A view of the temple housing the nine dragon-headed Benzaiten (Photo: Shozo Fujii)

Nison Temple, Kyoto: Origins 1 of 2

The nine dragon-headed statue and Yamata-no-Orochi

A view of the temple housing the nine dragon-headed Benzaiten (Photo: Shozo Fujii)
Justin Velgus   - 3 min read

Standing in front of Nison-in Temple's nine dragon-headed statue of Benzaiten in Kyoto, I was struck with a sense of awe. Benzaiten is revered as one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese folklore, but the original deity is a female figure with just one human-looking head.

There are nine dragon heads in relation to the Kuzuryu River flowing through the Fukui Plain. To clarify, the name of the river and the writing for "nine dragon heads" uses the same Chinese characters: 九頭竜. The statue was made to pass on the Kuzuryu tradition to future generations.

The most famous origin story is that found in the Kojiki ("Records of Ancient Matters"). The Kojiki is the oldest historical text to have been known to exist in Japan. It was compiled and edited in 712 by Ō no Yasumaro to mark important events from Japan's mythological creation to the reign of Empress Suiko.

In volume one of the Kojiki, the legend of the extermination of Yamata-no-Orochi is recorded at part of Izumo's mythology.

Millenia ago before humans walked the Earth, the diety Susanoo was expelled from Izumo by the gods for his unruly behavior. He is sent upstream of the Hi River. Gazing at the river, you can see the water flowing through a bend. This area marks a bank in the river where there is a hermitage. In its garden are a young girl and an elderly couple embracing each other and crying. The couple are the minor deities Ashinadzuchi and Tenadzuchi. The girl is Kushinada-hime, daughter of the couple.

"Who are you?"

The daughter turned around towards the voice of the man. When the Susanoo saw the divine beauty of the sobbing Kushinada-hime, it was love at first sight.

Ashinadzuchi answered:

"We had eight daughters. However, every year the terrible monster Yamata-no-Orochi comes to devour one. It is the eighth year so the beast will return for my last daughter. I have no children left. I can't control this sorrow."

These old tales trace back to ancient locations in and around areas from Fukui Prefecture to Niigata Precture, though they are expressed in a semi-fictional and exaggerated way. Still, some locations of antiquity such as Echizen, Etchu, and Echigo, still remain in the modern day.

"What kind of monster are we dealing with?", Susanoo inquired.

"It is a horrible monster called Yamata-no-Orochi. It has the body of a dragon,with eight serpent heads, and eight serpent tails. Those that look into the blood-red eyes of the dragon become unable to move. And the dragon's visit this year is happening soon,"

Tenadzuchi answered in a groan, clutching the head of Kushinada-hime.

"Forgive me for my late introduction. I am Susanoo. I shall rid of Yamata-no-Orochi. In return, would you grant me your daughter's hand in marriage? ”

Kushinada-hime raised her head and looked at Susanoo. Her open eyes glistened with sense of calmness.

"I accept. Please help my daughter," Ashinadzuchi and Tenadzuchi answered in unison.

Upon hearing this, Susanoo transformed Kushinada-hime into a comb which he stuck in his hair. Then he spoke to the couple...

(Continued on part 2 of 2)

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Justin Velgus

Justin Velgus @justin.velgus

Justin Velgus (ジャスティン ベルガス) is the Miyagi Prefecture expert for Japan Travel and a long-term contributor since 2012 with a focus on the Tohoku region.  Justin has written extensively for JT, and other publications such as VisitMiyagi and Sake Today, amassing over 350 published articles...