Tengu   天狗

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The tengu by Kurama-dera station

Tengu statues

A karasu-tengu (crow tengu)

Long-nosed demons

If you've been to Japan you must have seen the red-faced masks with frowning brows and comically long noses! Tengu are one of the most well-know creatures of Japanese folklore. But more than just a funny face, they are actually very important spirits of Japanese culture and history.

A spirit with ancient origins

There are several mentions of tengu in early Japanese texts, such as the Nihon Shoki (720). Tengu is written 天狗, with the kanji 天 "ten" ("sky" in English) and 狗 "gu" ("dog"), literally meaning "celestial dog", originally a fierce creature of Chinese folklore and a bringer of war. However the Japanese tengu is a creature halfway between man and bird, characterized by wings and a very long nose - seven palms long, according to the Nihon Shoki - a nose that would be an anthropomorphization of an original beak. They are usually pictured wearing the costume of the yamabushi, ascetic warriors of the mountains, of which they are the tutelary deities.

Tengu masks

A monk fending off a tengu attack

Evil spirits...

Originally, tengu were spirits of Shinto religion and troublesome opponents of Buddhism. They had the reputation of carrying off monks, possessing women to tempt holy men, or robbing temples. Some traditions made tengu the reincarnated spirits of angry priests or heretics. In the 12th and 13th centurie, stories told of the adventures of the tengu and their attacks on the imperial family, such as the one in which Emperor Sanjo was blinded by one! A major feature of these spirits was their great pride and vanity.

Read moreYokai, Japanese ghosts and monsters

...and protective spirits

Over time, the tengu lost their evil reputation. From the eighteenth century, some of them were even regarded as good spirits, who protected the Buddhist temples and populated the mountains they watched over. There are various cults of tengu, such as the Tengu Saburo of Mount Izuna, considered a gongen (a Japanese syncretic figure corresponding to both a kami and the manifestation of a Buddha).

Read moreKurama-dera

A tengu mikoshi (portable shrine)

Minamoto no Yoshitsune

A figure of the martial arts

Tengu are also known for their mastery of martial arts. The legendary samurai Minamoto no Yoshitsune was allegedly driven by the king of the Sojobo tengu, a drive that would have allowed him to defeat the monk Benkei on Goto Bridge. In the same vein, the accomplished swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was nicknamed the "little tengu"!

Read more: Japanese martial arts

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