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Haunting figures from Japan; Shinto shrine Animal Guardians

Posted on November 1st, by Peter Parkorr in Japan, Picture Perfect. No Comments

Japan is a modern country, with high standards of living that rival (and often better) any of the most prominent developed nations. But unlike some of their peers, Japan is positively bursting at the seams with cultural heritage.

It’s not as plain in busy Tokyo as in other cities, partly because the majority of the capital was levelled by Allied Forces during World War 2. Look at a map of Kyoto though and you begin to grasp just how frequent the historical landmarks in Japan are (and this isn’t even a tourist version). Most, if not all, of the small graphic symbols (including the swastikas) are either shrines, temples, or some other historic site.


To celebrate Halloween and with midnight imminent, I’ve put together a few photos of the incarnations you may come across in the grounds attached to a Shinto Shrine – the Japanese equivalent of a cemetery. These pictures were taken in one of the shrines to the far right of this map, near part of the Philosophers Walk in Kyoto.

Komainu – Lion-dogs and Foxes

At the entrance to a Shinto shrine, a pair of Komainu usually stand guard, protecting the sacred site. They can look a lot like Chinese guardian lions, or where the shrine is devoted to the god Inari they often resemble a fox.

They are depicted holding a key, a Buddhist sūtra roll or an orb in their teeth, or as a pair one will usually have its mouth open and the other have its mouth closed. The open-mouthed animal is said to be pronouncing the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet – symbolising life – and the closed mouth of the second animal represents death.


Torii Tunnels

Traditional gates, called Torii, mark out the sacred areas within a shrine. Often the shrines cover the top of large hills and you can walk for several kilometres to visit the various parts spread across the forested terrain. Where lots of Torii have been erected they form these stereotypical red tunnels of painted wood, complete with Kanji carvings. Despite the work that goes into maintaining their foundations and paint, you can stroll around these silent winding corridors in the forest completely alone – only passing other walkers by every hour or so.



As part of the ritual of visiting a shrine, there is always a place where worshippers can purify themselves, either by washing with cold water or by using salts. It’s common to see stone basins filled with water, protected by dragons or other creatures, and people use long-stemmed ladles to pour water over their hands without contaminating the source for others.

The monks that look after Japans temples and shrines make ceremonial Torii models and Inari figurines for people to place on the tombs of their relatives. Well looked after tombs may have 20 or 30 miniature Torii adorning them, as well as red textile additions to their wooden or stone animal guardians.


Visiting a Shinto shrine in Japan is a very peaceful experience, away from the fast-pace of the cities. It often involves a moderate ascent uphill, although the views and the fresh air make it totally worthwhile. But with all the magical guardians and spiritual ornaments – I’m not sure I’d want to stick around all night…

Happy Halloween.

Peter Parkorr