Category Archives: John Dougill

Furansisko no Ie

Sword clasp at the Furansisko no Ie showing a Portuguese galleon bringing the European religion to Japan.

Here’s a new post from our good friend, John Dougill.

Near Shijo Omiya is a small museum called Furansisko no Ie.  From the outside it’s unremarkable; inside is a small exhibition room with items from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They represent the time when Christianity first arrived in Japan, before falling into disfavour and being banned.

One of several Hidden Christian stone lanterns found in Kyoto. This one at Furansisko no Ie has an image of Maria carved at the base which could be covered over with earth when not in use for worship.

What marks the museum out is its location, for the site is associated with one of the most dramatic events of the period: the crucifixion of the 26 Martyrs at Nagasaki in 1597.

Prayers of the Hidden Christians, known as Orashio, which were kept secreted away.

The episode originated four years earlier, when the Spanish governor of the Philippines sent a delegation headed by a Franciscan friar.  He petitioned Hideyoshi for permission to build a small monastery where the museum now stands.  With three others he ran a hospital, and the charitable works soon resulted in converts. The surrounding area became known as ‘Dios machi’ for the number of Christians.

Maria Kannon, symbol of the Hidden Christians. On the surface a statue of Kannon, but to believers it represented Maria.

In 1596 a Spanish galleon named the San Felipe was shipwrecked off Shikoku and the cargo seized.  The enraged pilot threatened the authorities by claiming missionaries in Japan were the advance guard of the Spanish king whose armies would colonize them, just as they had in S. America.

When news of this reached Hideyoshi, he ordered a round-up of Catholics and twenty-four Franciscans were seized in Kyoto and Osaka (Jesuits were spared for fear of disrupting the Portuguese trade).  The ears of the captives were cut off and the prisoners publicly paraded, before being force-marched all the way to the Christian stronghold of Nagasaki.  Two volunteers accompanying the men to give comfort were also arrested and added to the group.


A 'stamping picture' (fumie) used by authorities to test for Christians. The idea was that believers would not deny Christ by treading on the icon. Hidden Christians, however, did.

At Nagasaki the 26 Martyrs were publicly crucified.  Six were foreign priests (one was an unfortunate Mexican heading home from the Philippines aboard the San Felipe).  The rest were Japanese laymen, the youngest of whom was just twelve years old.

Though Catholicism continued to be tolerated, it remained suspect and in 1614 came a nationwide ban.  A period of persecution followed in which over 4000 are known to have died and many more subjected to horrendous torture.  It drove the church underground, as described in Endo Shusaku’s novel, Silence.

During the age of isolation it was thought the religion had been eradicated.  Only after 1865, with the return of foreign priests, was it realised that for seven generations pockets of Hidden Christians had handed down their beliefs in secret.  It was an astonishing story, and one whose history is recorded in the artifacts of the Furansisko no Ie.

Hidden Christians at prayer in a secret attic room. (Exhibit at Rosario Museum in the Amakusa Islands)

John Dougill’s book In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians has just been published by Tuttle.  For details about Furansisko no Ie, see

Kasagake at Kamigamo on October 16th

Deer-skinned horse riders deciding their turn by lottery

John Dougill writes,

There were traditionally three styles of horseback archery carried out for the entertainment of the kami. The most well-known is Yabusame, in which galloping riders shoot at a fixed target. Much rarer is Kasagake, to be performed this Sunday at Kamigamo Jinja. The other style involved firing at live dogs: thank goodness, it’s no longer practised.

Entry Procession

There is mention of Kasagake being carried out at Kamigamo Shrine some eight hundred years ago. Previously it had simply been a martial art, designed to improve battle skills. Legend has it that it began with Emperor Jimmu who used his helmet as a target. It was adapted as a shrine entertainment, and then died out.

Horse rider procession

In 2004 Kamigamo revived the ritual, and it is carried out by the Takeda-ryu school of horseback archers. Among the riders are descendants of the Kamo clan, who settled the Kyoto basin in pre-Heian times. The event begins and ends with the banging of a drum, following which a procession of colourfully costumed officials gather for a purification ceremony. The head rider then performs a Heaven and Earth ritual, by circling his horse first to the left and then to the right to summon yin-yang forces, before aiming a symbolic arrow upwards and downwards to ward off evil spirits.

Opening ritual - shooting towards the ground

There are ten riders in all, separated into two groups. Unusually for such an event there are women riders and the order of the riders is decided by lottery. On the first run through the riders fire at three targets at shoulder height. On the return run they fire at two targets set near the ground. The number of hits is recorded and announced over the tannoy. Once the results are in, the best five are put through into a second round, when the targets get smaller. Amazingly, this means that at a fairly high speed they fire at something little bigger than a saucer.

Winners and losers on their way back

Inui Mitsutaka

As part of the shrine’s outreach to foreigners, it provides an English-language commentary along with the Japanese, performed by Inui Mitsutaka who worked for a while with the International Shinto Foundation in New York. There’s much here that tells of the values of Shinto. The celebration of tradition. The entertainment for ancestral deities. The treasuring of skill and precision. Confucian and Taoist influences are evident, while the white horse on display brings to mind the importance of the animal as an emissary of the kami. They say Buddhism in Japan is a religion of the living concerned with death. Shinto on the other hand focuses on dead spirits but is concerned with life. Here in the galloping horses is a case in point.

The sacred white horse at Kamigamo (only to be seen at festivals and holidays)

The festival begins at 13.00.  Details about the shrine and how to reach it can be found here:
Tel 075-781-0011
Fax 075-702-6618
Nice short of video of it here,

Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at

Karasu Sumo at Kamigamo Shrine on September 9

John Dougill writes,

Priests hopping and cawing like crows.  Seven year old kids doing sumo.  What’s that all got to do with Shinto, you may wonder?

Kamigamo Jinja is Kyoto’s greenest shrine and probably the oldest.  It was established by the Kamo clan long before Kammu founded the capital in 794.  One of the clan, according to legend, helped guide Emperor Jimmu across Kii Hanto and was known as yatagarasu (the three-legged crow).  Personally, I take this to mean he was a shaman of the Crow People, who settled in Kyoto after immigrating from Korea.  Their descendants still live in the area around Kamigamo.

Bowing to the sacred mounds

At the festival the priests sit in front of two mounds of earth, which represent the sacred hill onto which the shrine’s kami, Kamo Wake-ikazuchi, first descended.  The hill, known as Koyama, lies north of the shrine and every year there is a secret ceremony there to reenact the shamanic rites of old.

But why are there two mounds?  Interestingly, this recreates the two mounds that stand permanently inside the middle torii.  Priests at the shrine say that they represent yin and yang, but they could well signify the theme of renewal in Shinto.  At Ise, for instance, a new shrine is built adjacent to the old shrine for the kami to move into.  Perhaps the two mounds here act in similar symbolic manner.

Parade of the (mini) sumo wrestlers

The day’s rituals start with the offering of chrysanthemum flowers at 10.00, following which participants proceed from the worship hall to the arena.  A colourfully costumed young girl representing the historical saio (imperial princess) presides over events.  The initial rites include the shooting of arrows to dispel evil spirits, after which two of the priests do their crow performance.

Facing off...

The climax is the children’s sumo, put on for the entertainment of the kami.  There are two teams, and each boy gets to wrestle two times.  The atmosphere can become quite heated, and the crowd usually gets behind the little toddler struggling against a bigger opponent.  Cameras flash from all directions.  By the end you may feel just as happy as the kami that this ancient tradition has been preserved so long.


Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at

(For a video of the priests crowing, see


Shimogamo Jinja  July 21-24, from 5.30-22.30 

John Dougill writes,

Hot, hot and humid! At this time of year you may feel all you want to do is wade through cold water. Well, that’s just what you get to do in the Mitarashi Festival at Shimogamo Shrine. Considering that it promises a disease-free year, particularly for your legs, then it’s easy to understand why the festival is so popular.

Purification is Shinto’s raison d’etre, and the festival can be seen as a mini-misogi (cold water austerity). The idea is that it removes impurities and restores you to full vitality. In Shinto terms it’s a cleansing of your soul-mirror so that it shines brightly once more.

The water comes out of an underground stream, which is why it’s icy cold and invigorating. Participants pay Y200 and get a candle with which to wade upstream and set before Inoue Shrine, dedicated to a purification kami. Thousands pass through the stream over the four days, with yukata and trousers hitched up for the knee-high water.

Afterwards you get to drink a cup of the purifying water. There are black stones available too from the bottom of the stream, which are said to have a special deterrent power for disease demons, particularly the one that causes temper tantrums in children. A suitable donation to the shrine is expected in exchange. On the way back, at the stalls in front of the shrine, you can get Mitarashi dango (dumplings said to resemble bubbles gushing up out of the water).

Shimogamo Jinja is a World Heritage Site and Kyoto’s premier ‘power spot’. This is a rare chance to see it lit up in spectacular fashion and in festive mode. Unlike the overcrowded Gion Festival, this is on a more manageable scale and reflects the community nature of Shinto. There’s little doubt about it: Mitarashi is the coolest festival in town!

Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at

John Dougill’s Green Shinto

Our friend, the historian/poet John Dougill, has launched his own website, Green Shinto, and it looks like a cracker! I know personally that strolling round a shinto shrine with John at your side amiably explaining what everything means, is a very educational experience. Now his expert knowledge of Shinto belief and tradition is available to a far wider audience:

Green Shinto is a blog by John Dougill operating out of Kyoto, Japan, which is dedicated to the promotion of an open, international and environmental Shinto.   It seeks to celebrate the rich heritage of the tradition, from sacred rocks and shamanistic roots to bawdy myths and fertility festivals.  It believes Shinto to be essentially diverse, localised and community oriented.  It looks to a Shinto free of borders, liberated from its past to meet the demands of a new age.   It looks in short to a Shinto that is green in deed as well as in word. LINK

John has already written a LOT of fascinating postings. Here are some tasty snippets that should encourage you to visit:

Continue reading

John Dougill enjoys a seasonal stroll from Tambabashi to Fushimi

Kammu burial mound entrance with Hideyoshi's reconstructed castle in the background

A pleasant walk through woods and 1100 years of history? In Kyoto? Yes, it’s possible on the south-eastern edge if you walk between Tambabashi and Fushimi-Momoyama. It takes two hours and along the way are imperial tombs, Shinto shrines and an Edo-era escapade.

Paying respects at the Emperor Kammu's burial mound

Start from any of three Tambabashi stations (JR, Keihan or Kintetsu). Walk uphill for ten minutes and you’ll come to the tomb of Emperor Kammu (737-806), fiftieth in succession from the sun-goddess and the founder of Kyoto. The reconstructed tower of Hideyoshi’s Fushimi castle peers out from the trees behind. Continue reading

A Kyoto New Year

This will be the last post for the year as I am going home to the UK for Christmas and will be offline for an ENTIRE WEEK! Before I hand you over to John Dougill for the final word, let me wish you all a very merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year. And for those who can’t bear to be without Deep Kyoto for a whole week, I have posted a list of categorised 2010 highlights here (click it! go on click it!) for your browsing pleasure. Now, over to John!

Kurodani by Sarah Brayer

John Dougill writes…

The true soul of Japan is neither Shinto nor Buddhist.  It’s Shinto-Buddhist.  Until the artificial split of early Meiji times, the country had more than 1000 years of happy syncretism.  Born Shinto, die Buddhist is the Japanese way.
Shinto is this-worldly, concerned with rites of passage and social well-being.  Buddhism is other-worldly, concerned with individual salvation.  At New Year the two religions come together like yin and yang, either side of midnight.  Buddhism sees out the death of the old; Shinto celebrates the birth of the new.  Joya-no-kane (tolling of the bell) gives way to Hatsumode (first visit of the year).
To get the full feel of a Kyoto New Year, you need to be syncretic too.  In the dying minutes of the year, go hear the bell at a Buddhist temple.  By tradition it is rung 108 times once for every attachment that plagues the human condition.  Then head for a shrine to pick up arrow and amulets for protection through the coming year.
With over 3000 temples and shrines in Kyoto, you’re spoilt for choice.  A popular but crowded combination is Chion-in and Yasaka Jinja.  File up the hill to watch the young priests at the temple acrobatically swing on ropes to ring the bell.  Then head down to the shrine to get twisted bamboo lit with the sacred Okera fire.  It will purify your home.
Personally I prefer the open space of Kurodani, where the bell booms soulfully over the nearby hillside.  Open fires give off a warm glow, which you can add to with heated sake before lining up to ring the bell.  Afterwards a twenty-minute walk leads through dark and dozing streets to the wooded surrounds of Shimogamo Jinja.
Suddenly there are laughing voices, bright kimono, and gaudy lights.  Aspiring yakuza sell candy floss and goldfish.  Here all is jollity and smiles.  ‘Akemashite gozaimasu’ rings out on every side.  At the shrine people toss coins over the heads of those in front into the offertory boxes.  With the blessing of the kami, this too will be a happy New Year.  A happy Kyoto New Year!

John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History.  He is currently working on a book about Hidden Christians. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here. John will write again in a few days with some top tips for New Year’s Eve!

See also:

A Kyoto Christmas by John Dougill
Christmas Carols at Kyoto City Hall
Christmas at Tadg’s

A Kyoto Christmas

John Dougill writes…

A garden pond at the back of Chion-in, Kyoto. *

Christmas in Japan comes with a difference.  “Romantic Christmas Eve” means all the restaurants and love hotels are booked out: woe betide the man who doesn’t buy his loved one an expensive present.  Yet the next morning everyone has to tramp off to work, for Christmas Day is no holiday.  The birth of the emperor (December 23) takes precedence over the birth of Jesus.  That means you get to do things at Christmas you could never do back home, such as go shopping, watch a film or even go to work.

Only about 1% of Japanese are Christian, yet with Christmas carols playing downtown, Christmas decorations on the houses, and Christmas cake in the coffee shops you could easily forget that Kyoto is the heartland of Japanese Buddhism.  That’s why to get the real flavour of a Kyoto Christmas, it’s worth visiting Chion-in on December 25.  There’s a ceremony that takes place in the enormous Founder’s Hall, which is quite an occasion.  The full priestly hierarchy is on parade, with over a thousand people banging away on mokugyo (wooden drums).
The Foundation Hall stands on the very site where the Pure Land Sect founder, Honen {1133-1212), once preached.  It houses a sacred image of him, which gets to be ceremonially cleaned on this special day.  Like Jesus, Honen was the bearer of good news namely that a deity called Amida had vowed to save all who called on his name.
During the ceremony Honen’s statue gets treated with the kind of reverence normally reserved for mighty potentates and awesome deities.  You’ve never seen a proper prostration until you witness just how the young priests approach the sacred statue.  All the traits of the Japanese are on display: the attention to detail; the meticulousness; the studied formality; the love of ritual.  It’s the religious equivalent of the Oscar-winning film Okuribito (Departures).
Afterwards take a wander round Chion-in.  It’s got the largest main gate in Japan (as featured in The Last Samurai), and a massive seventy-ton bell that is rung in spectacular fashion at New Year.  If you’re looking for a Christmas game, why not try hunting down the temple’s Seven Wonders?  A corridor that squeaks like a nightingale; self-made coffins by the builders of the main gate; an umbrella in the rafters; sparrows that flew away from a painting; a cat that sees in three directions; a large rice paddle 2.5 meters long; a cucumber rock.  And if all that’s not enough, you can visit the temple’s museum and the Hojo Garden, designated by Kyoto City as a famous scenic spot, no less.  By the end of the day you’ll have had a Christmas with a difference.  A Kyoto Christmas.

John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History.  He is currently working on a book about Hidden Christians. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here. John will write again in a few days with some top tips for New Year’s Eve!

For more about Chion-in, see


Image credits:
* This image from Wikipedia was released by its owner into the public domain.
** The second image is of Honen, founder of the Pure Land sect. This image from the Eikando website is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.
*** The third image is of the Sanmon gate at Chion-in. This image from Wikipedia is on a GFDL+creative commons2.5 license. Source: 663highland


John Dougill writes…

In the heart of Kyoto there once stood a Southern Barbarian Temple (Nanban-ji). It was located not far from Rokkaku-do, the city’s belly button. The three-storey structure was built in 1576 and was an exotic addition to a city in the midst of revitalisation. For a while it was the height of fashion for the city’s leading figures to go visit the ‘temple’.

The First Southern Barbarian Temple

How did it come about? The story begins in early 1551 with the first ever European to set foot in Kyoto the intrepid missionary Francis Xavier. To his dismay he found the city in ruins following a long period of civil strife and left after just ten days. But the Jesuits were determined to make a base in the capital, and eight years later came Father Vilela. Through dogged perseverance he built up a following.

The Shunko-in bell

In 1576, with the support of volunteers, the Jesuits were able to turn their humble altar into a proper church. Portuguese fashion was all the rage at the time, and some of the aristocracy had taken to wearing pantaloons and crosses. As a result the new church created a buzz of excitement and among the visitors was the country’s unifier, Nobunaga. Two of his sons took an interest in the religion, and one was later baptised.

It all came to a sorry end in 1587. In an angry outburst against the Jesuits’ military ties Hideyoshi issued an anti-Christian edict, and in the aftermath the church was demolished. Amazingly the Portuguese-made bell was somehow preserved and can still be seen at Shunko-in, a subtemple of the Zen monastery of Myoshin-ji. It bears the date 1577 and has an inscription in Latin.

Second Nanban-ji (artist's impression)

Not long afterwards a second Nanban-dera arose in the city, following the arrival of the Franciscans in 1593. The newcomers had come from Manila and established a small monastery with hospitals and a church. Though the official name was Los Angeles, locals nicknamed it after the first church.

It lasted just four years, until Hideyoshi turned against the Franciscans as a fifth column for Spanish colonialism. A small museum now stands on the site.

A third Kyoto church was established on Motoseiganji from 1604-12, when the Tokugawa regime clamped down on the foreign faith.

元和クリシタン殉教の地 ~ “This is the spot of a Genna era Christian matyrdom”

It heralded an age of persecution, marked in Kyoto by the Great Martyrdom of 1619 when 52 people were burnt on the banks of the Kamogawa. Amongst the victims was Hashimoto Tecla, the only known pregnant martyr in Catholic history, who was burnt along with five of her six children. By 1639, with the age of isolation, Kyoto’s flirtation with Christianity was over. Not until 1873 was the religion allowed again.


Click for a better image.

(The first and third Kirishitan churches are marked by noticeboards. The site of the second church is now the Furansisuko no Ie, which displays items related to Kyoto’s Kirishitan past. It is just to the west of Shijo Omiya, at Satakechou 388, Iwagamidori sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8391. Tel: 075-822-2397.)

John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History and is currently researching Japan’s Hidden Christians for a forthcoming book.

Takigi Noh (Noh by Firelight)

John Dougill writes…

For many people Noh is a turn-off. The plays have no conflict, no humour and no facial expression. Actors move at a snail’s pace, the language is arcane and the music archaic. To its detractors it’s simply an outmoded relic of medieval times. Noh way, Noh thank you.

There are regular performances in Kyoto, and if you attend you’ll find a good number of the audience asleep. One top performer told me he would do the same if he were watching rather than on stage! It’s very much an acquired taste, for knowledge is needed of the crafts and skills to truly appreciate them. The types of play and their ethereal nature, for example. The stately movement of the actors. The exquisite quality of the costumes. The almost sacred nature of the masks. The musical form. It’s an art form for connoisseurs.

Once a year, however, Kyoto offers an opportunity to enjoy Noh in a different light, when an outdoor show in the atmospheric surrounds of the Heian Shrine brings the plays to life in spectacular style. Continue reading