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

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…

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…

South Africa is not a safety country (hallelujah)

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

Thunder myths in Japan

Last night we had a magnificent thunderstorm in Tokyo, so today: a post about thunder! I've also discovered that there's a thunder temple in the shitamachi, but I'm going to keep you in suspense. I'll try to get there today, provided it stops drizzling, but it probably justifies its own post. Meantime … Raijin (雷神)
The god of thunder is called Raijin, Kaminari-sama or Raiden-sama, and he loves to eat the belly buttons of children. When there's thunder, parents tell their kids to hide their navels so that Raijin can't kidnap them.
Quakes, thunder, fire and father
Traditionally the Japanese feared four things in ascending order of severity: 地震·雷·火事·親父, jishin (earthquake), kaminari (thunder), kaji (fire), oyaji (father). The father was the most terrifying because in old days he had complete control over his household. (I can hear men sigh with longing, "When did it all go wrong?") I've also seen a slight adaptation:地震·雷·火事·大山風. The first three terrors r…

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

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…

Swing yourself into good luck at Ana Hachiman-gū

I'm not superstitious. I firmly believe that chocolate ensures mental health and books bring eternal happiness, and that's why I gather as much of both as I can, but that's science, not superstition. Don't you dare argue with me.
That doesn't mean I don't find superstitions interesting. Anything that humankind applies to explain what it doesn’t understand yet – or should that be to understand what it can't explain yet? – any fire that the talking ape lights in an attempt to keep the darkness at bay interests me, be it religion, mythology, superstition or folktales.
Why are we always asking why? That's what I want to know. Anyway.
When I heard about a shrine in Waseda that has a "return of spring = change in fortune = swing from the negative to the positive" festival, complete with charms and whatnot, plus a quirky combination of astronomy and astrology, I toddled along.
It's held at Ana Hachiman-gū (穴八幡宮), and it’s called Ichiyō Raifuku (…

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.

The bridges across the Sumida River

The Sumida River covers a distance of 27 km from Kita-ku to Tokyo Bay, but its most interesting section is – of course! – the one that runs through the shitamachi.
Today, in the second part of my Sumida series, I'll cover the lower section from Shirahigebashi to Eitaibashi. I originally included extra information about the river's main shrines, for example a shrine that's dedicated to the river god himself, but the post got so long that you would've fallen asleep halfway through. Let's focus on the bridges, and then I'll interrupt my series with an extra post about the gods.
This section has the most interesting bridges, several of which were constructed by Kawasaki Steel Construction (currently Kawasaki Heavy Industries) after older bridges collapsed in the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. The company rebuilt a total of 25 bridges using 16 000 tonnes of steel after that quake, including Shirahigebashi, Kiyosubashi and Eitaibashi. The Sumida bridges became famo…