This is a series of posts describing the many varieties of Japanese gate, or mon (門). If you look at the preceding kanji more closely, you can think of it as a picture of a pair of swinging doors, reminiscent of saloon doors in a wild west movie. I thought that it would be a nice idea to bring more awareness to a western audience as to the tremendous diversity in forms and types of Japanese gates. This series intends to be a gateway to gates.
Previous posts in this series:
We’ve seen examples of this gate form already in this series, where they have appeared as rōmon and sanmon. Ryū (竜) means ‘dragon’, and ‘gū’ (宮) means ‘palace’, ‘mansion’, and ‘shrine’. The meaning of ryūgū is ‘Palace of the Dragon King’. The king himself is known as Ryūjin. He is a figure from Japanese folklore who lives in the sea, or other bodies of water, controls the tides with magical jewels and counts sea turtles, fish, and jellyfish as his servants. His palace is constructed from crystal, or red/white coral, and is called ryūgūjō. One day spent at the palace is apparently the same as 100 years on earth.
Ryūjin (“dragon kami“) faith is a form of religious thought and practice associated with dragons, a mythical sacred animal of ancient China. Although Japanese ryūjin worship was influenced by China, the Japanese dragon as an object of faith was a deified snake, a symbol of a water kami (suijin). Besides the term ryūjin, ryūō (“dragon king”) and ryūgū (“dragon palace”) are also used. The dragon kami is connected with agriculture because of its characteristic as a water kami. Prayers for rain were performed at rivers, swamps, ponds, and deep pools which were regarded as the abodes of the ryūjin. Agricultural rituals, such as prayers for rain and rope pulls, were carried out using a straw rope shaped like a serpent-like dragon. As a water kami, ryūjin is connected with raijin, the kami of thunder, who brings forth rain and lightning. It is thought that the dragon kami ascends to heaven when a tornado occurs. Further, umi no kami (kami of the sea), thought to reside on the other side of the ocean and to rule over the sea, is connected with water kami belief and is frequently used as a synonym for ryūjin. Fishermen prayed to the dragon kami for an abundant catch and calm seas. They carried out festivals for ryūjin, celebrated as the kami of the sea and the kami of the dragon palace. These festivals are referred to by such names as uramatsuri (“inlet festival”), isomatsuri (“beach festival”), and shiomatsuri (“tide festival”).
From the belief that metal nullified the magical powers of a snake, there developed the idea of refraining from actions that would anger the snake. Hence, fishermen believed it was taboo to drop metal in the ocean. This was the background to the idea of the equivalence of the snake kami, the dragon kami, and the sea kami. The motif of interaction between the sea kami and humans often appears in folk tales such as Urashima Tarō and Ryūgū Dōji. The belief that wealth and treasure is brought from the other side of the ocean derives from this source.
Here’s a statue depicting this mythical figure of Ryūjin, located in Niban town, part of Sakura City:
The gate for the Palace of the Dragon King is characterized by a lower structure which is enclosed, usually plastered, and takes the form of an elongated arch. These gates are found in front of both temples and shrines, and are considered ‘Chinese’ in style.
Let’s look at an example, Eisenji (栄泉寺) in Ibaraki Prefecture:
Looking through the arch:
A view from within the compound:
Next, probably the most famous example, which is found at Nikkō. This gate has a special name – Kōkamon (皇嘉門):
This gate is a barrier to the inner house of the compound and the other buildings and is always closed. apparently the interior surfaces are all waxed and there is an incredible ceiling.
The painted styling is reminscent of continental architecture.
Here’s the ryūgūmon fronting the temple garden at Daijōin (大乗院) in Nara:
Looking through the opening:
A view from the courtyard:
One more, the ryūgūmon at Anjō-in (安住院) in Okuyama Prefecture:
This temple complex was extablised early on, around 750 a.d.
This gate is a bell tower, so it could equally be called a shōrōmon.
A view into the arched opening:
A view from the inner area of the compound:
Another rear view, from the 3/4 position:
Detail of the eave treatment, with two-tier, parallel rafters:
Well, another post, another gate. We’re actually getting towards the end of this series now, with just a few to go. hope you’ll stay tuned, and thanks for visiting. On to post 29