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.

10 Days in Japan

trees gardenBetween 13th and 23rd May 2017, I travelled across Japan with a small group of friends on a trip organised by Trailfinders.  I have wanted to go for more than a decade and my expectations were sky high, and I am happy to say I wasn’t disappointed.  I wasn’t sure what lenses to take with me, so I took both my Leica Q and the Nikon Df with 20mm, 35mm and 85mm fast primes.  I ending up using the Leica Q (28mm) and the Nikon Df with the 85mm fitted almost exclusively, both slung across my chest in readiness.  You can see the gallery here.  This was our itinerary:

Day 1 – Arrival in Tokyo

We flew from London to Tokyo on British Airways.  Given the time difference we arrived with time to spare on our first day, which gave us the opportunity to explore the area around the excellent Park Hotel in Shiodome, our base in the metropolis.  Shiodome is close to the Ginza District, the upmarket shopping area of Tokyo, so had a short walk around the area and a lunchtime beer at the Ginza Lion Beer Hall with an accompaniment of delicious hoho-niku (tuna cheeks).  We noticed the displays of plastic food (sampuru) outside the beer hall, which seem to be ubiquitous in Japan.  None of us had slept well on the flight and our rooms had not been ready on arrival, so we headed back to the hotel to clean up and rest.  On the way back we came across Hakuhninkan Toy Park, which introduced us to the mad world of Japanese toys and collectables.  That evening we ate at Tsukada Nojo which was most notable for moromi-miso; a chunky condiment made from miso served with raw vegetables, of which we could not get enough.

Day 2 – Tokyo

  • On our first full day in Tokyo we were accompanied by our guide Akiko, who was very knowledgable and helpful.  We headed for the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū), in Shibuya, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife.  Entering through an enormous Torii gate (made from a 1,500 year old tree) we passed into a large forested area which covers 175 acres and consists of around 120,000 trees of 365 different species from all over Japan.  It is both tranquil and beautiful.  There is also a huge decorative display of sake barrels (kazaridaru) in the grounds,  which relates to the offering of sake every year to the  deities at Meiji Jingu Shrine.  As we walked though the three Torii gates, Akiko told us that we should not walk through the centre line of the gate.  This is called the Sei-Chu and is the area designated for the enshrined gods to pass through.
  • Being British and in need of a restorative cup of tea we stopped at a Cat Cafe located near the entrance to the Shrine.  Japan holds the record for the most cat cafés in the world, with as many as 39 in Tokyo.  I took a bit of a risk entering the place – I am asthmatic and allergic to cats, which is not a great combination, but observed the rather bizarre spectacle without consequences.
  • Next was Takeshita Street or Takeshita-dōri, a shopping street in Harajuku, which was packed with fashion concious teenagers, followed by Omotesandō, an upmarket tree-lined avenue, once the official approach to Meiji-jingū. These days it is a fashionable and architecturally notable shopping strip.
  • After a spot of excellent sushi we moved on to Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa. The temple is dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and is one of the most widely visited spiritual sites in the world.  We approached it though the spectacular Thunder Gate, and a walk down the wonderful Nakamise Shopping Street.  I found a gorgeous picture of the Thunder Gate in one of the stalls, which I was keen to buy, but the price tag was far out of reach as it was an original.  Prints will, the vendor, told me be available in about 30 years.  Not far from the temple we came across a small park with the most spectacular collection of koi we had ever seen.
  • We moved on to Kappabashi, or Kitchen Town and visited the Kamata knife shop. I enjoy cooking, and love Japanese steel, so I purchased a very beautiful chef’s knife made by Ryusen.
  • We returned to the hotel via a cruise of the Sumida river and ate in the hotel, quite worn out.

Day 3 – Tokyo

  • The Tsukuji fish market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and is located within walking distance of Shiodome, between the Sumida River and Ginza.  Visiting it involves making a choice of either arriving at 3 AM to queue to see the tuna market open at 5 AM, or arriving by 10 AM to see market wind down.  We chose the latter.  The market handles more than 400 different types of seafood (many of which look like nothing on earth) and the place is a whirr of activity – most notably the ‘Turret Trucks’, which are extremely hazardous to the unwary.   Whilst we missed the tuna market, we did see tuna being carved with extremely long knives, variously called called oroshi-hōchō, maguro-bōchō, or hanchō-hōchō.
  • We took the tube to Shibuya Crossing, considered a must see for many visitors, and located outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station. This exit is named after a famous dog, whose statue has become a popular meeting place.  Shibuya Crossing effectively is a crossing point at the meeting of five roads in one of the busiest parts of the most populous city in the world, and the spectacle of up to 1,000 people crossing the road concurrently is quite astonishing.
  • I was keen to visit a guitar shop in Japan, particularly as Fender Japan are noted for being quite innovative.  G’Club, Shibuya did not disappoint and I purchased a low cost, light weight Japan-only Fender Telecaster that plays extremely well.
  • That evening we took in Akihabar (or Electic Town), which is  famous for its many electronics shops, its otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many anime/managa shops before exploring East Shinjuku/Kabukichu, in all its neon splendour.  It is a red light district and supposed to be somewhat edgy, but we were so mesmerised by the neon lights, if there was any menace there it passed us by.  We were not tempted to enter any of the establishments that beckoned us.

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