Skip to main content

Tamagawa Daishi, a temple for sheep and godly guts

I promised you a sheep, so here’s your sheep. Or rather, here are your sheep, since there are two of them.

This is the year of the sheep, according to Chinese astrology, which means temples and shrines with a sheep connection, however tenuous, will be more popular than usual.

Yes, dear hearts, of course there are sheep shrines and temples!

Because Japan.

Sheep statue at Tamagawa Daishi

The two shrines that got the most attention in the media at the beginning of the year were Hitsuji Jinja (羊神社) in Nagoya and Hitsuji Jinja (羊神社) near Isobe Station in Gunma. = the zodiac sign of the sheep. Read more about them here.

Tokyo itself has two places of worship with a sheep association, Ōkunitama Jinja (大国魂神社) and Tamagawa Daishi (玉川大師), but the connection requires a bit of explanation. Hang in there; I'll keep it short.



Ōkunitama Jinja

The god that is enshrined at Ōkunitama Jinja is Kunitama, a very old deity that's regarded as the spirit of the land. He's associated with the sign of the sheep, for reasons that I haven't been able to figure out, but several Japanese sites refer to this connection (link, link, link).

I wrote about Ōkunitama Jinja at length in this post.

Tamagawa Daishi

This temple is associated with sheep because … this is getting embarrassing … I'm not sure, but I know it's a Shingon temple and all Shingon temples are associated with the sign of the sheep.

Furthermore, the temple has an underground corridor that symbolizes the intestines of Dainichi Nyorai (大日如来), known as Vairocana in Sanskrit, who's the embodiment of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. He's also associated with the sign of the sheep.

Don't ask me what the link is between gods and guts and quadrupedal, ruminant mammals. I know not. All I know is that Tamagawa Daishi has two sheep statues, so instead of fretting over reasons, let's just accept that lambs doth gambol here.

Tamagawa Daishi

Sheep statue at Tamagawa Daishi

Thus we went walkpeditioning

What a demotion: the intrepid elephant huntress was in pursuit of sheep! To add insult to injury, in an area that she tends to avoid at all costs: Futako-Tamagawa. I enjoyed my little excursion, though, since FT (I keep wanting to write pffft!) is an amusing place.

It's as Western as it gets in Tokyo: a plethora of European/American brand name shops, French restaurants and hair stylists. Crikey moses, there are many hair stylists in FT, but I guess the Ladies Who Lunch have to look their best. Talking of which, it's an impressive collection of coiffed, coutured, manicured and pedicured females. They all look exactly the same: camel-coloured coats, black pencil skirts, black tights, black stiletto boots that would kill me in 13 seconds flat, bangs, long hair layered and curled just so around the face, generous lashings of face powder, false eyelashes, false nails, probably falsies as well.

Meantime I was marching along in my beloved hiking boots and faded 20-year-old Levis and too big coat-that-looks-like-a-blanket, with a haphazard ponytail and a red nose (it was cold!) and, as per usual, zero makeup. Probably, as per usual, with a scowl as well.

Especially when I walked past a very noisy elementary school. Japan has a birthrate problem? Really? Not in FT, where the Ladies Who Lunch clearly devote some of their energy to begetting, producing and dressing-in-Dolce&Gabbana the next generation.

Why are kids so loud?

Anyway. Sheep. We're supposed to talk about sheep.

Tamagawa Daishi, built in 1925, is primarily famous for the twisting 100-meter corridor underneath it. This corridor, symbolizing the intestines of Dainichi Nyorai, includes 300 Buddha statues, 33 Kannon statues and a chamber with 88 statues that represent the 88 temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage.

You gain access by entering the temple, depositing ¥100 and then plunging into the guts of the earth. Or the god. Whatever, it's pitch-black, and you have to feel your way around by keeping a hand on the walls.

It might surprise you that I was totally OK. I get claustrophobic in crowds, not in small spaces. There were a few other people – all of us semi-giggling, semi-stumbling and semi-cursing – but not enough to make me panic.

Nevertheless, I didn't exactly linger, and I was very happy to get excreted, as it were, into the icy wind that was blowing from the Tama River. (It was so strong that it made commuters stagger on the FT Station platform, which is almost above the river. I wanted to take a picture of the river, but dang, it was too cold.)

You're not supposed to take photos in the corridor, and the ill-mannered, law-breaking, dangerous criminal from the darkest continent obeyed that request. Other law-abiding Japanese citizens felt more adventurous. I found some photos on the internet, which I'll share here. You can also take a look at this.

Nope, not mine.

You can read another account of capering through the god's guts on Terra's blog. Since she's also a lawless furriner, she didn't take pictures inside the tunnel either.


List of sheep shrines/temples, given in Japanese because you'll find more Japanese than English information about them: 羊神社(愛知)、大国魂神社(東京)、玉川大師(東京)、法輪寺(京都)、 教楽院大日堂(宮城)、唐招提寺金堂(奈良)、高野山金剛峯寺(和歌山)、 全国の真言宗の寺院。

Statue of Kūkai (空海), also known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師)

Memorial to pets

Incense sticks. I was playing around with focus in this photo.

Oh, looky here, Fudō Myōō (不動明王), the wisdom king!

Ema with Kōbō-Daishi

Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…

The Tenen Hiking Trail in Kamakura

"I can't do this anymore," my colleague said. The bell for the next lesson had just rung, but he was still sitting in his chair, looking like Marvin the Paranoid Android.
He's an eikaiwa veteran who's had a stint as a school manager, and he's a genuinely good teacher, but he's reached that saturation level that hits any eikaiwa teacher with half a brain and a smidgen of goodwill.
Eikaiwa teaching is a thoroughly unnatural job: you're supposed to make entertaining small talk with strangers you may never see again, and you're supposed to do this for eight hours. If it's an interesting person, great, but sometimes you're stuck with Kenji whose hobby is sleeping or Mariko whose hobby is to go to shopping.
I grimaced in sympathy. Only two things keep me going right now: knowing that university classes will resume shortly, and hiking. As I observed my colleague, I made an instant decision: Kamakura. Friday, my day off, Tenen Hiking Trail.


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.

Happy birthday, Mum!

Here's an August flower for you.  Not your beloved cherry blossoms, but your favourite colour. I miss you.

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…

How to control a killer flood on the Sumida River

This is epic! It started with mild curiosity. Why doesn't Tokyo do more with its rivers? Instead of entombing them in concrete, why not more parks and boats and bridle paths?
Then it escalated. Where does the Sumida River start? Why is the Arakawa in Tokyo such a straight line? Surely that's not natural? Iwabuchi sluice. What's that? Great Kanto Flood 1910. Cripes, look!, Sensō-ji was under water. Why is there so little information in English? Wait, hang on, Wikipedia is wrong!
Thus idle speculation unleashed a growing fascination with Tokyo's flood control techniques: a complex system of rivers, canals, sluices, locks, controlled water levels, super levees, evacuation areas and a massive underground discharge channel in Saitama. Research proved interesting but frustrating, so I rejected academia in favor of empirical evidence: I walked along Tokyo's most important waterway, the Sumida, from its origin in Kita-ku to Tokyo Bay. I covered 25 km and passed over/under…

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…

Hiking in Nikko to Takinoo Jinja

Polish your boots, get your backpack and grab your camera. We're going hiking again, and this time we'll follow in the footsteps of a holy man.
Shōdō Shōnin (勝道上人) was one of the great monks of the Heian era. Not only the first person to explore the mountains of  Nikko, he also founded several temples in this area, including Shiunryū-ji (present-day Rinnō-ji) and Chūzen-ji.

It is said that when he wanted to cross the Daiya River, a flood cut off his access to the mountains beyond. A deity appeared on the opposite bank and threw two snakes across the raging river. The snakes turned into a bridge, and Shōdō could cross safely.
After his death in March 817 he was buried in Nikko. His statue stands at the entrance to the Nikko World Heritage Site in honour of his contribution to Buddhism in Japan.

You can still walk along one of his routes, a meandering trail¹ that takes you behind the famous Tōshō-gū, across the hills, past a famous waterfall and into a quiet gorge – no tourists! –…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …