Few tourist attractions can boast as their main draw an item which none have seen for hundreds of years, which none are permitted to see and which may not even exist, or if it does, is possibly a replica. Yet this is the central boast of Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya. This Shinto shrine, thought to have been founded nearly 2000 years ago, is said to be the resting place of Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the sword which, along with the Yasakani no Magatama jewel and the Yata no Kagami mirror, constitute the Japanese Imperial Regalia. It is thought that the mirror resides at the Grand Shrine in Ise while the jewel lives with the Emperor in his palace, though since no one has been known to set eyes on any of these objects for centuries, and the authorities refuse to comment on their storage arrangements, this is more common tradition than hard fact. The shrine’s website merely refers to “the legend that the sword named Kusanagi no Tsurugi … has been kept [here].” The last person to have claimed to see the sword, and to describe it, was a priest during the Edo period. He died of a mysterious curse, or so they say.
The Regalia have reportedly been misplaced a number of times throughout history, most famously in The Tale of the Heike written in 1371, which describes the sword as having been lost at sea after a naval battle. As with everything concerning the Regalia, the accuracy of this account is suspect – the Tale is a collection of oral stories transcribed 200 years after the events – and serves only to cast more doubt on what little is actually known. When the dynastic line split in the Middle Ages, possession of the Regalia was used to assert claim to the throne, and as such their importance became more than spiritual, leading to various replicas being made, stolen and lost.
When a monarchy loses its power, all it has left are pomp, pageantry and tradition, and the Japanese Imperial family are no exception. The Regalia are still used at the coronation of a new Emperor – the last being in 1989 – but they are produced wrapped and though some are technically permitted to see them, no one is known to have taken advantage of this for some time. In Tokyo, unlike London or Madrid say, the royal tradition most vociferously clung to is mystery.
Everyone loves a good mystery, and the semi-legendary status of the sword is an important factor in enticing millions of visitors to the shrine each year. It’s as if a rumour spread that King Arthur’s mythical sword Excalibur was stored in Canterbury Cathedral. Both believers and the curious would flock there hoping some of the ancient magic would rub off on them. Usually this dream of magic bestowed manifests itself as prayer, making Atsuta one of the most visited shrines in Japan, particularly at New Year.
The shrine’s main buildings have, in keeping with Shinto rules, been recently rebuilt and the bright new wood gives the complex a light, fresh air. Covering 200’000 square metres, the area is a peaceful and beautiful break from the concrete and traffic of downtown Nagoya. Pathways wind through tall trees, passing coy-filled ponds and over gently curving bridges. The ubiquitous souvenir stalls and noodle cafes are in attendance but partially secreted behind foliage they don’t impose too much on the reposing mind. In addition to the posited relic, the shrine’s Treasure Museum is packed with over 4000 items from ancient scrolls and weapons to household objects and clothes.
Atsuta Shrine is reached from Jingu-Mae station on the Meitetsu line, 2 stops south of Nagoya station, from the JR Atsuta station or from the Jingu-Nishi station on the Meijo subway line. It’s worth a visit as much for the soothing qualities of the locale as for what may or may not lie within.