Komainu are usually referred to as lion-dogs in English. They are the guardian stone statues you see near the entrance to a shrine. One on either side of the walkway. One if male, one is female. Commonly one, believed to be the male one, has its mouth open and the other has its mouth closed.
The literal translation of Komainu is Korean dog. Koma as in the Koma shrine in Hidaka famed for its Korean connection. I presume we started to refer to them as lion-dogs in English, because that is what they look like. Specifically the Chinese lion-dog. It is what most of them look like anyway. These are called shishi in Japanese, as in the traditional new year performance of shishimai, the lion dance.
As you have probably observed (or will observe) sometimes the guardians near the entrance or main hall of a shrine are foxes. The fox guardians are for a inari shrine. There are many inari shrine around Japan, sometimes they are a smaller shrine within a larger shrine’s grounds, in which case the foxes will be perched very close to the shrine itself.
Foxes and lion dogs are not the only sacred animals in the shinto religion. There are many. But the lion dog and fox are the most frequently used stone guardian statues at shrines. So I was delighted to find not just one, but two unusual komainu in the greater Chichibu area this month.
I had read previously that Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu is one of the places you can see the rare use of a wolf komainu. And the backstory is fascinating. The long and the short of it is that wolves, long since extinct, used to live in the Mitsumine mountain range and farmers believed they kept menacing animals out of their fields. What I didn’t know is that in neighbouring Nagatoro there are also wolf guardians at the rear Hodosan shrine at the summit of Mt Hodo.
The Mt Hodo summit Hodosan shrine is a small rear shrine of the revered Hodosan shrine near Nagatoro station. At 497 metres with no access by car, visiting the shrine involves either a leisurely hike or a short ropeway journey. Despite being a small shrine in a remote location, it is a popular place for locals and particularly hikers to worship.
Shrine name: Mt Hodo Summit Hodosan Shrine (rear shrine)
Address: 〒369-1621 Saitama-ken, Chichibu-gun, Nagatoro-machi, Nagatoro, Minanomachi Kanezaki 1738
Access: About an hours hike from Nagatoro Station on the Chichibu Railway line. Alternatively you can walk about 20 minutes from Nagatoro station to the base station of the Hodosan Ropeway and take a 5 minute ropeway ride to the summit station. The shrine is about a 5 minute walk from the summit station.
This was a real treat. Finding frog komainu which are even more rare than wolf komainu. We found these while trekking in an off the beaten track area of Yorii machi while on our way to Nagatoro. And because they are so rare I can’t find any information online about the possible reasons why this particular shrine has frog as its guardians.
Furthermore, I’d love to know why the female komainu has three babies on its back. It is also very rare to see komainu with babies on their backs. You can often see frog figurines being sold as amulets or lucky charms at shrines. Deducing from general information about frogs in shinto religion, perhaps this shrine used frogs in a bid to encourage residents to come home. Kaeru, the Japanese for frog, is also the word for to come home. The chinese characters for both are different, but the sound is the same.
This shrine, which I believe is called Tomemiya Shrine in English, is near a main road, but the area is very rural. It is beside a couple of homes with a random restaurant across the road. But past this small cluster of buildings, there are absolutely no buildings for at least three kilometres as you head toward Nagatoro. It is a fetch, but perhaps they want to encourage the younger generation to come home to this small sparsely populated area. The babies on the back of the female komainu sort of validates this, depicting the sanctity of family.
Shrine name: Tomemiya Shrine
Address: 〒369-1235 Saitama-ken, Ōsato-gun, Yorii-machi, Fūpu, 125
Access: By car only. Two minutes from the Yorii Fupu exit of the Minano Yorii bypass.
Have you ever seen any frog or wolf Komainu anywhere else? Or are they only in Saitama? How about other animals? I am now on a mission to find even more unusual Komainu in Saitama. Please do share if you know of any. Thank you.