When walking around Japan you might see a small rectangular piece of paper pasted near a front door or on a gate. On this paper is an image that can only be described as a demon or devil. While off-putting at first, this creepy little fellow isn’t actually a bad guy; he’s there to protect the family and household. On this episode of Uncanny Japan, I’m going to tell you why.
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Hey hey, everyone, how are you all doing? I’m nursing a slight cold so my voice might be a little wonky, but I wanted to go ahead and record and get this up, because my plan is to get two episodes out in November.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been to the ocean, so here I am. They’re mellow waves, but I’m going to put just the binaurally miked version of them up on my Patreon page for those who have trouble sleeping, like me. Or just want to close their eyes and imagine sitting by a rocky Japanese shore.
Today I’m going to tell you about Tsuno Daishi or The Great Horned Master, but before we get to him, let me explain what omamori and ofuda are. Mamoru is the verb: to protect. So an omamori is a small amulet, often made from colorful brocaded silk with a string so you can tie it to things. It’s purpose is to protect you or help you in some area of your life.
If you’ve been to Japan, I’m sure you’ve seen them. They’re sold in temples and shrines all over. They only cost a few hundred yen and are basically good luck charms that have specific uses. There are omamori to help you study, to keep you safe while driving, to help your studies, to help you become pregnant and then have a healthy baby, as well as ones to find the perfect lover or come into a lot of money. You can see them dangling from people’s purses, backpacks, rearview mirrors, or maybe tucked into a pencil case.
So an omamori is a small, pretty, portable good luck charm.
There is also something called an ofuda. It, too, is a kind of talisman to ward off evil, but instead of being carried around, it’s hung or pasted somewhere, usually a house, front gate, or a store. They can be made of wood, cloth, or metal, but I think the kind I see most often are paper strips with fancy characters on them and stamped with red vermillion hanko. If you visit a temple or shrine in Japan, pay attention to the front gate, pillars and ceilings. Sometimes you can see old ofuda plastered willy nilly all over the place.
They’re super cool and are believed to prevent evil spirits from entering one’s abode. You’ll also find ofuda mentioned in all kinds of Japanese tales. For example, I just wrote an article for Sotheby’s about the three great Japanese ghost stories and one of the stories, called Botan Doro, is about Otsuyu. I don’t want to give away too much, but at one point a fuda is used to keep the ghost out of our protagonist’s house.
Okay, now let me tell you about Tsuno Daishi.
The first time I came across the great horned master, or the tsuno daishi was about fifteen years ago when I visited a tiny mountain village in my town called Hanazawa no Sato. It’s this quiet neighborhood with 100-year old homes, narrow roads, mossy stone walls, and trickling streams. As I walked along and admired the architecture, I noticed that almost every house had a very disturbing ofuda pasted by their doors or on their wooden gates. To me it looked like a demon. The more I walked, the more unsettled I became. Literally, almost every house had one. It’s like once you see him, you see him everywhere. Was this some strange religious cult?
Let me try and describe what I saw. Imagine a fuda, a rectangular piece of white paper, I don’t know, about 20 cm or 8 inches long by 10 cm or 4 inches wide. On it is printed a simple black image. It’s a figure kind of sitting or crouching down on its haunches. There are thin boneless-looking wavy arms and legs, a body that is black except for what looks like cut out white parts that could represent ribs and a couple internal organs, the stomach and kidneys maybe? The creature has round buggy eyes, a big nose and horns or could they be antlers? Recently, a Japanese friend said that from a distance it looks like it’s a character from Sanskrit. And she’s spot on. It has that vibe. I mean the tsuno daishi is very old and I suppose there is the possibly it has traveled all the way from India.
But here are the stories I’ve read about the origins of this creepy little guy.
Once upon a time there was a monk named Ryougen. He was born in 912, and became the 18th abbot of the Enryaku Temple in the year 966. He spent the next 19 years rebuilding the temple complex and upping the image of the Tendai sect of Buddhism.
One day I’ll touch on some of the different types of Buddhisms in Japan. But for now just know that Tendai is not Zen. It, along with the Shingon sect, is an esoteric or mikyo school. Think tantra, wonderful rituals that involve gorgeous Indian objects and lots and lots of fire.
Okay, back to Ryougen. At one point the Emperor Enyuu was very ill and Ryougen prayed for his health. The Emperor then did indeed recover and Ryougen was granted the title of daishi, or great master.
There are a couple versions of how he became associated with this horned devil-looking fellow I saw on the houses.
The first one just says that he gained the curious supernatural ability of being able to transform his body into that of a demon. One day when the town was hit by a deadly epidemic and people were dying left and right, Ryougen turned himself into this horned creature and frightened the Plague God or yakubyougami away.
A second story that I’ve heard from people in Japan, but have not found written in English anywhere is an elaboration on the above tale.
Again it starts with a horrible epidemic plaguing the city and Ryougen, in order to try and save the people, decides to sit in front of a full length mirror to meditate. While meditating one of his followers sketched a picture of what he saw in the mirror. Slowly the reflection of the stoic abbot Ryougen changed, the flesh fell away and he was revealed as a hideous demon or oni. The follower later copied this image by carving a woodblock print and making a fuda for people to put outside their homes to keep away illness. Ryougen is believed to have said something about the best way to fight off a scary demon is to become a scarier demon.
So the image of tsuno daishi is one that can ward off evil and illness.
A real a quick note about names. While the abbot was called Ryougen Daishi while alive, he acquired quite a few monikers after his death. The first one being his posthumous name. When people die in Japan, even now, they are given a new name for the afterlife. Ryougen was given Jie. So Jie Daishi. But then there are the cooler names like Tsuno Daishi, The Great Horned Master, and Ganzan Daishi, The Third Day of the First Month Master, because that was the day he died. You’ll also find him sometimes referred to as the Mayoke Daishi or Gooma Daishi, Great Master of Warding Off Evil. I’ve seen one English translation that calls him the Demon King. I kind of like that.
Another interesting thing I’ve read, is that there are 18 icons of Tsuno Daishi, and all of them are enshrined in different temples, scattered throughout Kyoto. On January 3rd , the day he died, a small group of devoted followers attempts to visit and pray at all eighteen in a single day.
Here’s a cute legend about him. There was a statue of Tsuno Daishi in a temple called Jidai-ji. During the Muromachi Era there was a great fire that destroyed the temple. Only later it was learned the statue had survived because it flew and hid inside a nearby pond.
So when in Japan, keep a look out for the creepy little demon king on fuda high up on a front door, and tell your friend who is traveling with you that he’s not a bad guy, he’s actually a good guy keeping someone safe from evil and and the plague. T
After that first experience, I started to see him everywhere, tucked under eaves or faded on the tall wooden front gate of a house. Then one day I was visiting a temple deep in the mountains and saw they they sold the fudas. Not big ones, like I described, but small, business card sized ones, gold and green laminated paper. It’s meant to be kept in your wallet. A kind of omamori fuda hybrid.
I’ll put up some images on the Uncanny Japan website, and I found a really cute version of Tsuno Daishi that I’m going to use for postcards this month for my Patrons.
Speaking of Patrons, I want to extra especially thank you all. Life is quite tumultuous right now and if it weren’t you all, I’m not sure what would happen to the show.
I wanted to mention here that I got some more stickers, round ones that have the ojizo/oni logo from the podcast, the one with the red background. They’re stunning and if you’re a Patron and want one, please let me know and I can get you one while supplies last.
Thank you all for listening, supporting, reviewing, messaging, emailing and spreading the word about Uncanny Japan. I’ve got some I will talk to you again real soon.