Onigawara – Japanese roof tiles at Toji-in temple in Kyoto

When I left the temple, I saw a lot of Japanese roof tiles (kawara 瓦), ornamental end pieces and ogre tiles called onigawara (鬼瓦) arranged on the ground under a tree. The temple just underwent major restoration work and the tiles were probably stored/exhibited there.

The first thing that caught my eye was a row of neatly arranged roof end tiles with a typical Japanese ornament. These symbols are called Kamon (家紋) – emblems used by a family, a temple or an individual, much like a family crest in the western world. This one is made up of three comma shapes that move clockwise to form a circle. It is called Mitsu-domoe (三つ巴) or tokeimawari mitsu domoe (時計回り三つ巴).

I am sure they were arranged to resemble a group of seven Jizo statues, which can also be found around temples, shrines and on the roadside and along hiking paths. They are the guardians of young children and travellers. Read more about Jizo or, politely, O-Jizo-Sama in this wikipedia article.

Japanese Kawara tile end pieces

These seven roof tile end pieces are arranged to look like Jizo (地蔵) figures or tiny stone Buddha statues.


After I began to take pictures of the tiles, I discovered this fantastic creature: A turtle with what looked like the head of a cat or dragon and a long hairy tail. I researched the subject with the most absurd google search terms until I found out that we are talking about a bushy-tail turtle or Minogame (蓑亀 – literally “straw raincoat turtle”).

Bushy-tail turtles are so old, seaweed has started to grow on their shell like hair, making them look bushy-tailed.

Turtles are auspicious and often depicted alongside cranes (tsuru) or carps (koi). They are said to get 10,000 years old and are therefore a symbol for good luck, longevity and felicity. They visit and support people who they deem virtuous and compassionate.

A grim looking bushy-tail turtle (蓑亀 minogame) with the face of a dragon is an auspicious symbol of longevity.

A grim looking bushy-tail turtle (蓑亀 minogame) with the face of a dragon is an auspicious symbol of longevity.

Two personal stories:

A Japanese friend of mine told that one day, when she was a little girl, a giant turtle visited her in the garden near their house door. Her mom wanted to keep the turtle, since it is a bringer of good luck. Somehow the turtle left, but had not been seen in the neighborhood. I can say that my friend is very compassionate and virtuous, so I think the it was not a coincidence that the turtle chose her.

One of the monks of the temple I worked at most of the days (Kodai-ji) has a turtle that is nearly as old as he is. He is still pretty young, though, around 32 years. The turtle is usually kept near our tool shed, but he flees sometimes to the big pond. However, since he never learnt to feed himself, one of the gardeners has to go catch it and bring it back to its water basin. Catching it is easy: Just waved a box of turtle food near the edge of the pond and the turtle will surface really fast.

Comment of the monk: 「馬鹿だから。。。」”Because he’s really stupid”. I still laugh when I think of this episode.

I found one great youtube channel during my research: Japan Antique Roadshow . This is the link to the episode about a bushy-tail turtle roof tile. I will watch more of their clips about Japanese antiques as they are very informative, yet short & sweet.

Grumpy Dumpty – Daruma paintings at Toji-in (等持院) in Kyoto

The first thing you see when after you take off your shoes at Toji-in temple is a huge daruma painting at the end of a long wooden corridor. The comical rendition of a seemingly grumpy Bhodidharma, with eyes wide open, surprises and and reliefs some of the heavy, solemn atmosphere one expects when entering a temple. The high contrast of white, red and black certainly made an impression on my the first time I visited the temple in 2012. This time, I was looking forward to see the Daruma again.

The Japanese call the legendary Buddhist monk Daruma (達磨 or だるま) after the Indian short form Dharma for Bodhidharma. He is attributed to have brought Ch’an Buddhism from India to China in the 5th or 6th century BC. Ch’an will later make its way to Japan and be known as Zen.

The most famous Daruma painting in the main hall way of Toji-in.

The most famous Daruma painting in the main hall way of Toji-in.

Why the round eyes?

There are many legends around this religious figure. He is especially famous for sitting 9 years in meditation, facing a wall. Daruma was well into his 7th year of sitting, when he got tired and fell asleep. When he awoke, he was mad and dissappointed that he fell asleep – so he cut of his eyelids, so this could never happen again.

Legend goes that shoots of a tea plant grew where his eyelids touched the ground – since that time monks drink green tea to stay energized and awake during meditation. Read more about the life of the first Zen monk on wikipedia.

Day 1 Daruma 3

I found more daruma paintings in the different rooms of the temple – it was like searching for easter eggs.
Apropos egg: Daruma dolls are very popular in Japan. They are little egg-shaped tumbler toys, mostly depicting him without his legs. Another side-effect of sitting through a 9-year-long meditation, is that your legs fall off due to atrophy. I think everyone who sat in Seiza (正座), the typical Japanese meditation pose, for only 20 minutes can feel his pain…

Day 1 Daruma 2

Day 1 Daruma 4

Daruma inception:
Day 1 Daruma 5

The last Daruma in the temple is also the first one – a small photograph of the big Daruma in a reception room near the entrance/exit. I wasn’t aware of the picture when I entered the temple, but the easter egg hunt was… dare I say… a real eyeopener.

Day 1 – Simple flower arrangement at Toji-in (等持院)

A simple flower arrangement in a reception room near the entrance of Toji-in temple (等持院)

A simple flower arrangement in a reception room near the entrance of Toji-in temple (等持院)

Day 1 – Texture

Japanese work days start early – very early. By 7:15 usually all the trucks have left the company and are on the way to the genba (現場 – another word that is not easily translated – it means scene, site, the place where stuff happens – in other terms: construction site for gardens). I arrived at 8 and missed Oyakata (親方 – the master), but his wife welcomed me and begged me in for tea. After introducing myself and answering questions about my life, I was told that one of the company’s employees would pick me up around noon. Oyakata’s wife recommended that I visit the nearby Toji-in. I had been to this garden before, and it is one of the gardens that have a special place in my heart. I took one of my favorite shots there, which became the title image of my first PechaKucha presentation in 2012.

I will write more about Toji-in later, but wanted to share this one picture of the temple’s wooden structure with you. It probably is the wooden structure of aged cedar that made me fall in love with Japanese architecture and gardens. And I remember taking this picture and thinking: I am happy to be back.

Charred wood (焼杉板Yakisugi-ita) at Toji-in temple in Kyoto (等持院)

Charred wood (焼杉板Yakisugi-ita) at Toji-in temple in Kyoto (等持院)

See what else I did on my first weekend in Kyoto: Day 1-3 Sakura paradise Kyoto