Japanese Culture: Onigawara, Demon Tiles
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.
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.
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.