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Babies Are This Shrine's Business

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Photo by Gail Nakada
Celebrating 'Baby's Day Out' at Suiitengu Shrine.

Having a baby is both wonderful and a little scary at the same time. Expectant couples from all over Japan back up those OBGYN appointments with a visit to Tokyo's Suitengu Shrine.

This shrine is all about babies. The grounds are so full of moms and moms-to-be that estrogen levels feel practically measurable.

Photo by Gail Nakada
Suitengu is famous with expectant couples and happy parents throughout Japan.

One of the enshrined deities here is Suijin, the Kami of Water. Suijin is revered for the deity's power over fertility and safe delivery. (Also to protect children from drowning.) The tradition is to visit once to ask for safe delivery and the second time after the baby's birth to thank the deity. The second visit entails bringing as many family members as possible to pose for photos and pray en masse.

Photo by Gail Nakada
After the baby is born, parents dress up in their best to introduce the newest member -- or members! -- of the family and give thanks.

But you shouldn't come on just any day, either before or after the event. Japanese can be a superstitious lot and many believe there are good luck and bad luck days in which to do everything from scheduling an operation, to getting married. The shrine's Japanese website has a calendar for the current month's good luck days. That means the best days to visit and buy a safe delivery charm.

Click here and scroll down a little to see the calender in Japanese. The buttons at the top on the right control next or last month's view. Lucky days are pink.

Honestly, every day is a busy day. Suitengu has been written up in tour guides around Asia and now many visitors from China and Southeast Asia make it a point to come on their own or a family member's behalf and pick up one of their highly-revered charms.

Photo by Gail Nakada
A stop at the shrine's lucky dog statue is a must.

Suitengu's most famous lucky object is the Kobakara Inu, a bronze statue of a female dog and her puppy. This is a mandatory stop for all visitors. (It's outside in the forecourt, to the left as you walk in.)

The dog has twelve bronze markers around it, each matching one of the twelve years of the lunar zodiac. Women first touch the dog and then the marker that corresponds to the year the baby will be born, praying for a healthy child and an easy birth.

Photo by Gail Nakada
Oh, you lucky dog!

Accordingly, the luckiest day of the month to visit Suitengu is on the 'dog day' also listed on the shrine's online calendar.

Of lesser importance but very popular with the children, is a small statue of a female kappa water sprite and her child. Visitors anoint the kappa with water - which is why it is endlessly amusing to the little ones. Her presence is more to do with the shrine's link to the Water God rather than a particular maternal myth.

Photo by Gail Nakada
In folklore, kappa water imps were said to drown and devour chidlren. Apparently they can be reformed.

Suitengu's most sought after Anzan Kigan omamori, safe and easy delivery charm, is a pink wrap belt called the Misuzu Obi, to be wrapped and worn around the belly. Since it is blessed by the priests at the deity's altar, the belt is supposed to protect mother and baby from harm. (See an illustration of it here.) The belt itself is 4,000 yen, about $40.

Many expectant parents combine the belt with a blessing ceremony by the priests. Ceremonies are held in large separate rooms across from the main hall. Slots fill up fast on lucky days. The current cost for a lucky belt and the ceremony together is 9,000 yen, around $90.

Don't dismiss the mystique of these belts. You can even find them on eBay! Try googling 'Misuzu Obi'.

Wooden plaques with lucky calligraphy and small charms for a woman to carry are also for sale. Charms come at a premium price, such is the shrine's reputation.

Photo by Gail Nakada
The once modest shrine has undergone a complete transformation that includes large ceremonial halls in a modern building.

The shrine was originally established in 1818 on the grounds of a samurai lord's estate. In that happy way of Japanese blended religions, Suitengu is a Shinto shrine devoted to a Buddhist guardian deity, Varuna. The lord opened it to the public for prayers once a month and the shrine's reputation grew as a place to pray for safe childbirth.

Suitengu is a beautiful example of traditional Shinto design and architecture. All blond wood and curving gables. The current version is also very new. The quaint little shrine recently underwent a rather magnificent overhaul that has transformed it completely.

Babies are good for business!

Access: Suitengumae Station on the Hanzomon Metro Line, Exit 5 if stairs (a lot of stairs) are not a problem. The station's name means literally 'in front of Suitengu Shrine' and Exit 5 is just that.

Mobility Impaired: From Suitengumae Station, take the elevator at Exit 4 by the Royal Park Hotel. Step out of the elevator and walk straight ahead with the overhead expressway at your back and the Royal Park Hotel on your right. Walk for about two and a half blocks and you will see shiny Suitengu Shrine towering over you.

Website: Japanese only.