Friday, May 29, 2009


The torii is the gate through which one passes to enter a Shinto shrine. The Chinese characters for torii are 鳥 (tori), which means "bird", and 居 (i), which means "to dwell"; together the characters form the compound 鳥居 (torii). It is thought that the gateway was originally a perch for sacred fowl that announced the coming of day, rousing the Shinto faithful from their slumbers to salute the sunrise. This outdated custom recalls the Japanese belief that the "race" is descended from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. A communication sent by a 7th century Japanese potentate to his Chinese counterpart was signed "From the Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun to the Emperor of the Land of the Setting Sun". The photos were taken at Yahiko Shrine, the largest in Niigata Prefecture. In August of 1689 Basho spent a night in Yahiko during his Oku-no-Hosomichi walking tour of northern Japan.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Six Jizo

The six statues above depict the Buddhist deity Jizo, the patron saint of travelers and the protector of the souls of children in the underworld. The Jizo at far left holds a Buddhist rosary; the next has its hands joined in prayer; the third and sixth Jizo appear to carry the Japanese pilgrim's staff, or tsue; the fourth has (apparently) in its left hand the mystic jewel, the Nio-i ho-jiu, with the power to grant all desires; and the fifth holds in its left hand the mystic jewel and supports in its right the mendicant priest's staff, the shakujo, with its six rings at the top. Cups of water are placed before the group, and a single cup sits in front of the multitude of miniature statues (representing the souls of children) in the open-sided granite "box", which is likely a representation of the netherworld.

Friday, May 22, 2009


The shachihoko is a great stone fish, an idealized porpoise, with its nose in the ground and its tail in the air. - Lafcadio Hearn

Shachihoko are often seen atop the tiled ridgepoles of wealthy planters' farmhouses, those of shrines and temples, as well as on the roofs of feudal castles. These stylized half-fish, half-tiger creatures are believed to protect buildings from fire. The use of shachihoko in their dual functions of ornamentation and fire prevention increased during the sixteenth century reign of Daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). At present the largest copper plated shachihoko in Japan is that atop Matsue Castle in Shimane Prefecture, shown in the photo immediately above.

The Gohei

Gohei are the sacred cuttings of folded white paper attached to the shimenawa. Note that the gohei alternate with the pendent tufts of straw. As with the shimenawa, I refer to the erudite Lafcadio Hearn for more on the subject: "The origin of the paper cuttings (gohei) ... is likewise to be found in the legend of the Sun-goddess; but the gohei also represent offerings of cloth anciently made to the gods according to a custom long obsolete."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Shimenawa

The shimenawa is the twisted rope hung from the main gate, suspended above the holy font or the entrance to the main hall, or wrapped around sacred trees or other objects at Shinto shrines. It may be a thick, hempen plait, as in the lower photo, or a few strands of twine, as in the upper. Of the shimenawa Lafcadio Hearn has this to say:"(I)t represents the straw rope the deity Futo-tama-no-mikoto stretched behind the Sun-goddess Ama-terasu... after Ame-no.., the Heavenly-handstrength-god, had pulled her out" [of the ground]. Depending from the shimenawa are tufts of rope signifying the roots that clung to the mythical original, which was made of grass.

Roadside Shrines

Roadside shrines like the one pictured are common sights in rural Japan. The stylized sculpture provides little clue to the deity's identity, but, like many such, it is probably associated with agriculture or wayfaring. Fresh flowers were recently placed in vases to left and right of the image.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Spring Cycling Trip

Japan's addiction to road-building has at least one benefit: no area, howsoever remote, is inaccessible to the cyclist. The above photos were taken in Niigata in late April on a 125 kilometer ramble through the mountains, which are 800-1200 meters high in this area. I had the road to myself, my own private road, for much of the day.

Jikoji and Its Cryptomerias

Jikoji was my destination on a recent 90k cycling trip. Jikoji is a 600-year-old temple of a Zen-Buddhist sect. The path to the temple, which is located in a valley at the foot of Mt. Haku in Niigata, is lined for 500 meters by towering Japanese cedars, or cryptomerias. The age of the trees is estimated to be 300-500 years.