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The three-legged crow that guides gods and soccer balls

Zōjō-ji (増上寺) is a popular temple amongst tourists – it's big, famous, close to Tokyo Tower, in the heart of upmarket Minato. They stream in, take photos of the main temple, take more photos of the hundreds of Jizō statues lining the road. They ignore the nondescript shrine next to the main gate; or wander in, look bewildered, wander out. Sometimes you'll see a local resident praying at this shrine, but mostly it's empty.

Silly people. This is the most interesting part of the entire complex. (Except if your name is Sarah, in which case you'll vote for the Tokugawa cemetery at the back of the temple complex.) It's called Kumano Jinja (熊野神社), and its main deity is Yatagarasu (八咫), the three-legged crow that accompanied the legendary first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, on his journey from the region which would become Kumano to what would become Yamato.

Yatagarasu on the chōzuya (water purification basin) at Kumano Jinja

Here's a translation from the Nihon Shoki, the historical record of ancient Japan that was completed in 720:
Then Amaterasu no Ōkami instructed the Emperor in a dream of the night, saying: "I will now send thee the Yatagarasu, make it thy guide through the land." Then there did indeed appear the Yatagarasu flying down from the Void. The Emperor said: "The coming of this crow is in due accordance with my auspicious dream. How grand! How splendid! My imperial ancestor, Amaterasu no Ōkami, desires therewith to assist me in creating the hereditary institution."
Here at Zōjō-ji, the powerful crow spirit is said to protect the temple's Demon Gate (鬼門 Kimon), in other words, the dangerous northeast where demons traditionally enter. It seems to be extending its benevolence to its neighbour, the temple's main gate or Sangedatsumon (三解脱門), since the latter is the only construction at the temple complex to have survived WWII. It's said that if you pass through this gate, you'll be delivered from man's three earthly states: greed, hatred and foolishness.

The entrance to Kumano Jinja

The main gate at Zōjō-ji, seen from inside the temple complex.
Kumano Jinja is to the left of the gate in this photo.

The three-legged crow is found in several myths in Asia, Asia Minor and North Africa, and is usually associated with the sun. The Japanese version is called Yatagarasu or eight-span crow, in other words, a very big, supreme or divine crow. Eight in Japanese numerology refers to many, a multitude or supreme.

Yatagarasu is probably based on ancient Chinese myths. I quote from Shinto: At the Fountainhead of Japan by Jean Herbert: 
Various Western scholars have propounded the theory that Yatagarasu is merely a transposition of the Chinese three-legged crow, sometimes red, a symbol of the sun. As a matter of fact there is a Chinese myth of ten crows perched on a mulberry tree who flew from it in turn to bring daylight to the world.
The three-legged crow in Chinese mythology is called Sānzúwū (三足烏). It dates back to the Zhou dynasty (11th to 3rd century BC), when it appeared as a decoration on formal imperial garments.

Why three legs? Mark Schumacher says, "It has three legs, according to the Huáinánzǐ (2nd century BC Chinese text), because three is the emblem of Yang – and the supreme essence of Yang is the sun."

Green Shinto says the three legs may represent the three ancient clans that dominated Kumano’s history; or perhaps the three main virtues of the gods, chi (wisdom), jin (benevolence) and yuu (valor); or it may stand for heaven, earth and mankind as in the Taoist triad.

The three-legged crow remains a popular figure in Japan; as a matter of fact, it's the symbol of the Japan Football Association. If it can guide a god, it can guide a soccer ball. My pet theory is that Yatagarasu also protects Tokyo's crows. These birds are lethal, super-scary and fear nothing, except possibly obachan with sharp elbows. (Edit added 5 June: Japan has qualified for the 2014 World Cup! Thanks, Yatagarasu! Read more here.)


The chōzuya at Kumano Jinja

The small shrine at Kumano Jinja

I grinned when I spotted this. "There, I fixed it for you."

I struggled to get a good shot of this: three tiny prints left by three tiny feet.

Self-portrait: Ru reflected in a polished temple fixture.

Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow deity

The real-life version photographed at Zōjō-ji

Tokyo Tower seen from Kumano Jinja

The main temple at Zōjō-ji with Tokyo Tower in the background. The photo
was taken in early spring (just as well, otherwise the tree would've
obscured the view).

The Jizō statues next to Zōjō-ji

This one's for Sarah: the (usually locked) gate to the Tokugawa cemetery.

The family crest of the Tokugawa clan

Tokugawa crest on an ema at Zōjō-ji

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