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Hunting demons on Tokyo's rooftops

I'm turning into Japan's top rooftop expert: if I'm not chasing robbers on roofs, shooting foxes on roofs or lying in puddles on roofs, I'm hunting down demons, tigers and fish on roofs. (Yes, of course there are fish on roofs in Japan. Where do you want them to be? Rivers? Don't be silly.)

Since I've started wandering through Tokyo with my camera, I've learned that eye level is often boring. Look down. Look up. That's where the interesting stuff is. Take temple roofs, where several captivating creatures prowl.


Temples and castles are often decorated with shachihiko (), an animal from Japanese folklore with the head of a tiger and the body of a fish. (That kanji can also be pronounced shachi, in which case it refers to an orca.) It's believed that this animal can cause rain to fall, in other words, it offers protection against fire.

You always see them in pairs, sometimes facing inwards, usually facing outwards. One is male, one is female. They always stand upside down with their heads on the roof, supporting their weight on their fins and raising their bodies with their tails curving upwards. They have sharp, thorn-like projections growing from the back of their head to their tail, and a spouting hole on the top of their head. They're supposed to be so powerful that they can kill a big whale instantly.

Beautiful shachihiko at Yushima Seidō in Ochanomizu

You will never see a shachihiko lying down or swimming along. They're always kiertsregop. That's an Afrikaans word that means ramrod straight. Since they look so rigid in their pose, their name is used in the expression 鯱張る, shachihiko-baru, which means to stand on ceremony or to stiffen up.

You mostly see them on rooftops, but occasionally they guard doors. A good example is the pair at the Yūshūkan or war museum at Yasukuni Jinja. See photos below.


You also see onigawara (鬼瓦, ogre tile) on temples, placed at both ends of the main roof ridge. They usually depict a demon or some scary beast. They were originally plain tiles meant to prevent leaks or general weathering, but during the Heian period (794-1185) they assumed a protective role – and their current unnerving appearance – to ward off evil spirits or fire.

Onigawara on a sub-temple at Zōjō-ji in Minato-ku


The third kind of rooftop decoration is called shibi (鴟尾), also set on both ends of the ridge. The first kanji means kite, the second one means tail. The tile looks a bit like a shoe, and is sometimes called kutsugata (沓形, shoe shape). See photos below.


Finally, a critter that's not really on roofs, but lurking underneath them. It's called a baku (), and it eats bad dreams! It has the trunk of an elephant, the eyes of a rhino, the tail of a cow and the paws of a tiger; and it's often placed under the eaves of temples and shrines to ward off evil spirits. You can also see this kanji written on the hull of the Seven Lucky Gods' boat.

It gets even better. Having nightmares? Draw a picture of a baku and place it under your pillow. The baku will gobble up your bad dreams and you'll sleep in blissful peace. You should also place such a drawing under your pillow on the evening between 1 and 2 January: if you have a good dream during this period, you'll be lucky for the rest of the year.

There are dreams that even a baku wouldn't touch. If you tell your friend about a particularly foolish dream, you might be greeted with raised eyebrows and a dismissive "even a baku wouldn't eat that".

Sapphire wrote a lovely post about baku here.

Baku at Yushima Seidō

That's it. There are many more creatures that protect us against evil spirits, such as lion-dogs and dragons, but that's another story for another day.

Yushima Seidō. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Yushima Seidō

A tiger on Yushima Seidō's roof

Yushima Seidō

Shachihiko in front of  the Yūshūkan at Yasukuni Jinja


Baku at Shibamata Taishakuten

Baku at a shrine in Kyoto Gyoen

Cute baku at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto

This is a very bad photo, but it's the only one I have of the shibi on Yōgōdō at Sensō-ji. It's there. Promise.

Close-up of the shibi on Yōgōdō. Photo credit:  

Bonus photo 1! Sometimes there's a bird on the roof. This one's at Yushima Tenman-gū. No, Lina, I don't  know why.

Bonus photo 2! Nothing to do with demons. I saw these two cute sculptures on a roof next to the Philosopher's Walk in Kyoto.

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