From the mischievous kitsune (fox spirit) to the ferocious oni (ogre), the rich mythology of legendary creatures and spirits has influenced everything from its language to its shrine/temple art. The creatures are so much a part of the culture that even nightmarish monstrosities are incorporated into festivals, artwork and identity.
Visiting the temples associated with these creatures takes you to some of the country’s lesser-known areas and most interesting tales and offers visitors a chance to see the underappreciated mystical side of the culture.
1. Kappa: Sogenji Temple, Tokyo
While Tokyo is known for its 24-hour hustle and bustle culture, it also has its ancient side. Near Ueno in the heart of the city is Kappabashi, the home of the mysterious Kappa, small, turtle-featured creatures that have a fondness for mischief and even abduction.
How do they know that there are Kappa? Simple, because Sogenji temple has the mummified hand of an unfortunate Kappa. Perhaps scared of an irate Kappa seeking revenge, the area is full of images of statues of the creatures.
2. Oni: Tennenji Temple, Oita
The Kunisaki area in south Japan is known for its association with the mythical demons of Japanese lore, Oni. If you are worried by their brutal reputation, don’t be, as the typically bloodthirsty bullies here are less malevolent than in other parts of Japan and have lived semi-harmoniously with the locals.
Once a year, the areas around the main temple, Tennenji, erupt with smoke and fire as devilish performers perform a wild dance with oni masks and flaming torches. At the same time, local religious leaders chant sutra in a festival known as Shujou Onie. The torches are designed to cover the spectators with sparks, and those ‘lucky’ enough to be covered with sparks will be blessed with good health.
3. Ubume: Kougenji Temple, Nagasaki
Ghosts can take all forms, but one of the stranger ones is the Ubume, a mysterious woman who suddenly disappears. When a merchant eventually tracked her to a temple, he heard the horrific wail of a baby from the nearby graveyard. Driven by the horrific sound, he gathered people and began to dig, finding a coffin holding a dead mother and her still living babe. Despite its horrific history, Kogenji in Nagasaki is now a pleasant temple with a wooden statue and hanging scroll brought out once a year, the only reminder of its horrific legacy.
4. Kitsune: Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto
As one of Japan’s most colorful and unique shrines, Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto is on most people’s must-visit list when they visit the old capital of Japan. However, few visitors know that the iconic site is linked to Kitsune, the fox spirits of ancient Japanese lore, which are said to be the messengers of the god Inari, the namesake of the temple.
Kitsune are associated with rice and prosperity, two things that were very important for a farming economy like ancient Japan’s. As a result, they are present all over the shrine, from the statues at the entrance to the prayer tablets decorated like a fox’s face.
5. Yamata no Orochi: Iwatsubo Shrine, Shimane
Every happy story ends with a wedding, right? However, a happy ending may have seemed impossible at the start of the Yamato no Orochi legend, where the Japanese god Susanoo was tasked with saving the maiden Inata from being sacrificed to an eight-headed giant serpent big enough to cover eight hills.
Luckily, the serpent was tricked into drinking so much super-strength sake that Susanoo was able to chop the groggy monstrosity into pieces and end the story married to Inata. The severed tail of the serpent was then enshrined at Iwatsubo Shrine, where it remains to this day.
6. Tengu: Yuki Temple, Kyoto
In the lush mountains of Kyoto, Kurama is associated with Tengu, famously arrogant beasts representing the souls of the most conceited warriors. They are known for their long noses, and the Kurama area has a particularly huge Tengu with a nose that towers over you.
Although Tengu are traditionally considered unpleasant creatures, Yuki Temple venerates them as guardians of the mountainside. It is even said that fortunate travelers can encounter the tengu king, Soujoubou, who was said to teach worthy warriors his mystical combat skills.
7. Komainu: Takachiho Shrine, Miyazaki
Komainu (lion dogs) are the ferocious-looking guardian figures found at the entrances of many temples and shrines. Far from the mischievous kitsune and kappa, these creatures are associated with protection from evil spirits.
These benevolent entities can be found throughout Japan. Still, they are especially associated with Takachiho Shrine, where the Komainu has the rare distinction of being made out of iron instead of stone, presumably making them doubly tough and ready to take on any kind of evil.
8. Nekomata: Nakanomata, Niigata
Nekomata are the most terrifying thing to encounter while walking your dog: a cat spirit that is, like my tabby, known to have a real mean streak.
Nakanomata village had a particularly mean Nekomata that was somehow even meaner than my beloved kitty and known for eating children. Eventually, the great folk hero Ushiki Kichijuro came and rid them of the troublesome beast. These days, this victory is celebrated with a portable shrine as part of the spring festival, where the giant fanged monstrosity stalks the streets until it is cut down by the great hero at the climax.
9. Tanukidori: Chingodo Shrine, Tokyo
The Asakusa area on the outskirts of Tokyo is famous for its association with the mischievous tanuki (Raccoon dog spirits). Not to be confused with their cute real-world counterparts, the Tanuki of lore were playful creatures who loved to shapeshift to play malicious pranks on people and enjoy wild revelry.
Watch out for them as you walk down tanuki-dori (Raccoon Dog Road), and check out their statues as you head to Chingodo, a shrine dedicated to them. The Tanuki in this area are said to be nicer than most and will even grant blessings if you rub their statues’ bellies.
Have you visited any of these places in Japan? What’s your favorite? Let us know in the comments!