Another commonly found yokai in Japan is the tengu. In many souvenir shops or in temples and shrines you may very well find the image of the tengu. A character that often is woven into the dramas in Noh and kabuki, the red faced mask with the long nose is a dead give away.

Screen Shot 2019-01-27 at 2.25.04 PMThe name of the tengu (天狗) is translated as “heavenly dog”, but the appearance of the tengu is hardly dog-like at all. In the mythologies of Japan, the tengu was traditionally depicted as a bird-like half-man complete with a large beak and wings. There are roots to the tengu as coming from Chinese myths but somewhere from the original concept to the commonly accepted image in Japan, dramatic modifications were made to its features. What is common to both is that the tengu is a powerful protector and warrior character, unafraid, courageous, and tenacious. In many stories and depictions, we find the tengu as a “mountain warrior-priest”, or a “yamabushi”. This depiction is one where you find the tengu in white robes, and wearing the single slat geta sandals.

Tengu are the guardians of hills, forests, and mountains. They are considered to be “kami” (gods) by some. In folklore, the tengu appear in comical form and are often duped by villagers or foresters. There are places all over Japan (for example in Ishikawa-ken where the mackerel fish is used to keep mischievous tengu away). No, that is not where the phrase “holy mackerel” comes from… Tengu are also equipped with magical fans that can make noses grow.

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In legendary tales, and historical accounts, the tengu is integrated into the martial arts training of actual historical people. Minamoto no Yoshitsune, for example, is said to have trained with the tengu and to have become a master swordsman as a result. What is very interesting about the tengu is that there is no singular manifestation of the “kami” of the tengu. Protector, trouble-maker, fool, priest, and friend. It seems that you never know what kind of tengu you may meet in mountain, hill, or forest.

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