May 02, 2012

Deity of Ancient Refrigerator

Wisteria flowers started to bloom in Nara.

We can get ice any time if we only open a refrigerator or go to a supermarket.  Ice is not special nor expensive. But in the 8th century, only noble people could enjoy eating ice during summer.

This is a very familiar sign for us representing " shaved ice with syrup".
When it gets hot, you can see this sign here and there.
A feature of summer! ( is a Chinese character which means ice.)
(image taken from google)

In the ancient times, ice or snow were preserved in 氷室 Himuro within winter. They were dug out and immediately carried to the Imperial Palace or residences of the noble people in summer . 

 Himuro  means "Ice Chamber" and would serve as an ancient refrigerator. It is said the ice chambers were  3 merer-deep roofed pits where ice was stored, being wrapped and covered with straws. There were the ice chambers around present Nara Park and surrounding  areas.

Every year on May 1st,  "Offering Ice Ceremony" is held in Himuro Shinto Shrine(氷室神社) in Nara. The shrine is dedicated to the deity of ice.  Many representatives engaged in the related business of ice,  such as  ice or refrigerator  making companies,  attend at the ceremony. They pray to the deity for prosperous business and show deep gratitude.

A pair of ice statues in the shape of a dragon are offered to the deity,
because 2012 is the year of the Dragon.

But until last year, a pair of ice pillars with carps and sea breams had been offered. 

 Don't you think fish look like swimming in water? To make these ice cubes needs a lot of
craftsmanship.  I'm afraid that this year there might be not an experienced craftsman.
I suppose this type of skill is disappearing slowly. 

After the the ceremony, the ancient court dances and music based on Asian culture are offered to the deity. In olden days a lot of the newest information, objects, techniques, arts,  cultures, medicines, Buddhism and so on were brought to Japan through Silk Road. Nara is said to have been the terminal of Silk Road.

 At night, the approach to the main hall is lit with the ice candles.

How did the noble people enjoy ice in the 8th century? This thought fires my imagination. Did the emperors drink Sake on the rocks or taste shaved ice ?

In  枕草子 or "The Pillow Book" written by Seisho-nagon in the 11th century, the forerunner of  present shaved ice was introduced.

あてなるもの、 削り氷にあまづら入れて新しき鋺に入れたる。

What is elegant. Shaved ice in a new metal bowl with the sap from sweet vines.

Himuro Shrine is also famous for the weeping cherry trees which are the first Sakura
to bloom early April in Nara.

In a water basin of the precincts of Himuro Shrine, the last petals of Sakura are floating.

Wisteria flowers are smelling gracefully in Nara Park.

Some of them are ready to bloom .

For your reference
I decided to add this because my explanation about the pair of the ice pillars is not enough and might cause some misunderstandings judging from the comments to this blog.  I am very sorry. Only dead fish are used. It requires a lot of craftsmanship to give the fish lifelike movements in ice.  But how? I guess it must be the craftsman secret.  

Below photos were taken just before the biggest festival in Nara (おん祭り) held by Kasuga Grand Shrine. The Shinto priests are serving dinner to the deity, Young Prince who is the main character in the festival.
He eats sea bream.

He eats fruits and rice cakes.

Shinto( indigenous faith in Japan)  deities are much like the gods of Greece and Rome. In many ways they act and feel as human beings do.   We love  delicious sliced raw fish,  roasted fish and more. Fish are usually used as offerings to Shinto deities.  If you have any comments or questions, I am glad to answer. 


  1. Another fascinating insight into your culture. I never heard of a deity of ice. I know they had underground ice-cellars here too though, before the refrigerators.

  2. I love your pictures.I didn't know the Korean dog statue has eyelashes!New finding to me.

  3. Wonderful post, and how soon we forget that ice and refrigeration were a luxury until fairly recently. Wisteria is one of my favorite blossoms, thank you for sharing them, mine are not out yet.
    Thank you for sharing these insights into the past with us.

  4. There's so much in this one post that you could write an entire encyclopedia about it. Thanks!

    All your photos are beautiful, especially the wisteria, but the ice candle is the best. What a lovely idea. I wish I could see it.

    PS: Your headline, Deity of Ancient Refrigerator, is the best ever! It immediately caught my attention. :)

  5. Another fascinating surprise from you. I had never imagined a deity of Ice. I adore things that are made of ice, I don't really know why it appeals to me so much. I love ice sculptures too.

  6. The wisteria are just beautiful! I find the ice sculptures so beautiful. The fish is the ice is amazing. Like always, I have learned so much from you, Keiko. Thank you!

  7. It's very interesting and educational.
    I remembered a natural refrigerator near to Mt FUji.

  8. Marvelous...
    Thanks a lot !
    Best regards from Paris,


  9. Wonderful photos. I like flowers and ice compositions. Greetings.

  10. A really interesting post, thank you.

    I have read the Pillow Book - it's quite popular here in England.

    The country estates in Englqnd in the 16th to 19th century (and maybe earlier, I'm not sure) had 'Ice Houses' built into a north facing hillside or buried deep in a wood. There is one near where I'm staying at the moment that is 5 metres deep! It was filled by taking ice from the local lake during the winter - winters were generally colder than than now.

  11. Enchanting ice tales from the past, so fascinating to hear of the ceremony! I especially loved the ice statue shaped in the form of a dragon. How intriguing! The detailing is delicate and I marvel at the skill of the craftsmen.

    The blooming flower pictures are always a delight to watch and so are your wonderful posts. Thanks for showing us another interesting page from your beautiful country, Keiko! Have a good day :)

  12. Thanks a lot for leaving your comments.

    In Shinto, indigenous religion in Japan, there are eight million deities, and each of them has each special mission. A god of love helps people pair up romantically, a god of study helps students do well in school and pass entrance examinations. Safe delivery, safe traveling, flourishing business and more and more.

    Things made of ice were melting in front of us. They have short life like Sakura blossoms. Flickering candle lights seen through ice look soft and warm.

  13. On seeing the newspaper article about “Offering Ice Ceremony”, I have thought maybe you’d post about it. My guess was right! I didn’t know well about the Ceremony, neither about the ice pillars. To be frank, I had a bit eerie sensation to see the ice pillars. Were the fish iced up alive? Otherwise they don’t look like swimming in the ice. I’d like to see the subtly flickering candle light in the ice in person. The wisteria photos took my breath away. Thanks for this post, snow-white.

  14. Ice candles sticked my eyes to them, I came back to them several times.
    What a lovely post! Thank you! It wakes so many thoughts. Now I'm wondering how those fishes were placed into ice... so interesting craft.

  15. More fabulous shots! Love the ice tradition. I don't think it's dying out though as ice sculpting is very popular around the world.

    Beautiful flower shots too.

  16. Another beautiful and most informative post from you! I once found an old ice house on the estate of a manor house I was visiting and was puzzled by what it was created for. Ice is a magical thing and as you say was once highly valued. I love this look into what it meant in your culture. One of my favourite creatures is the ice dragon. xx

  17. I love the ice sculpture and the fish in ice. So beautiful. I never knew there was a deity of ice, but of course, it makes perfect sense!

    When I was little, we got our ice from an old ice house that was built against stone bluffs...the cool stone helped to keep the ice frozen. My father would tell the man how much he wanted, and the ice was cut with an electric saw into a big block. It was transported to our car with huge ice tongs and the ice man would always give us ice chips to have brought back memories, Keiko!

  18. Interesting look into the history of your part of the world! The traditional costumes are works of art in themselves and it is amazing how movement can flow so easily when wearing many layers of cloth. I also like the name “silk road” as it seemed like such a smooth way of traveling. :)

  19. Fascinating post as usual :)
    I agree with you about the decline in craftsmanship. I look back at the ancient ruins left by the ottomans, Romans etc. and think how magnificent the buildings are, and how we can never replicate such beauty again!

  20. Your photos are luminous. I enjoyed reading about the ice sculptures. I'd love to smell those wisteria. Lucinda says "hi."

  21. Thank you for this very interesting post on the Himuro Shrine! I've not yet visited it and found the rituals fascinating!I suppose many historical Shinto shrine rituals are gone nowadays. However, some in this post are still carried out even today. How interesting! Your wisteria photos are really lovely!

  22. Stardust, Elena,
    Sorry to make you misunderstand.Don't worry. Only dead fish are used. To give the fish lifelike movements in ice requires a lot of craftsmanship and the method must be a craftsman secret.
    I added more explanation about the ice pillars at the end of the blog.

  23. Please, don't be sorry at all, snowwhite! It's my fault to make misunderstanding. Of course, fishes are frozen. And it really amused me, how they could be placed inside ice block. I think, it's very special craft, and it should be preserved!

  24. 本当に奈良にはすばらしい伝統行事がたくさんありますね。奈良に住んで25年でやっとそのすてきさに気付きました。

  25. 実は私の実家があるところには、奈良の氷室神社より歴史の古い福住氷室神社があるんです。
    日本書紀 仁徳天皇62年の条に書かれているようですが、充恭天皇の時代(430年頃)の創祀と伝えられています。


  26. Love the ice candles. I love Japan's rich history. Thanks for sharing it to us!

  27. Hello, snowwhite.

      Ice is forced to silence them all.
      The work including spring.
      The vitality of the heart is made to arise.

      I am glad of your visit, though each other is far distantly.
      The prayer for all peace and healthy.
    Have a good weekend. ruma ❃

  28. 藤の花のショットは見事。氷室さんの行事はダイナミズムを感じます。結婚して10年間、氷室神社が氏神の地域に住みましたので、今年行う義母の年忌も氷室神社でします。ただ、この春の儀式はTVでしか観たことがありません。迫力あるポストありがとうございます。

  29. Hello Keiko!
    Your post has me wondering how far back in time ice chambers actually go and did European merchants bring this idea home from the east via the Silk Road? I love that in Japan you still keep these deities alive through ceremony and enactment.The costumes look absolutely amazing as do the ice statues and candles(beautiful photo!).It would be a great pity if the ice sculpting skills were lost.

    Have a lovely week,

  30. Thanks a lot for all of your comments.

    It is interesting to know there have been similar ice houses in many places. Now we take ice and sugar for granted. But in ancient days, they were very precious.

    I am wondering for what ices were preserved in the 16th to 19th century.
    I am glad to know Pillow Book is popular in your country too.

    As you said, ice is a magical thing. Once upon a time, ice was used to forecast weather of the year in Shinto rituals. Good weather has been essential for growing rice.

    It is a wonderful memory about ice! When I was a little child, every morning a man carried a lot of ice on a cart and cut ice in proper size in front of a house, then put ice to a refrigerator. At that time, electric refrigerators were rare. I loved to see him cutting ice.

  31. cosmos,

  32. 大昔の奈良は氷の保存、取扱いまでも厳かな儀式だったのですね。氷が貴重だった事に気づき興味深く読ませて頂きました。子供の頃、街角でたまに目にした氷屋さんがガリガリ氷を切る様子に心躍らせていた私にとっては、おとぎ話のようです。波の上を行く3羽の千鳥、この布看板が風になびく夏ももうすぐですね。このサインを見ると条件反射的に海へ行きたくなります。私の氷のイメージは海の家です。ε=(´ー`;)

  33. こんばんは。氷室神社ですか。知りませんでした。美しい写真でいっぱいですね。
     藤の花は気品が有ります。 咲く時期が短いのが気になります。


Thanks a lot for visiting my blog and leaving warm messages. I will visit your site soon. keiko