Sword Master

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This is a Japanese Tengu, which is a mythical creature that lives in the mountains of Japan. It is said that Tengus have incredible sword fighting skills and if you’re lucky and they think you are worthy then they might take you on as an apprentice so you can learn how to be a master sword fighter. There are quite a lot of these statues of Tengus in Buddhist temples in Japan and supposedly if you rub the foot of the statue of a Tengu it gives you good luck and good health (see how shiny his feet are!)

The Makeup Buddha

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This is probably the strangest Buddha I’ve even seen! It is on Ghost Hill (Yurei Zaka) near Shinagawa. There is quite a strange story behind this Buddha. Apparently he was being transported from his old temple to a new one but on the way he was dropped and some of his face was smashed up. When he arrived at the new temple one of the priests there took pity on him and covered up the hole in his face with some white makeup that fashionable ladies and geisha used. Now quite a few people come and use a little powder brush which is sitting in front of the Buddha to make him look attractive and apparently if you make him attractive he will grant your wishes!

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A Helpful Cow

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In the grounds of Yushima Tenmangu shrine, which is located near Ueno in Tokyo, there is a special metal statue of a cow. People come here if they have some sort of pain in parts of their body because it is said that if you rub the Tenmangu cow in the same place as where you hurt or are sore, and then rub where the place on your actual body, then it is supposed to heal the pain! (Although if your stomach is hurting you can’t heal it easily because the cow is sitting down so it would be a bit hard to rub that part of the cow.) I was surprised to see lots of people touching the cow’s horns too. I wonder what kind of pain they wanted to cure?

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A Friendly Spirit

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One of the Buddhas that you are most likely to see in Japan is Jizo-san. He is the Buddha of babies, children and weak people who need help. He is also the Buddha of travellers, so you often find his statues along paths and roads. It’s the custom to donate hats and bibs to Jizo-san to please him and show him respect. Red is the colour of safety and protection in Japan so the hats and bibs are usually (but not always) this colour.

A Brave General

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Maresuke Nogi was a Japanese military general who was born in 1849 and died on September 13, 1912 aged 62. He commanded an army at the Battle of Port Arthur in 1904 and 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. Most of the world expected Russia to win, but General Nogi’s army won! However, General Nogi lost a lot of his men in the battle and he felt lots of guilt for this, so when he returned to Japan he went to the Emperor and asked permission to commit ritual suicide (seppuku in Japanese) because he felt he owed it to his men and he didn’t want to live with this guilt. But the Emperor liked General Nogi and didn’t want one of his best generals to commit suicide. So he said that Nogi wasn’t allowed to commit suicide while he, the Emperor was still alive (we don’t really know if he actually meant what he said or if it was just a way of saying ‘I forbid you to commit suicide’). Of course General Nogi always obeyed the Emperor and so he didn’t commit ritual suicide at that time.
Then in 1912 the Emperor died and on the very same day that the Emperor’s funeral was held, General Nogi and his wife both committed ritual suicide. His wife cut her throat with a short sword (this was the wife of a samurai’s way of doing ritual suicide) but men committed suicide differently to women, so instead of using a short sword General Nogi used a long katana sword, and instead of cutting his throat he cut open his stomach and pulled out his guts and waited to die. Not a very nice way to go!
So that was how one of Japan’s best generals died. And after he died a shrine was built on the land where he had lived and the area was re-named Nogizaka (Nogi’s Slope). Also, his house has been preserved and you can look in through the window and see the ‘death room’! So General Nogi is still remembered as a hero to this day in Japan. And strangely (at least to Westerners) his shrine – Nogi Shrine – is really popular for weddings!
If a famous general had behaved in this way in the West, I wonder how we would think of him now? Would we think that he was a hero and want to get married at his shrine?

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How to Pray

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In Japan there are lots of temples and shrines to worship the Buddhist and Shinto gods, and sometimes also nature spirits and just spirits in general. If you want to pray it is important to know how to do it properly, so there are often posters and signs to show you what to do. These signs are not only for foreigners. It seems that quite a few Japanese forget or don’t know how to pray properly too because why else would there be these ‘how to pray properly’ signs (sometimes in Japanese only) at so many little and out of the way temples and shrines!
This sign is at a hidden away Shinto shrine in Tokyo. As you can see, the 3 basic steps of o-mairi (worship) are:
1. Bow twice
2. Clap your hands twice and pray
3. Bow once more.
There are also other things like purifying your mouth and hands with water, and ringing the bell or gong, but the above 3 things are the main ones.

A Wacky Building

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This is one of the strangest buildings I’ve ever seen, and believe it or not it’s actually a Buddhist temple! Normally Japanese temples don’t look like this at all. They are usually made of wood and built in a traditional design.
This temple is called Reiyukai Shakaden and it is located near to Tokyo Tower in central Tokyo. It looks completely modern, but surprisingly it was built back in 1975 so it is already more than 40 years old.
This temple is famous among many people abroad because parts of the music video for ‘That Power’ by will.i.am and Justin Bieber were filmed here on the front steps of this amazing building. You can see the video here. The temple appears at about 3 mins and 45 secs until the end. It’s worth watching!

Samurai Skill

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This is yabusame: mounted archery, in other words trying to hit a target while riding on galloping horse! Yabusame displays to honour the Shinto gods are held in Tokyo only 3 times a year. I was lucky enough to see this amazing festival of samurai skill in Takadanobaba. When the samurai still existed (until the middle of the 19th century) they tested their battle skills in ways such as riding a galloping horse while taking aim and firing at a target. The target is a wooden panel and they use special double point arrows to knock down the panel. At the display there were five riders dressed traditionally as equestrian samurai. Each man had his own horse, and they took it in turns to gallop along a sandy path with 3 targets along the way which they had to shoot at and try to hit. Now just imagine galloping along at top speed and then letting go of the reins to shoot an arrow at a target and then quickly reloading to do it again. There were lots of misses but also quite a lot of hits. One samurai actually managed to hit all 3 of the targets in a row!

An EGGcellent Stone

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We’ve just arrived in Tokyo and spent our first morning at Tsukiji fish market. Near the wholesale market (just by the main gates) there is a shrine for the protection of fishermen and for good business for the market. It’s called Namiyoke Inari Shrine, which means ‘wave protection shrine’. In the grounds of the shrine there are several interesting stone monuments that say thank you to the ingredients used in fish restaurants! The best is a stone to thank eggs because eggs are often used in sushi – and it’s easy to find because it is egg shaped! There is also a stone to thank other sushi ingredients generally, and two stones to show gratitude for shrimps and prawns (ebi). Each stone is decorated with a sacred rope made of straw and white paper. If you eat sushi it’s a nice place to go and say ‘thank you’ for all the tasty fish, eggs and shrimps you have eaten.