Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Dear Dad, this one's for you

Dear Dad,

You would've been 100 years old today. I didn't do anything lawyerly on your birthday, but ... I've never told you ... but three years ago, when I was on holiday in the United Kingdom, I spent a day in the Temple area of London, visiting the Inns of Court and the Royal Courts of Justice. It was so easy to imagine you there. I would've enjoyed your company, and I wish we could've popped into a pub to talk. Or argue. Probably. Happy century, Dad. I hope you still have tennis, and rugby, and books, and a veld for a walk.

Miss you!

The daughter who was born last

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hōzuki Ichi (Chinese lantern plant market)

I've written about this market before; this time I'm shamelessly copying an old post. The photos are new, though. ;)

Every year on 9 and 10 July a Chinese lantern market is held at Sensō-ji. "Chinese lantern" is a plant: scientific name Physalis alkekengi, Japanese namehōzuki. They have translucent orange pods that might remind you of Chinese lanterns, and they were used as a medicine for fever, gout and just about any ailment you can think of.
The temple's precinct is packed with 200 hōzuki vendors selling plants for ¥2000 to ¥2500, and wind chimes (fūrin). This year my visit was brief, because Sensō-ji has become a rather unpleasant experience. Too many tourists. Sigh.

South Africa is not a safety country (hallelujah)

I did. Smile. Nonstop. Al die pad dwarsdeur end-uit.