Shrine Dogs

April 12, 2006

by Satoko Kawaguchi; Natsuki Kamikura

Shrine Dogs

What do you see when you visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan? Most people, including Japanese, may focus on the main buildings and the origins of the shrine or temple, or just have a good look around the beautiful grounds. Before praying or paying your respects at the main sanctuary, however, you had better take a look at the twin shrine dogs — koma inu in Japanese.

What are shrine dogs?

Shrine dogs are mythical guardian statues shaped as animals. They are usually found in “a-hum” pairs : one “a” dog with an open mouth and one “hum” dog with a closed mouth. This concept came from Sanskrit in India. “A” is the sound of opening a mouth and “hum” is the sound of closing it. In esoteric Buddhism “a” also symbolizes the beginning of things and “hum” symbolizes the end. Moreover, “a” is the root of the universe and “hum” is the virtue of the wisdom that everything returns to its source. Originally the “a” shrine dog statue would stand facing you on your right; it had the features of a lion and had no horns. The “hum” statue on your left would be essentially a dog with a horn (some dogs have no horns). However, most shrine dogs that we see today are basically a pair of lions. It is said that the one on your right is a female and the one on your left is a male, though this is just a folk belief.

Where did they come from?

The root of shrine dogs dates back to the ancient Orient, where people believed that lions were the strongest animal in the world and that a king would have great power if he acquired the lions’ power. The lion was also seen as a sacred animal. This idea came to Japan from China by way of Gandhara with Buddhism in the sixth century. The custom of placing two guardian statues in front of an image of Buddha had started. At that time, however, the statues were of lions, not dogs. The sets consisting of a lion and a dog began to be made in the beginning of the Heian period (794-1192). Shrine dogs in those days were carved in wood and placed inside the buildings of temples and shrines. Later, when they were put outside, they began to be made of stone to survive the wind and rain. The oldest shrine dogs in Kyoto are in Yasui Kompira Shrine, in the Higashiyama Ward. They were made in 1767.

Family of Shrine Dogs

Shrine ‘dogs’ appear in various other figures, such as wild boars, dragons, foxes, etc. The members of this ‘family’ of figures are the servants of gods, while ordinary shrine dogs — the lions and dogs mentioned above — simply guard temples and shrines. Here below are some examples of places of worship with unusual animal guardians.

Otoyo shrine

Otoyo Shrine is a small place of worship which is located on the south side of Kyoto’s Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher’s Path). Here, instead of shrine dogs, mice guard the shrine. Why mice? Here’s the background story: First, you need to know that in Otoyo Shrine, Okuninushi-no-mikoto, the god of marriage based in Izumo Taisha (a major shrine in Shimane Prefecture), is worshiped as a deity. He was a descendant of Susanoo-no-mikoto, one of the gods in Japanese myths.

According to the Kojiki, which is the oldest historical book in Japan, Okuninushi went to another world. He arrived there and met Princess Suseri, daughter of Susanoo. They fell in love with each other at first sight. Then Susanoo commanded Okuninushi to sleep in a room filled with snakes, but Princess Suseri gave Okuninushi a snake scarf, said to be one of ten ancient treasures. The scarf helped him to sleep safely in the room. Susanoo imposed another ordeal on Okuninushi. Susanoo shot an arrow into a vast plain and made Okuninushi go to retrieve it. When he was searching for it, Susanoo set fire to the surrounding plain. The flames spread quickly and Okuninushi lost all means of escape. Suddenly a mouse appeared and told him that there was a hole in the ground. While he was hiding in the hole, the fire passed overhead. Then, the mouse gave him the arrow. Thanks to the mouse, Okuninushi escaped by a hair’s breadth.  He finally married Princess Suseri. 

Otoyo Shrine traces its origins back to this story. It is said that mice will bring the health, long life and happiness. The mouse statue on the left has a sake bowl, which means that if you worship here you will have a healthy baby. The one on the right has a scroll. In addition to these statues, there are figures of a monkey and kite (hawk) in this shrine. You can enjoy observing these fascinating animal guardians.

the mouse statue on the left
the mouse statue on the right
Kurama Temple

Kurama Temple, in the north of Kyoto, is famous for Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a 12th century general who engaged in severe ascetic practices when he was young. In this temple, you can see a pair of tigers which are said to keep the temple safe. In 770, this temple was built by Gantei, disciple of Ganjin (a Chinese monk and a founder of Buddhism in Japan). Gantei dreamed that he climbed up Mt. Kurama led by a white horse at four o’clock in the morning on January 4, 770. Then a demon attacked him, but a dead tree fell down on the demon and smashed it. The next morning, a statue of Bishamonten, one of the four heavenly kings in Buddhism, was found under the fallen tree. Gantei then built a temple to worship the statue. The date and time of the dream was related to the tiger in Japanese zodiac signs, so there are two tigers placed as messengers of Bishamonten in Kurama temple. This temple lies deep in the mountains of northern Sakyo Ward and it is a little bit hard to go there, but it is well worth visiting and you will be overpowered by the dynamic tigers.

the tiger statue on the left
 the tiger statue on the right

There are, you see, different ways to enjoy your visits to temples and shrines. The faces and positions of shrine dogs are different in each location, so we recommend that you compare them. Once you shift your focus to these mythical creatures, you can discover a hidden charm.

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