Marathoners make ‘pilgrimage’: Wild boar guardians at Goo Shrine protect feet, legs, lower back

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Runners pass in front of Goo Jinja shrine in Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto.

By Hirofumi Imazu / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKYOTO — It’s high season for marathons, with a number of events being held across the country, such as last Sunday’s Osaka Marathon. For so-called “citizen runners,” or those who enjoy long-distance running as a hobby, a “pilgrimage” site can be found near the Kyoto Imperial Palace.

Goo Jinja shrine, located near Hamaguri Gomon, one of the palace gates, has been a place of worship for many marathoners, particularly over the past decade or so.

Wondering why, this writer visited the shrine. When passing through its torii gate and looking up, I saw a huge omamori amulet hung under the eaves of the main gate. The amulet bears four kanji characters that mean “protecting feet, legs and lower back.”

The holy place enshrines Wake no Kiyomaro (733-799), an aristocrat who played an active role when the capital was built in what is now Kyoto, and his elder sister Hiromushi.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A statue of a guardian wild boar welcomes visitors.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    The omamori amulets of the shrine bear footprint designs meant to protect feet and legs or the images of runners.

According to the shrine, Kiyomaro was banished to the Kyushu region as punishment after blocking a political plot by Dokyo, a monk who was patronized by Empress Shotoku and eventually aimed to enthrone himself. As gruesome further punishment, the plotter also severed some of Kiyomaro’s leg muscles.

On his way to Kyushu, Kiyomaro was attacked by assassins sent by Dokyo. At that very moment, 300 inoshishi wild boars showed up to guard him. The aristocrat also found his legs had been healed.

Based on this episode, wild boar statues are placed across Goo Jinja’s premises, including a pair of guardians in the shape of the animal, even though komainu guardian dogs usually greet visitors at Shinto shrines.

“Our shrine began attracting attention from citizen runners about 10 years ago,” said Takahiro Hongo, a priest at the shrine.

As 2007 was the Year of the Boar under the Chinese zodiac, the shrine received many visits by those who were born in the Year of the Boar. The Tokyo Marathon was also inaugurated that year, triggering a boom in running. The spread of smartphones has also seen the shrine get a lot of attention on social media, according to Hongo.

Footprint design

Junko Wakabayashi, who hosts the “Let’s Run!” radio segment aired by Kyoto Broadcasting System Co., never fails to take running acquaintances to the shrine when they visit Kyoto, because they want a miniature version of the huge amulet hung at the shrine gate.

“Amulets bearing the motif of footprints are so cute and are the most popular [among my acquaintances],” Wakabayashi said. “I get many requests to send them.”

Yuki Ishida, who was visiting Goo Jinja from Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, said she was very encouraged when she got an amulet of the shrine from an acquaintance when she ran in the Himeji Castle Marathon this February.

“When my legs almost stopped moving forward during the race, I remembered that person was supporting me,” the 41-year-old company employee said. “Now, I want to give one to my senior colleague who is going to run a full marathon.”

Another visitor, Kazuhiro Yamaguchi of Minoo, Osaka Prefecture, took an amulet from the shrine with him when he ran the Shimanto River Ultra Marathon in Kochi Prefecture for the first time in October. He finished the 100-kilometer course in 11 hours and 37 minutes.

“It was the hardest experience I’ve ever had,” the 47-year-old company employee said. “However, when I was passing the 80-kilometer point, I felt my steps suddenly became springy, and I could complete the course.

“I thought the [shrine’s] god was actually descending for me,” he added, laughing.

Goo Jinja is located along Karasuma-dori avenue, which is part of the courses for the national ekiden relay races for high school students held every December, and the Inter-Prefectural Women’s Ekiden held every January. The shrine is therefore visited by many of the athletes and their coaches before the competitions.

In addition, earnest prayers can be found on ema votive tablets offered by worshipers at the shrine, such as “May my knee surgery be successful” and “I wish to recover from illness and walk again.”

Wakabayashi runs in more than 20 events each year. “Every time I worship at this shrine, I give thanks that I’m healthy enough to run,” she said. “Visiting the shrine also helps me feel like I should do my best when running.”

To tell you the truth, this writer has won a chance to run in the Tokyo Marathon next February. My best time ever is 4 hours, 21 minutes and 13 seconds, but I haven’t run a full marathon for the past three years. My lack of training has made me gain seven kilograms. With divine help, may I finish the course.Speech

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