Legend of the god of the Sea of Japan and the Upsidedown Bottle Rock

Heishiiwa Mushroom rock in Esashi, Hokkaido, Japan (Japanese: 瓶子岩(北海道江差町)

“Upside down Bottle Rock” or “Small-bottle rock” Heishiiwa Mushroom rock in Esashi, Hokkaido, Japan (Japanese: 瓶子岩(北海道江差町)

A 500 year-old purification ritual and tradition for renewing the rope around the rock exists and is performed during the Kamome-jima Matsuri (Festival). At Esashi, on the Japan Sea coast of Hokkaido, the fishing community’s select young men carry out in July an arduous annual journey to the rock to renew the rope.

The first weekend of July, the Kamome Island Matsuri, pays tribute to the legend of Heishi Rock. A group of young men receive a blessing at a local shrine. They then proceed to swim to the rock, dressed only in the traditional fundoshi, climb on top, and renew the 30-metre shimenawa that embraces the rock. The ritual rope weighs some 500 kilograms (1,100 lb). The festival lasts two days it focuses on the changing of the rope, but also includes a rowing competition, a parade of people dressed in traditional costumes, Taiko and singing performances, and a karaoke contest.

The island once served as a natural port for Edo period ships trading with Hokkaidō or for fishermen seeking to catch Pacific Herring. The historical importance of the herring fishery is reflected in the legend of the Heishi rock.

According to the 500-year-old legend, once upon a time when herring had vanished, an old woman (a fortune teller) was given a bottle with magic liquid. She threw the bottle into the sea and the herring returned. The bottle stuck to the seabed and turned into a rock, which became a representation of the god of the Sea of Japan.

In 1615, a group of merchants raised a shrine on the island to honor the god of the Sea of Japan. See an old map of Kamome-jima here

In 1868 however, the shrine was renamed the Itsukushima Shrine. In 1814, a monument to Matsuo Bashō, the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan, was installed near the shrine. For a long time, the island had problems with fresh water, which was important for passing ships to replenish their supplies. So, in 1876, a merchant from Esashi named Murakami spent a significant amount of money to build a water well on the island. Around that time, the island was also dragged into conflicts between different Japanese clans, and in 1852, two cannons were brought to the island for protecting it and the Esashi city.

Kamome Island (鷗島) or Seagull Island as it is called today, is an island (or more precisely, peninsula) in the Sea of Japan just off the coast of the town of Esashi, Hokkaidō, Japan. Kamome Island’s elongated shape resembles a seagull, thus explaining its name, Kamome, which means seagull. During the Edo period, however, the island was then called Bentenjima (弁天島). This was a common name shared by many Japanese islands because a Hindu goddess Saraswati, called Benzaiten (弁才天) in Japanese Buddhism or Shinto. Benten was worshipped as a goddess of water, and guardian of fishermen, and was therefore enshrined on many Japanese islets.

Kamome Island is part of the coastal terrace, being mostly flat. It rises just 27.6 meters (91 ft) above sea level. The island has a width of about 200 meters (660 ft), a length of about 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) and a coastline of 2.6 kilometers (1.6 mi). It is connected with the mainland by a 500 meters (1,600 ft) long sandbank and thus is accessible by road. As the island stretches roughly from north to south and the mainland lies to the east, the island naturally serves as a natural breakwater and coastal protection from sea waves. An additional wave breaker line was built to extend this protection to the north.




“檜山道立自然公園”. Home page of the Hokkaido government (in Japanese). HOKKAIDO GOVERNMENT. 2006. http://www.pref.hokkaido.lg.jp/ks/skn/environ/parks/hiyama.htm Retrieved 2009-07-03.

瓶子岩 Heishi-iwa official website of Hiyama Prefecture, Hokkaido (in Japanese) http://www.hiyama.pref.hokkaido.lg.jp/ss/srk/html/parts/09heisi_iwa.htm

かもめ島 Esashi Town Guide (in Japanese) A Town Blessed with the Romance of History http://www.hokkaido-esashi.jp

Kamome Island Festival http://talk-hokkaido.blogspot.jp/2013_05_01_archive.html

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Place, time and being in Japanese architecture by Kevin Nute, p. 63 Routledge, 2004

The Five-headed dragon of Enoshima the Benzaiten goddess

Enoshima Jinja (image source: "Enoshima and Kamakura", Divinity blog

Enoshima Jinja (image source: “Enoshima and Kamakura”, Divinity blog

“Enoshima has the myth of a five-headed dragon. The dragon was responsible for the hardships in the surrounding area, and the benevolent goddess Benzaiten eventually came from above to soothe the dragon’s rage. Along with her coming, she raised a large landmass from the ocean to serve as her dwelling. The dragon, wooed by Benzaiten’s beauty and benevolence, fell in love with her, but she rejected his proposal as punishment for the adversity he had brought to the humble fishing communities. The dragon, in repentance, then became a dormant part of Enoshima island where it still remains today (an area called “Dragon Hill” on Enoshima.) The Enoshima land of Goddess has a Enoshima shrine, which is famous for a god of match-making”.
– excerpted from DeepJapan.org’s “Enoshima is a legendary power spot”

The caves at Enoshima

The second (east) cave, which is linked to the first one (dedicated to the Benzaiten goddess) is dedicated to the dragon deity that has long been believed to be the guardian deity for fishermen. In the far end is the statue of a fierce-looking dragon, colored green. From time to time, the artificial sound of thunder surprises visitors.

Legend asserts that this dragon (some say it was a large serpent as long as 60 meters residing in the cave) deity came into view when Tokimasa Hojo (1138-1215), father-in-law of Yoritomo and the First Hojo Regent, visited here and prayed for the prosperity of his offspring. The dragon promised that Tokimasa’s wishes be answered, leaving behind three scales, which are the origin of the Hojo crest, or Three Scales.



Enoshima is the name of an islet, 4 kilometers in circumference, linked to the mainland shore of Fujisawa city by two 600-meter bridges. Three shrines stand on this islet, each sacred to a mythological goddess. Legend asserts that 29th Emperor Kinmei (510-571) built a small shrine inside the cave in the southern bluff, wherein enshrined were trio goddesses. They were Tagitsuhime, Ichikishimahime and Tagirihime, all of which appear in the Ancient Chronicle, or Kojiki. (the trio’s names are slightly different from those in the Chronicles of Japan or, Nihon Shoki). The mother shrine for the trio is in Fukuoka Prefecture and called Munakata Shrine. Hence the name of Munakata Trio Goddesses.

Japanese Buddhism, in the meantime, was first introduced in the 6th century from China by way of Korea when Emperor Kinmei was in power, and later, the cave here became the favorite spot for Buddhist priests to practice asceticism. Among them were Priest Kukai (774-835), the founder of the Shingon Sect, Priest En-nin, the third chief priest of Enryakuji near Kyoto (mecca of the Tendai Sect), Priest Nichiren (1222-1282), the founder of the Nichiren Sect, and Priest Ippen (1239-1289), the founder of Ji Sect. A harmonious fusion of Shinto and Buddhism was already in progress in the eighth century.

As the cave was often awash by waves, enshrining the goddesses in a safer site was long thought necessary. In 853, Priest En-nin, commonly known by his religious name Jikaku Daishi, erected a shrine atop the islet, which is the origin of today’s Nakatsu-no-miya, one of the trio shrines.

Enshrined at the Okutsu-no-miya shrine is Tagirihime. In the tradition of one of the many appearing and disappearing deities of Japan(reminiscent of Hittite weather and seasonal solstice deities), legend holds that the goddess usually stays in the cave down the cliff during winter coming up here on the first Serpent Day of April and going back to the cave on the first Boar Day of October on lunar calendar. The shrine is a typical irimoya (hipped-gabled roof) style of architecture, though not old. It was rebuilt in 1842.

On the ceiling of the oratory, the well-known ‘A Turtle Glaring at Eight Directions’, painted by Hogetsu Sakai (1761-1829).

On the south side bluff of Enoshima, there are two caves.
The first (west) cave is 13 meters wide at the entrance and pierce to the length of 45 meters. Roughly 100 meters ahead stands a statue of Priest Kukai and then the cave branches into two. The right-hand one, 39 meters long, is called Kongo (Diamond or Vajradhatu in Skt.) cave and the left one, 20 meters long, is Taizo (Womb or Garbhakosa in Skt.) cave, based on Shingon Sect’s doctrines of Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana in Skt.). Being an amalgam of Buddhism and Shinto, the cave also houses Shinto deities: The trio goddesses are still enshrined in the innermost recess of the right-hand cave and Amaterasu Sun Goddess (see Shinto) in the left. However, the cave is filled with a number of stone-statues mostly associated with Shingon sect Buddhism…
Enoshima Jinja Shrine

It was Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, who invited the Benten (also referred to as Benzaiten. Sarasvati in Sanskrit) goddess here for the first time, and named it Kinki-zan Yoganji, a Shingon sect Buddhist temple, since the Benten was apparently of Buddhist element. It was founded as a sub-temple of Nin-nah-ji in Kyoto. To the newly enshrined Benten, he prayed for victory over the Fujiwara Clan, that was then powerful and grew near to rivalling the Minamoto up in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture in the northern part of Honshu.

Originating in Veda of Hinduism, Benten* is known as the goddess of fortune and closely associated with water or snake. (For further details, see Zeniarai Benten).

* She is one of the Three Great Bentens in Japan including the one here at Enoshima. The others are Miyajima (Itsukushima) Shrine in Hiroshima and Chikubushima Shrine in Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture, all located near water and venerated basically as the guardian deity of voyage.

Three women on a shore on Enoshima, a Utagawa Sadatora yukiyo-e painting

Three women on a shore on Enoshima, a Utagawa Sadatora yukiyo-e painting

Image source: Divinity blog http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~qm9t-kndu/enoshima.htm

More info is found at Onmark Productions’ “Benzaitgen, Benten”:

“The water goddess Benzaiten (Benten for short) is one of Japan’s most complex syncretic deities, having long ago been conflated and associated with other divinities from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Japanese pantheons. Her worship in Japan is widespread in esoteric Buddhist camps, Shintō circles, and Shugendō enclaves. Her many forms range from a two-armed beauty playing music to an eight-armed martial deity holding weapons to a monstrous three-headed snake to a divine representation of Amaterasu (the supreme Shintō sun goddess). Dragons and serpents are her messengers and avatars. Like Benzaiten, each creature is closely associated with water and the sacred wish-granting jewel. Today Benzaiten is one of Japan’s most popular deities. She continues to serve as the preeminent muse of Japanese artists, an unrivaled agricultural deity invoked for ample rain and bountiful harvests, and the sole female among Japan’s wealth-bringing Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Originally a Hindu river goddess named Sarasvatī, she was introduced to Japan (via China) in the mid-7th century CE as a multi-armed defender of Buddhism and the state. But in later times, she was “reconnected” with water and appropriated by Japan’s indigenous island cults and kami cults to become, essentially, a native “Shintōized” deity of wealth and good fortune. Until only recently, scholars of Japanese religions have generally ignored this phenomenon and instead focused on the “Buddhazation” of Japan’s myriad kami. In many ways, Benzaiten also exemplifies a unique form of “Japanese Hinduism,” making it more fruitful to explore her within a Deva-Buddha-Kami (Hindu-Buddhist-Shintō) matrix rather than within a binary Buddha-Kami (Honji Suijaku 本地垂迹) model. See Honji Suijaku popup note. This illustrated guide traces the evolution of Benzaiten iconography in Japanese artwork and explores her role as a beacon of Japan’s combinatory Deva-Buddha-Kami religious matrix. To a lesser degree, this article also examines the ritualistic context of her worship – how her art was employed in religious rites, state functions, Shintō ceremonies, and folk practices. A special side page presents presents mini case studies of Benzaiten’s main sanctuaries in both old and modern Japan. The Benzaiten page is presented in approximate chronological order and can be read as a whole or sectionally. To improve readability, information is sometimes repeated. It aims to augment the efforts of students, teachers, art historians, and scholars of Benzaiten lore and art by exploring iconographic dictionaries, sculptures, mandalas, paintings, talismans, and other religious art, both old and new. It draws from pre-modern and modern texts by monks, scholars, and art historians in Japan, Asian, Europe, and America. This handbook does not cover Benzaiten’s earlier evolution in India or China in great detail. For more on that topic, click here (popup note).

ORIGIN & EVOLUTION. The Sanskrit term Sarasvatī refers to both a goddess and an ancient sacred river in India’s Vedic mythology. As the personification of this sacred river and of water in general, Sarasvatī came to represent everything that flows (e.g., music, poetry, writing, learning, eloquence, wisdom, performing arts). In the Rig Veda (a monumental Hindu text composed centuries before Buddhism’s emergence in India in the 5th century BCE), she is described as the best of goddesses, the “inciter of all pleasant songs, inspirer of all gracious thought.” In India, she was invoked in Vedic rites as the deity of music and poetry well before her introduction to China around the 4th century CE.

Jump to 8-armed Happi Benzaiten Section Jump to Biwa-Playing Benzaiten Section
L = 8-armed Form. Details Here►
R = Mandala Form. Details Here►

She eventually entered Japan sometime in the 7th-8th century, where she was adopted into Japan’s Buddhist pantheon as an eight-armed weapon-wielding defender of the nation owing to her martial description in the Sutra of Golden Light. The oldest extant Japanese statue of Benzaiten is an eight-armed clay version dated to 754 CE (photos below). However, the formal introduction of Mikkyō 密教 (Esoteric Buddhism) to Japan in the early 9th century stressed instead her role as a goddess of music and portrayed her in the esoteric Taizōkai Mandala as a two-armed beauty playing a lute.

Prior to the 12th century, Benzaiten’s Hindu origins as a water goddess were largely ignored in Japan. But sometime during the 11th-12th centuries, the goddess was conflated with Ugajin (the snake-bodied, human-headed Japanese kami of water, agriculture, and good fortune). Once this occurred — once Benzaiten was “reconnected” with water — the level of her popularity changed from a trickle into a flood. By the 12th-13th centuries, she became the object of independent worship and esoteric Buddhist rites (see popup note). Over time her warrior image (favored by samurai praying for battlefield success) was eclipsed by her heavenly mandala representation — even today, the two-armed biwa-playing form is the most widespread iconic depiction of Benzaiten and her standard form as one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods. Once reconnected with water, she rose to great popularity as the patroness of “all things that flow” — music, art, literature, poetry, discourse, performing arts — and was also called upon to end droughts or deluges and thereby ensure bountiful harvests. Her sanctuaries are nearly always in the neighborhood of water — the sea, a river, a lake, or a pond — while her messengers and avatars are serpents and dragons. In fact, the creatures who rule the waters are all intimately associated with Benzaiten in Japan. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) she was sculpted in the nude, but such statues are rare and dressed in robes when used in ceremonies. In the Muromachi period (1392-1573), the spelling of her name was changed, with the character zai 才 (meaning talent) replaced with its homonym zai 財 (meaning wealth) and she subsequently became one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods. With the addition of wealth and fortune to Benzaiten’s earlier roles, her popularity skyrocketed and she eventually supplanted Kichijōten (Skt. = Lakṣmī), the traditional Buddhist goddess of wealth and beauty. The two, even today, are confused and conflated.”

Sweet Potato Jizo of Kawagoe City

Sweet potatoes have been grown since the Edo period in Kawagoe.

Sweet potatoes have been grown since the Edo period in Kawagoe.

Sweet potatoes in Japan originate from Kawagoe potatoes that have grown since the Edo period. The sweet potatoes which are produced in the Kawagoe Area are called Kawagoe-imo. They are grown in the southern part of Kawagoe, at a farming area in Musashinodaichi. Sweet potatoes have been produced there for more than 240 years.

Between 1789-1801, Kawagoe sweet potatoes were very popular among the people in Edo (an old name for Tokyo). Kawagoe sweet potatoes are grown exclusively for making baked sweet potatoes. As Kawagoe’s sweet potatoes are of good quality, they became popular as the home of sweet potatoes.. See all about Kawagoe Sweet potatoes.

In  Kawagoe, visitors have the opportunity to savor interesting products (imogashi) made of sweet potatoes, a local specialty of Kawagoe. Highly recommended is sweet potato soft ice cream. Visitors flock to sample the specialty of Kawagoe at the Kashiya-yokocho, a confectionary lane. It is a five-minute walk from the Fudanotsuji bus stop. Shops selling Japanese candies, sweet potato cakes, rice crackers, and other snacks stand in a row on both sides of the stone-lined lane. In Kawagoe, visitors have the opportunity to savor interesting products (imogashi) made of sweet potatoes, a local specialty of Kawagoe. Highly recommended is sweet potato soft ice cream. For adults, there is also sweet potato beer. This beer is a product that you can get only in Kawagoe.

Jizo with sweet potato

Jizo with sweet potato, Myouzenji, Kawagoe

Even the Jizo deity is depicted holding a sweet potato. Since sweet potato is the basis of the town’s economy and good fortune, it is only to be expected that sweet potatoes are given as offerings to the Jizo bosatsu deity at Myouzenji, where visitors come to search and pray for good good fortune (the main deity venerated here is Bishamonten, deity of Power).

Jizo Bosatsu is venerated at this shrine

Jizo Bosatsu is venerated at this shrine

Sweet Potato Museum

18-5 Komuro Kawagoe City Saitama Prefecture
TEL 049-243-8243
Hours: 10:00 – 17:00 (Admission until 17:00)
Admission: Free
Holidays: Every Tuesday(in case of public holiday, the next day)

Koedo-Kawagoe city is today really just a small town -Koedo- means “Little Old Tokyo”

Located in the center of Saitama, Kawagoe City flourished as a castle town in the 17th century during the Edo Period.

Before the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, many feudal lords and rulers selected the historical town of Kawagoe as a place to build shrines and other related buildings because of its strategically important and convenient location.

Kawagoe thrived as a castle town important for the protection of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo. The Shingashi River and the Kawagoe Kaido (road) served as distribution arteries in the Edo period, and the coming and going of people and goods through these arteries gave rise to the various cultures in Kawagoe.

The city has been designated an important preservation district for groups of historic buildings where rows of magnificent merchants’ houses in the traditional storehouse-style stand side-by-side. It is called “Ko-edo,” or “Little Edo,” because of its city architecture. The feudal lord of Kawagoe Castle ordered a bell tolling the time be built in the 17th century. The bell has been rebuilt several times, and the present 4th-generation bell is a symbol of Kawagoe, together with the streets lined with these traditional houses.

The area around Saiwai-cho, Moto-machi, and Naka-machi with the Ichibangai or the first street at the center, is one of the oldest towns in the Kanto region, where houses, including a draper’s mansion, the Osawa family, and other palatial houses remain.

Perhaps most characteristic of Kawagoe city are its Kura-Storehouses and Old Streets

Just a short walk from Kawagoe Station, the streets start their metamorphosis into a town that in its entirety … looks like a museum.

How the tradition of building fireproof kurazukuri – firehouses began

A distinctly Warehouse district character

Following an event known as the Kawagoe Great Fire in 1893, wealthy traders supplying the old Edo capital with boats down the Shinagashi river, began to reconstruct their warehouse in the Kurazukuri style. While very costly to build, this method of construction, which – while still looking distinctively Japanese – is made from fire-resistant materials, rather than the clay and wood traditionally used. The buildings are crowned with steep tile roofs featuring immense, fire-deflecting Onigawara (Ogre tiles). Although virtually all of Japan has lost such buildings in the pre world war II era, unusually a preservation movement arose in the town in the mid 1960’ties, after a great deal of the traditional warehouses had been demolished, to preserve what was left of the historic district, and develop it as an attraction.

Today the warehouse district covers a few 100 square meters, about 1,5 kilometers north Kawagoe station. While narrow sidewalks along a fairly trafficked road. takes away some of the charm, it is still a worthwhile excursion from Tokyo, for those interested in catching a fleeting glance of the elusive “old Japan”. A famous landmark is the Toki no Kane, or Tower of Time, a bell tower located near the Kashiya Yokucho.

  • Hattori Museum of Forklore (服部民族資料館), 6-8 Saiwai-cho, ☎ +81 49-222-0337. 10:30-16:00. While there is, in fact, nothing relating to folklore in the folklore museum, the old Hattori family for which is warehouse is named, morphed into a medical company. So you’ll find a small display of old medicines, advertisements… and sandals. Free.
  • Kawagoe Festival Museum (川越まつり会館), 2-1-10 Moto-machi, ☎ +81 (0)49-225-2727. 9:30-18:300. If you don’t happen to be in Kawagoe during the yearly festival held in October, you can get a feel for it in this museum, which exhibits the great floats used in the procession and screens a 5 minute movie about the festival. Naturally the museum also details the history of the festival in Japanese. ¥300.
  • Museum of Kurazukuri (川越市蔵造り資料館), 7-9 Saiwai-cho, ☎ +81 49-222-539. 09:00-17:00. Built after the great fire, in 1893, this old wholesale Tobacco warehouse of the Koyama family, gives you a chance to look inside the warehouses, and learn about the history of Kurazukuri construction. ¥100.
  • Osawa Residence (大沢家住宅), 1-15-2 Moto-machi, ☎ +81 49-222-7640. 9:30-17:30. Built it in 1792, this warehouse from where the Osawa family traded Miso and Soy, survived the inferno of the great fire, and today stands as the oldest storehouse in Kawagoe. The first floor contains a store while the second floor houses a small exhibition. ¥200.
    Other attractions
  • City Museum (川越市立博物館), 1-20-1 Kosemba-machi, ☎ +81 (0)49-222-5399. 9:00-17:00. Useful after visiting the warehouse district as it contains information on how the warehouses was build. Otherwise your average local museum detailing local history with artifacts and models. Next door is a small art museum with a collection of local art. ¥200.

Kawagoe’s History

The history of what became of the Kawagoe landlord owners and clans is somewhat bloody.

Kawagoe is in the middle of Saitama Prefecture and retains a great deal of old Tokyo history. It is surrounded by rivers, which made it an ideal location for a settlement. People have been living here since ancient times. As with any peaceful settlement, power-hungry and greedy warlords rose up to conquer and take control of the land. The Kawagoe clan, who were especially powerful warlords, ruled this area till around the 12th century.

When the Minamoto clan was ruling the shogunate (the military government of old Japan) in Kamakura, its first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), had his eye on Kawagoe, or more appropriately, the owner of its land . The owner was Kawagoe Shigeyori. His daughter was married to Yoritomo’s brother, Yoshitsune. However, Yoritomo ousted the highly popular Yoshitsune and ‘inherited’ old Shigeyori’s land in 1185, before having the poor fellow executed.

In 1336 the shogunate was taken by Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358), who became the first shogun of Muromachi government. He established the Kamakura office to rule the Kanto region. The Kamakura-kubo, head of the office, was succeeded by the Ashikaga clan; the Uesugi clan was to support the head. However, the Kamakura-kubo opposed both the Shogunate and the Uesugi clan. In 1457, the Uesugi clan claimed that they were now the dominant power in the Kanto region. They ordered Ota Dokan (chief retainer of the Uesugi clan, 1432-1486) to make three castles. It was about this time that the warlords, now known as “feudal lords,” wanted to expand their territories. Hojo (from Odawara) battled against Uesugi in this area. The Uesugi clan lost and the Hojo clan now owned Kawagoe.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), a warrior who unified Japan, conquered the Kanto region in 1590 and he also conquered the Kawagoe castle. He ordered Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), who was a retainer of Hideyoshi and later became the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, to rule the Kanto region. Ieyasu noticed that Kawagoe was in a strategically advantageous position and decided to place a retainer there. Soon thereafter, Kawagoe became a military base for transporting goods to Edo. The Tokugawa Shogunate took all authority away from the feudal lords and stationed family and close relations to rule over the land .

When Matsudaira Nobutsuna (1596-1662) was a lord of Kawagoe, he greatly enhanced the town. He made transport routes, used the river for shipping, established many farms and ‘ inaugurated’ the Kawagoe Festival, which he copied from the Kanda Festival and Sanno Festival held in Edo. Kawagoe flourished as a castle town and was thought of as an important place to protect the north of Edo. It was called “Ko Edo,” meaning “Little Edo (now Tokyo).”

About 250 years later, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry from the U.S. navy came to end the Sakoku ( a policy that permitted no foreign trade routes or travel into and out of Japan ). At that time, the people of Kawagoe were ordered to provide coastal security.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Kawagoe became the local center of trade. The town bustled with commerce and the prefecture’s first national bank, Dai Hachijugo Bank, was opened. In March 1893, a massive fire burnt down one third of the buildings in Kawagoe. After the fire, local people rebuilt fireproof storehouses, of which some 30 survive and still stand today in their modified original form. The town now has a population of around 340 ,000.

The Kawagoe Castle, in ruins today, is one of three castles made by Ota Dokan and his father, Michizane. These days only the Honmaru Goten (part of Kawagoe Castle) remains. There is a museum for the public.

Kawagoe is also an important religious center in Japan.

Kita-in Temple

Kita-in Temple

In 830, the monk Ennin founded Muryoju Temple for the worship of Amitabha Buddha (Buddha of Unending Life), divided in three parts:

Kitain (喜多院, North Temple), Nakain (Middle Temple), and Minamiin (South Temple, now destroyed).

Kita-in Temple (Kawagoe Daishi)

This temple was built in approximately 830AD by a monk named Ennin. He called it Muryoju-ji Temple. In 1205, it burnt down due to a fight ; it was thereafter rebuilt by a monk called Sonkai . In 1301, Emperor Gofushimi made it the head temple of 580 temples in the Kanto region. This temple had three branch temples : namely, Kita-in (North Temple), Naka-in (Middle Temple) and Minami-in (South Temple). In 1599, Tenkai (1536-1643), who was an advisor of Tokugawa Ieyasu, became the top monk of Kita-in. Aside from receiving pecuniary help, the temple changed from being the gloomy “North Temple (北院)” to “The temple of great happiness (翫刻)@).” The Tokugawa Shogunate and the temple have a long history of working together to keep the masses happy..Kita-in Temple boasts Kyakuden, a reception hall, and a study hall Sho-in, both of which are important cultural properties.

Kitain is today the head of Tendai Sect (one of the two most important buddhist sects) in the Kanto area. It is worth to pay the 400 yens entrance fee to visit the grounds of the temple. A magnificent garden can also be seen – but unfortunately it is not possible to wander in it; this garden was designed by Kobori Enshu (1579-1647), one of the three masters of the tea ceremony at the beginning of Edo era.You can also see the Gohyakurakan which is over 500 stone statues representing the disciples of Buddha, Shaka Nyorai, Amida Nyorai here.

Kitain is also famous as the the birthplace of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川 家光, 1604 – 1651, third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty); the room were it is though he was born is located next to the garden, and features a ceiling with floral ornaments. The next room was probably that of his nursemaid, Kosuga no Tsubone, who bacame later a powerful woman living in the Edo Casatle. The importance of Kitain is mostly due to its head priest in the 16th and 17th century, Tenkai (天海, 1536-1643), who was a consultant to the three first Tokugawa shogun.

On the ground of the temple – where for an unknown reason bells should never be rung – a tiny spot can be found where 540 statues of disciples of Buddha can be seen. Those gohyaku-rakan (marker 6) statues are said to represent every single human emotion. They were carved between 1782 and 1825. It is really amazing to walk around, and watch closely those faces… One of the legend says that if you walk in that place at night and touch the statues, one of them will be warmer; you should mark it by putting a coin next to it, and come the next day to see which statue represents your actual feelings (practically difficult to do, as the place is closed at night…).

The first 3 days of the year, the temple is packed with Japanese who not only come to pray for the new year, but also to buy some daruma, a kind of popular doll – the tradition is to paint one pupil of the doll and make a wish, and paint the other one after the wish has been granted.

Go Hyaku Rakan – 500 Statues
There are actually 538 statues here. They are carvings of the Buddha’s disciples, created during a period of about 50 years between 1782 and 1825. Each and every one of them has an individual personality. According to legend, if you touch each Buddha in the calm middle of the night, you’ll find one that is warm. Mark it and come back the next morning. Provided no one has moved your mark, the Buddha you chose will be the one that most resembles deceased your father or mother.

Every morning in the center of the town, when the mist shimmers from the rising sun, a large bell rings. The original bell was made during the 17th century and the current version was constructed after the massive fire in 1893. The bell has been striking the time to the people four times a day for 350 years. Kawagoe is definitely a town that strives to keep its cultural history.

Reitaisai rituals, Hikawa Shrine

Reitaisai rituals, Hikawa Shrine

Kawagoe Festival (Kawagoe Hikawa Festival Float Event) takes root in the “Reitaisai” festival held at Hikawa Shrine on October 14, and is also consisted of the “Jinkosai” festival and “Float Event (festival)” that are held immediately afterward.

Reitaisai-Jinkosai-Float Event
The “Jinkosai” festival started life in 1648, when it was promoted by the reigning Kawagoe clan lord Nobutsuna Matsudaira Izunokami, who offered religious artifacts such as a portable shrine, a lion mask and taiko drums to the Hikawa Shrine. From 1651 onward, extravagant processions passed through the neighborhoods of shrine parishes, and these were soon joined by members of the commercial elite. It is in these rituals and festivals that the Kawagoe Festival takes root.

Go to the Kawagoe Festival Museum (\300) to check out the contenders for the battle. Twenty-nine parade floats, or rolling musical mini castles with different histories and songs, roam the streets for a musical battle. The float with the song that makes the most noise and causes its contender’s castle loose wins and is greatly applauded by the crowd. There are life-size (or alittle bigger) dolls riding atop these floats. The interesting mechanism of the floats is such that the dolls are drawn inside the floats, allowing them to pass through ‘real castle gates.’ This happens once a year, on the third weekend every October. See also this beautiful photo of a fox folklore character at the Festival.

In the original “Jinkosai” festival, the portable shrine of Hikawa Shrine was carried through the neighborhoods of shrine parishioners, and was accompanied by adornments of floats including costume parades provided by 10 neighborhoods of shrine parishes

From Kawagoe-hikawa-sairei-emaki (1826)

From Kawagoe-hikawa-sairei-emaki (1826)

Shingashigawa River Boat Transport

Boat transport on the Shingashigawa River allowed Kawagoe not only to receive the latest fineries and customs that came in from Edo, but also gradually developed the festival.

Later on, with the advent of festival floats taking the central role in the Edo Festivals, all the festival floats of the 10 neighborhoods were in 1844 unified in a single-column style and dolls were placed on the balustrades, as they are depicted in Hikawa-sairei-egaku (a votive picture scroll).

Hikawa-sairei-egaku (1844)
The Kawagoe Festival has been passed down in an unbroken line, and in February 2005, as an invaluable town festival that preserves the style and elegance of the Edo Tenka Festival, the ‘Kawagoe Hikawa Festival Float Event’ was designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property .

Under the divine protection of the Grand Hikawa Shrine, the people of Kawagoe that had brought this castle town to prosperity have proudly developed the Kawagoe Festival by using this economic strength both to maintain a history of over 360 years, as well as add its own unique Kawagoe features.

The Kawagoe-matsuri Festival celebrated in the fall is one of three best festivals in the Kanto region. You will see exquisitely decorated seven-meter tall floats parading the city.

Kawagoe Festival

The Kawagoe Festival happens annually on the 3rd Saturday and Sunday of October in Kawagoe City. The highlight of the city’s festival is called “hikkawase,” which is sort of a traditional battle of the bands… After dark, the floats are lit up by lanterns and begin to parade around the streets with their bands perched up on top. When two floats meet or catch up to one another, the bands on the floats will play music competitively, each trying to outperform the other.

Amongst the floats, lanterns, music, people, and food, it is easy to see why this festival has grown over its 350 year history to be one of the biggest on offer in the Tokyo area, in fact it was designated a “National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property” of Japan.

Hikawa Shrine (shikinaisha)

Hikawa Shrine (shikinaisha)

Kawagoe’s Village Shrine with a Beautiful Torii Gate

The tall torii gate is 15 meters high and is found on the approach. A Shinto shrine grounds is filled with numerous trees over 500 years old and the sacred keyaki tree rustles in the wind.
The history of Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine is very old going back to 6th century when it was separated from Omiya Hikawa Shrine. After that, Ota Dokan who constructed Kawagoe Castle became familiar as ‘Hikawa-sama (Mr. Hikawa)’.
The sacred shrine pavillion with elaborate Edo carvings was constructed by Matsudaira Naritsune, a castle lord, as a donation. In the center of the bright vermillon red torii gate is a framed symbol with writings from Katsu Kaishu.
In 1956, the Main Shrine and other historical buildings that pass on Edo culture were registered as a designated cultural property of Saitama Prefecture.
Known for enshrining the god of married couples, it is believed to be the ‘God of Marriage’ where many couples are seen holding weddings every year. On a lucky day, you may be able to see a bride wearing a shiromuku, a pure white kimono.
Throughout the year there are many types of events. In February, there are prayers for ‘traffic safety / achievements in studies’ and ‘purification of student’s leather backpack’. In August, Takigi Noh (Noh dance performed under the light of a bonfire). And in mid October, the famous Kawagoe Festival.
Within the shrine grounds full of greenery, not only will you see visitors coming to pray but also local people who come to relax and enjoy the four seasons.

[Related shrine in Omiya Saitama: Hikawa Shrine (氷川神社) in Saitama is one of the oldest shrine in Japan. It was established in 473 B.C.E. The Saitama’s former city, “Omiya,” was named after this shrine. Hikawa Shrine is one of the major groups of Shrine in Kanto, especially around Arakawa River. Also, it is the major spot in Omiya area. As the primary shrine of Musashi, many people worship this shrine for praying wishes for their happy everyday life..

This Shinto shrine is dedicated to the veneration of the kami or spirits of Susanoo no mikoto, Ōnamuchi-no-mikoto and Inadahime no mikoto.

As many as 290 daughter shrines exist across Japan, all named “Hikawa”. Most are small, but all are considered dwelling places of Susano.

According to the shrine’s tradition, the shrine was established during the reign of Emperor Kōshō in 473 BC. A legend recounts that Yamato Takeru, who injured his leg during his crusade to the East, visited the shrine in accordance with the directions of an old man who appeared in a dream. After worshiping, he was able to stand on his own. It is known that the old name of the region, Ashidate (足立?), literally meaning “leg stand”, was named after this incidence. The pond within the grounds of the shrine is a remnant of Minuma and considered to have roots in enshrining the water god of Minuma.

Hikawa was designated as the chief Shinto shrine (ichinomiya) for the former Musashi province, home of the greatest samurai warring traditions and martial arts.). This main shrine has 59 branch shrines in Tokyo and 162 branch shrines in Saitama Prefecture.]

In Japanese myth, Yamatotakeru no Mikoto visited this shrine and pray his victory of his eastern war. In the time of Emperor Seimu (early 2nd century), Edamohi no Mikoto brought people of Izumo and found the land of Musashi and Hikawa Shrine.

In the time of Emperor Shomu (724 to 749), it was set as the primary shrine of Musashi. In 766, Hikawa Shrine was the only shrine allowed to have a sacred well.

Emperor Daigo set Hikawa Shrine as the “Myojin Taisya,” the highest rank of Japanese Shrine.

Also, many shoguns played great respects to this shrine. Minamoto no Yoritomo contributed lands to Hikawa Shrine. Ashikaga and Hojo also contributed. Tokugawa Shogun also contributed another 300 koku of Land.

Sando, the main street to the shrine

Hikawa Shrine has a 2km long of Sando, the main streeet to the shrine. It runs the south of the shrine. There are three huge Torii Gates and a beautiful Keyaki Tree Avenue.




From Tokyo :
[Rail] 24 min from Tokyo to Ikebukuro Station by JR Yamanote Line, and 33 min from Ikebukuro to Kawagoe Station by Tobu-Tojo Line (regular express).

Best links:

Festival and event schedule

Architecture through the ages walk 

The Kawagoe Festival

Museums of Koedo- kawagoe

Musashi Ichinomiya no Hikawa

The search for good fortune at Kawagoe

Legend of Mt Yahiko and the Yahiko shrine

Yahiko Shrine in Niigata Prefecture source: Wikimedia Commons

Yahiko Shrine in Niigata Prefecture source: Wikimedia Commons

According to the 8th c. old shrine tradition, in ancient times, Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto – a great-grandson of Amaterasu Omikami – sailed across the Sea of Japan and landed at the Nozumi shore (modern-day Nagaoka City) on the western side of Mt. Yahiko.

(An auxiliary shrine of Yahiko Shrine called Sakurai Shrine, marks the spot where, after landing at Yonemizunoura (modern-day Nozumihama) during his trip to conquer the Hokuriku region, Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto allegedly stayed here for a short while to clean up, before heading for Yahiko. In front of the small main shrine is a worship hall with a unique design in that its roof is supported by only four pillars. “Sakurai” means a spring. In the precincts of the shrine, we can still find the spring bubbling up which, together with three big, ancient keyaki trees, bears evidence to the history of the shrine. The name “Sakurai,” which appears in the Wamyo-sho dictionary entry for Kanbara-Go in Echigo Province, is believed to refer to this place.)

The deity, it is said, taught the local people to produce salt by boiling sea water and to catch fish by using nets and hooks. He then settled in Yahiko and established the industrial foundation of the region by providing know-how on agricultural and other industries.

An unusual festival called the boiling water “Yukake matsuri” is still held today at the shrine.The Yahiko “Yukake” Festival begins by receiving hot-spring water from Yu Shrine where a sacred spring has been running for thousands of years. A praying ritual is performed with a tub containing the water borne on the shoulders of the participants. Once the ritual is over, the tub containing the sacred hot water is mounted on a Yubiki-guruma cart, which is then wheeled through the hot-spring resort area as Kiyari chants are performed. As the sacred hot water is splashed over the spectators using bamboo branches with green leaves, those spectators pray for sound health, good luck, business success, and success in their exams.

Hot water deity in procession during the yukake festival.

Hot water deity in procession during the yukake festival.

The rituals of bringing out the deities of hot water and sprinkling hot water on festive participants for auspiciousness and good health are similar to yudate practices elsewhere at the Shohachiman shrine’s honmaturi, where the Water King and Earth King deities or demons are wheeled out to sprinkle water on the participants, or during the Fuyu Winter Festival of Sakanbe, Tenryu village, where “demons” asperse the community with hot water from a cauldron which has been refilled, boiled and purified, and after the mikoshi has been carried by young men who have performed ablution rituals in the Tenryu River to the Suwa Shrine (source: Matsuri: The Festivals of Japan)

Yukake matsuri

Yukake matsuri

After the god left, seven generations of his offspring continued to contribute to forming the basis of the Echigo culture.

O-yahiko-sama has been worshipped since the Manyo era

O-yahiko-sama has been worshipped since the Manyo era

This is why the supreme shrine of Echigo Province, dedicated to Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto, Yahiko Shrine, fondly referred to as “Oyahiko-sama,” has widely been adored and worshipped by the populace since the ancient Manyo era.

The Yahiko Chrysanthemum Festival is held from November 1 through 24 every year in the precincts of Yahiko Shrine, the supreme shrine of Echigo Province. The event is Japan’s largest chrysanthemum exhibition. Especially spectacular is a flowerbed in which 30,000 chrysanthemums create a large-scale landscape, the theme of which changes every year. It is the main feature of the festival that attracts many chrysanthemum aficionados. Yahiko in the autumn is also a spectacular fall-color viewing spot.

Daidai Kagura, a national important intangible folk cultural property, is a traditional dance and music performance that has been passed down for centuries by Yahiko Shrine. The shrine still carefully guards and maintains its traditional dance and music rites. Designated as a national important intangible folk cultural property on May 22, 1978, Daidai Kagura consists of seven Chigo dances by children and six other dances by adults. It is one of the representative dance and music rites preserved since ancient times in Niigata Prefecture. Being the largest shrine in the Echigo region and notable for preserving a distinguished and quaint style, Yahiko Shrine has long been worshipped ardently by the imperial court, Shogunate government, local ruling families and warlords, as well as by large numbers of the local populace.

This is why Yahiko Village is known as the birthplace of the Echigo culture. The village has prospered for many centuries as the temple town of Yahiko Shrine and a posting station on the Hokkoku-kaido (now known as the Hokuriku-do). Yahiko Shrine had cedar trees planted on both sides of the road bordering the land owned by the shrine, making for a 350-meter stretch of trees running north-south. The approach to Yahiko Shrine is still lined by cedar trees which are a Prefecture-Designated Natural Treasure and which since their planting, the cedar trees have been tended with great care.

Yahiko Village is situated on the Sea of Japan side of the central part of Niigata Prefecture. Its western side borders Niigata City and Nagaoka City with sacred Mt. Yahiko (634 meters) in between. There is a fertile grain-growing region abutting Niigata City on the northern side.

Yahiro village and its environs

Yahiko village and its environs

The Yahiko shrine stands in dense “divine” forest or sacred grove of tall cedar and keyaki trees on the south side and with its back against Mt. Yahiko, a volcano, which is the shintaizan or mountain that is the object of worship. This mountain and the nearby Mt. Kakuda, stand alone on the Japan Sea coast not far from Niigata City.

A verse about this shrine appears in Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest anthology of poems. After passing through the first red torii gate, which stands out against the surrounding foliage, visitors will soon cross the Mitarai-gawa River that runs from Mt. Yahiko. A little further up the river, there is a “divine bridge” called Tamano Hashi. On the right side of the stone-paved approach is the Shinen garden, where many Satozakura cherry trees stand among huge trees and produce pretty flowers in the spring, offering a feast for the eyes of worshippers. The Shinen garden is accompanied by the Rokuen garden, in which about a dozen deer are kept. The deer kept in this garden were called “Kami-jika” or godly deer (messengers of the gods) in ancient times, and Manyoshu also contains a verse about these deer.

Yahiko developed along with Yahiko Shrine which is thought to have been established in the 8th century or earlier. The present shrine was rebuilt in 1961 after a fire destroyed the shrine building. The earlier shrine buildings were destroyed by a 1912 fire which started in the village. Though the exact year of construction is not known, as the shrine is referenced in Manyoshu, an old poetic anthology dating back to 750 AD, it certainly predates that time. The shrine is devoted to Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto. Ordered by Emperor Jinmu (the legendary first emperor), Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto taught the people of Echigo region of Niigata prefecture various agricultural methods of fishing, salt making, rice farming, and sericulture amongst others, and contributed greatly to the development of the region.  In its museum, shrine treasures such as Shidano-Ootachi, a prominent long Japanese Katana and designated as an Important National Property, and armors that are said to have once belonged to Yoshiie Minamto and Yoshitsune Minamoto, both being legendary warriors from the 12th c.

About Ame no kagoyama no mikoto

Ame no kagoyama no mikoto, a.k.a. Takakuraji no mikoto, Kumano no Takakuraji- differing traditions exist according to Kumano Taisha where he is also enshrined in an associate Kamikura Jinja shrine, and according to the Sendai kuji honji account:

“According to Sendai kuji hongi, Amenokagoyama was born in heaven as the child of Nigihayahi and Amenomichihime, and was the elder brother of Umashimaji no mikoto, who in turn was the ancestral kami (sojin) of the earth-born clan Mononobe no Muraji. He descended from heaven together with his father, and adopted the names Tekurihiko and Takakuraji no mikoto. He took for wife his younger sister by a different mother, Hoyahime no mikoto, and thus became the ancestral kami of the clan Owari no Muraji. Amenokagoyama is enshrined at Kamikura Jinja, an associate shrine (sessha) of the Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

In contrast, Kojiki and Nihongi provide no genealogical information for this kami, and they recognize no relationship between him and the Plain of High Heaven. The name given in those two works is likewise limited to “Takakuraji(which literally means owner of the high storehouse)” omitting any title, and Kojiki adds a note to the effect that it was a “person’s name,” indicating that he was not recognized with the status of kami.” -Mori Mizue, the Encyclopedia of Shinto”.

The lack of genealogical divine connection notwithstanding, the Kumano tradition gives Ame no kagoyama, aka, Takakuraji a huge role in Yamato nation-building and in saving the more august deity Emperor Jinmu(a.k.a. Kamuyamatoiwarebiko), see account below:

“A kami which presented the sword Futsu no mitama to the emperor Kamuyamatoiwarebiko (Jinmu Tennō). By this act he helped save Jinmu and his army after they had fallen unconscious from the poison emitted by “rough kami” at Kumano. Takakuraji had the following dream: Amaterasu and Takagi no kami (Takamimusuhi) requested Takemikazuchi to assist the Heavenly Grandchild in subduing the Central Land of Reed Plains, but Takemikazuchi replied that rather than going himself, he would open a hole in the storehouse of Takakuraji, drop in the sword Futsu no mitama, and have that sword presented to the emperor by Takakuraji. When Takakuraji awoke, he found the sword just as the dream had foretold, and bore it to the fallen Emperor Jinmu. The emperor and his forces opened their eyes, and were enabled to subdue the rough deities..



Cultural heritage of Yahiko village


Yahiko Travel youtube clip

shintaizan (Encyclopedia of Shinto)

Buddhism: Buddhism in China, East Asian and Japan, vol. 8, p. 140 on sacred spaces, shintaizan and earliest mention of the concept in Japanese texts Shoku-Nihongi, book10


Ancient and unchanged tattoo Mithriac motifs and symbolism of the Yezidi Kurds …and therefore, Ancient Hurrians

Yezidi women’s ankle tattoos from Iraq, ca. 1930.

Yezidi women’s ankle tattoos from Iraq, ca. 1930.


Henry Field expanded on Smeaton’s studies of Iraqi Arab tattoo to include other ethnic groups that inhabited the region, like the Kurds of northern Iraq, as well as indigenous populations living in southwestern Asia. Of considerable interest are his ethnographic notes focused upon the Kurds who live today north of Baghdad and in parts of Syria, the Caucasus, and Iran.

Kurdish women’s tattoo designs from Iraq, ca. 1930.

The history of the Kurdish people is as complex as it is ancient. By the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C., the culture and society of Kurdistan appear to have been unified under the Hurrians, a people who spoke a language belonging to the Caucasian family distantly related to modern Georgian and Laz. The fundamental legacy of the ancient Hurrians to the contemporary culture of the Kurds is manifest elementally in their religion, mythology, martial arts, genetics, and tattoos. But other religions left their mark on the tattoo traditions of the Yezidi Kurds, including the Aryans who extinguished the last Hurrian states in the Zagros-Taurus mountain regions by 850 B.C.

Today, the Yezidi Kurds comprise less than five percent of the entire Kurdish population, but their tattooing traditions remain, as do many of their religious ceremonies like the Jam. Held at the sacred shrine in modern Lalish, Iraq, Jam coincides with the great Aryan festival of Mithrakan which celebrated the act of world creation by the sun god Mithras. The earliest known reference to Mithras dates to the 14th century B.C. and according to clay tablets excavated on the Anatolian plateau, he was worshipped for over two-thousand years. The Roman Emperor Commodus (180-192 A.D.) even brought “the cult of light” to his empire and afterwards Roman emperors more and more identified themselves with the Unconquered Sun, took the title of “Invictus” and wore a crown with sun rays.

According to Izady, Kurdish men and women still wear tattoos (kutra’i in Kurdish) associated with Mithras. Some of the motifs are found adorning the outer walls of the Yezidi shrine at Lalish:

The symbol combining a dog, a serpent hole, and the sun disc used by Yezidi women is a fascinating reminder of this combination in ancient Mithraic religious sculptures (the sun god Mithras killing the bull of heaven, from whose blood springs a serpent and a dog, the symbols of balancing forces of good and evil).

Yezidi men’s hand tattoos from Iraq, ca.1930.

Field remarked that the Yezidis tattooed most frequently a comb design, called misht or meshed, and a rayed circle or disc with a varying number of rays and sometimes a circular branded scar called kawi in the center. Westermark illustrates a related tattoo motif in Morocco which was called mechta, “comb,” very similar to the etymology of the Kurdish word misht, that resembles the carding comb tattoos of the Kabyle and Chaouian Berbers of Algeria. Cola Alberich reported that rayed crosses tattooed in Morocco were “expressions of the solar cult.” Thus, it seems that comb tattoos in Iraq were perhaps in some way related to solar motifs, because we know that iron carding combs and tattoos were used as fire symbols in North Africa.

As such, we see in the dominant motifs of Kurdish tattooing the value of a type of “holy formula” that Izady says “cannot be altered without losing its power. These markings are of considerable antiquity, and are ‘living’ examples of many ancient motifs preserved in this way.” In this vein, rayed semicircles enclosing a star and two dots were said by some Yezidi women to ward off the evil eye, while other tattoos were therapeutic used to cure rheumatism and headaches because of their perceived healing properties. It should be noted that tribal peoples in Iran also practiced these forms of medicinal tattooing.

Yet other authorities have argued that because the sun brought forth the new growth of plants, coinciding in a sense with animals giving birth to their young each spring, the heliolatrous significance of the tattooed cross, as a solar symbol, connoted procreation and ultimately served as a fertility mark; whereas the swastika, present in tattoo traditions of the Kurds, Berbers and indigenous groups in India, metamorphosed into a related form (via spirals, concentric circles, and rosettes). However, the sun ideograph may have also represented deified fire symbolizing properties of purification.

Source: Tattooing in North Africa, The Middle East and Balkans

By Lars Krutak

Study shows Croatians from Hvar have a minor Central Asian/East Asian genetic component

Modern wooden statue of Perun, the god of thunder and lightning, Ruthenia

Modern wooden statue of Perun, the god of thunder and lightning(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The evidence of mtDNA haplogroup F in a European population and its ethnohistoric implications, European Journal of Human Genetics September 2001, Volume 9, Number 9, Pages 717-723, by  Helle-Viivi Tolk1, Lovorka Barac2, Marijana Pericic2, Irena Martinovic Klaric2, Branka Janicijevic2, Harry Campbell3, Igor Rudan3,4, Toomas Kivisild1, Richard Villems1 and Pavao Rudan2

Mitochondrial DNA polymorphism was analysed in a sample of 108 Croatians from the Adriatic Island isolate of Hvar. Besides typically European varieties of human maternal lineages, haplogroup F was found in a considerable frequency (8.3%). This haplogroup is most frequent in southeast Asia but has not been reported before in Europe. The genealogical analysis of haplogroup F cases from Hvar suggested founder effect. Subsequent field work was undertaken to sample and analyse 336 persons from three neighbouring islands (Brac, Korcula and Krk) and 379 more persons from all Croatian mainland counties and to determine if haplogroup F is present in the general population. Only one more case was found in one of the mainland cities, with no known ancestors from Hvar Island. The first published phylogenetic analysis of haplogroup F worldwide is presented, applying the median network method, suggesting several scenarios how this maternal lineage may have been added to the Croatian mtDNA pool. European Journal of Human Genetics (2001) 9, 717-723.

…The topology of the tree as well as the distribution of the frequencies of the mtDNA haplogroups15 do not differ substantially from that expected for a European Mediterranean population7,32 ± except for the presence of haplogroup F at a frequency about 8%. As mentioned above, haplogroup F must be very rare in European populations because it was not reported in largest recent collections (nR5000) of mtDNA varieties.19 ± 23 There- fore, its finding in Hvar was intriguing. Figure 2 shows the location of Hvar Island and its villages, along with reconstructed genealogies of nine haplogroup F cases. More- over, it is worth noting that a subject indicated by two asterisks developed an additional mutation at np 16207 over a span of the four generations from the common ancestor.
The two competing hypotheses were that the haplogroup F was introduced to the island from an unidentified source population by sea or from the nearby mainland. The nine subjects with haplogroup F came from three different villages (Vrbanj, Svirce and Bogomolje). The reconstruction of genealogies to five generations linked these persons to three female ancestors (Figure 2). It failed to link them to a single ancestor since Parish registry records revealed that the female (indicated by an asterisk) immigrated to the island from the nearby mainland city of Podgora. On interview, this individual stated that her ancestors had arrived from within the Balkans mainland a few centuries ago. This implies that haplogroup F might be present in the Croatian general population. Subsequent field work was undertaken and 715 unrelated mtDNA genomes from all Croatian counties were analysed. One subject (0.26%) from the northern part of Croatia (Zagreb county), was found to have the haplogroup F and was unaware of any ancestors from Hvar Island. Out of the 336 individuals from three other Eastern Adriatic islands (Krk, Brac and Korcula) no one had haplogroup F.
Haplogroup F derives from an internal node R of the human mtDNA phylogenetic tree10 and is a sister group to an eastern Eurasian haplogroup B, as well as to haplogroups H, J, K, T and U; the latter five comprising about 95% of the European mtDNA diversity.5 ± 7 In order to obtain further insight into the origin of the `Croatian F’ lineages, we constructed a phylogenetic network from HVS-I haplotypes belonging to mtDNA haplogroup F which were published in the literature. Two main boughs of the subset of the limb F1, F1a and F1b, are depicted in Figure 3.
Haplogroup F is characteristic of the Chinese population (10.8%) and reaches the highest frequency in the Vietnamese population (32%).13,14,16,26 It is relatively frequent also among Mongolians (8.7%), Koreans (5.1%) and Japanese (5.1%),13,17 but very rare in northeastern Asians.33,34 The sample from three Turkic-speaking Central Asian populations3 comprises 11 likely (based on HVR-I sequence information only) individuals, carrying haplogroup F mtDNA genomes (5.4%) and the corresponding mtDNA varieties originate from different limbs of haplogroup F. In a total sample of European, Near Eastern, Anatolian and South Caucasian data (n=7190)12,19 ± 23 only three individuals (0.04%) had a haplogroup F: two Turks and one Azeri (Figure 3).
Figure 3 indicates that within the phylogeny of limb F1, the particular varieties found in Croatia, belong to a mono- phyletic clade within bough F1b, specified by a rare C to A transversion at np 16232 and a transition at np 16249. The internal node is shared by Croats, Mongols and Turkic- speaking Uighurs, Kazakhs, Turks and even by one South Asian (Sri Lankan, our unpublished results) mtDNA. A further extension of this bough via additional transitions at nps 16129 and 16344 leads to a twig, shared by Korean and Japanese13,14,18 populations, including Ainus and Ryukyu people. Yet another twig (np 16172) is occupied by mtDNAs, found among Koreans and Turkic-speaking Uighurs.3,13 The single haplotype found in Croatian mainland belongs there as well (Figure 3). Considering all the available data, the coalescence age estimate for the base node of haplogroup F is approximately 40 000 ± 50 000 years before present, which agrees with an early Upper Palaeolithic origin of this major eastern Eurasian variety of mtDNA. However, it does not imply that the node containing Croatian mtDNAs started to expand at that time period. Bearing in mind a limited divergence of the corresponding internal node comprising Croatian haplogroup F sequences, it may have happened much more recently. More importantly, its phylogeography suggests that the particular variety of maternal lineages must have been within a migrational wave(s), carrying haplogroup F north and westwards from a putative origin in Southeast Asia.

… There may have been many occasions when haplogroup F could have reached Croatia; several possibilities can be found in recorded history. At the end of the 4th century AD, the Huns left Central Asia and invaded Europe for a short period. As a consequence, this major migration also ended a long period of a predominantly Indo-Aryan nomadic presence in the Steppe Belt, extending from China to Europe with their replacement by Mongoloid and Altaic pastoral nomads.37 A few centuries later, the Avars (a Mongol people) established a state on the Pannonian planes (current Hungary and North Croatia). It is historically well documented that Avars formed tribal alliances with Slavs, and, subsequently, partially dissolved into the Slavic populations.38 More recently, in the year 1241, Mongols reached the eastern Adriatic through Croatian territory.39 Finally, much earlier, there was the ancient Silk Road from China through Central Asia to the Mediterranean that can be considered as another possible route for the introduction haplogroup F to Europe. Any of these named population movements could have brought haplogroup F maternal lineages to Croatia. A more extensive admixture of Croatians with Central Asian Turkic or Mongoloid females (eg with Avars) is a less likely explanation of our findings because in this case, one would expect to observe the haplogroup M lineages in the Croatian mtDNA pool. The latter haplogroup is almost an order of magnitude more frequent in Central Asians than is haplogroup F.3 Since this is not the case, a more specific and narrow founder effect is a more likely explanation.

In summary, the above data show that a maternal lineage, likely arising in the early Upper Palaeolithic period in southeastern Asia, has found a route to Europe and, probably because of random genetic drift, could become a significant component of mtDNA variety in an isolated Adriatic island population. We have also demon- strated that a detailed phylogeographic analysis makes possible the tracing of this lineage back to its possible geographic origin among eastern-central Asian popula- tions. This, in turn, suggests historic and demographic events possibly explaining the presence of mtDNA haplogroup F in Europe.

The above study is supported by the results of another study “Review of Croatian genetic heritage as revealed by mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomal lineages“, Croat Med J. 2005 Aug; 46(4):502-13. Pericić M1, Barać Lauc L, Martinović Klarić I, Janićijević B, Rudan P.

This high-resolution phylogenetic study of the mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome variation in mainland and insular Croatian populations found that while the phylogeography of mtDNA and Y chromosome variants of Croatians can be adequately explained within typical European maternal and paternal genetic landscape, the mtDNA haplogroup F and Y-chromosomal haplogroup P* genetic component indicated a connection to Asian populations.

Croatia – Folklore and regional stories


“Towards sunset, having ‘done’ a few more sights, I sat with a pivo in the Stradun, the Old Town’s only wide street – of polished stone, lined with tall, gravely imposing buildings. And there Dubrovnik’s free evening entertainment mesmerised me: thousands of swifts giving a dizzying display of aerobatics, circling high in the sky , then swooping and darting low between the buildings, their speed and flock coordination something to marvel at, their shrill frenetic twitterings so loud I had to raise my voice when ordering another pivo. Looking up and down the Stradone, I mentally congratulated the successors to the Major Council: no plastic disfiguring of shop façades is allowed and only café table sunshades – Coca-Cola and Marlboro – marred the Adriatic’s most famous thoroughfare.

The above extract is taken from Through the Embers of Chaos: Balkan Journeys by Dervla Murphy (John Murray, 2002).

Croatian mythology should be told on a cold winter’s night. It’s the sort of stuff that needs flickering light from a dying fire and a howling wind whistling outside, occasional draughts sending extra shivers down your spine. Sitting in a semi-circle before a wise old woman, or a huge bearded man, you don’t get Croatian folk stories from a book, just from memory and invention.

Croatian myth is part of the Slavic tradition that sweeps across Baltic, central and Eastern Europe, terrifying children and giving nightmares a ghoulish flavour. There is almost nothing that can be called specifically Croatian, hardly surprising given that there has hardly been an area that would answer to the name of Croatia for very long.

The Slavic tradition itself is nothing like as hard and fast as Greek mythology. There are no ancient written authorities and all that survive are the characters, but without any actual stories.

There are Gods like Perun, God of Thunder, King of the Gods, who are recognisable from all mythologies. Most of the Slavic Gods, like Veles, God of the Underworld, would feel at home round a Greek or a Norse Gods’ banqueting table. But it is the lesser deities, who inhabit the world around us every day, who give Slavic myth its own peculiar dimensions.

Harry Potter fans might recognise the Vila, fairies who appear in the shape of beautiful women. There are also the domaci, good house spirits who live in cupboards and under the stairs. And who could forget those most famous of mythological demons, the vampires and werewolves!

Some fables are specific to Croatia, like that of Malik Tintilinic, a very naughty little boy dressed in red from head to toe. Known to the story-tellers of coastal Croatia, Malik loves to joke and dance and brings good fortune to his master. Typical to all Croatian stories, though, there is a darker subtext: folk say that Malik is the spirit of an unbaptised dead child.

These, and many other Croatian stories – like the tale of the frozen city of Legen – have been adopted and put into stories by one great Croatian writer. In her Croatian Tales of Long Ago (1916), long overdue for a new English edition, Ivana Brlic Mazuranic, used the rudiments of Slavic mythology to create a real mythology just for her country Croatia.

Called by contemporaries “The Croatian Andersen”, and more recently “The Slavic Tolkien”, Ivana was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her characters include Mokos, wife or helper of the chief God Perun, who is the Earth Goddess. We also meet gods of beauty, morning, bright skies, and a sphinx-like creature who asks travellers awkward questions.

In Brlic’s work, as in all Slavic tales, everything is black and white: there are creative and destructive forces and each good character has a nemesis, an opposing force in a dualistic universe.

These are folk tales with simple messages and characters in search of narrators; luckily, although Croatian mythology lacks a Homer or an Ovid, it has its Tolkien.”

The Croats arrived to the shores of Adriatic in the 7th century, giving their contribution to the Slavic migrations across Europe. In the following eras they developed their own myths and legends, often mixing real history with the world of fables. Here are just a few of them.
The legend of the founding of Zagreb
Somewhere in the early eleventh century, a young lad decided to leave his home and become a wandering knight. He spent many years on adventures throughout the area, doing good deeds with his wit and sword. Once he was going through a dark forest in the vicinity of Bear Mountain. As it came to be, he lost his way and became mortally thirsty.
There was no stream or pond to save him, and he sat in the dirt hoping for rain. Then, all of the sudden, a beautiful maiden came out of nowhere. At that moment, he was so thirsty he could barely speak, but the girl couldn’t help him as she wasn’t carrying any water. However, she advised the knight to dig on the place of his respite.

“Zagrebite!” said the girl. Or, in English if you wish, “Scratch it!” she yelled, pointing at the dirt below the knight’s feet. The young man scratched the ground to soon find water pouring from the shallow hole he dug.
The adventurer thought young girl was of elven kind, but she introduced herself as a poor human orphan, without anybody of her own. Her name was Mandusa. The young lad smiled, named the stream Mandusevac , and asked for her hand in marriage, with promises of building a huge city in which they would dwell. As she accepted, rays of sunlight engulfed the pair, and through some kind of enchantment, showed them the size and fame of the town in the future.
Therefore, Zagreb literally means “The place which is scratched,” while its heart, Mandusevac fountain on Jelacic square, is the place it was founded. It is said that drinking the water from it will make you never forget the town, but considering that people today throw their coins into the water, stick to your camera for memories.

The stone nuptial

On the western part of Medvednica Mountain, close to the romantic town of Samobor, lies an interesting site of dolomite rocks. These stones look almost human, and as if they are participating in some kind of rite or celebration.

Croatian writer August Senoa wrote a poem explaining the nature of the place. Based on his story, there was a family running a big mill under the mountain. The owner was an honest, hardworking man, and his son was not much different. However, the miller’s wife had an evil heart.

When her son expressed his desire to marry Janja, the daughter of poor blind man without any income, the woman was shocked. If it weren’t for the young girl’s father, the marriage would not be arranged. But the anger of the miller’s wife was unstoppable, and seeing the nuptial celebration, she cursed it, transforming all participants into cold stone.

The woman, of course, regretted her words, but it was too late. The rocks, once happy cortege and now rocks under Medvednica, can be seen near Jablanovec village.

The building of Pula’s amphitheatre

The size and magnificence of Pula’s amphitheater triggered people’s imagination, and legend was formed around it. According to this tale, Istria was inhabited by a strange kind of fairies called Divicas. Although small in size and very feminine, they had remarkable physical strength and were skilled in masonry.

By nature good towards humans yet shy enough to evade any contact with them, the Divicas had another unique feature. They were nocturnal creatures which dwelled outside until the first rooster’s cry in the morning.

They once decided to build their own settlement, called Divic-town (Divic being the word used for anything miraculous in Istrian language). They took large boulders from Ucka Mountain and carried them all the way to what is now Pula. Being so powerful, they managed to build the whole amphitheater in one night. A roost cried to warn them of the approaching daylight.

The Divicas immediately left the construction yard and went to their hideouts. They didn’t have time to build the roof of the amphitheater and had hoped to finish it the following night. For some reason, they never came back. This is why Pula’s arena remains roofless.

St. Vlaho and Richard Lionheart in Dubrovnik

Saints and kings like Dubrovnik, according to two prominent legends about the town. Based on the first one, St. Vlaho (known as St. Blaise in the West) miraculously appeared to Dubrovnik cathedral’s rector named Stojko. He reported that Venetians have disembarked on neighboring Lokrum Island and were preparing an assault on the town.
Stojko shared this information with the town guard, which organized defenses and scared the enemy troops away. Because of this event, St. Vlaho became the patron saint of Dubrovnik, visible on the emblems and architecture of the place.

As for royalty, it was said that no other than the famous Richard the Lionheart of England helped build the Romanic basilica in Dubrovnik. During the third crusades, he shipwrecked in the Adriatic and managed to reach the aforementioned Lokrum Island. To thank God for survival, he gave money for the church’s construction. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in an earthquake five hundred years later, leaving the place for today’s baroque cathedral.

Many more Croatian stories can be told and shared, but for now, let’s end with these. Just remember that if you find a strange rock in Istria, leave it there. The Divicas are probably building something in the vicinity.

Folktales of mermaids falling in love with fishermen, and legends starring Zeus and Poseidon (sky and sea gods) and thunder gods are mythical elements found on the Hvar island of Croatia that echo those found in the East as well.

Miyako-jima’s Paantu Festival: Traumatizing small children to bring them good luck

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These dirt demons appear to be a variant of the namahage demons of Kanto’s northeastern coastal region. The word “paantu” for evil spirit sounds like a close cognate for “haantu” which is evil spirit for Malay language, which suggests a common Austronesian or proto-Austronesian origin.

Originally posted on RocketNews24:


Say hello to your newest recurring nightmare, kids!

Held in Miyako-jima, one of the smallest of the Okinawa Islands, Paantu is a centuries-old festival which takes place during the ninth month of the Chinese calendar each year. During the festival, groups of men are elected to dress as the paantu, evil spirits covered from head to toe with mud and foliage, and are given the task of driving out demons and cleansing the island of bad luck.

Of course, like any good festival involving involving mud-covered monsters, this also means scaring the life out of small children…

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