Updated: Aug 9, 2020
I love Japanese traditional sweets (wagashi), especially everything that has to do with mochi and dango. In fact, dango is the first wagashi I ever tried when I visited Japan for the very first time in 2016. When I ate aburi mochi a while ago I noticed for the first time how connected some Japanese sweets are to religious believes or places, which I find quite interesting. So, when I found out about where and how mitarashi dango were invented, I had to go there! (Especially because it was close to where I was staying xD)
加茂みたらし茶屋 Kamo Mitarashi Chaya
Kamo Mitarashi Chaya is a small shop near Shimogamo Shrine selling wagashi. How you can see on this photo, there seems nothing special about the shop and many people - myself included - would probably just walk past it. However, this place has a long history and is a must-visit for all dango fans. Why? It is the shop which first sold mitarashi dango.
I went there right after visiting Shimogamo Shrine, which is connected to the invention of mitarashi dango as you will see below. When I arrived I thought that the place looked like many other wagashi shops and there are many more fancy, inviting looking ones. I would have passed on it if I hadn't known it is the original shop for mitarashi-dango.
About the shop
Even if you're not a huge dango fan it is worth a visit as they serve a lot of other sweets as well, like warabi-mochi, zenzai and shaved ice to just name a few. You can see what else they have on the menu (pics below).
You can choose if you wanna sit inside or outside. Inside you have normal tables with chairs while outside you sit on a large bench-like thing so it is a little hard to eat but in turn quite beautiful. They even have a tiny shrine, how awesome is that?!
After I sat down, the staff immediately served me a cup of tea and then took my order. I didn't have to wait long until my food arrived and they made me pay at once. They do that if you sit outside so they don't need to worry about guests just leaving without paying. If you sit inside, they will charge you when you leave. As I sat outside I was told to just leave everything on the table/bench when I leave.
About the food
I ordered - how could I not - their mitarashi dango. I tried the warabi-mochi as well to see how the other sweets are.
The dango was quite a lot. There were 3 skewers with five small rice balls on each. They seemed to have been fried over fire as they were a little bit crispy on the outside and had dark spots from the heat. I loved that crispy-ish texrure and smoke aroma they had. The inside was a bit harder and less chewy than the dango you get at the supermarket but I liked it. Also, the rice balls were not sweet which is what I liked most about them.
The mitarashi sauce (a sauce made from soy sauce and sugar) on top was sweet but not too sweet and a tiny bit sour. Again I love that it wasn't super sweet. I also like that they splurge with the sauce and even give you a spoon so you can eat it all without wasting anything of it.
All in all I liked the mitarashi dango a lot because they were not too sweet and the portion size was very good. However they were not the best ones I ever had.
The warabi mochi was amazing, too. It came in kinda big pieces so I had to cut them with my spoon. The texture was kind of jelly like and very very moist. When I tried them, they tasted soft like butter melting in the mouth, which was AWESOME, I loved it! They had kinako (roasted soy bean flour) on top and a slight cinnamon flavor, very delicious. It was a little too sweet for my taste but because the texture was just so amazing I really really enjoyed them. They might be the best warabi mochi I had yet.
If you are on the go or wanna enjoy the sweets for example sitting at the Kamogamo river you can take them out as well.
But, how are mitarashi dango connected to Shimogamo Shrine? Let's have a look at one of the many festivals held there.
Mitarashi Matsuri- the start of mitarashi-dango
On the day of Doyoo-no-Ushi(18 days before the traditional beginning of autumn in August)the shrine hosts a ritual foot bathing called Mitarashi.
On this day, thousands of people come to the pond in front of Mitarashi shrine, which is dedicated to the god protecting against plague and misfortune. They believe that if they wash their feet in the pond during that day, they will be blessed by the shrine's god. Additionally, many people also receive mitarashi dango.
But why dango?
Mitarashi dango wasinvented on the grounds near the eponymous shrine. It is said that the bubbles arising from the mitarashi pond resemble dango, that's how the name "mitarashi dango" was chosen. The first mitarashi dango shop opened in a stall in the shrine forest.
I went to the Shimogamo Shirine to take a look at the pond for myself. First of all, the pond in front of the Mitarshi Shrine doesn't really look like a pond to me but more like a small stream. I'm not sure if there were really bubbles but because there are stones on the ground and the water flooding over them is very shallow it looked kind of like bubbles to me. But better take a look for yourself if you have the chance to^^
The Shimogamo Shrine itself is very beautiful and interesting, too. There are many sub-shrines of it close by. My favourite one is the rugby shrine built for the wold cup 2019 because it is just so unexpected to have a shrine for that.
If you are interested into the Shimogamo Shrine itself, I summarized its history for you below. I took the information from the shrine's official homepage.
The history of Shimogamo Shrine is at least 2000 years long, starting on Yayoi period which is indicated by artifacts found in the shrine's forest.
The shrine grew when the Hata family adopted it and its sister shrine Kamigamo as two of their favored shrines. Since then Shimogamo Shrine has enjoyed a lot of attention from important and imperial families.
The first shrine buildings were constructed during the reign of Emperor Temmu (675-686).
Surrounding the shrine was an ever-growing amount of land. It was given to the shrine to cultivate food for religious offerings. Another sign for how important the shrine was is that at the founding of the imperial capital (Heian) priests gathered at it to worship for the capitals success.
During the Heian period (794-1185) Kyoto and the Shimogamo shrine flourished. Whilst the regein of Emperor Saga (809-823), the shrine was most prosperous and most of it's architectural designs and traditions stem from this time.
Emperor Saga was the first to dedicate one of his daughters as a Sai-in(maiden of the shrine), following a similar custom as established at the Ise shrine. The Sai-in would only come once a year, in a grand procession with an imperial messengerand the shrine priests would decorate the buildings as well as their costumes with branches of aoi (hollyhock). This is how the famous Aoi Matsuri was started. However in the 13th century, the court started having financial difficulties and the emperor suspended the Sai-in tradition.
In the 15th century, Japan engulfed into civil war but when the new shogunal government emerged, the Shimogamo shrines were still intact. However, as vestiges of the imperial era, the shrinespower was considerably reduced. Emperors would still visit the shrine, but with less pompedthan before.
Maybe the most famous imperial visit during this time was that of Emperor Komei in 1863. It is said, that he prayed for the return of the antagonistic foreigners to their home country. Obviously that wish was not fulfilled and the shogunal government eventually collapsed as more and more Western people invaded the country.
During theMeiji era, the government glorified the role of the emperor and provided generous stipends to the Shimogamo shrine. TheKamo shrines got listed second only to the Ise shrine. However, in the process of modernization the hierarchical social structure that the shrine relied upongot stripped awayand the shrine’s land holdingswere redistributed.
During the 20th century,when World War ll took place, festivals were cancelled and supplies rationed. After the war, the emperor lost his kami-statusand the imperially favored shrines lost visibility. Festivities resumed in 1953, but the shrine hadto recast itself for the post-war era.
Today, the Shimogamo shrine hosts community wide markets, an old book fairand alecture series on religious and historical topics. It bringspeople together for social and spiritual purposes.