Onigawara Roof Tiles

Japanese Culture: Onigawara, Demon Tiles

Onigawara 鬼瓦

Jake Davies

As a visitor or resident of Japan you are going to be visiting a lot of Buddhist temples, and after a few they can start to all look alike, however, if you know what to look for, a visit to a new temple can be a journey of exploration. A case in point being onigawara, decorative elements found on temple roofs.

Jizoji Temple, Tokushima. Number 5 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
Onigawara at Jizoji Temple, Tokushima. Number 5 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
Konsenji Temple, Tokushima. Number 3 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
Onigawara, Konsenji Temple, Tokushima. Number 3 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Origin of Onigawara

Onigawara are decorative features found most often on Buddhist temple roofs, though sometimes also on shrines or residences. Kawara is the word for ceramic roof tiles that were introduced into Japan along with Buddhism and temple architecture from the Korean Peninsula in the 6th century during the Asuka Period of Japanese history.

The word oni is somewhat more problematical to translate, with the word demon most often used, but in English the word demon has connotations of evil, whereas the Japanese oni does behave in evil ways, it is also capable of acting for good, so the word ogre is perhaps better.

Sometimes the word goblin is also used, though that word is often associated with another class of mythical creature called a Tengu. The simplest translation though is probably "demon tile".

Onigawara are found at the ends of the main roof ridge, the Ohmune, and at the ends of the descending ridges, the Kudarimune, and their practical purpose is to protect against weathering, and though primarily made of ceramic, stone or wood is not unknown.

Up to the Heian Period (794-1185) they were decorated with designs of flowers or animals, but from the Kamakura Period (1185-1332) the Oni design came to prominence.

Kannon-In, Tottori. On display an historic, though damaged, large Onigawara.
Kannon-In, Tottori. On display an historic, though damaged, large Onigawara.
Jyoei Temple, Yamaguchi, home of the famous Sesshu garden.
Onigawara, Jyoei Temple, Yamaguchi, home of the famous Sesshu garden.

Spiritual Function

Their spiritual function is to ward off evil, and so they have sometimes become associated with the European gargoyle. While onigawara are almost always Oni, there are some of other creatures, including Tengu and Kappa.

As well as Onigawara there are other types of decoration on temple roofs, the most well known being the Shachi, or Shachihoko, the mythical creature with the body of a fish and the head of a tiger.

These are placed on top of the main ridge and are to ward of fires. Big Shachi often covered in gold leaf will be found on top of Japanese castles. Other than the shachi there are various other figures found on roofs including komainu, phoenixes, monkeys, doves, etc.

Being ceramic, onigawara will often survive the periodic fires that tend to burn down temples and other wooden buildings in Japan and so older examples can often be found on display around the grounds of a temple or in the temple's treasure house.

Also Jyoei Temple, Yamaguchi. Often a single temple will have a variety of different onigawara designs on one roof.
Also Jyoei Temple, Yamaguchi. Often a single temple will have a variety of different onigawara designs on one roof.

Onigawara Styles

On a private residence in the samurai district in Chofu near Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi. The earliest onigawara were probably more relief than fully three dimensional.
On a private residence in the samurai district in Chofu near Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi. The earliest onigawara were probably more relief than fully three dimensional.
A shrine in Kasaoka, Okayama, has some very unusual onigawara in the form of a Karasu Tengu.
A shrine in Kasaoka, Okayama, has some very unusual onigawara in the form of a Karasu Tengu.

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