Special Feature on Shrines and Temples Related to 'Oni' (Demons)
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Exploring legends related to demons and annual events held at Rozan-ji temple in Kyoto and Yakushi-ji temple in Nara.

◆ Introduction ◆
In this blog, I will introduce the annual events and legends related to demons at two representative temples in Kyoto and Nara: Rozan-ji temple in Kyoto and Yakushi-ji in Nara. Furthermore, in the end, I would like to consider what demons are in the first place.

Rozanji temple

History of Rozanji Temple

Temple gate of Rozanji temple
Temple gate of Rozanji temple

The origin of Rozan-ji is traced back to the establishment of the Yogan Kongo-in on the south side of Funaokayama by Ganzan Daishi Ryogen, the 18th Tendai sect head priest of Hieizan, during the Tengyo period from 938 to 947. Later, in 1245, Kakuyu, who had converted to Honen's teachings, founded Rozan -ji temple. In 1368, Myodo Shogen merged the two temples, renaming it Rozan Tendai Lecture Temple, a center for the study of the four sects: En, Mi, Kai, and Jo.
However, due to the Onin War, the Rozan Tendai Lecture Temple disappeared. In 1573, by the imperial command of Emperor Oogimachi, it was relocated and revived at its current location. The current location of Rozan-ji temple is known as the site of the residence of Murasaki Shikibu. It is said that "The Tale of Genji" was created in this residence. Hence, Rozan-ji temple is also known as a temple associated with Murasaki Shikibu.

Highlights of Rozan-ji Temple

Genji Garden of Rozanji Temple
Genji Garden of Rozanji Temple

The grounds of Rozan-ji temple are not large. Upon entering the temple gate, the Ganzan Daishi Hall stands directly ahead, with the main hall extending behind it. To the right of the entrance is a small bell tower.
Upon receiving the temple's viewing permission and entering its premises, several rooms are lined up, one of which serves as the main hall. The main deity enshrined here is the Amitabha Triad, designated as an Important Cultural Property. It consists of the Amitabha Buddha in the center, accompanied by the Avalokiteshvara (Kannon Bosatsu) on the left and the Mahasthamaprapta (Seishi Bosatsu) on the right.
To the south side of the main hall's veranda lies the Genji Garden, named after Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji." This garden is relatively recent, established around 1965 when a monument in commemoration of the residence of Murasaki Shikibu was built. The Genji Garden recreates the ambiance of gardens of Heian-era, highlighting the contrast between its white sand and moss. From summer to fall, pots of bellflowers adorn the mossy areas, offering visitors a delightful view of the adorable purple blooms.

Across the street from Rozan-ji temple, separated by Teramachi Street, lies Nashinoki Shrine, which enshrines Sanjo Sanetsumu, who played a significant role during the Meiji Restoration. Nearby stands Gojo-in, believed to be the oldest temple venerating the deity of fire and hearths, Sanbo Kojin. Further west of Teramachi Street is the Kyoto Gyoen. Exploring these sites together is highly recommended.

Annual Event: Setsubun-e Tsuina-shiki Oni-horaku (Commonly Known: Oni Dance)

Ganzan Daishi hall(A special stage is set up in front of the hall, where part of the oni-chasing event takes place.)
Ganzan Daishi hall
(A special stage is set up in front of the hall, where part of the oni-chasing event takes place.)

"Setsubun-e Tsuina-shiki Oni-horaku" at Rozanji temple is an event so renowned that when the people of Kyoto think of Setsubun festivities, this is often the first to come to mind. The origin of this ceremony dates back to the temple's founder, Ganzan Daishi Ryogen, who during Emperor Murakami's reign, held a 300-day Goma Kuyo (fire ritual) in the imperial court. During this ritual, three oni (demons) appeared, attempting to disrupt the proceedings. These three oni represent the three main desires in Buddhism that harm human virtue: greed, hatred and delusion. The purpose of the Setsubun-e Tsuina-shiki Oni-horaku event is to drive out these three demons (the three poisons) on Setsubun, to ensure good fortune and welcome the new spring.
The event takes place on February 3rd and is conducted in the following sequence: It commences in the main hall, where the temple's chief priest starts a Goma ritual to ward off evil and pray for increased fortune and longevity. After some time, accompanied by the sounds of drums and conch shells, three oni appear on the special stage set up in front of the Ganzan Daishi Hall. The red oni, holding a torch and a sacred sword; the blue oni, holding a large axe; and the black oni, holding a massive sledge, represent the three aforementioned poisons. Dancing to the rhythm, the oni then make their way from the stage into the hall, attempting to disrupt the ongoing Goma ritual. However, they are driven out by the secret methods of the Goma ritual, the exorcist shooting purifying arrows in the five cardinal directions (east, west, south, north, center), and the beans and rice cakes thrown by the Horaishi and Fukumusume (lucky girls). As the oni flee outside the gates, the event ends with the now-purified oni blessing the attendees, praying for healing and overall physical well-being.


Rozanji Temple is located on the west side of Teramachi Street, just a short walk from the bus stop in front of Kyoto Furitsu Idaibyoin-mae on Kawaramachi Street. While entering the temple grounds is free, a fee of 500 yen is required to enter the temple hall and view the garden (Please note that due to the Oni Dance, the gardens are not open from February 1st to February 9th.)

The Flower Ceremony and Oni (Demons) of Yakushi-ji Temple

History of Yakushi-ji Temple

Founded in 680 AD by Emperor Tenmu to pray for the recovery of Empress Komyo's illness, Yakushi-ji Temple was completed during the reign of Empress Jito in 697 AD. The original Garan (temple complex) was said to have been grandly built in a style known as "Ryugu-zukuri". With the capital's move from the Fujiwara Palace in Asuka to the Heijo Palace in Nara in 718 AD, the temple was relocated to its current location and flourished as one of the "Seven Great Temples of Nanto".
Over the years, however, the temple's prominence waned. Repeated fires and other disasters led to the loss of the majestic temple structures, leaving only the East Pagoda intact. By the time of the Showa era, only the provisional main hall built by the Toyotomi clan before a major reconstruction and the East Pagoda remained, a stark contrast to its former glory. However, in 1967, the temple's chief priest at that time, Takada Kouin, embarked on an ambitious project to reconstruct the temple complex in its Nara-period style. He initiated a million-copy sutra transcription promotion and even appeared on television to raise funds. Finally, in the spring of 1974, the Main Hall was restored. Following Kouin’s legacy, the West Pagoda and Lecture Hall were also rebuilt. After completing the restoration of the East Pagoda, the only original structure from the Nara period, the temple's grand architectural restoration was accomplished. Today, visitors can appreciate the magnificent appearance reminiscent of the temple's Nara-period splendor.

Highlights of Yakushi-ji Temple

The Three-Storied Pagoda of Yakushiji Temple
The Three-Storied Pagoda of Yakushiji Temple

The historic East Pagoda, which is a designated national treasure, retains a profound ancient ambiance. The West Pagoda, painted in vivid vermilion, the Main Hall (Kondo), and Lecture Hall (Kodo) compose a magnificent temple complex. In the Main Hall, there is the national treasure, the Yakushi Triad, which is a significant highlight. Notably, the Yakushi Triad has a glossy black appearance, believed to be a result of almost melting in a fire. When you stand within the temple grounds, you feel as if you've been immersed in another world, another highlight of this splendid temple. Of course, Yakushiji temple is one of the components of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara," a World Heritage site.
In the same area of Nishi-no-Kyo, there is also Toshodaiji Temple, founded by the monk Ganjinwajo, and also a part of the World Heritage site. Its ambiance offers a different experience from the shrines and temples around Nara Park, reflecting the unique spirit of the Yamato region. It is highly recommended for visitors to experience this cultural heritage firsthand.

Demon Chasing Ritual in Flower Ceremony (Shuni-e) of Yakushiji Temple

Main hall of Yakushiji Temple(Flower ceremony including demon chasing ritual is conducted here)
Main hall of Yakushiji Temple
(Flower ceremony including demon chasing ritual is conducted here)

During the Nara period, with the support and patronage of the Imperial Court, the "Nanto Shichi Daiji" conducted the Shuni-e ceremonies. These ceremonies aimed for national peace, abundant harvests, and prosperity for all citizens. The tradition of Shuni-e has continued until today. As the name implies, Shuni-e was originally held in the second half of February of the lunar calendar. While it is still conducted in February at Tōdai-ji Temple, at Yakushi-ji temple, it is held in March, which corresponds to the old lunar February. At Tōdai-ji temple, the highlight of the Shuni-e is the Omizutori and Taimatsu (torch) at the Nigatsu-do (February Hall), where it's popularly referred to as "Omizutori". Meanwhile, at Yakushi-ji temple, the ceremony is often referred to as the Flower ceremony because ten types of vibrant artificial flowers are offered to the temple's main deity inside the Main Hall (Kondo).
These ten types of flowers are plum, peach, cherry, camellia, kerria, peony, wisteria, iris, lily, and chrysanthemum. This practice originated in 1107 when Emperor Horikawa prayed to the Yakushi Nyorai for the recovery of the Empress from illness. When the Empress recovered, she ordered her court ladies to craft these artificial flowers and offered them to Yakushi Nyorai in gratitude.
From March 25th to 31st, the Yakushi Keka Ritual is conducted six times daily by monks. This ritual involves repenting for sins, both knowingly and unknowingly committed, before Yakushi Nyorai. The sutras are recited, sometimes quietly, and sometimes with loud voices, as a form of worship.
On the concluding day, the 31st, the "Demon-Chasing Ritual" is performed in front of the main hall (Kondo). Five demons, symbolizing human desires, rampage wildly holding torches. Bishamonten, who embodies the power of Yakushi Nyorai, subdues these demons. This act visualizes the reflection on the sins of Yakushi Repentance and symbolizes the commitment to lead a righteous life.
For those who missed the "Demon-Chasing Ritual" at shrines and temples in February, they have the option to visit Yakushi-ji temple for the conclusion of the Flower ceremony as spring sets in fully. Moreover, on February 3rd, Setsubun, the Demon-Chasing Ritual is conducted at temples like Gango-ji temple, the Tamuke-yama Hachimangu Shrine within the grounds of Tōdai-ji.


Yakushi-ji Temple is located just a short walk from the Nishi-no-Kyo station, which can be reached by transferring to the Kashihara Line at the Yamato-Nishi-Oji station on the Kintetsu Nara Line. The admission fee varies depending on the time of year. During periods when only the Hakuho Garan can be visited, the fee is 800 yen. However, when the Genjo Sanzouin Garan is also open for viewing, the fee is 1,100 yen.

What is actually an Oni (Demon)

Speculations Based on Folktales and Events Related to Oni

Across various parts of Japan, there are numerous folktales and events related to the Oni (demons), and what these Oni symbolize varies from one tale or event to another. However, some general interpretations can be concluded as follows:
Firstly, as introduced earlier, in the Oni-chasing rituals performed at temples, the "Oni" can be seen as symbolizing "human desires and wicked intentions."
Moreover, the "Oni Gate" (northeast direction) of capitals was considered the direction from which Oni could invade. To counteract this, in the Nara period's Heijo-kyo capital, Todai-ji Temple was constructed in the northeast to suppress the Oni's influence. In the Heian period's capital, Kyoto, Hieizan Enryakuji served this purpose. In this context, the "Oni" might symbolize "natural disasters or epidemics that are beyond human control."
Furthermore, during the bean-throwing festival, where it's commonly chanted "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" (Demons out! Fortune in!), the "Oni" can be inferred to symbolize "all matters that bring misfortune or harm to a family."
With these considerations about what an "Oni" signifies, participating in Oni-chasing events might stimulate your curiosity even more.