We travel off the beaten track to one of the most fascinating holy sites in the country.

Vloggers, news sites and travel guides will often introduce people to “top” lists of what to do and see on a visit to Japan, but this is something Japan itself has been doing for centuries, with things like The Three Major Night Views of Japan, The Three Great Cherry Blossom Trees and The 100 Soundscapes of Japan, to name just a few.

While some of these Japan-designated lists are known to people visiting from outside of Japan, many of them are yet to be discovered by tourists, as some of the locations they mention lie well off the tourist track. Today we’ll be heading out to explore one of these lesser known sites, which is so mysterious it’s been classed as one of the “Three Great Miracles of Japan“.

First classified by Tachibana Nankei, a doctor from the Edo Period, who described them in his book as ‘three miracles’, these three sites consist of Ishino Houden, a “floating” rock located in Hyogo Prefecture, Ama no Sakahoko, the “Spear of Heaven”, located on the island of Kyushu, and Yonku no Shinkama, “Four Holy Iron Pots”, which we’ll be introducing today, located in Miyagi Prefecture.

▼ The Four Holy Jars can be found on the grounds of Okama Shrine in Shiogama City.

Shiogama City is a small seaside town with a population of about 54,000, not far from Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture. It’s famous for being home to Shiogama Jinja, the head shrine of hundreds of Shiogama shrines throughout Japan, whose “kami”, or deity, is revered as the guardian of seafarers like fishermen, and pregnant women.

▼ Okama Jinja is one of the lower branch shrines of Shiogama Jinja, and its name literally translates to “Iron Pot Shrine”.

While Shiogama Shrine is often packed with tourists, Ogama Shrine is a quiet place by comparison. Small and unassuming, those who don’t know its importance are likely to walk right by this shrine without giving it a second glance.

Those who do know it as the grounds of one of Japan’s “Three Great Miracles” are in for a very special experience, made even more exciting by the quiet, mysterious atmosphere of a shrine without any tourists.

▼ To the left of the entrance lies a small enclosure, again with an unassuming appearance.

Walking closer, it becomes apparent that this is where the Yonku no Shinkama, or Four Holy Iron Pots, are located…behind a wooden door.

Visitors are able to enter the sacred area by visiting the shrine office and paying a 100 yen (US$0.95) fee. Due to its sacred nature, however, photography is prohibited, so we’ve done up a little graphic to illustrate what we saw.

▼ The four pots are made from iron and were used to make salt in ancient times.

Each pot measures at least one metre (3.3 feet) in diameter, and all four are partially buried in the ground and filled with water. It’s said that the water never runs dry and never overfills, despite being exposed to the elements, and although it’s clear, the water has an iron-rust-like orange hue, as the depth of the water is very shallow.

What makes these pots one the great mysteries of Japan is the fact that whenever there is something off-kilter with the world, be it good or bad, the colour of the water changes.

According to town records, predicting the future by the changing water colour in the pots goes back to at least 1636. In fact, the accuracy by which the colour changed before some sort of social turmoil or disaster was so widely accepted that the shrine was ordered to report any changes to the ruling Sendai Domain during the Edo Period (1603-1868). It’s said that the water changed colour before the daimyo Date Masamune fell ill in the early 17th century and it also changed colour before the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

There were originally seven kettles, but after three were stolen by thieves only four remain. One of the stolen kettles, perhaps in an act of divine retribution, reportedly sank into the sea while being carried away by thieves, and it remains enshrined on the sea floor today. The area of the sea where the kettle is located is called “Kamagafuchi”, and every year a ceremony takes place where seawater is drawn from this sacred area to refill the pots.

▼ Seawater is also boiled in a flat pot a day after the ceremony.

These annual rituals, held from 4-6 July, honour the god who taught humans how to make salt, Shiotsuchi Oji no Kami, who is said to be enshrined at Okama Shrine.

▼ This miniature pot can also be used to make salt according to ancient methods as illustrated by shrine priests.

As the birthplace of salt production in ancient Japan, Okama Shrine is a venerable spot with a long history behind it.

The shrine has sacred connections to the sea, water, and salt, and the name of the city in which its located, Shiogama, is the word for a salt pan used for boiling seawater to make salt. 

Shiogama Shrine

Shiogama itself is a beautiful town, with pretty streets, beautiful gardens filled with cherry blossom trees, views overlooking nearby Matsushima Bay, and the highest number of sushi restaurants per capita in Japan.

If you’re looking for some special salt with years of history and mythology surrounding it, Shiogama definitely deserves a spot on your itinerary. Located 2.5 hours away from Tokyo by Shinkansen, it’s an ideal weekend getaway destination that will open your eyes to a deeper side of Japan, and it’s conveniently located close by Matsushima, one of Japan’s Three Great Views.

Temple information
Okama Shrine / 御釜神社
Address:  Miyagi-ken, Shiogama Honcho 6-1

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