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.


13 responses to “An Oni at Asakusa Kannon

  1. Wonderful read.

    Japan is one of the places I have always wanted to visit ever since college when I roomed with someone from Kyoto. I will get there one day!

    What did you like most about it?

    • It had been a dream for me for such a long time too!
      I loved lots of things about Japan. I particularly liked the calm of everyday life. People had great respect for each other, and for society. Even in frenetic, crowded Tokyo, so many things were clean and spotless, even the underground trains.
      We only went to Tokyo and Matsumoto in the north – the latter to see the samurai trail once walked by travellers across the country. It wound through old wooden towns and bamboo forests. It was gorgeous!

      • Sounds like it!

        One of the things I’ve always loved about the Japanese is that respect you talk of. I think the world could do with their politeness.

  2. Japan’s great – I’m going out there on holiday myself next week. Love the dragon photo. No idea what the sandal’s significance is. It’s funny, I got that it was big but it wasn’t until I scrolled down the page and saw your wife in the same shot that I saw quite how big!

  3. That’s one impressive shoe. Japan looks so clean and everybody seems so respectful there. That Oni looks like he had to sit through the royal wedding against his will.

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