Autumn demons, dragons and the Togakushi mountains

With autumn in full swing in the Togakushi mountains these days, here’s a few words on the connection between autumn, demons (oni 鬼) and dragons (ryuu 龍) at Togakushi.

As I described in a previous post,  the first deity encountered at Togakushi (recounted in a thirteenth century account) was the dragon, Kuzuryu 九頭龍 (literally, “nine-headed-dragon”).  Kuzuryu appeared at the mountain when the first ascetic to arrive in the region, Gakumon (9th c.), threw a ritual scepter in its direction.

Taira Koremochi unmoved by the demon-turned-beauty, Momiji.  (1890)

From ancient times, Kuzuryu was believed to provide water/rain (a common belief at mountains across the Japanese archipelago and sites across Asia) but also feared in the common imagination as a mountain demon.  In one ritual for Kuzuryu dating back to the fifteenth century, participants offered up autumn Japanese maple leaves (momiji 紅葉) to the dragon in the eleventh month of the lunar year.  Some time after, a Noh performance titled Momiji gari 紅葉狩 (Hunting Momiji) was composed, describing a fierce demon named Momiji in the Togakushi mountains.  After an ill-fated encounter between a samurai and a demon in Togakushi, the emperor dispatched the fierce samurai, Taira no Koremochi 平維茂, and his company to expel the beast.  Upon entering the region, the troop came upon a drinking party of beautiful women.  After joining and eventually passing out drunk, the great deity Hachiman appeared Koremochi’s dream, warning that the women were in fact the demon, Momiji.  Hachiman thereupon gave him a great sword.  Awakening from the dream, Koremochi (undoubtedly bummed to find a terrifying monster in front of him in place of the earlier beautiful women).  Following a  long battle, the samurai eventually succeeding, cutting off of the demon’s head.  (Naito Masatoshi 内藤正敏, 2009)

Naito (2009) argues that this legend and subsequent myths concerning “demon-expelling missions” (oni taiji 鬼退治) in Togakushi symbolize sovereign power overcoming regional power – a sort of conquest over “barbarian” lands.  By sending forces to expel the demon – as the stories tell, the emperor both legitimates his authority, defeats his foes, and expands his territory.

While its unclear whether or not these stories lent any material power to the court (beyond the symbolic), the Togakushi mountains became famous for their legendary demons.  Later Edo period (1600-1868) pilgrimage to the region developed in tandem with the production of local versions of the Momiji gari myth as temples and villages linked events from the myth to their own histories.

Even today, the legendary demons appear on tourism campaigns on subway stops around Tokyo, advertizing both the beauty and otherworldly nature of the Togakushi mountains.

Reference:   Naitō Masatoshi 内藤正敏.  2009.  “Togakushi-san no oni: Toshi no ikai to yama no ikai” 戸隠山の鬼―都市の異界と山の異界 [The oni of the Togakushi mountains:  The other realm of the city and the other realm of the mountains].  Edo/toshi no naka no ikai 江戸・都市の中の異界.  In the series, Minzoku no hakken 民俗の発見 IV.  Vol. 4:  271–311.  Hōsei Daigaku Shuppankyoku 法政大学出版局.


About calebscarter

I specialize in Japanese religions within the broader context of Buddhism and East Asian cultures. Within these fields, I focus especially on Shugendō, a mountain-based tradition in Japan developed largely from esoteric, Zen and Pure Land Buddhism with additional influences from Chinese religions and local spirit worship (later identified as Shintō). I approach these subjects from an interdisciplinary perspective that draws on literary, economic, political, social and intellectual history. I received my Masters (2008) and PhD (2014), both in Buddhist Studies from UCLA, with a BA (2000) in Philosophy from Colorado College. I currently teach full-time for the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. Outside of research and teaching, I play a three-stringed instrument from Okinawa called the sanshin and spend time with my family at nearby playgrounds and campgrounds. I also love the outdoors, especially climbing in the mountains—an orientation that has in many ways shaped my current intellectual path. View all posts by calebscarter

7 responses to “Autumn demons, dragons and the Togakushi mountains

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