A Tale of Tenguyama: Demons, Ninjas and Squirrels

Tengu Woodblock

As Hokkaido turns from a powder paradise into a deep green jungle in during spring, it’s the perfect time to dig deeper into some of the fascinating culture that this land is famous for. With countless festivals (matsuri) to experience over the warmer months, our exploration of the Tengu – devious supernatural beings – begins with the the Shakotan Fire Festival.

 

Highlights from the Shakotan Fire Festival, featuring the local Tengu Deity

 

The town of Shakotan, with ~ 2200 residents, holds their fire festival in July each year to pray for their fishermen to return home safely, with a bountiful catch. A prominent part of the procession is the local Tengu deity, represented by his bright red mask featuring an extra long nose, as he commences a long sequence of fire walking for himself and various palanquins (mikoshi). Just an hour and a half north of Niseko (Hirafu Village), it’s as essential stop on the Hokkaido matsuri schedule.

 

Tengu Masks

 

So what are the Tengu? As with any mythology, the answer itself is clouded in legend. Within Shinto, the Tengu are considered gods (kami) or supernatural beings (yokai), and were originally thought to take a bird-like form. Buddhism positions the Tengu as demons or bringers of war, although over time this image has morphed into that of protective spirits of the mountains and forests (although still somewhat devious).

 

Yamabushi Monks

Yamabushi Monks – reknown as warriors and perhaps students of Tengu?

 

Interestingly, there are many stories implying that the Tengu passed on their mastery of warfare to the ninja, before the days of the famed Iga and Koga ninja clans (15th Century). The infamous ninja face mask is referred to as tengu-gui, and the fighting techniques of the Tengu have been used to explain the fearsome martial arts skills of the Yamabushi: monk warriors who roamed the mountains, and whose origins may extend as far back as the 8th century.

 

Ninja

A ninja’s face mask has been referred to as ‘tengu-gui’

 

Visitors to Otaru will be familiar with Tenguyama, a small mountain (532m) accessed via cable car with great views of the city below. Operating as a ski field during winter, it’s also home to a small Tengu museum which features over 700 Tengu masks in various forms.

 

Tengu Masks

Tengu Masks

A few of the 700+ Tengu masks on display at Tenguyama

 

There are many reasons for the Tengu being linked with Mt Tengu, but no definitive theory. The shape of the mountain is said to resemble the Tengu mask, while others believe a fire on the mountain was caused by the Tengu, who amongst their many skills had the ability to produce mysterious fire. The only certainty is that Mt Tengu was first named around 1890, at which time it started to appear on maps under this name.

 

Tenguyama Ski

Tenguyama ski area, as seen from Otaru

 

We visit the Otaru area for cultural days within our tours, and Tenguyama ski resort, while small, is home to some surprisingly steep terrain which has made it a popular ski racing and jumping destination since it’s inception.

Oh.. let’s not forget the squirrels. Well, Tenguyama is also home to a hilarious squirrel feeding area, where the very tame little creatures are happy to nibble seeds straight from your hand.

 

Tenguyama Squirrel

 

Come and join us for one of our tours visiting the Niseko region and you may end up seeing the impressive Tengu mask display for yourself; we have options for everyone:

Powder Progression Tour

Southern Hokkaido Powder Tour

Coast to Coast Backcountry Tour

Hokkaido Explorer Tour

Hokkaido Backcountry Tour

We can also organise Private Guided Tours to your preferred locations, for both powder and cultural explorations – Japan is waiting!

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Greg Young