A pair of lion-dogs guard the entrance of Japanese shrines

Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi
Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi

A pair of lion-dogs guard the entrance of Japanese shrines

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

They stand guard with their ornate heads and facial expressions. They look like a cross between a dog and a lion. Do you know what they are?

You’ll spot these around Japan at the entrance of many Shinto shrines (and, a few Buddhist temples). These are called komainu and they are imaginary animal guardians guarding the shrine where they stand from evil spirits.

You will almost always see these komainu at Shinto shrines, but some Buddhist temples also have these at their entrances.

They come in pairs and usually the one on the right, or a-gyo Komainu, is the one with its open, almost menacing, mouth. Un-gyo komainu, on the left, keeps his mouth closed. Both represent an ending to a beginning, and they face each other at the entryway of a shrine.

It is believed that komainu originate from Egypt or other parts of the Middle East and were introduced through India and China to Japan in the 6th Century.

Okinawa has its own set of guardian lion-dogs called Shisa. These also stand guard and protect homes, businesses and villages from evil spirits, are decorated in vibrant colors and come in different sizes.

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