Encounters with Japanese Dragons

Encounters with Dragons screen“In Japan, the dragon is a good guy, not a bad guy.”    This was the comment of our guide in Kyoto on a recent trip across Japan, where we had a few memorable encounters with Japanese dragons.

Benevolent, auspicious, just, a bringer of good fortune and wealth, the Japanese dragon (Ryū), like its Chinese ancestor, is an ancient mythical creature that is very different from its malevolent, treasure-hoarding Western equivalent.  Like many mythological creatures, it is a composite beast and has the head of a camel, the eyes of a hare, the antlers of a deer, the neck of a snake, the scales of a carp, the paws of a tiger and the claws of an eagle.

Our first dragon encounter was in Shinjuku, Tokyo, a name that refers to both one of the 23 city wards in the metropolis and more commonly to the large entertainment, business and shopping area around Shinjuku Station – the world’s busiest railway station.  Painted on a wall behind a statue of a female deity playing a lyre lurked a fabulous white dragon on a black background surrounded by stylised swirls, it looked like some great, nameless tattoo artist had decided to take their artwork to a much grander scale.   I was mesmerised and spent some time shooting the combination of the statue and the dragon mural with my Leica Q whilst my companions retired to a nearby bar.  You can see both this image and the others mentioned in this post in the Japan Gallery.

The Asian dragon’s origin predates written history, but had achieved its present form of a long, scaled serpentine body, small horns, long whiskers, bushy brows, clawed feet and sharp teeth by the 9th Century, by which time it was part of Buddhist mythology as a protector of the Buddha and Buddhist law.    These traditions were adopted by the Japanese and the character for dragon (龍) is much used in temple names.  Dragon carvings also adorn many temple structures and most Japanese Zen temples have a dragon painted on the ceiling of their dharma halls, often painted inside a circle in the centre of the ceiling.

At the Zen temple of Kennin-Ji, in the Gion district of Kyoto, we had two dragon encounters in rapid succession.  The first was an incredible dragon painting on a sliding fusuma door, which is shown in this post.  The horns are larger than normal, the whiskers are so long they look almost like tentacles, and the dragon appears to be swimming through time and space; peering at us with us eyes that give a hint of otherworldly vision and knowledge.   The second was the vast painting of Twin Dragons that covers the entire ceiling of the Hattou (dharma hall) of Kennin-Ji, the oldest temple in Kyoto.  Kennin-Ji was founded in 1202, though the earliest surviving structure the is the Chokushimon (Imperial Messenger or Arrow Gate) that is dated to  from the Kamakura Period  of 1185-1333.  This building still bears the scars from the Onin War that reduced much of Kyoto to ashes during the 15th century in the form of  arrow marks.  The dharma hall that houses the Twin Dragons was constructed later, in 1765.  The dragons themselves were painted in ink on paper by Koizumi Junsaku (1924 – 2012), a noted painter and pottery artist, between 2000 and 2002, and installed in 2002 to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of the temple.   The dragons cover 175 square meters rather than occupying the usual circle in the centre of the ceiling.  This was at the bidding of the abbot of Kennin-ji who requested that the artist make dragons “rampage across the ceiling”.  They rampage in spectacular fashion and I spent a good while admiring them.  A bought a copy of the painting and it is now framed and up on the wall at my home in Oxfordshire.

In modern Japan, Zen temples and Shinto shrines often stock their garden ponds with carp, which grow to great size in a spectacular range of colors.  Keeping them is partially inspired by Koi-no-Takinobori, the Japanese name for a Chinese legend of a carp that became a dragon after swimming up a waterfall.  We saw many incredible Koi in Tokyo and Kyoto, but I will not count them as dragons.

Unlike the Western dragon which is essentially a winged fire-breathing lizard, and a creature of the earth, the Japanese dragon is a wingless (but sky dwelling) water spirit.   At the Hakone Shrine (Hakone Jinja), at the foot of Mount Hakone and along the shores of the lake Ashinoko, our dragon encounter was at a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deity Ryujin (龍神).  Ryujin is associated with rain, good catches for fishermen, and with agriculture.  According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto ‘The dragon kami is connected with agriculture because of its characteristic as a water kami. Prayers for rain were performed at rivers, swamps, ponds, and deep pools which were regarded as the abodes of the ryūjin.’  At the shrine is an extraordinary  Chōzuya (purification basin), where holy water spouts from each of the nine dragon’s heads.  It was the dragon highlight of the trip.  Four dragon encounters is not a large number, but they were of the highest quality and I will never forget them.


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