Unique Swords with the Finest Edge

In a previous set or articles, brave acts with the Japanese spear were covered, as well as a few famous ones that still exist today¹. These examples illustrate the importance this weapon had in Japanese history. The same can be said about the Japanese sword, with a great amount of stories especially coming forth during the Edo period; these are often painted as an essential tool part of the arsenal of warriors during the Sengoku period, as well as being the symbol of the samurai class during the Edo period. Many of the tales concerning swords even touch on levels one would deem supernatural.

For this article, we’ll look at 3 unique stories that tell about amazing feats done with the Japanese sword. Each story has an interesting point to illustrate, which ranges from the greatness of the wielder to the sword itself being nothing short of mystical. As amazing the feat is, keep in mind that they shouldn’t be taken literally.

STORY #1: YAGYŪ AND THE DIVIDED STONE

There is a legendary story that comes from the Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine (天石立神社, Ama-no-Iwatate Jinja) in Nara prefecture, which is home to a very large stone on its property. Measuring at about 26 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 6 feet & 1/2 high, this stone is fabled as the very one used by the Sun Goddess Amaterasu to seal herself in a cave. Today, it is a critical center piece behind the founding of Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine. However, the story we will be reviewing isn’t about the shrine’s origin, but concerns one of the more renown swordsmen during Edo period, whose name is Yagyū Muneyoshi (柳生宗厳).

A section for the Shinkage ryū scroll known as “mokuroku”. Here, instructions on kenjutsu is given with the use of an illustration consisting of a tengu. From Wikipedia.

A seasoned warrior on the battlefield during Japan’s warring years, Muneyoshi is the founder of Shinkage ryū (柳生新陰流) during the Edo period, a popular martial system that specialized in combat with the Japanese sword, which many still practice today. Well, it just so happens that the large stone of Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine also plays a significant role in how Muneyoshi founded his style.

There was a time Muneyoshi went on a training journey to further improve his sword skills. For this, he went to Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine and stayed there for awhile. One day, when he was training on the grounds of the shrine, a tengu (天狗, a long-nosed goblin with wings) suddenly appeared, as if challenging the warrior. Muneyoshi fought fiercely with the tengu, as they both went back and forth with blows. Channeling his intention, Muneyoshi swiftly delivered a downward finishing cut that the Tengu couldn’t stop, cleaving him in half. In the next moment, Muneyoshi’s opponent disappeared, and was replaced by the large stone that was originally sitting not too far from him while he was training. He was so intent on victory, that his blade was able to cut through stone.

Pic of Ittōseki. From Photo-AC.com

The large stone would later be called “Ittōseki” (一刀石, stone divided by a single sword swing) once an account of Muneyoshi’s feat was learned. It’s perfectly split from top to bottom at an angle, which would take an enormous amount of brute strength to achieve. The point to take from this tale is that near impossible feats can be achieved through sheer intention, where one is harmoniously in tune entirely on 3 levels: physical, mental, and spiritual.

STORY #2: A BLESSED SWORD AND A WINE BARREL

This next story concerns the Mijima Shrine in Izu, located in Ooshima (eastern part of present-day Tokyo). Ittō Ittōsai (伊東一刀斎), the pioneer of the martial system known as “Ittō ryū” (一刀流), was residing there in his youth during a time when he wanted to learn kenjutsu. After a period of self-training through determination, the shrine’s head priest was moved, and decided to pass on a sword named Ichimonji (一文字) to the youth. This would be the 1st sword that Ittōsai would receive so he could begin to learn kenjutsu properly. Ichimonji was not only fabled to have a fine edge, it helped its young owner develop a skill that is quite a feat.

An example of a sword kept in a simple shirasaya, which is meant for storage especially during the cold season.

Before he became a renown swordsman, Ittōsai was described as a youth who had much potential in kenjutsu. The head priest acknowledged this as he convinced the youth to head on a journey to find a competent swordsmaster, which he agreed to fund. On the day he received Ichimonji, the sword was blessed ceremonial rice wine, and passed on to him without proper fittings². Late in the night, right before his trip, Ittōsai heard commotions in the shrine, and learned that it was being looted by a gang of thieves. Unsheathing the sword which only had a wooden handle, he charged at the thieves. Despite them being armed and outnumbering him, the thieves fell to his sword one-by-one, as he displayed great handling. The last thief retreated to a room where wooded barrels used to store blessed rice wine are kept, and hid in an empty one hoping to escape later unseen. Ittōsai gave chase and, upon entering the room, was able to perceive where the thief was hiding. In one swift motion, he rushed at the barrel and cleaved through the barrel, which not only collapsed in two, the thief inside also fell along with it, severed from his torso down.

An example of a sake daru (酒樽), a barrel used for storing rice wine at a shrine. From Photo-AC.com.

This remarkable feat of cleaving both the wine barrel and the thief would years later serve as a secret technique taught to his highest student, which would be called “dō-giri” (胴斬り)³.

STORY #3: THE DEMON-SLAYING SWORD

This tale involves Hōjō Tokimasa, a figure hailing from the illustrious Hōjō clan. Originally a military commander serving in the army of Minamoto no Yoritomo, Tokimasa became the 1st authority figure of the established military-ruled Bakumatsu during the early Kamakura period.

An ukiyoe of Hōjō Tokimasa. From Wikipedia.

After the establishment of Kamakura Bakufu, Tokimasa went through a period of being plagued by tormenting nightmares, which all involved the appearance of a demon. One night, he went to sleep in his chambers as normal, with his sword next to him. He proceeded to go through another round of nightmares, which made him agitated. As he turned on his bed, his right arm bumped into his sword, which then fell ontop of him. Suddenly, as if willed by a power not of his own, Tokimasa subconsciously drew this sword and swung it, instinctively cutting at the demon within his dreams. His sword instead cut off one of the legs from a table which a hibachi (火鉢, small heating pot) sits on. The exasperated Tokimasa woke up surprised at the scene around him. As he examined the damage done to the table, he noticed that the part of the table leg that was accidentally cut off had the carving of a demon on it. Suspecting that this was the cause of his nightmares, Tokimasa had this part discarded, and from then on, was able to have peaceful nights of pleasant sleep.

An image of the face of an oni, or demon. From AC-illust.com.

This sword of Tokimasa was actually named “Onimaru-kunitsuna” (鬼丸国綱). Known as one of 5 legendary swords in Japanese history, it is distinguished as being a “reitō” (霊刀), or “spirit sword”. This means the unique trait the the Onimaru-kunitsuna bear was the ability to cut things on a spiritual level. Since the small table was cursed by the carving of a demon, this sword was able to “will” its owner to severe the menace at its roots.

ENDING

This concludes our coverage on stories concerning feats with Japanese swords. These tales were definitely penned to stir the imagination, illustrating famous figures and renown swords in a light of glory. While taking these types of stories as fact is abit difficult, one thing for certain is they are entertaining.


1) These articles can be read here and here.

2) A sword prepared for use would have what is called koshirae (拵), which includes a proper sword handle covered with shark skin and cotton wrap, a sword guard, and adorned with metal pieces. Since the Ichimonji was place at the shrine for safe keeping, it was prepped in shirasaya (白鞘), which consisted of a simple wooden sword handle, and housed in a non-lacquered sheath.

3) There is an article that talks on the general use of this term, which can be read here.

Legend of Kōga Saburō ~ Part 2

We continue with part 2 on our discussion about the fabled tale “Kōga Saburō Densetsu”. In part 1, we looked into the origin of the story and its possible connection to a real life figure, as well as a version of the story from the collection of the Kōga region-native Mochizuki family. This article will continue in the same vein, where we’ll review another version about Kōga Saburō and how he overcomes the trials of surviving in foreign lands, and managing to make it back home years later. The following version is introduced in the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”, which was mentioned in part 1. This is said to come from the source “Asahi Nihon Rekishijinbutsu Jiten” (朝日日本歴史人物事典).

Page with this article’s version of “Kōga Saburō Densetsu”. From the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”.

This tale begins with an individual by the name of Suwa Saburō Yorikata (諏訪三郎諏方). Saburō is the territorial lord of Kōga, Ōmi province. He has a wife, who is known as Kasuga-hime. He also keeps in contact with his 2 older brothers, the oldest named Tarō, while the 2nd oldest is Jirō¹.

One day, Kasuaga-hime was captured and taken away by a tengu (天狗), which is a goblin with a long nose, body of a man, and wings on its back. Saburō, accompanied by his 2 brothers, went into pursuit in order to save her. During the chase, his brothers advised that they take a path that leads through Mount Tateshina (蓼科山, Tateshina yama), a familiar location not far from them. On the surface, it sounded like an easy path to traverse through in order to continue tracking the tengu. However, what Saburō didn’t realize is that this was just an excuse for the 2 older brothers to put a plan in motion they had for a long time; Tarō and Jirō had secretly been jealous of their younger brother’s good fortune, and had conspired to bring his downfall when the opportunity arrived.

As the 3 were walking by a moderately-sized pit, the 2 older brothers suddenly shoved down towards it. Saburō fell a distance down through the pit, and landed in an unfamiliar underground world. With no way up to the pit hole, he had no other choice but to travel through the area to learn his surroundings. Saburō crossed through different lands that were populated by villages. He entered various villages, and witnessed that the inhabitants lived their lives farming on their lands. Blending in where ever he could, he also engaged in farming for as long as needed, before moving on.

Eventually, Saburō’s wanderings through the underground world would bring him to a land called “Yuima” (維摩). In this land, he came upon a village where the locals specialized in deer hunting, and engaged in this on a daily basis as it was their way of life. He was able to make good relations with them, so much to the point that he was able to begin a relationship with the village chief’s daughter, Yuima-hime. Saburō was able to find happiness and piece of mind in Yuima, as he settled in the village doing hunting as much as he likes, and being with the lovely Yuima-hime, he spent many years there.

After some time, Saburō began to reminisce about his actual wife, Kasuga-hime. His feelings for her was getting stronger, to the point that he desired greatly to see her again. Setting his mind to find a way to get back to his homeland, Saburō executed a plan to run away from the village on a particular day, and set once again to search for a path that would get him back above ground. Giving up his life of comfort and heading back into the wild, he had to overcome many hardships. It took time, but Saburō was finally able to return back to the lands above through an opening on Mount Asama (浅間山, Asama yama). Descending down the mountain, he began his final journey back home.

Making his way back to his home country Kōga in Ōmi Province, Saburō saw a Buddhist temple along his path, and decided to stop by and offer prayers at its Shakyamuni Hall². Before entering the temple grounds, he felt something off about him. Feeling himself, he noticed scales all over his body, and realized his appearance has changed into that of a snake. Not wanting to alarm the locals, Saburō hid himself from plain sight. Wondering how to resolve this predicament, he remembered a remedy he had heard about, which involved bathing oneself in a lake where a particular plant called sekishō (石菖)³ grow. Keeping a low profile, he wandered around abit, looking for this plant. Eventually, Saburō came to a lake and, as expected, there was a good amount of sekishō sprouting from it. He stepped into the lake to test this remedy and, after washing his body, sure enough he felt his scaly skin soften up. In no time, he reverted back to his normal self as the his snake-like appearance was no more.

With no more obstacles, Saburō finally returned home. There, he reunited with his wife, Kasuga-hime, and was able to live the rest of his life happily.


BREAKING DOWN THE STORY

After reading both stories, it’s easy to see where both versions are similar, as well as where they differ.

We see Saburō as the protagonist who shares a relationship with Kasuga-hime. He is betrayed by an older sibling and knocked into a hole to sends him into an underground realm. There, he adapts, and is able to start a new life with another person named Yuima-hime. However, longing to go home and be with his first love, Saburō runs away, manages to escape this underground realm, and return back to his homeland. While he had an unfortunate transformation into a snake, he was able to change back, and successfully make his way back home and be reunited with Kasuga-hime. Of course, both stories have their differences in how this tale unfolds, which includes what event with Kasuga-hime that triggers the betrayal, which of his brothers actually commits the betrayal, to how Saburō was able to change back from a snake into a human. Despite these variations, the overall theme is still shared between both versions.

Below are specific points regarding the meaning embedded within the story, which will help understand the development of the protagonist, and how both Shinto practice, as societal structure of that time have an overall connection.

#1: PROTAGONIST AS A DEITY FOR WORSHIP

To understand how Kōga Saburō (and, albeit a minor role in these versions of the story, Kasuga-hime) is viewed is to first look at the source of his invention, which is the Suwa Grand Shrine in Nagano. At this shrine, there are 2 types of gods worshiped there, with the first being Takeminakata-no-kami (建御名方神), and the second being Yasakatome-no-kami (八坂刀売神). Constructed by Suwa Lake, the Suwa Grand Shrine is divided into two locations, with one being the “upper” shrine where Takeminakata-no-kami is worshiped, and the other being the “lower” shrine where Yasakatome-no-kami is worshiped.

A pic of Takeminakata-no-kami, as he performs a trick called “senbiki no ishi” (千引の石, lifting a stone that requires the strength of 1000 men) when he challenges Takamikazuchi.

Both deities come from the ancient texts Kojiki (古事記) and Sendai Kyūji Hongi (先代旧事本紀). From these texts and more recognized sources, Takeminakata-no-kami is presented as one of the sons of Ōkuninushi (大国主), the main god who heads all other local gods within ancient Japan and had ruling power what could be called the earthly realm. When the sun goddess Amaterasu (天照大神) sent 2 messengers from the heavenly realm down to claim control over the land from Ōkuninushi, Takeminakata-no-kami challenged one of the messengers in a contest of strength. One of the messengers, whose name was Takamikazuchi (建御雷神), agreed to the challenge, and had an interesting exchange with Takeminakata-no-kami, which would eventually lead to the young god’s defeat. Takeminakata-no-kami retreated to Suwa Lake, and as the two messengers were going to kill him, he begged them to spare his life, as he confided that the land be given to Amaterasu, and that he would stay forever at this lake.

Take note that in the records from Suwa Grand Shrine, this story has a slight variation to it, mainly where the fight and the scene of Takeminakata-no-kami’s retreat are omitted. As a whole, Takeminakata-no-kami’s bravery is honored dearly. Takeminakata-no-kami is worshiped as the god of wind, water, agriculture, warfare, and hunting, where hunting represents the lifestyle of certain families at that time.

Kōga Saburō is thought to not only be related to the story of Takeminakata-no-kami, but is said to have been the reincarnation of him. Thus, the young god is believed to have been reborn as one of the sons of the Suwa family, and was brave enough to take up the lifestyle of a warrior, become a renown warrior under the Ashikaga Shogunate, and rose to be lord of Kōga in Ōmi Province.

#2: THREE SACRED TREASURES

In the Mochizuki version, it is mentioned that Saburō was protected by 3 sacred items. This is a parallel of the 3 sacred treasures of Japan which are introduced in the Kojiki, the ancient text that presents the mythical story of Japan’s origin. The idea of a protagonist to have such items meant that he himself was special, and was protected by divine powers, as if destined to not lose. This idea most likely comes from the root story regarding Takeminakata-no-kami.

#3: SNAKE / DRAGON REFERENCE

The Suwa Grand Shrine’s god of worship is called “Suwa Myōjin” (諏訪明神). From the shrine’s documents, it is said the Suwa Myōjin would come down from the heavens to the lands below, riding on the back of a giant snake. It is also interpreted that Suwa Myōjin also took the appearance of a snake himself. In other writings, the creature is instead referred to as a dragon.

In Shintō belief, gods often used “shinshi” (神使), or divine creatures for both delivering messages or as a mode of transportation. These divine creatures look like earthly variants, such as the ox, chicken, crane, and carp fish. The snake is one of these divine creatures, so there are shrines that pay respect to these faithful messengers.

In another version of the Kōga Saburō Densetsu, the role of the snake / dragon plays a center role in the story, this time between Saburō and Kasuga-hime.

#4: SUDDEN CHANGE INTO A SNAKE

With the importance of the serpent and dragon to the Suwa Grand Shrine established, it’s easier to now look into the scene when Saburō changes into a snake. Here’s one way to interpret this scene. This is a direct reference to Saburō being Takaminakata-no-kami, and the transformation was a natural phenomenon. This came about because he fell into the underground tunnels that actually leads to a supernatural plain, where the lands there are populated by mystical creatures and people. When he left this supernatural plain and emerged back into his own homeland, he did so by transforming into a snake, much like that of Suwa Myōjin. Even though it may not have been through his own doing, this serves as a hint that deities are able to enter the human realm through the body of a divine creature.

#5: CONTRAST BETWEEN THE HOMELAND VS UNDERGROUND LANDS

Kōga Saburō’s homeland and his journey into the underground lands may be a reflection of the differences in classes in Japan, and how Suwa Myōjin is revered by both. In the story, we have both Saburō’s family who are warriors that engage in hunting, and in the underground lands there are those who are farmers. Saburō engaged in both willingly, which is a display of acceptance of both activities. In this respect, both military families and farmers saw it appropriate to pray to Suwa Myōjin for blessing.

From a different angle, the 2 worlds could also represent different cultures & beliefs. If we look at the name “Yuima, it’s a Buddhism term, and relates to certain sutras. The origin is India, where Yuima is the Japanese pronunciation of the name “Vimalakirti”. This name comes from an Indian folklore about an older man named Vimalakriti who was a layman, and had an uncanny understanding of Buddhism despite not being a monk. A bit to unpack, but India has been viewed as an integral place in the development of Buddhism in Asia, plus there has been many shared concepts between Shintō and Buddhism in Japan over the generations. There may be something to this in reference to Saburō’s journey in the underground world.

#6: LESSONS FOR THE KŌGA SHINOBI

This point is an interesting one, which is explained a bit in the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”. The focal point that ties the Legend of Kōga Saburō to the shinobi of Kōga is hunting. It is understood that there was a culture that involved heavily with working in the wild within certain areas like Kōga, and the pioneers of this were woodcutters and hunters. Through these types of occupations, one would gain experience traveling through wooded areas, understand the characteristics of wild animals which would include being able to copy their calls, disguising one’s appearance and smell by wearing animal hide, and so on. Such real life skills are believed to have been some of the building blocks to the shinobi no jutsu (or, as called in modern times, ninjutsu) techniques that the warriors of Kōga used generations later. The thought that hunting being a building block for Kōga warriors’ style of ninjutsu, as introduced in the book mentioned above, is an interesting concept, albeit one that is not stated as fact.

CONCLUSION

The legendary story of Kōga Saburō is an example of how fabled tales play a significant role in people’s lives in the past due to familiarity of content. How such tales are recorded and transmitted also plays a factor, with there being slightly variations in the story to fit a favorable agenda. This concludes our coverage on 2 versions of Kōga Saburō Densetsu. As I mentioned before, there still more variations to this story, which, if time permits, I hope to take a look at one that gives an even more different perspective on how the story unfolds.


1) In this version, the older brothers are not addressed by name. From other versions, as well as resources, it is understood that these are their names. Using it here is to introduce them as significant figures.

2) A section of a temple or shrine where the Buddha Shakyamuni is worshiped.

3) In English, this is called “Japanese sweet flag”. Its botanical name is “scorus gramineus”.

Legend of Kōga Saburō ~ Part 1

In today’s article, I will discuss about a famous story called “Kōga Saburō Densetsu” (甲賀三郎伝説), or “Legend of Kōga Saburō”. Gaining public recognition from the 1600s onwards during Edo period, there were many theatrical renditions done by kabuki actors, as well as musicals called “jōruri” (浄瑠璃), which incorporated a musician and puppets. Exposure to this story comes from the collection of esoteric-related writings by shrines, as well as from word of mouth by shugendō followers. While popular as a folklore, the Kōga Saburō Densetsu was especially significant to certain families from Koga region of Shiga prefecture, as it represents the root of their unique martial tradition.

Cover of the picture book “Kōga Saburō: Shinshu-Yomikikase Minwa Ehon Series”. One of the many visual interpretations of the fabled tale “Kōga Saburō Densetsu”.

In today’s article, we will look into the specifics of the Kōga Saburō Densetsu, which includes its origin story. We’ll also look at one version of this story, which comes from one particular family reigning from Kōga region.

TALE FROM THE SUWA FAMILY

Kōga Saburō is a heroic figure that is deified and worshiped at the Suwa Shrine located in Nagano prefecture, as well as viewed as a type of warrior god at various shrines. Considered a very old shrine in Japanese history, Suwa shrine itself was built by the Suwa family, whom also assumed the role as priests. The legend of Kōga Saburō dates back some time around the 1400’s, with the main character said to be modeled after one of the Suwa family’s sons who took up the occupation of a warrior, went to serve the Ashikaga shogunate by becoming a retainer of the Hōjō clan, and earned many merits due to his accomplishments in battle. For his service, he was also made territorial lord over Kōga. if this is the case, then it makes sense that this individual would be immortalized at their family shrine.

Image of the main hall of the Suwa shrine. From Wikipedia.

There is another version to this story, which is found within the documents of the Mochizuki family. One of the major allied families in Kōga during Sengoku period, The Mochizuki family have recorded in their family genealogy that they are descendants of a Mochizuki Saburō. Not only was this individual from the Suwa family, but is in fact claimed to be the same individual as Kōga Saburō, for he not only was the territorial lord of Koga, but at one time was a lord over the neighboring Iga region as well.

With the inception of this fabled tale, Kōga Saburō was immortalized as a hero of the Kōga region, as well as throughout Ōmi province (present-day Kōga, Shiga Prefecture). Other than the bigger-than-life trials the character had to go through, he is also revered as having establishing the way of life in that region. Another unique point is that for the Mochizuki family and their allies, the tale of Kōga Saburō is interpreted as teaching the roots of where the unconventional tactics and survival methods the warriors of Kōga specialized in, which today is often dubbed as ninjutsu.

MOCHIZUKI’S VERSION

For this article, we will first look at the Mochizuki family’s version of Kōga Saburō Densetsu. This version is taken from the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”, which is authored by Ukai Takehiro.

Cover of the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”

This story starts off at the beginning, when the protagonist was known by the title “Suwa Saburō Yorikata (諏訪三郎諏方), and was the 3rd son of the territorial lord of Kōga in Ōmi Province. Although youngest, his father made an unexpected move and appointed Saburō as the next successor of their family line due to his talents and likeable personality. On top of this, he had an arranged marriage with Kasuga-hime set up, who was the granddaughter of Kasuga Shrine’s chief priest. Along with his future wife’s unmatched beauty, the union between the two families would ensure that Saburō’s family continue to maintain their prestigious status. His older brothers, on the other hand, were not pleased with the special treatment their younger brother was receiving at all.

One day, Saburō went deer hunting in the woods with Jirō, the 2nd oldest brother. While his younger brother was distracted, Jirō suddenly pushed him down into a pit, where he would tumble into an underground cave. With no way to reach the opening of the pit from where he fell from, Saburō was forced to wander through the the tunnels of this underground cave. Trapped with no way out, he was sure to perish, but he maintained his wits and was resourceful with whatever was at hand as he traveled into unknown lands. For example, when there was no food to be found around him, Saburō ate pieces of his sōshi (雙紙)¹. During the night when there was no light peering above him, he used his sword Nikkō no tsurugi (日光剣) to illuminate his surroundings. Lastly, to keep safe from evil spirits and beings lurking about, he placed his keepsake mirror Omokage (面影) close by his side. These 3 items were actually blessed with divine powers, and protected the lone warrior during his journey².

Saburō’s wandering would come to an end when he finally stepped foot onto a kingdom called “Yuima” (維摩) . Although a foreigner, he was welcomed by the King of Yuima, and was also offered his daughter’s hand in marriage. Saburō agreed to this, and lived with them in Yuima for about 13 and a half years. While life was good, after some time he started to long for his fiance Kasuga-hime, and wished to be with her. So, bidding his family in Yuima Kingdom farewell, Saburō embarked once again through the underground in order to make his way back above ground.

Saburō finally discovered an exit from the underground realm, and was able to walk on his native land again. Hungry from his long trek, he decided to engage in his long-time past time and went deer hunting³. However, he soon discovered a terrible matter; for during his time in Yuima, he unknowingly went through a transformation and his appearance had become that of a snake. Not wanting to alarm everyone at his home, Saburō sought a method that would change him back to look like his normal self again. Luck was on his side, as he encountered a mysterious old monk who, seeing the young warrior in his plight, conjured a remedy. Miraculously, the remedy worked, as Saburō reverted back to his original form. What he didn’t know was that the old monk was actually a powerful deity in disguise, and had came to aid him in his return home. Just as he mysteriously appeared, the old monk went his way, without leaving a trace.

Successful in making it back home, Saburō presented himself to his family and explained what had happened to him since his disappearance. He also sought out his older brother Jirō, and drove him out of their home, forcing him to roam the land and never to return. Lastly, Saburō could be reunited with Kasuga-hima, he took his rightful place as the head of the Suwa family, and became territorial lord over Kōga. With everything taking course as intended, Saburō would assume the title “Kōga Saburō Kaneie” (甲賀三郎兼家), and could live the rest of his life happily.


ENDING

This bring the 1st article about the Kōga Saburō Densetsu to a close. Reading fabled tales like the one above most certainly will bring up questions, especially about the hidden meanings behind certain parts of the protagonists overall journey. Fear not, for many of these will by answered in part 2, where we will go over another version of this story, and do an analysis of the symbolism that shapes this popular tale.


1) Normally this is written with the characters “草紙”. While its usage varied depending on the era, a sōshi is a type of bound notebook.

2) These 3 sacred items parallel the 3 sacred treasures of Japan, which are the following: Kusanagi no Tsurugi (草薙劍, The Grass-Cutting Sword), Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡,the 8-Span Mirror), and Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉, Long [approx. 8 ft] string of Curved Jewels).

3) Although not mentioned in this version, one of the differences found in the underground lands is that agriculture was the main source of food. Due to this, Saburō learned a great deal about farming during his time underground. On the opposite end of the spectrum, deer hunting was an important source of food when Saburō was living above ground. A comparison can be drawn from this when looking at class during Japan of old. This will be evaluated more in the 2nd article.

The Symbolism Behind Kagami Mochi

Over the years I’ve written several articles on a new year-related celebration called Kagami Biraki, which takes place on the 11th of January. Possibly the most iconic component of this is the kagami mochi (鏡餅), which is a rice cake made of a type of sticky rice that can be eaten. It is designed as 2-tier (either in one mold, or two separate pieces), and is often decorated in a beautiful manner. There is also a segment where a mallet is used to divide it by “breaking” the top surface, which means opening it to release the blessings kept inside by the toshigami (歳神), a deity that comes to visit one’s residence at the start of the new year to bring good fortune. Although this is a widely-known tradition, having kagami mochi isn’t practiced widely throughout Japan today due to modernization, although some families, or certain organizations for specific events, still keep this tradition going on.

Kagami mochi

As with most things in Japanese culture, there are plenty of symbolic meanings behind the kagami mochi and its appearance. For this article, the back story behind kagami mochi will be covered. We’ll look into the traditional practices regarding its shape, the superstitions behind the types of decorations used, as well as its relations to the mallet instead of a sharp instrument.

MEANING BEHIND SHAPE

The accepted practice for kagami mochi is to make it circular. This is obvious when this rice cake is looked at from above. There is one prime reason behind the circular shape, one that pays homage to ancient beliefs and practices.

Example of an ancient bronze mirror.

Centuries ago, mirrors were made in a circle shape out of bronze. Going as far back as the Yayoi period (before 300 BC ~ 300 AD), these were valuable objects where only those of prestigious status could obtain one. From that time forward a strong belief regarding how mirrors can grant eternal life, or deliver good fortune to one’s descendants was attached to mirrors, giving it an auspicious nature. Also, shintō belief added to this with the idea that mirrors were like a gateway to different gods that were worshiped, such as the sun goddess Amenoho Akari no Miko (天火明命)¹.

Today, much of that ancient practice has been carried to present day, and influences the practice of Kagami Biraki. This gives us a clue as to the ancient bronze mirror being the reason for kagami mochi being circular, as well as a means to receive blessing from the toshigami for a long life.

WHY 2-TIER?

One of the more interesting features of the Kagami mochi is that it’s made as a 2-tier rice cake. While it may seem unusual, especially for something that should be more recognizable as, say a mirror. However, this 2-tier structure is symbolic, with reasoning behind it. Below are a few acceptable theories regarding this:

Why 2-tier?
  1. Having the kagami mochi as 2-tier is believed to reinforce the blessing one receives, to ensure good fortune, and longevity for one’s life.
  2. Having a 2-tier design is a representation of the phrase fūfu wagō (夫婦和合). This phrase stands for happy union between marriage couples, and can be viewed as following the philosophy of inyō (陰陽, ying yang). The layers of the kagami mochi represent this union, and is important for those who are married.
  3. Under Shintō and Buddhism practices, the layers represent the connection between humans and the gods. Due to the influence of these two belief systems, Japan had a long history of being polytheistic, with many people revering gods for all purposes and matters in their lives.

Each of these theories are feasible and can honestly be identified as so based on the Japanese culture. It would be wrong to just pick only one, for there are many ways of life styles in Japan’s past, and it’s not common for different groups to celebrate the same theme, but with a different reasoning behind it.

DECORATIONS

The items used to adorn a kagami mochi is not random. Over several centuries a formalized practice was devised in how to visually present it. Below is an explanation of the items used as decoration, based on the image provided. Note that there are slight variations in the arrangement of the decoration, as well as items used, so this design is not written in stone as the only way to go.

Popular decorations
  • Shide (垂) – A new year decoration consisting of 2 strands of square-shaped papers hung on either side of the kagami mochi. This is a type of gohei (御幣)² used in Shintō practices. Generally white can be used, or can be mixed with red color. This is symbolic as warding away evil spirits that can bring bad luck and misfortune.
  • Sanpō (三方) – A small stool to sit the kagami mochi on. Based on Shintō and Buddhist practices, this is a necessity. In the past, those of prestigious status could afford to obtain this. Present day, sanpō is an easily obtainable item at many outlets that can be purchased.
  • Daidai (橙) – Originally a fruit called daidai (橙, bitter orange) would be placed on top of the kagami mochi. Nowadays, a small mikan (蜜柑, mandarin orange) is used in its place, although the title “daidai” still remains. The meaning behind using this fruit is “seimei saisei” (生命再生), which is “restore one’s life”³. Another thought on this is how daidai do not fall off of the tree they grow on even after ripening. This signifies having a strong family line.
  • Urajiro – A type of leaf that comes from the fern species, called shida (歯朶) in Japanese. Two of these are used. This is not the only type of leaves that can be used for decoration of the kagami mochi, but this is the most common.
  • Shihōbeni – This is a square white sheet of paper with red trimming placed underneath the kagami mochi. The meaning behind this is protection from misfortune, sickness, and disaster from all four cardinal directions.

Since all these are part of Japan’s culture, acquiring these items is relatively simple. This is especially true when new years is around the corner, for many stores and retail outlets will have these in stock and put out advertisements.

TABOO OF SPLITTING WITH SHARP INSTRUMENTS

For those who’ve seen images or an actual Kagami Biraki event would notice that a mallet is used to split open the kagami mochi. This is the same for a taruzake (樽酒), which is a barrel full of blessed sake used in the same fashion as kagami mochi at certain gatherings and events, especially at shrines. Although I’ve spoken about this in another article, I’ll reiterate it here as well since it’s related.

Bladed instruments are not allowed!

Early in the practice of Kagami Biraki, there are recordings about it once being known by the title “Kagami Wari” (鏡割り), which can be interpreted as “splitting the mirror”. This is because a bladed instrument was used to open up the kagami mochi. As a practice devised by prestigious military families, this makes sense as a to-go action. However, over time this was frowned upon due to its rather violent connotation; for a practice that was auspicious, “cutting” something that is said to be inhabited by a deity felt like a direct attack. It also didn’t help that the practice of seppuku (切腹, suicidal cutting of one’s belly) was a form of ritual punishment that forfeited a person’s life.

A mallet is just fine!

A movement was made to change the interaction with the kagami mochi that appeared both humane and non-violent, which is where the mallet was introduced. For this, one taps the top layer in order to “open” it, which means to separate it into two. This is a more acceptable depiction to release to blessing one would receive from the kagami mochi. On another note, it is OK to simply use both hands to separate the kagami mochi.

ENDING

This covers the significance of the kagami mochi during the new year, and the symbolism behind its presentation. As mentioned earlier, Kagami Biraki is not widely practiced nowadays throughout Japan, except by those families or groups that have reason to keep this tradition going. One thing for sure is there is still many images and public coverage on kagami mochi, much like this article, so it won’t easily be forgotten.


1) Hailing from Japan’s legendary tales. Known under many different titles, too numerous to mention. However, all point to the same goddess who shut herself in a cave after being the target of mean tricks by her brother, which brought darkness to the world. The other gods set into motion a plan to get her to come out, including having a mirror be the 1st thing she sees, to convince her that she was the most beautiful goddess of all.

This episode can be read in old texts such as the Kojiki (古事記) and Nihon Shoki (日本書紀).

2) Gohei is a stick consisting of streams of paper that is carried at the front of a procession or during a ceremony.

3) Daidai’s importance is based off of the tale concerning the deity Tajima Mori no Mikoto (田道間守命), and how he traveled to China to retrieve this bitter orange from China in order to make a medicine that would save the 11th emperor’s life.

2022: Be Inspired to do Big in the Year of the Tiger

It’s 2022! Let’s kick off in our usual fashion with an article on what the current Lunar Zodiac year is and what sign represents it. As many are aware, 2022 is the year of the tiger. Many have been sending out new year wishes accompanied with colorful images of tigers to help spread the word and support the Chinese Zodiac cycle. If we follow the actual chronological order of this ancient calendar, the correct date for this zodiac year is February 1st. Still, doesn’t mean we can’t get into the proper mindset and start 2022 right.

For this article, we’ll cover the specifics of the tiger sign, and what to expect the auspicious predictions for this year to be. Along with this, we’ll look at the societal and cultural influences the image of the tiger, as a whole, has had within the history of Japan.

UNDERSTANDING TORADOSHI

Under the Zodiac calendar, 2022’s zodiac animal is the tiger. So, we can call this the year of the tiger, or toradoshi (寅年) in Japanese. In many people’s minds, the imagery of a tiger symbolizes power, courage, as well as strong-willed. Of course, these characteristics were added much later once animals were incorporated as relatable representatives of humanistic qualities for each of the 12 zodiac signs.

A painting of a tiger reclining. Artwork of Ohara Kosen.

Let’s break down technical traits of this year’s zodiac sign. The tiger sign is identified by the character “寅”, which is pronounced as “tora”. Normally, the kanji for the actual animal is “虎”, which also uses the same pronunciation. Although possessing the same animal name, the “寅” character’s root meaning points to “sprouting of seeds”. This is significant as it’s the precursor to the seasonal transition from Winter to Spring.

Along with the 12 Zodiacs, there is the “10 Heavenly Stems” (十干/Jikkan in Japanese), which traditionally associates with each year’s reading. The character that represents this category is “壬”, with the pronunciation being “mizunoe”, and means “light-water”. This is because the 10 Heavenly Stems is a product of Inyō Gogyōsetsu (陰陽五行説), which is the combination of philosophical beliefs pertaining to ying-yang (light and dark) and the 5 Movements/Elements (earth, water, fire, wood, metal).

There are essentially 5 different tiger years within the 60-year Zodiac cycle, with each one representing a different element. For this year, we get both tiger and mizunoe together as “壬寅”, which is pronounced either as “jin-in” or “mizunoe tora”. Thus, the complete way of reading 2022 would be as “year of the water-tiger”.

EVERYDAY USAGE

The Zodiac signs have continued to have an impactful influence in Japan’s society of old. Becoming a staple within the culture, people were educated to rely on these signs for telling time, determining direction, and so on. Below are the different roles of the tiger sign in everyday application, along with its traits for this year.

  • Time = 3 am – 5 am
  • Direction = East-Northeast (abit past 30 degrees)
  • Month = 1st (old calendar); 2nd (modern calendar)
  • Energy = Light / positive (yang)
  • 5 Elements = water

Although archaic for today’s standards, it is still possible to utilize the tiger sign, as well as the other zodiac signs, for calculating time, directions, and so forth. There is a systematic process, which is covered in one of my translation projects entitled, “Many Ways of Utilizing the Zodiac Signs“. This can be found in the Translations section of this site, in the menu above.

2022 PREDICTIONS

As mentioned earlier, the character used to represent the tiger sign possesses the meaning of a seed sprouting. This imagery represents growth & vitality, as well as new beginnings. In essence, 2022 is read as a year for everyone to not only become revitalized, but to start a new endeavor. Realistically, this tends to be a general goal for every year, especially in the West. What the tiger sign emphasizes is an increased success rate on an auspicious level, especially for life-changing, ground-breaking pursuits.

Those born particularly in the water-tiger year are said to have particular traits that makes it easier for them to succeed. This includes having a strong intention to succeed, passionate and able to take on any challenges, and an eagerness to learn. While designated as the personality of those born under this sign, keep in mind this can benefit all individuals universally, as those of different signs can mimic this in order to reap the rewards this year can offer.

Interestingly, as much as an advantage those born under this tiger sign has, there are also significant disadvantages they have to especially be cautious about regarding overdoing things. Then there are those other fortune factors to be concerned about, such as wearable color clothing, lucky numbers, favorable directions, and so on…at least, for those individuals who actually follow this type of auspicious practice.

CULTURAL IMAGE

Outside of the Chinese Zodiac calendar, the image of the tiger has cemented itself into Japan’s culture, despite being a country that originally was not a habitat for such animals. Gaining knowledge about this large, wild cat from sources such as artworks, literature, and folklore from China & Korea centuries ago, Japanese society has incorporated the concept of them representing strength, bravery, as well as something having high value. Thus, it’s not unusual for the tiger image to be used as a form of expression for one’s worth, or to distinguish objects with this animal association to instill an everlasting impression.

Artwork entitled, “Satō Masakiyo toragari no zu” (Satō Masakiyo on a Tiger Hunt). Artist is Utagawa Kuniteru. One of many artwork pieces that follow a popular theme regarding warriors defeating a tiger, usually as a feat to display their prowess.

Let’s look into the historical use of the word tora (tiger) as a label. Since as far back as medieval Japan, it wasn’t unusual for individuals to include this word in their name or given title, especially for warriors or those in the entertainment field.

  • Takeda Shingen (武田信玄) = the renown warlord of Kai province was nicknamed “Tiger of Kai” (甲斐の虎, Kai no Tora), for he was a cunning & formidable competitor in the race to dominate Japan during the 1500s.
  • Akiyama Torashige (秋山虎繁) = a strong warrior & trusted retainer of the Takeda clan that controlled Kai province.
  • Hara Toramasa (原虎胤) = another warrior of the Takeda clan that was an ashigaru taishō (足軽大将, infantry commander).
  • Ii Naotora (井伊直虎) = a female territorial lord during the mid 1500s, as noted in the chronicles of the Ii family.
  • Utagawa Yoshitora (歌川義虎) = an accomplished ukiyo-e artist during the late Edo period to early Meiji period.
  • Nakamura Toranosuke (中村 虎之介) = a young kabuki performer/actor who hails down a family line that specialized in kabuki theater.

In a sense, the inclusion of tora (tiger) in each of these individual’s names or as a label can be taken as an indication of their capacity for success.

Next, is how value is placed on tangible things. For example, within the different areas of artistic practices and performances of old such as bujutsu (武術, martial arts) and chadō (茶道, way of the tea ceremony), documents that contain secret & high-level knowledge exclusive to those worthy were often called “tora no maki” (虎の巻), which literally can be translated as “tiger scroll”. This is still done today, as this label is placed on workbooks & study guides that contain important tips and strategies to help students pass exams, or excel in various fields of interest, such as medical or tech. There is also the term “tora no ko” (虎の子), which usually indicates things of extreme value, such as money. With the term meaning “tiger’s cub”, one can get the idea of how protective a mother tiger is when it comes down to ensuring safety for her own cubs. This is the type of feeling that must be projected for things that are of the status to be labeled “tora no ko”.

Painting entitled, “Fūryū Jūnishi Tora (Appreciation of the 12 Zodiac Animals: Tiger). Artist is Isoda Koryusai. While no official description could be found, this artwork displays an adult tiger with a tiger cub on its back, possibly rescuing it from the strong water turrent.

There are also some interesting old sayings that use the tiger image in an expressive fashion. Below are some examples, from dangerous situations to challenging the road to success:

  • Kogō (虎口) = the tiger’s den
    MEANING = a dangerous place to either avoid or escape from.
  • Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu (虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず) = you can’t steal the cub if you don’t enter the tiger’s den
    MEANING = have to take risks if you want to succeed big.
  • Tora no o wo fumu (虎の尾を踏む) = stepping on the tiger’s tail
    MEANING = beware of stirring trouble, or getting caught in a bad predicament.
  • Tora ni tsubasa (虎に翼) = a tiger with wings
    MEANING = giving someone who is already powerful a level up boost.
  • Neko wa tora no kokoro wo shirazu (猫は虎の心を知らず) = Although similar, a cat doesn’t possess the mind of a tiger
    MEANING = an average Joe cannot understand the mind of a successful person.

CONCLUSION

While our world has faced an amount of setbacks caused by the pandemic, we are gearing to move forward with our lives in hopes to overcome. Let’s hope that this year everyone can make strides towards this, and be successful in our goals, whether it be in helping our communities, starting a new business, or just getting back on our feet. Don’t forget to use the image of the tiger to be inspired to do big!

Ushi no Koku Mairi: Dark Ritual for Vengeance

Today’s Halloween here in the States, so it is time to put out an article that goes with the occasion. There are rituals and processions that one would associate with occult practices, black magic, and spells. Some are so out there that they would fit perfectly as a thriller or horror film. In this article, we’ll cover one practice that is pretty out there, and could make for a cool costume!

Since Edo period, there was an unusual practice in Japan which may have roots to the divination system Onmyōdō (陰陽道) called “Ushi no Koku Mairi” (丑の刻参り)¹. This can mean “Late Night Ritual Procession at a Shrine²“. While the title sounds harmless, what takes place is not. Records on it state that this was a practice where when some women were slighted by a cheating man, whether be boyfriend or husband, they would embark on this personal journey of revenge at the back of a local shrine to place a curse on him. The origins of this is believed to have come from old texts dating back as far as Heian period (794 ~ 1192), such as the military text titled Heike Monogatari (平家物語) and a book of songs called Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集). These have short inserts of a woman who becomes slighted by a lover who failed to keep his promise, and transforms into an oni (鬼, demon) through the will of an enshrined deity after praying to it at a shrine that houses it. With this new found strength, she swears vengeance and terrorizes the area. Fast forward to Edo period (1603~1868), cases of women going to shrines and performing a ritual in the dead of the night appear to have been a thing.

A ukiyoe depicting Ushi no Koku Mairi. The woman presented has a demonic look, as if transformed by the ritual herself. By Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

The purpose of Ushi no Koku Mairi was to put a curse on a cheating man that would bring him death. This was a means for a woman to successfully break any eternal ties with him, plus for him to face retribution. This process did take place behind a shrine, where there were plenty of trees. In advance, a tree would have to be chosen to where this ritual of vengeance would take place. The following steps would need to be prepared to make this all work:

  • white robe-like outfit with a white belt
  • metal band around or on top of the head
  • 3 candles fixed at 3 points on the metal band
  • small mirror hanging from the neck
  • a small kushi (櫛, a semi-round comb)
  • high wooden geta (下駄, clog-like footwear)
  • long white sash with one end fastened to the body or belt

Of course, the most important items that are very critical for this ritual are a small straw doll, decent sized nails, and a metal mallet.

Instruments necessary for acts of revenge.

When it’s pitch-dark outside and the designated time frame is near, the woman must change into her outfit and, with no one around to see her, must run through the wooded area behind the shrine all the way to her designated tree. From there, she will insert the nail through the straw doll, and hammer it to the tree with her mallet, screaming obscenities throughout the process. Once the woman is done, she takes all her items and returns home. This process must be done for 7 days straight in order for her desire for vengeance to come true. It is expected that the targeted man will die within those 7 days. If not, then the process was a failure.

When you really think about it, the outfit may sound and look bizarre. However, there is a purpose behind this, which is to give the woman a rather demonic look. She is to appear as if she too has turned into an ogre as she carries out her mission, much like how it’s depicted in ancient tales. Here’s some more detailed info regarding the preparations for Ushi no Koku Mairi:

  • There are no special words or chants. The individual can use any words, labels, and otherwise, curses that best describe her target.
  • The long white sash encourages the woman to run as fast as she can and keep it up in the air as she makes her way to the tree used for the process. The reasoning for this is that the white sash must not touch the ground and get soiled before she reaches the tree, or else the process will not be completed. Take note that this is a difficult feat to accomplish due to the next note….
  • The type of wooden geta the woman must wear is the one with long ha (歯), or pegs. How long should the pegs be it is not stated, but one thing to keep in mind is that high geta makes it very difficult to walk, let along run.
  • Feet have to be bare while wearing the geta.
  • The comb must be carried in the mouth while running.
  • The woman must have her hair down and not tied. She may wash it ahead of time.
  • It is recommended to have “keepsakes” of the target that the woman wants to curse inside the straw doll, such as his hair or fingernails.

As mentioned earlier, this ritual was documented. In fact, there was even theatrical performances in the form of Noh (能) plays about this in Japan during Edo period. Now, as for the particular shrines that may have been used in Japan, one that stands out is the Kifune Jinja (貴船神社, Kifune Shrine) in Kyōto, due to the fact that was used as a source of power for a vengeful woman in the Heike Monogatari. Take note that this shrine is not designated for that purpose, nor is the deity that is worshiped there.

A painting of a woman perfoming Ushi no Koku Mairi on a tree near a shrine. Part of the series called “Hyakunin Isshu Ubaga Etoki (百人一首姥がゑとき) by Hokusai Katsushika.

As with many things that are based on supernatural occurrences, there is no real evidence that Ushi no Koku Mairi actually works, nor are there cases that anyone has died due to its ritual. Another interesting point is that while wishing ill fortune is not illegal in Japan, the practice of Ushi no Koku Mairi is in fact a crime. This also includes entering the grounds that belong to a shrine, which is deemed as trespassing, while hammering a nail into a tree is called defacing of private property.

CONCLUSION

Being Halloween, dark tales such as Ushi no Koku Mairi can be interesting and add an element of fun for the occassion. It is certainly one that has inspired manga, anime, and other aspects of pop culture. It does have a dark history with a theme that can be considered black magic. This ends our look at the practice of Ushi no Koku Mairi. Please remember, while the attire described in this article could make for a nifty outfit, the actual ritualistic practice is not really something to try…especially running in high wooden geta late night.


1) Also can be called “Ushi no Toki Mairi” (丑の時参り).

2) The word “Ushi” is related to the Ox zodiac sign, which is the same as this zodiac year. Ushi no Koku is “Time of the Ox”, which is the time frame 1 am ~ 3 am.

The Patron & The Ox: Legends of Tenmangū ~ Part 2

We continue with the discussion on the legendary tales from Tenmangū. Since we were able to achieve an understanding behind these shrines through the history of Sugawara no Michizane in part 1, we will now proceed with those tales and get an idea how they have deep ties with the yearly ox Zodiac sign theme. Note that many of these stories were made long ago in Japan’s past, during a time where superstition was prevalent, and natural phenomenons were believed to have been caused by one of many gods. Whether they are believable or not, they do play a big role in the development of both culture and society.

BIRTH & DEATH

Sugawara no Michizane was elevated to the level of a divine being after his death due to his contributions while he was alive. This isn’t so unusual, as there are plenty of examples of this happening not only in Japan, but in other countries as well. Interestingly, one could say that this was already predetermined on the day of his birth. A tale that is told at the Tenmangū shrines is that his birth was an auspicious one, and truly denotes his connection with the ox Zodiac sign, which is considered beyond normal. In this particular tale, Michizane’s birth is recorded to not only been in the year of the ox, but was also on the day of the ox, and at the time of the ox¹. What does this mean?

The Zodiac signs have a multitude of purposes, some utilitarian, others mystical. In the past, they were used to denote years, days, and time, which was key for fortune telling. Depending on the period and the tasks that are at hand, a person may believe they will see benefits, or will heed caution and refrain from doing anything important. In Michizane’s case, this repeated occurrence with the ox sign in his birth is pretty auspicious, and viewed as beyond normal. On top of this, Michizane is said to have died on the day of the ox. Such a repetition of a Zodiac sign may point to him as being divine, like a deity who took the form of a human. As for the ox reference, one could interpret it that the ox brought him into the world, as well as returned him to his true realm, since the ox is naturally a vehicle of the gods. More on this point later.

VENGEFUL SPIRIT, WRATHFUL GOD

This tale can almost be seen as a continuation to part 1, based on how it’s told in the visual records of the Kitanō Tenmangū shrine called “Kitanō Tenjin Engi Emaki” (北野天神縁起絵巻). In 908, just 3 years after Michizane’s death, a member of the Fujiwara clan would die suddenly from disease. One year later, Fujiwara no Tokihira, the main antagonist in Michizane’s misfortune, also dies from disease. In 913, new Minister of the Right Minamoto no Hikaru would tragically die through drowning while out on a hunting expedition. As the Fujiwara clan gained a stronger hold of both the Imperial palace and Imperial family, more tragedy befell upon them. Such can be seen in the 930 incident where a lightning storm would strike down upon a building on the Imperial grounds where many members of the Fujiwara family were, resulting in a few of them dying on the spot, or later passing away due to suffering from lightning burns. The final tragedy befell on 60th Emperor Daigō, who is believed to have been the main target of the lightning storm. After the incident, Emperor Daigō’s health deteriorated, until finally dying 3 months later. The cause of this is viewed to be linked to his agreement with the validity of the accusations made by Tokihira and others, and Michizane being exiled from Heian Kyō.

This entire story is seen as an act of revenge by Michizane’s spirit that took its course over the course of almost 30 years. Initially, as these events were unfolding, the consensus within the Imperial palace was that Michizane’s vengeful spirit was cursing the Fujiwara clan. There were different attempts to try and “appease” him, such as bestowing upon him different titles including Minister of the Right, which was taken away from him through slander while he was still living. The lightning storm was the most severe, which happened later after the Fujiwara clan were able to become part of the Imperial family through one of the women conceiving a child for then Emperor Daigō, making him a prince. As a result, A Fujiwara member was sent to Anrakuji, where Michizane was buried at, to build an enshrinement. This enshrinement was then named Tenmangū. A few centuries later the Kitanō Tenjin Engi Emaki was created, which retells this story.

While there were those who described him as a vengeful spirit, Tenmangū instead envisions him as a wrathful god punishing wrongdoers in an act of justice. As a result, Michizane is called by several other names, including “Raijin” (雷神), which means “Thunder God”. According to old beliefs, a thunder god is generally depicted having the guise of an oni (鬼, demon) with horns². According to the Zodiac signs, the combination of the Ox and Tiger signs refer to demons, both metaphorically (i.e. they point towards the unlucky north-east direction on the typical Zodiac chart) and visually (demons are usually illustrated having ox-like horns and wearing tiger fur loincloth). This goes back to Michizane being born in the year of the ox, which contributes to this image.

PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH OXEN

There is a legend that Michizane had encounters with an ox, which may have been his guardian spirit in disguise. During his youth, Michizane found a baby ox wandering alone in a wooded area. Appearing to be lost or abandoned, he took it into his residence, where he nurtured it until it grew into an adult. At some point, just as it suddenly appeared in his life, this ox suddenly disappeared without a trace. While he wanted to set out to search for it, in the end he let the matter go. Fast forward to when he was exiled to live his life in Dazaifu in the south, Michizane would one day travel west to Dōmyōji (道明寺, Dōmyō Temple) in Osaka to visit a relative³. After parting ways, he set out to head back home when he was unexpectedly attacked by an assailant. Before harm could befall on him, a large ox suddenly appeared and drove the assailant away, saving Michizane’s life. Just as quickly as it appeared, this ox would disappear from sight in the same way.

One of the ways to interpret this story is that the baby ox was a spirit. Since Michizane showed kindness and helped raise it, this ox spirit in return acted as a guardian spirit. In a way, it is not so different from many other Japanese fabled tales of similar nature. Although it is just a legend, this contributes to Michizane’s ever-persistent connection with the ox Zodiac sign. On another note, while in this version of the story the color of the ox is not mentioned, I’ve heard another one, although very brief, where Michizane was rescued by a white ox. While I’m not sure if this is a variation of the story mentioned above, there is significance in the white ox to the Buddhist god Shiva, which the Tenjin of Tenmangū is loosely based off of.

AN OX’S STUBBORNNESS AS FATE

Another story is directly related what took place after Michizane’s death and the decision with what to do with his remains. In his final days, Michizane wrote a poem as part of his will that states “people should allow themselves to be pulled along in a wagon by an ox, letting it take us where ever it may desire, and to eventually be buried in the spot where it stops at”⁴. Following this as his last wish, those sent to bury his remains put it in an ox-drawn wagon, and had intended to carry it all the way to Heian Kyō (present-day Kyōto) in the west in a procession. During the journey, the ox suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, laid down, and wouldn’t move. They didn’t make it far, as they were still in the southern part of Japan. Despite efforts to get it to stand up and proceed again, the ox wouldn’t budge. With no other choice, They took Michizane’s remains to a near by temple called Anrakuji, and had it buried there.

At Tenmangū shrines, the underlining point of this story is that everything happened based on fate. Michizane was destined to be laid to rest in the south, and the ox was like a divine messenger to show where the burial spot should be. Interestingly, this is where Michizane was enshrined in the 1st Tenmangū shrine, thus being deified. Again we see the significance of the ox, whether we choose to view this as chance or by fate.

OX AS A SERVANT OF THE GODS

If we look at some of the stories mentioned above, we see the ox had a close role in the life of Sugawara no Michizane, as well as after his death. At the Tenmangū, the ox is often described as a “shinshi” (神使), which can stand for being a servant or messenger of the gods. According to Shinto beliefs, there are spiritual creatures who, acting on the will of the god(s) they serve, come down to earth to handle tasks they were assigned to. At times, humans may also view these spiritual creatures as gods themselves. They would take the guise of earthly creatures such as foxes, monkeys, birds, snakes, and centipedes. In the Tenjin faith of Tenmangū, the ox is the main servant.

From another perspective, the ox can also be viewed as a vehicle for the gods. In Eastern religions and beliefs, gods are depicted as coming down to Earth on the back of a divine creature. These creatures include boars, horses, and oxen. There are artwork that feature Michizane sitting on the back of an ox, although in these he is in his humanly form, as if to say he did this while he was alive. Since Michizane is deified and now recognized as the Tenjin, this is fitting.

ENDING

These are the majority of legendary tales from the Tenmangū. Bearing a lot of references to the ox, one can get an idea how important their underlining messages are especially when the ox Zodiac years come around. This here brings the 2-part series to a close. I hope readers enjoy this piece of history, and get an understanding about how intricately enwoven the Zodiac signs were with Japanese culture.


1) This is commonly written as “丑の年の丑の日の丑の刻”, which reads “ushi no toshi no ushi no hi no ushi no koku”

2) This is more in the vein of a divine demon, who is a guardian of Buddhism. Another way to describe this would be “onigami” (鬼神), or “demon god”.

3) This relative is stated to be an oba (叔母), which could mean aunt.

4) Although written in modernized Japanese, this is an interpretation of the poem:

「車を牛に引かせて、牛の行くままに任せ、牛の止まった所に葬ってくれ」

“Kuruma wo ushi ni hikasete, ushi no yuku mama ni makase, ushi no tomatta tokoro ni hōmuttekure”

Note that during the Heian period, ox-drawn wagons were popular among the populous, which may have had an influence on him writing this.

The Patron & the Ox: Legends of Tenmangū ~ Part 1

Continuing with the ox theme that coincides with this year’s Zodiac sign, I will introduce some interesting tales that relate to it through the famous Tenmangū (天満宮), which is the name of numerous Shinto shrines built around Japan. These shrines practice the Tenjin faith (天神信仰, Tenjin shinkō), a form of Shinto belief, which involves the worship of the Tenjin (天神). A significant point worth mentioning is that the Tenjin is Sugawara no Michizane, who was as an actual scholar and aristocratic that lived during the Heian period (794 ~ 1185). He was later viewed as a patron deified due to the many good things he did while he was alive, as well as the incidents that would later take place after his death that were then told as legends.

Today’s article will be the 1st of a 2-part series about Tenmangū’s fabled tales surrounding Sugawara no Michizane, and the persisting imagery of the ox. Before getting into those, part 1 will cover this individual’s actual history in order to better understand the roots of his legendary status.

LIFE STORY OF SUGAWARA NO MICHIZANE

Sugawara no Michizane was born in 845, which was the year of the Ox. The Sugawara was an elite family during the Heian period, at a time when noble families lived in or close to Heian Kyō, (present day Kyōto) the Capital where the Imperial Palace was built, and the golden age when foreign import contributed immensely to cultural development before Japan was turned into a military state by warring feudal lords. Michizane was privileged to receiving education in many topics, including Chinese classics, writing, archery, and poetry. It is said that he was very gifted in learning, as he demonstrated natural talent in both literature and military studies¹. As an example, Michizane would not only understand Chinese poetry thoroughly at the age of 11, but he also wrote his 1st poem at that age². Earning high honors, he would became a professor of literature at the age of 33.

A pic of Sugawara no Michizane.

Outside of education, Michizane was also talented in political matters, as well as a devotee of the Shinto belief. Eventually his career would involve working for the Imperial court. He not only proved to be a loyal subject of the court, he was also very close to 59th Emperor Uda, where he was heavily depended on as an advisor. He handled different tasks that helped Japanese society as a whole, including improving living conditions for the poor and maintaining Japan’s unique image while adapting foreign influences. Michizane also proposed many reasonable ways and solutions to handling foreign relations, which Emperor Uda truly valued. With his hard-working ethics and knowledgeable insight, he rose through the ranks, and inevitably achieved the title udaijin (右大臣), or Minister of the Right. This was one of the highest ranks achievable at the time, which was a great honor to him and his family. This title was matched equally by sadaijin (左大臣), or Minister of the Left, which was held by another aristocrat named Fujiwara Tokihira (藤原時平).

Speaking of which, at the time the Fujiwara were major players in the Imperial court, where they imposed their influence in many aspects politically. Although the Sugawara had a history of good relations with the Fujiwara, Michizane and Tokihira did not get along, where the latter would not treat the former well. In fact, there were other opposing noble families who were in favor of the Fujiwara, and were also jealous of Michizane’s seemingly unfaltering favor from Emperor Uda. Secretly, Tokihira and others conspired a plan that would expose him of abusing his power in an effort to rid his presence from the Imperial palace, and help elevate their family and peers.

When Emperor Uda retired and was succeeded by the 60th Emperor Daigo, Tokihira and others took a chance to put their scheme into action. They were successful in defaming Michizane, who would then be unfortunate of being stripped of his rank, and exiled from Heian Kyō by the new Emperor. Separated from his family, he was forced to reside in Dazaifu located in the south (present day Dazaifu City, Fukuoka).

Deprived of the wealth and loved ones, Michizane’s life in Dazaifu was hard, yet he maintained his dignity and continued to present himself as a good example by continuing with scholarly studies, and devoting his time in worship for the sake of the safety of the Imperial family and the nation of Japan. He spent the remainder of his years there, and would pass away in 903. Shortly after, his remains were buried at Ankakuji, not too far away from his residence. Years later, as Michizane’s former detractors started to die due to diseases and freakish accidents, the Imperial court would exonerate him from all crimes he was judged to have committed, bestowed upon him his former ranks, and ordered for Tenmangū to be built at Ankakuji to enshrine his remains, which would in turn make him a deity — all as a means to appease what was believed to be his vengeful soul.

Today, many go to the Tenmangū to pray for academic success, since Sugawara no Michizane is viewed as a god of learning. Despite facing slander and hardship towards the later part of his life, his life story, which includes his achievements, were recorded and preserved, which in turn makes him a revered individual, and one that inspires all that visit these Tenmangū shrines. Visitors can also see large bronze statues of an ox at some of these shrines, which is also plays a significant role in several tales related to Michizane’s story.

ENDING

This is how Sugawara no Michizane’s history closes, as well as concludes part 1. In the following article, we will review different tales and legends that paint vivid pictures of Sugawara no Michizane, as the Tenjin, being an auspicious, as well as the ox being like a divine creature.


1) Essentially the standard structure for learning during the Heian period, which is called bunbu ryōdō (文武両道).

2) Below is the poem he wrote:

「月夜見梅花 月輝如晴雪 梅花似照星 可憐金鏡転 庭上玉房馨」

In his poem, Michizane describes how the sweet-smelling flower garden made up of plum blossoms (ume [梅] in Japanese) looks radiant in the bright moonlight like stars, similar to how snow sparkles in the sun rays.

Setsubun 4 times a Year?!?

This year’s Setsubun no Hi (節分の日) fell on February 2nd, one day earlier than normal. Like many traditional celebrations in Japan, this is a day were people take part in activities to bring forth fortune by cleaning their homes, scattering mame (豆, roasted soy beans) within their homes to ward away bad luck, and consuming ehōmaki (恵方巻, long sushi rolls) while facing the designated lucky direction. But did you know that long ago the tradition of Setsubun actually took place 4 times a year?


The translation of Setsubun indicates this, for it means “the division of the seasons” (季節を分ける)¹. According to the old Lunar calendar, these 4 points were designated several days after the current season is waning, and one day before the official season change. The day right after Setsubun has a unique name that indicates the start of the next season. It is said that this practice originated from special rituals that took place in the Imperial buildings during the Heian period (794~1185) called “Tsuina” (追儺, Driving out Evil Spirits)². Onmyōji (陰陽師, diviners of Onmyōdō) performed these rituals as a means to prevent disease and calamity brought upon by evil spirits befalling on the Imperial palace during the transition from one season to another. Essentially, these Onmyoji had to do this ritual 4 times a year.

Below is 2021’s designated days for each season change according to the Lunar calendar. The day Setsubun would’ve been for the seasons of Spring, Fall, And Winter is also added.

Winter→Spring2/2 (節分, Setsubun) → 2/3 (立春, Risshun, 1st day of Spring)
Spring→Summer5/4 (節分, Setsubun) → 5/5 (立夏, Rikkan, 1st day of Summer)
Summer→Fall 8/6 (節分, Setsubun)→ 8/7 (立秋, Risshu, 1st day of Fall)
Fall→Winter11/6 (節分, Setsubun) →11/7 (立冬, Ritto, 1st day of Winter)


Note that while these dates are correct, the only one that’s officially observed is the change from Winter to Spring. Even though these other Setsubun periods are not in use, you can find the 1st day of Summer, Fall, and Winter listed on Japanese calendars. For those who have a liking of divination can find special calendars that list the seasonal changes, along with a lot of information that was once a norm in society when the Lunar calendar was still in use, such as uranai (占い, fortune telling), kyūsei (九星, 9 Star chart) rokuyō (六曜, 6 auspicious days), and so on.

An example of the modern calendar mixed with the old Lunar calendar, with information related to divination, moon phases, and so on. From AJNET.

While this can be interesting to review for personal studies, just remember that the tradition of Setsubun has a lot of differences with modern day calendars. For example, the official first day of Spring in America is March 20th. That’s quite a gap! When Japan adopted the modern calendar, older practices associated with the Lunar calendar didn’t quite follow along so smoothly. Some practices had to have changes and adjustments implemented. This is noticeable when comparing certain season-influenced days dependent on the structure of the Lunar calendar to the new format brought on by the modern calendar.

By the way, I recently did a project based on the yearly seasons and days in accordance to the Lunar calendar. You can learn more about the unique days mentioned above, along with others and how they related to the seasons in the Translations section here.


1) The meaning of this word has been altered over time based on the current social perception of this tradition. It is not unusual (even in Japanese) for people to say that Setsubun means “driving out demons by scattering soybeans”. Actually that meaning comes from the term mame maki (豆撒き), which is the action performed on the day of Setsubun. As a whole, Setsubun is just the indication of the change of the season to the next, while those traditional practices on that day have their own individual labels.

2) There are other names for this ritual, such as Oni Yarai (鬼遣).

Ushidoshi: Steady Pace is the Ox’s Way

Welcome, 2021! Kicking off the new year, our 1st post will cover the Lunar Zodiac sign for 2021. Which animal sign is the highlight for this year? What traits are represented by this animal sign? Are there any unique stories, traditions, or phrases related to it? As always, the info and viewpoint will be from how it is interpreted in Japan, unless there are any differences between other countries that is worth mentioning.

COME FORTH THE OX

The zodiac sign for 2021 is none other than the ox, which is called “ushi” in Japan. Pronounces as “ushitoshi” (丑年) in Japanese, this year is the 2nd in the current Lunar Zodiac cycle. According to old folktales, the ox is also the 2nd sign, for it came in 2nd place in a foot race, being outwitted from arriving 1st by the mouse¹. The character that represents the ox sign is “丑”, but just like the other animal signs, this sign originally had no association with the animal image.

If we take this character ushi (丑) and look at its root meaning, it signifies something that bends, wraps around, or clings onto an object. It’s normally seen within specific characters such as himo (紐), which means “rope”. In ancient Chinese text regarding the Lunar zodiac, the ushi character represents a bud that is being produced from a seed, but has not fully gotten through the hard exterior. In a sense, this expresses that hard work & effort is needed to produce the outcome one desires².

2021 IS ALSO THE YEAR OF THE METAL OX

In conjunction with the 12 Animal Zodiac signs are the 10 Heavenly Stem, which is written as “Jikkan” (十干) in Japanese. 2021 marks the 38th year where both work in unison, and we get a combination of ushi (丑) and kanoto (辛). Together, this year is also called “kanoto-ushi doshi”, or “Year of the Metal Ox”. What is so significant about this? Kanoto, which is the 8th sign from the 10 Heavenly Stem, further enhances the traits of the ox (more on this below). Here’s some things to consider:

  • As a standard, the 5 Elements and Ying Yang theory are incorporated into this unison
  • Kanato’s element is metal, while it is on the ying (dark) side
  • Ox’s element is earth, while it is on the ying (dark) side
  • Both share similar qualities

Originally, kanoto’s character “辛” stood for “to go against” or “to offend one’s superiors”. However, this meaning is no longer in use, as the purpose of the 10 Heavenly Stem has been revised³.

Most, if not all of this, doesn’t say much in a way that makes it easy to follow or understand for the average reader. Even for myself, I do not fully grasp all the components that consist in these different areas that work hand-in-hand to make the Lunar calendar what it is. As an ancient practice for predicting the outcome in a yearly basis within Asian culture, it is amazing that it is still observed in modern times, let alone make its way into Western societies.

TRAITS OF AN OX

Now that 2021 is here, predictions and forecasts regarding how the year will progress based on the ox sign is out. What are we to expect? What type of traits does the ox represent? Here’s the following:

  • The ox sign represents hard working, my-pace mentality, and intelligence
  • This depiction lines up well with the use of oxen for labor work throughout history, as they are patient & resilient animals that can accomplish long, strenuous tasks
  • People under this sign are said to bear these traits naturally

Those born under the ox sign are said to be hard workers who, once set on a task, are completely focused on it, and will see it through until the very end when it’s complete. While it is commendable, this could also be they become stubborn, and may not sway easily to others’ requests. Also, when needing to work with others, they do so at their own tempo. As a leader, they may make many requests to their employees, but on the other hand they tend not to be a tyrant of a boss. As a bonus, this year being the “Metal Ox” means that those under this sign will also get a boost in popularity, and establish good relations easily. As always, those of the ox sign need to be careful not to overdo it, lest their good qualities backfire and turn against them!

Artwork by Utagawa Toyokuni. Originally untitled, it’s been referenced as featuring a beautiful woman riding an ox alongside her young companion (牛乗り美人と若衆). From the Fujisawa Ukiyo-e Museum.

For this year, everyone is encouraged to learn from the ox traits and apply it, even if your sign is not the ox. While the prediction may still be too early to consider fact, the “Metal Ox” unity is said to be a lucky one. Through patience and hard work, individuals are predicted to be successful in 2021. It’s not something we can do on our own, so through good communication and establishing intimate relationships will prove beneficial. Attempting new endeavors during these troubling times can be worthwhile with abit of effort and patience.

MISCELLANEOUS & FUN FACTS

The following are ways in which the ox sign played a role as a cultural fuction throughout Japanese society over the years. First, let’s look at how it was used for conventional means.

  • Time = 1 pm – 2 pm
  • Direction = North-Northeast (around 30 degrees)
  • Month = 12th (according to the old calendar)
  • Energy = dark (ying)
  • 5 Elements = earth

Next, are some phrases and idioms that are related to, or even inspired by the image of the ox. Note that the majority of these are old, so you most likely won’t hear them used today.

  • Ushi no mimi ni kyōmon (牛の耳に経文)
    LITERAL: Reciting sutra to an ox
    MEANING: Your words have no effect on a person mo matter how many times you explain
  • Ushi no ayumi (牛の歩み)
    LITERAL: Walk like an ox
    MEANING: Someone who walks slow
  • Ushi no ayumi mo senri (牛の歩みも千里)
    LITERAL: Even the ox walks a very long distance. (senri = 4,000 km)
    MEANING: You have to put in your fullest effort in order to get the desired results
  • Ushi no kaku wo hachi ga sasu (牛の角を蜂が刺す)
    LITERAL: The bee stings the horn of the ox
    MEANING: You feel no pain no matter what may occur
  • Ushi wa ushi-zure uma wa uma-zure (牛は牛連れ馬は馬連れ)
    LITERAL: The ox leads the oxen along, while the horse leads the horses along
    MEANING: People of like qualities can easily gather and work together

ENDING

This about covers the ox sign of the Lunar Zodiac, and the predictions for 2021. Look out for more posts this year related to the ox sign, as I will continue to cover this theme. Let’s work to make this a great year in the long run!


1) This version of the story is featured in the Translations section of this site, which I translated into English. You can read it here.

2) In ancient times, each of the 12 Zodiac signs shared the same theme of a plant’s growth from a seed one way or another. Eventually, this theme was overshadowed by the more popular animal theme.

3) Outside of the Lunar calendar, this character acts as an adjective in the standard Japanese language. It can either be pronounced as “karai” and have such meanings like “spicy” and “salty”, or pronounced as “tsurai” and have several meanings such as “painful”, “difficult”, and “heart-breaking”.