An Oni at Asakusa Kannon

In 2015, at the Asakusa temple complex in Tokyo, I spied this grimacing face on the eaves of a building, and I just had to take a photo. It has taken me three years to find out what it actually was, but now I know.

I believe it’s an Oni. These are powerful ogres of Japanese folklore. Horned spirits with a pair of vicious fangs, just like my grotesque friend here, they are evil harbingers of disaster. Curiously, they are also used to decorate the roofs of temples in order to scare off any other foul fiends and demons.

It’s a clear case of better the devil you know.

The day I snapped this ogre was a crazy one in Asakusa. We had arrived in Japan just as the fabled Cherry blossom front hit town. Following the progress of the cherry blossom blooming over the islands of Japan is a national obsession, as it heralds the beginning of spring in addition to bathing the cities in wave of colour. It was so intense that pink petals were heaped up in the corners of the buildings, like snow.

So, unbeknownst to us, almost everyone else in Tokyo had decided to visit Asakusa at the same as us. It was so crowded that there were queues stretching around the block just to get into the shops selling sweets, candies and other souvenirs.

Despite the throng, I did manage to lurk underneath the Hozo-Mon Gate long enough to snap the bottom of the gigantic red lantern you can see in the picture above (with me lurking chameleon-like among the locals). The lantern bears this intricate design of a Japanese dragon, a ryu:

We also came across this enormous sandal on one of the walls, and you can see my lovely wife, Maria, performing the duties of providing size comparison.

I still have no idea what this shoe represents, or whether these things are common in Japan. If you know, please let me in on the secret in the comments. Arigato gozaimass!

UPDATE: the good people on Twitter at @FolkloreThursday have solved the mystery of the giant sandals. They are a kind of thank you, delivered after receiving aid from government or the powers-that-be and they are called ‘owaraji’. You can read more about them here.

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