Special Feature on Shrines and Temples Related to 'Oni' (Demons
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Gango-ji Temple (Nara City, Nara Prefecture), where demons appear

Hello, my name is Maruhanabachi.
It's almost Setsubun!
Setsubun is a ceremony where we drive away the demons that emerge at the change of the seasons by scattering beans, and prepare to welcome spring.
There are probably many shrines and temples nationwide planning Setsubun events.
On this occasion, let's introduce a temple with connections to the demons.

Gango-ji Temple where demons appear

Gokuraku hall of Gango-ji Temple
Gokuraku hall of Gango-ji Temple

Do you know of the "Nihon Ryouiki", officially named "Nihon Koku Genhou Zen'aku Ryouiki"?
It's a compilation of tales written by Keikai, a monk from the Yakushiji Temple during the Nara period.
As it is written by a monk, the tales often emphasize that virtuous actions are rewarded and wicked ones punished. There's also an emphasis on the power of Buddhist teachings and faith, with numerous stories showcasing supernatural events.
Among these tales, there's a story about a demon appearing at a temple, and an individual associated with the Thunder God expels this demon.
The temple is Gango-ji, located in Nara City, Nara Prefecture, which I will introduce today.

Stone Buddha in Gango-ji Temple
Stone Buddha in Gango-ji Temple

First, let me briefly introduce the story.
Long ago, during the reign of Emperor Bidatsu, there was a farmer in Aichi district, Owari Province.
While working in the fields, he took shelter under a tree during a rainstorm when suddenly, thunder roared. The farmer was scared and waved a metal rod.
To his surprise, the Thunder God descended from the sky and instantly transformed into a child.
The astonished farmer tried to strike the Thunder God with the rod, but the god pleaded, "Save me, and in return, I will bless you with a child." The farmer spared him.
As promised, the farmer and his wife were blessed with a child, who grew up with exceptional strength, fitting for a child of the Thunder God.
This child entered the Gango-ji temple in Nara as a young monk, essentially a temple boy.
During that time, mysterious incidents were occurring at the temple's bell tower, where people were dying every night.
The Thunder God's child declared to the monks, "I will stop this calamity," and hid behind the door of the bell tower to wait for nightfall.
When the Hour of the Tiger came, a demon appeared. While the temple inhabitants fleed in fear, the Thunder God's child bravely seized the demon by its hair with his powerful fist, dragging it around until dawn.
Due to his powerful strength, he managed to peel off the skin from the demon's head, leaving behind a trail of blood.
They finally arrived at a certain crossroads.
It turned out to be a place where a temple servant had been buried alive as punishment for his crime.
Even after his death, the man had resentment towards the temple, becoming a demon and emerging from the crossroads to attack the temple residents every night.
The son of the Thunder God, having vanquished the demon, continued to play a significant role at Gango-ji Temple, eventually entered the Buddhisit priesthood and got the name " Dojo-hoshi."
(Summarized from Nihon Ryouiki, Volume 1, Chapter 3: "The tale of the child, conceived with the blessings of lightning, and his extraordinary strength")
This demon has been depicted in various monster picture scrolls, including Toriyama Sekien's "Gazu Hyakki Yakōu," where he is portrayed wearing something resembling a hood, looking quite fearsome.

What's interesting is the demon's name.
While the Nihon Ryouiki does not specify a name, as the tale of the "Demon of Gango-ji" spread, the demon's nickname began to be abbreviated as "Gangouji," which eventually changed into "Gagoji," "Gagoze," and so on. Over time, this not only became another name for the demon but also a term for scaring children by imitating the demon.
It's quite surprising that the temple's name would come to be used in this manner. Perhaps even Buddha would never have seen that coming—though I wonder if saying so would irritate Buddha.
(By the way, on devices like the iPhone or Macbook, when you type "Gagoze," it accurately converts to "元興寺" [Gango-ji]. Quite impressive! You should try it out.)

Heading to the ancient capital of Nara to visit Gagoze.

Now, off to Gango-ji Temple. But first, let's get a grasp of some basic knowledge.

Garden and Zen Room in Gango-ji Temple
Garden and Zen Room in Gango-ji Temple

◆Basic Information on Gango-ji Temple◆
Location: 11 Nakain-cho, Nara City, Nara Prefecture Access: About a 15-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station, About a 20-minute walk from JR Nara Station
Visiting Hours: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Admission Fee: Adults 500 yen (600 yen during the autumn special exhibition), Junior high & high school students 300 yen, Elementary students 100 yen
◆Basic Knowledge about Gango-ji Temple◆
Gango-ji Temple originated from Hoko-ji Temple, the first temple in Japan, built by Soga no Umako in the Asuka region. The temple was relocated in 718 AD, in conjunction with the relocation of the capital to Heijo-kyo (Nara).
It is one of the great temples other than Todai-ji and Kohfuku-ji, and its precincts were said to have occupied most of what is now known as Nara-machi (Nara Town Urban Landscape Formation Area).
However, throughout its long history, many of its buildings were lost due to rounds of prosperity and declination. Today, what remains are Gango-ji in Nakain-cho (Gokuraku-do and Zen room), Gango-ji in Shiba-no-shinya-cho (Touin-ato), and the Shotouin in Nishi-Shinyacho.
The Gango-ji temple that is commonly referred to is the one in Nakain-cho.

Now, starting from exit 2 of Kintetsu Nara Station, pass through an arcade street, enter the residential area, and proceed into a narrow alley that hardly seems like it could lead to a World Heritage temple.
At the end of this alley, you'll find the quietly standing Gango-ji Temple.
At the reception, they will advise you, "After you exit the main hall, please turn back at the stone monument! You can see the tiles from the Asuka period", while pointing out on a map.
Now, as you pass through the Eastern gate, you enter the temple grounds.

The Gokuraku-do seen from the East Gate
The Gokuraku-do seen from the East Gate

The morning I visited was quite cold, which might have been the reason there were very few people around the Gokuraku-do. Occasionally, the wind blew, causing the hanging gong in front of the hall to make some sound when struck by the multi-colored banner flags. The temple grounds were filled with an indescribable serenity.

The Surprising Main Deity of Gango-ji Temple

Upon entering, I took off my shoes and explored the Gokuraku-do. Stepping onto the tatami mats, I noticed the unique architecture of the hall, which featured a pillar at its center and the main deity situated right in front of it.
Surprisingly, the main deity was not a Buddhist statue but rather a picture of mandala
It was the picture of Chiko Mandala. Drawn around the end of the Nara period, this mandala was conceived in a dream by Chiko, a monk from the Sanron sect. It depicts the paradise of the Pure Land and is considered one of the three major Pure Land Mandalas, alongside the Taima Mandala and the Seikai Mandala.
According to Gango-ji Temple's official website, the original Chiko Mandala was lost to a fire during a revolt in 1451. In response to this loss, a second generation of the Chiko Mandala was created and completed in 1497.
Though the colors on the mandala stored inside the temple's altar have faded over time, one can imagine that in its original state, it must have vividly and brilliantly portrayed the scenery of the Pure Land.
Around the central pillar, there are other mandalas hung on each of its four sides. I sat down in front of each one, admiring their details and beauty. Photography inside the hall is prohibited, so I urge you to see its splendor with your own eyes!

Many More Attractions at Gango-ji Temple

Given its long-standing history of 1300 years, alongside historical giants such as Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji, there's a lot more to see at Gango-ji Temple beyond the Gokuraku-do.
Here are some of the highlights I recommend, following the temple's visiting route.

Foundation Stones of the Old Lecture Hall
Foundation Stones of the Old Lecture Hall

・The Old Lecture Hall
The temple's lecture hall, bell tower, and main hall (Kondo) were all lost in the fire that also destroyed the original Chiko Mandala. The foundation stones, which were later discovered and are now displayed on the temple grounds.

Tiles in Asuka-era and the Yogozakura
Tiles in Asuka-era and the Yogozakura

・Tiles in Asuka-era
As told at the reception, make your way to the vicinity of the stone monument in Gokuraku-in.
There's a sign clearly indicating "Japan's Oldest Tile Viewing Spot". If you follow the instructions and look back, you'll see the tiles used in the predecessor of Gango-ji, the Hokko-ji built by Soga no Umako. Over 1300 years, they continue to protect the roofs of Gango-ji today.

Zen Room seen from the Northwest
Zen Room seen from the Northwest

・Zen room and Yogozakura
"Yogo" is read as "yōgō". It refers to gods and Buddhas taking on temporary apprearance and showing themselves.
The southwest section of the Zen room is called the "Yōgō-no-ma".

According to the "Origin of Gokuraku-bō, a sub-temple of Gangō-ji", long ago, when the Chikō Mandala was in the sutra repository of the Zen room, the great master Kūkai studied there every day. One day, while Kūkai was venerating the Chiko Mandala, he noticed that the appearance of Kasuga Daimyōjin and he then created a mandala of Kasuga and consecrated it.
Kūkai also sculpted an image of his own likeness and kept it in that room.
Thus, the room came to be called "Yōgō-no-ma".
(Source: Official Gangō-ji website)

The Yogozakura is planted outside the Yōgō-no-ma. (The cherry tree shown together with the roof tiles of the Asuka period is the Yogozakura).
The picture shows a view seen from the northwest. Here and there, cherry blossoms that are thought to be shikizakura are blooming.

Hideyoshi's Favorite, the Frog Stone
Hideyoshi's Favorite, the Frog Stone

・Frog Stone
It is said that Hideyoshi liked this stone that was in the riverbed and brought it to Osaka Castle. It is also said that Yodogimi was buried under this stone, but it gradually became treated as an ominous object due to various rumors.
As a result, it was brought to Gango-ji Temple at some point.
Currently, it is enshrined there peacefully with a prayer for a safe return.

Manyokahi that has a human touch
Manyokahi that has a human touch

"The white pearl, whether others recognize its worth or not,
Even if they don't, it's alright as long as I do." (Man'yōshū, Volume 6 - 1018)
Instead of the 5-7-5-7-7 format, it's 5-7-7-5-7-7. This style is known as "sendoka"
The poem can be interpreted as, "A pearl's value might not be recognized by others, but that's alright. Even if others don't recognize its worth, as long as I do, that's all that matters."
The title suggests "A lamentation by a monk from Gangō-ji", leading one to interpret the poem as the monk comparing himself to a pearl, expressing sentiments like "Nobody recognizes my worth, but that's okay. I know my own value, and that's all that matters."
While conveying a sense of aloofness, there's also an air of resigned acceptance, making the poem deeply with a human touch.

The Goshuin of Yakushi Nyorai,  Rurikoh
The Goshuin of Yakushi Nyorai, Rurikoh

・Finally Met! The Demon of Gangō-ji
With this, although I moved swiftly, I walked through the entire route and returned to the reception area. Gangō-ji, with its 1,300 years of history, has grown alongside the city of Nara and is undoubtedly a magnificent temple. However, what felt slightly unsatisfying was that I couldn't encounter the theme of this visit, the demon (or "oni" in Japanese), during my journey. No traces or mentions of the demon appeared within the temple grounds. I wondered if the appearance of the demon was considered a dishonor for Gangō-ji. Yet, despite this, one of the joys of temple visiting is the time spent getting temple stamps ("goshuin") and buying amulets. First and foremost, receiving the Goshuin (for 300 yen) is a must!

Found it! Found it! The Demon of Gangō-ji!
Found it! Found it! The Demon of Gangō-ji!

Among several options, I requested the Goshuin of Yakushi Nyorai. Next, what caught my eye was the wooden wishing plaque ("ema") priced at 1,000 yen. Upon closer inspection, what was depicted on it was the demon, "Gagoze," wearing a hood.

An adorable Dojo Hoshi
An adorable Dojo Hoshi

Finally, I've met him at last!
Although it is written as "Gangō Kami", it seems that the demon is represented with the character for "god".
The description on the ema (wooden wishing plaque) mentions "Yōkai Painter Ms. Ouka".
Ms. Ouka is a female calligrapher from Nara. She named herself as a yōkai painter, and she paints the figures of yōkai in ink paintings and wash drawings. It seems that she once offered a hanging scroll of Gagoze to the temple at the request of Gangō-ji's chief priest.
The Gagoze depicted by Ms. Ouka, with its inherent yōkai-like qualities yet somehow endearing look, is truly wonderful!
On the back is a young boy, riding a tiger and carrying a thunder drum – Kaminari Kozo. This represents the appearance of the childhood Dōjō Hoshi, the son of the thunder god who defeated Gagoze.

Indeed, Gagoze still exists at Gangō-ji temple even in modern times.
It makes my visit to Nara truly worthwhile.


This time, I introduced Gangō-ji, a temple associated with the legend of the demon, Gagoze.
At Gangō-ji, every year during the Setsubun festival, a new ema (wooden plaque) featuring that year's zodiac sign is released.
This year, on February 3rd, during the Setsubun festival, the Saito Oogomaku and Hiwatari Hikuyō rituals will be performed. (Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 precautions, the bean-throwing ceremony and the distribution of fortune beans have been canceled.)
Gangō-ji is located very close to Tōdai-ji and Kōfuku-ji. It would be great if you could visit!
Knowing the story of Gagoze will surely give you a different impression and experience.