Wolf at the door

A marvelously informative and visual on wolves and related myths and legends from Wild in Japan…

Wild in Japan

Hi blog.

This post has been a long time coming.  The idea goes back several years, but it took a bit of luck and planning to bring it together.

There is a lot of disagreement and confusion when it comes to the Honshu wolf, one of two (or possibly more) wolves endemic to – and now extinct in – Japan.  Scientists can’t agree whether it was a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) or a separate species (Canis hodophilax).  No-one seems able to point to a single cause for their extinction (I can – I call it “the usual reasons”*).  The locals couldn’t even agree on a single name.

What we do know is that the last confirmed wolf was killed in Nara in 1905.  Apparently, there had been one kept in Ueno Zoo just over a decade before, but no photographs survive.  (And, alas, neither…

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Autumn demons, dragons and the Togakushi mountains

This post is informative, and adds to our knowledge and understanding of the connection between dragons, rain/water sources and ritual, and demon folklore and the cultural demon expulsion practices seen in many local festivals and folk legends


With autumn in full swing in the Togakushi mountains these days, here’s a few words on the connection between autumn, demons (oni 鬼) and dragons (ryuu 龍) at Togakushi.

As I described in a previous post,  the first deity encountered at Togakushi (recounted in a thirteenth century account) was the dragon, Kuzuryu 九頭龍 (literally, “nine-headed-dragon”).  Kuzuryu appeared at the mountain when the first ascetic to arrive in the region, Gakumon (9th c.), threw a ritual scepter in its direction.

Taira Koremochi unmoved by the demon-turned-beauty (or dare I say, “femme-fatale”?), Momiji.  1890.

From ancient times, Kuzuryu was believed to provide water/rain (a common belief at mountains across the Japanese archipelago and sites across Asia) but also feared in the common imagination as a mountain demon.  In one ritual for Kuzuryu dating back to the fifteenth century, participants offered up autumn Japanese maple leaves (momiji 紅葉) to…

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Tengu on a white fox

Seen on Mt Takao

Seen on Mt Takao

There is more than one version of the story behind the TENGU depicted riding a white fox (probably linked to Dakiniten-Benzaiten) One version is that the tengu is Dōryō Daigongen 道了大権現. Dōryō was a mountain ascetic before becoming a Soto Zen monk. He was eventually appointed as head cook and administrator at Daiyūzan Temple 大雄山 (Kanagawa Prefecture). After his death in 1411 AD, legend says he metamorphosed into a TENGU goblin and became the monastery guardian. According to scholar Duncan Williams in The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan (published 2005, ISBN 0-691-11928-7): “[Upon his death] his body was engulfed in flames as he appeared transformed and stood on a white fox to promise a life free from illness and full of riches for those who sincerely worshipped him.”

The other version is that the tengu is Akiba Daigongon Tengu Akihabara, Akibasan Sanshakubō 秋葉山三尺坊, Akiba Gongen, Sanshaku Gongen, Sanjakubō

In the 17th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed to SHOGUN. He brought Akiba Daigongen shrine from his hometown over here. People called this place Akihabara since this event. Akiba Daigongen is a deity who resembles a raven-like Tengu and who rides on fox. He is in charge of fire prevention. During the Edo period in Japan, fire often brought tragedy, because traditionally wooden buildings are many. So, after the Shogun brought Akiba Daigongen from his hometown Akiba Daigongen continued to be venerated by successive Shoguns.

Source: Onmark Productions’ Tengu pages

Bake-Kujira AKA Ghost Whale

Bake-Kujira / Tales of the Ghost Whale that scares fishermen out of their wits

Demons and Folklore of Ancient Japan

The Bake-Kujira (化鯨) is a mysterious sea creature that appears out of the fog to bring bad luck.

We all know about Japan’s obsession with whaling. As it turns out, before Moby Dick, there was the Bake-Kujira – a huge, ghostly whale skeleton that is accompanied by a host of strange birds and alien fish. Considered an omen, it drifts along the Japanese coastline, scaring fishermen out of their wits and delivering misfortune to anyone who spots it.


Is anybody else having Free Willy flashbacks?

One folktale describes a fisherman who, upon sighting the whale, throws his harpoon in an attempt to spear it. This tactic fails, however – the weapon simply passes through the empty space between its bones and the whale, presumably dejected that somebody tried to kill it for a second time, floats off into the night.


A distant relative, perhaps?

Perhaps the whale is the vengeful…

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Hokki Shrine: For a goddess who turned into a bird

Throughout Eurasia, many deities, royals and heroes turn into birds, according to folktales and myths, likely a tradition, a euphemistic way of saying someone had passed on, and in part, due to the millennia-long shamanic beliefs that the soul is transported to the Other World by a bird spirit (alternatively horses, dragons and dragon-horses) …

San'in Monogatari

Although the tale of Kaka-no-Kukedo, the birthplace of the primary deity of Sada Shrine, is a more riveting tale, I included another Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki legend in this story. The Fudoki (like 8th century encyclopedias of Japan) in part set out to determine names for all the major geographical features of the country, which included assigning fortuitous kanji (Chinese written characters) for them. Quite often, the names they chose required some mythological background.

This is case, a village derived its name from a little bird.

Read about this bird’s role in Japanese culture here.

The Cettia diphone, clumsily translated as the Japanese Bush Warbler or Japanese nightingale, is simpler to refer to as the known here as uguisu (鶯). In ancient times, it used to be called a houki-dori, a Houki bird (法吉鳥). The legend states that Umugi-hime (sometimes known as Umuka-hime while her sister Kisagai-hime is…

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The Legend of the Twin Pines, and Jo and Uba – the Happy Married Couple (尉と媼 Jō-to-Uba)

The Takasago happy married couple

Jotomba, the Takasago happy married couple Photo source: The Takasago Shrine

The Takasago Legend is recounted in the Daruma Museum web article, “Meoto Fufu (couple) and Enmusubi“:

“This legend is one of the oldest in Japanese mythology. An old couple – his name is Joo (尉) and hers is Uba (媼) known together as Jotomba – are said to appear from the mist at Lake Takasago. The old man and his wife are usually portrayed talking happily together with a pine tree in the background. Signifying, as they do, a couple living in perfect harmony until they grow old together, they have long been a symbol of the happiness of family life. The story is portrayed in a famous Noo play “Takasago no Uta”

At Takasago Shrine there is a very old pine tree, the trunk of which is bifurcated (相生の松); in it dwells the spirit of the Maiden of Takasago who was seen once by the son of Izanagi who fell in love and wedded her. Both lived to a very great age, dying at the same hour on the same day, and since then their spirits abide in the tree, but on moonlight nights they return to human shape to revisit the scene of their earthly felicity and pursue their work of gathering pine needles.

His pine tree is also called “The Pine of Sumi-no-e” (住吉の松) and hers is the Takasago pine (高砂の松). The old woman is using a broom to sweep away trouble and he carries a rake to rake in good fortune. In Japanese this is also a play of words with “One Hundred Years” (haku > sweeping the floor) and “until 99 years” (kujuku made > kumade, meaning a rake).

In Japan, at wedding ceremonies, the Takasago song is recited and Takasago figures are put on a special “Island Shelf” called called Shimadai (島台) together with auspicious Pine-Bamboo-Plum and Crane with Turtle decorations placed in the wedding room and presented to the bridal couple. Depictions of the Takasago figures can be made from lacquer, ceramics, wood carvings and textiles and are to invoke a long and fruitful married life for the newlyweds. These figurines are also given as presents for a wedding aniversary of 25 or 50 or more years. For the diamond wedding aniversary of 60 years, some communities also give Takasago Dolls to the happy couple….

Takasago city is located in Hyogo prefecture in Western Japan. It is situated on the Seto Inland Sea approximately 40 kilometers west of Kobe. …

“Takasago is well known as the birthplace of classical song “Yookyoku Takasago”, which is a famous wedding song throughout Japan, and thus the town was declared as “The Bridal City Takasago” in 1988.”

The story recounted by the Noh play of the shrine, however, focuses on the story of the twin pines.

“A priest from the Kyushu Aso Shrine arrives at Takasago. The spring weather is pleasant and the pine trees are beautiful. In the distance he hears a bell toll. An elderly couple arrive and begin to sweep the area under the pine bower. The old man recites a poem from the Kokin Wakashū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems), a collection of waka poetry. The poem describes Takasago and Sumioe wedded pines (相生の松 aioi no matsu), paired pine trees that, according to legend, will remain together for eternity. He explains that these wedded pines are a symbol of the marital relationship. The priest says that all relationships, indeed all life, falls short of the ideal expressed in the poem.

At this point, the old couple reveal that they are the spirits of the Takasago and Sumioe pines, and they set sail across the bay in a small boat. As the tide goes out, the priest also sets sail, at which point the “From Takasago, sailing over the bay…” chant is recited.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to the Takasago Shrine in Takasago city, Hyogo, the shrine legend surrounded a pair of trees called Jō (尉 “old man”) and Uba (姥 “old woman”) – bearing the legend, “We kami reside in these trees to show the world the way of marital virtue” 「我神霊をこの木に宿し世に夫婦の道を示さん.  the aioi no matsu twin pines were already in existence within the shrine grounds at its founding.

The twin pine couple, at the heart of the plot of a traditional Noh play, is considered to be a very auspicious story as it features a loving and long-married couple. The play was formerly known as Aioi(相生) or Twin Pines (相生松 Aioi Matsu).

During the play a singer chants, “From Takasago, sailing over the bay, sailing over the bay, the moon goes out with the tide, past the silhouette of Awaji Island, far over the sea to Naruo, arriving at Suminoe, arriving at Suminoe”,[note 1] referencing several places in what are now Hyōgo and Osaka Prefectures. This is considered a classic Noh chant, taken from a classical poem signifying harmony between husband and wife.

Furthermore, the shrine history is entwined with founding legends of Japan:

“When the Empress Jinguu returned in triumph from Korea, her ship stopped at Takasago port. She built a large shrine to maintain control of the country. According to the shrine’s story, when the Empress Jingu returned in triumph from Korea, her ship stopped at Takasago port. She built large shrine to maintain control of the country. It was dedicated to “Onamuchi-no-Mikoto”, one of the ancient gods, at the shrine’s foundation. At that time the Aioi Pines sprouted. In 972 this shrine was also dedicated to “Susano-no-Mikoto” and “Kushinadahime-no-Mikoto”, who were ancient gods as well as married couple. After that these three deities became the main Gods of Takasago Shrine.”

Thus we can surmise that the happy married couple folklore existed by late 10th c. (the inclusion of the twin pines tradition could have been a nod to indigenous earlier folk or village guardian deities), and was regarded as important enough to be included alongside of the three main gods venerated by the shrine.

This legend is the likely the source of the jo-to-uba stones (see photos of jo-to-uba couple stones of Gunma prefecture and Izu peninsula at the Dosojin page, Onmark Productions website), or possibly a conflation of legends behind the dosojin stones seen all over the countryside of Japan.

One of the many Dosojin couple stones (or Dotomba stones), Asao ward, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa Photo: Japanese Mythology

One of the ubiquitous Dosojin couple stones (or Dotomba stones) of the Kanto area, Asao ward, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa Photo: Japanese Mythology

Besides the Jo and Uba couple who are more like an ancestral guardian deity than a primordial pair-cosmic couple, other local legendary sources of a cosmic primordial couple exist in Japan as well, see Ainu legend of the demiurge, cosmic creation and first human coupleThe most secret Primordial Pair: Kamuro-gi and Kamuro-mi; and Izanami and Izanagi.

It is nevertheless also possible and likely that the happy couple legend or stone tradition arrived from ancient continental sources, since they tend to be placed as crossroad or byroad markers suggesting their protective value to travelers. On the continent, couple or primordial pair myths too existed, eg. the Nuwa legend of the brother-and-sister primordial pair; the Miao cosmic coupleThe embracing Sky Father and Mother Earth and the Heavenly Ropevine. The Do-to-Uba and Dosojin couple are more reminiscent of the other not-so-much Primordial or Cosmic Couple, as a genealogical or ancestral lineage couple, such as the Ashinazuchi ancestral couple. In many of the Mongol, and ruling Ashina clan genealogies, a key ancestral couple is featured either in passing or central to some genealogical tale (see “Cultural heroes and agricultural gods in elderly garb“). Twin tree legends or sacred tree spirits or pair deities with significance for marriage and couple fertility are even more common around the world, see The Marriage (“Lianli” or Entwined) Tree of the Forbidden City (China), Frazer’s The Golden Bough or Goddard’s The Golden Bough, p. 163 and

Sources and further reading:

“相生松と尉と姥 [Twin pines jō and uba]”. 高砂神社 [Takasago Shrine]. Retrieved 2013-07-13

Meoto Fufu and Enmusubi“, Gabi Greve, Daruma Museum

Dosojin, Onmark Productions