displayed on the wall of your home or bedroom).

Ema 絵馬 are wooden tablets for students to their wishes on.  During busy seasons, the larger shrines will set up tables with pens just for wish-writing.

You just write your name, wish, and date and then tie the tablet onto a rack in the shrine precincts. (‘Tis the season for wishin’…these ema are stacked deep!)

You can see Sugawara no Michizane on an ema (upper left).  The pentagonal ema on the left is also a play on words: gokaku (五角 pentagon) sounds similar to goukaku (合格 pass the test).

And now you’re ready to get into the school of your dreams!  (TBH, opening the textbooks and taking notes in class would help, but a little help from an angry exiled scholar couldn’t hurt).

Oh, and what’s up with the cow and plum blossoms throughout the photos?

Well, legend has it that when Sugawara no Michizane was exiled, his favorite plum tree uprooted itself and flew through the air, landing next to the scholar who loved it so.  That tree can now be seen at Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine (太宰府天満宮)in Fukuoka prefecture on the island of Kyushu, the site of Michizane’s last lonely office.  All other plum trees at Tenjin and Tenmangu shrines are supposedly cuttings from that original tree.

The cow…you’re supposed to touch its head to gain wisdom.  That’s all I know. (Hey, I didn’t pass an entrance exam in Japan, so give me a break.)

Have a wander-ful day!!

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