Tengu in the Hills of Kyoto

If you've ever seen a red blur of motion in the corner of your eye when walking through the forest, if you've ever heard a wild cry echoing through the treetops on a moonlit night, if you've ever noticed the shadow of a tall, long-nosed figure beside you, but turned to find no one there, only a few feathers falling to the ground as a rushing sound flew upward... well, it might have been a tengu. They're known to inhabit the mountainous regions of Japan (which means pretty much all of Japan) and fly from treetop to treetop carried by expansive feathered wings. Tengu are not necessarily evil creatures, but they probably shouldn't be crossed unless you're feeling very confident about your swordfighting skills. If you show the proper respect, they've been known to share their marital knowledge of the sword with us mortals, but beware their wrath at the same time. Are they immortal? Well, no human has ever lived long enough to find out...

My first encounter with a tengu was as a child in the late 80's in Los Angeles. A huge wooden mask depicting a red, long-nosed tengu goblin was prominently displayed in a Japanese restaurant my family often visited. It was both terrifying and intriguing, but it always held my gaze as I munched on California rolls. I didn't know much about these mysterious tricksters until I moved to Japan and started to see tengu (well, depictions of tengu) in their natural habitat. I've written a blog about yokai and Japanese monsters before, but the elusive tengu is one a personal favorite out of all the mysterious creatures that roam the wilderness of Japan.

Just yesterday, I attended a really strange and unique event in the outskirts of Kyoto. A small hillside Buddhist temple held a seasonal matsuri (festival) to celebrate the autumn leaves, and it was attended by some special guests: a group of wild tengu!

When I heard that Otagi Nembutsuji temple in the hills of Arashiyama was going to host a tengu festival this autumn, of course I knew I had to attend. I visit this temple often as part of our Arashiyama Backroads Tour, and guests are always thrilled with the isolation and uniqueness of this particular spot. It's not an attraction that most tourists get a chance to visit, as its at the end of a long, uphill road set back in the very northwest corner of Kyoto. Sharing this spot and the surrounding area with my guests is always a highlight for me and I know it gives them a special look at Kyoto that they might not find on their own.

This mountainside temple is best known for the more than 1200 small stone statues that cover the hillside and sit in silent rows throughout the premises. Created by local artists during a reconstruction of the complex in the 1980s, these little guys are meant to be followers of Buddha and are all unique. Some are laughing, some are singing, some are holding objects, some are petting animals, some are pouring drinks for their neighbor, and some are even playing sports! Every time I visit here, I notice a statue that I've never seen before. Seeing the expressions on their faces is uplifting and a great way to start a walk through this picturesque corner of Kyoto. Otagi Nembutsuji is truly one of Kyoto's best hidden gems.


When I visited yesterday, it wasn't the stone statues that I was in search of. I was there to see the tengu! As part of the autumn celebration, a group of tengu was coming down from the hills to bless the locals and delight the crowd with their archery skills. Of course, these tengu looked suspiciously similar to a group of priests that took part in the prayers in the first half of the event, but let's suspend belief for a moment or two and open our minds to the fantastic...

Otagi Nembutsuji has a reputation as somewhat of an artistic temple. The current head priest is a musician who creates soothing, otherworldly electronic music, and his father was a talented sculptor of wooden statues. The next-in-line family member who will one day become the head priest is a photographer who speaks excellent English and enjoys sharing his photos on the temple's official Instagram.

With this unique background in the arts, it made perfect sense for the festival to open with a few songs from a professional soprano singer who traveled from Gifu prefecture to sing at the event. You don't expect to hear "Ave Maria" at a Buddhist temple, but it worked and the performer was well received by the small crowd of locals huddled inside the temple's main hall. If anything, it provided an interesting contrast for the Buddhist chanting of sutra prayers that came next. The head priest sat before the altar and was joined by a group of elderly gentlemen dressed as yamabushi, mountain priests who practice a syncretic form of religion that mixes Buddhism and native Shintoism with a healthy dose of mysticism and shamanism. They chanted the heart sutra, a core prayer in Japanese Buddhism, one that expounds the idea that all existence is emptiness without form or meaning. It's up to us to see through the illusions of the senses and perceive things as they truly are: unclouded by our own desires.

After the solemnity of the religious service, it was time to lighten things up a bit. The yamabushi priests retired to another building, and from therein soon emerged five tengu. Each of the beasts wore a colorful mask with the customary long nose and a flowing mustache. Cracking their wooden clapboards and stomping the ground as they advanced through the crowd, these guys meant business. They were here to show off their archery skills and let us mortals know who really runs the forest around here. The turquise-faced tengu shot four arrows towards each of the directions of the compass and then one straight up into the air. If anyone in the crowd catches one of these arrows, it's a sign of bountiful luck for the coming year. There was a time when I would have fought tooth and nail to catch one of the shafts, or wrestled with my camera for the perfect shot of the event, but I've learned that sometimes it's better to just enjoy the proceedings and appreciate the moment.

Entering the temple building, the tengu danced around the altar and then invited onlookers inside to receive a special blessing. Bowing before the monsters, visitors were blessed with a massive cedar branch wielded by the golden-masked tengu as he intoned the magic incantation of the yamabushi. "Namu sen kwa, namu sen kwa, namu sen kwa!" ...or something like that. Sadly, I'm not well versed in the mysterious tongue of the tengu. After posing for a few photos with guests, the tengu disappeared back into the forest. Coincidentally, a few tired looking priests emerged from the shadows shortly thereafter...

The whole event was great fun and a perfect chance to experience something unique. But here's what really made it special: For those 30 minutes when the tengu visited the temple, they weren't just old men dressed up in costumes. They. Were. Tengu. The crowd bought it completely and played along. Call it childish naivety or magic thinking, it was a special charm cast by the guardians of the forest that brought everyone together in a moment of suspension of belief. Crowd members spoke reverently to the tengu as "Mr. Tengu" when being blessed, and asked the priests in whispered voices if the tengu would allow a picture despite their hesitation to be seen by mortals. It was a charming moment of playfulness that is so desperately needed occasionally in Japanese life, normally filled with long days at work, busy commutes, and soul-crushing conformity. For one afternoon in a small temple in the misty mountains of Kyoto, the fantastic had become reality and the mysterious legends of ancient Japan were within reach...


...or maybe it was just five old guys dressed up in silly costumes, doing their best to keep the traditions of their community alive. Unless you can catch a tengu and ask if he attended yesterday's festival, there's really no way to know for sure.

Namu sen kwa, namu sen kwa, namu sen kwa!