Origin of onigawara ogre-goblin tile production dates from the 6th century Asuka Period


Onigawara goblin gargoyle or roof tile ornament

Kawara means roofing tile and Onigawara (鬼瓦 ) are a type of Japanese ogre- or goblin- gargoyle and roof tile ornamentation found in Japanese architecture. Literally translated as ‘ogre tile’, the roof tile ornaments traditionally depict a Japanese ogre (oni) or a fearsome beast, but also commonly include many other motifs such as floral (alternatively known as hanagawara 花瓦) and animal designs. Swirling or wave patterns found at the bottom right and left of the onigawara are called hire 鰭.

A magnificent example of onigawara at the 1,400 year old Ono-Jodoji temple. Prince Shotoku, is said to be the founder of Onomichi’s Jodoji Temple which is also famous for its connection with the Shogun Takauji Ashikaga, who is said to have worshipped here. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Onigawara are usually made of fired clay  but may occasionally be made of stone or wood.

The oni goblin design motif is thought to have originated from a previous architectural element, the oni-ita,  鬼板 which is a board painted with the face of an oni and was meant to stop roof leaks. The provenance of the earliest onigawara is thought to have been Silla (southeast Korean kingdom)… perhaps of Persian influence.

The earliest kawara tiles are dated to the Asuka Period in the middle of the 6th Century, at the same time Buddhism was introduced from Kudara, now Korea. Kawara tiles were reportedly first used for the Asukadera Temple in Japan. Their manufacture was supervised by tile craftsmen dispatched from the southwestern Korean kingdom of Paekche (Kudara). At the time, temples were the only buildings allowed to use Kawara roofing tiles.

A roofing tile excavated from the ruins of the Asukadera site.

In the Nara period, however, Kawara began to be used for various other types of buildings.  Roof tiles began to be used on palace buildings only after the end of the 7th century, beginning with the Fujiwara-no-miya palace. Government-operated workshops (kobo) appeared and were administered as a part of the ritsuryo governmental system which was becoming established toward the end of the 7th century. The kawara workshops and industry made the mass production of such large quantities of tiles possible. Historically however, Kawara manufacture first emerged in China around 2,800 years ago.

Nara Period onigawara from Todaiji (Kondo structure) Temple. Photo: Fidel Ramos

The largest onigawara (World Guiness Records) made of clay, measures 9 m (29 ft 6 in) tall and 8.8 m (28 ft 10 in) wide, is found on the rooftop of the main building of Nenbutsushu Muryojuji Temple , Mikawa Bay.

In Okinawa, shisa lion roof gargoyles originating from China, are traditional fixtures since ancient times. They have a protective function of warding off evil.

Open-mouthed Shisa gargoyle on a traditional tile roof in Okinawa Prefecture. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Kawara tiles became popular in the Edo period, with new styles introduced. Their widespread use was encouraged because they are fire proof.  There are now more than 1,000 varieties of design shapes of Kawara tiles.

Kawara are of two main types in Japan: Nyouyaku Gawara or Glazed tiles and Ibushi Kawara or tiles which have oxidized and formed a silver- colored carbon film.

Today, Sanshuu Kawara in Aichi, Awaji Kawara in Hyogo and Sekishu Kawara in Shimane are the three biggest production districts of high quality Kawara and represent the finest in Japanese roofing tile making.


Various styles and types of Kawara tiles, according to ASUKA Roof tiles (Kawara):

“Roofs of temples and palace buildings were covered with “round roof tiles” (marugawara, curved downward) and “curved roof tiles” (hiragawara wider with a slight upward curve), arranged in alternate rows. Row ends were ornamented with “round roof-edge tiles” (noki marugawara) and “curved roof-edge tiles” (noki hiragawara), both of which bore designs on their outward-facing surfaces.

Round roof-edge tiles primarily made use of lotus flower designs (rengemon). The majority of such tiles from the end of the 6th century and the first half of the 7th century have simple “individual petal” (tanben) designs of Paekche (southwest Korean) inspiration. However, there are also some tiles of Koguryo (north Korean) inspiration, having vertical ridges (see illustration “d”, page 86), as well as tiles running down the middle of each petal which have Silla (southeast Korean) affinities, showing animal or demon faces.

After around the middle of the 7th century, a new type of tile made its appearance. As in the case of the round roof-end tiles from the Yamadadera, there came into popularity a “layered individual petal” (juben) pattern characterized by smaller petals decoratively superimposed on the larger ones. On some tiles from this period, additional geometric designs concentrically arranged around the circumference of the lotus pattern had begun to appear. Then, during the latter part of the 7th century, from the time of the building of the Kawaradera onward, the most commonly used basic pattern, influenced by Tang Chinese tiles, came to be the “composite-petal” (fukuben) pattern, with the larger petals arranged in pairs, and two smaller petals superimposed on each pair. Round roofedge tiles developed elaborate design modifications such as sawtooth patterns around the outer rims.

Curved roof-edge tiles (noki hiragawara) first appeared during the first half of the 7th century. The curved roof-edge tiles of the Sakatadera have arabesque patterns (karakusamon) incised by hand. Around the middle of the 7th century, “layered arc patterns” (Jukomon) were in vogue. but by the. latter part of the century, arabesque patterns again comprised the mainstream of noki hiragawara decorative art. Temples vied with one another in devising original designs for their round and curved roof-edge tiles, seen as forming a set.”

See related: videoclip of nokimarugawara style tiles. These are semi-cylindrical pendant tiles found at the end of eaves designed to prevent rainwater from seeping between and under the roofing tiles and roof sheathing. The nokimarugawara are found in borders, alternating with concave rectangular pendant tiles.

Another common motif is the swirling tomoe pattern found on tomoegawara 巴瓦 tiles. This image is also found on Chinese roof tiles and is believed to symbolize water as the Chinese character for tomoe 巴 means “whirlpool” or “eddy”. These swirls are thus said to be symbols related to water, and as such are believed to offer protection against the dangers of fire. The basic tomoe style is believed to have originated in China which in turn may have been influenced by other Silk Road cultures (notably the triskeles found on Greek and Eastern Iranian warrior shieldspre-Roman Galicia and pre-Celtic Bronze Age Ireland; bronze discs of the La Tene culture in Romania; coinage of Gaul. The tomoe has been utilized in Japan as warrior shield decorations since at least the Yayoi period (300 BC-300 AD). Other scholars are of the view the tomoe originated as the design on leather clothing or wrist-guards worn by ancient archers (tomo 鞆 thus tomo-e 鞆絵). The use of tomoe motif is well known from the Heian Period, particularly as the warrior-associated kamon heraldic coat of arms (ka means ‘family’ and mon means ‘crest’). The tomoe design also has spiritual connotations and is often found on religious implements and in conjunction with temple and shrine architecture (source: JAANUS).


Recommended Field Trip

Visit the Kawara Museum of the City of Takahama, in Aichi prefecture — the only art museum in the world that specializes in the theme of roof tiles, and just outside the museum, the one-and-a-half-mile goblin trail or “Oni-no-michi” which is dotted with various examples of scowling onigawara. “Kawara” is translated as “roof tile.”

Examine the unmatched kawara tile display in Kawara Museum. Located in Takahama City, which, together with neighbouring Hekinan, has been a major centre of roof-tile (kawara) production for centuries and remains the main producer of Sanshu-kawara with Japan’s top domestic output of kawara.

At the Kawara Museum you can obtain an up-close look at the best of the region’s roof tiles, and feel the beauty and appeal of kawara through the outstanding collection and exhibits of pottery products including kawara from different periods and pottery-producing regions across Japan, as well as kawara/pottery from around the world.

In addition, artwork (paintings, block prints, ukiyoe – Japanese woodblock prints, calligraphy, photography, etc.) and literature related to kawara/pottery can also be viewed at the museum.  Art students can find inspiration in the landscape designs and roof tile paintings as artistic motifs.

Visitors can also experience the joy of hands-on pottery-making by kneading clay at the half-day workshop.

Kawara Museum (Cultural Institution)

かわら美術館 Kawara Bijutsukan9-6-18 Aoki-cho, Takahama city 444-1325   Tel: 0566-52-3366

Access: 8 minutes on foot from Takahama-minato station on Meitetsu Mikawa line. From Meitetsu Nagoya Station to Takahamako Station on the Meitetsu Mikawa Line – Hekinan direction through Chiryu Station (approx. 50 mins, 710 yen), an approx. 10-minute walk from Takahamako Station

To view a stunning collection of onigawara, go to the online Flicker gallery of onigawara photos, and click here and here.


Onigawara (the JAANUS archive)

Kawara Roofing Tile (NIPPON-KICHI website)

Onigawara (Onmark productions)

Onigawara, les gargouilles japonaises

Onigawara (Wikipedia)

Onigawara ridge-end tiles

ASUKA HISTORICAL MUSEUM website “Roofing Tiles (Kawara)

Kawara Museum, of the City of Takahama

Kawara-Kan Tile Museum (Kikuma town, Imabari)

Kawara Museum (Omihachiman, Shiga)

Kawara-bei at Zen temples

Kawara and Ji-gawara

What’s up in Aichi (on the Kawara Museum and goblin trail

Nokimarugawara tiles (JAANUS archive archive)

Tomoegawara (JAANUS)

Ceramic Roof Tile – Nokimarugawara Type Japan Kawara on swirling tomoe symbolism

沖縄諸島における琉球瓦の再編年 Revised Chronology of Ryukyu Roof Tiles in Okinawa Islands by Uehara Shizuka, provides a review of the chronology of modern eaves tiles.


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