Mount Takao Tengu
One of the most famous creatures from Japanese mythology is the Tengu, the winged and often beaked bird-human demons or spirits of the mountains and forest. In the old days Tengu were rather warlike demons whose appearance told of impending war and disaster and images of them from the early day show them as being more fearsome and birdlike than human, but since the Edo period they have gradually softened and are now seen as guardian spirits that often help people who respect them and the nature they live in. These days even the original beaks of Tengu have turned into the famously long red noses.
Tengu also feature in a number of kotowaza, or proverbs, I’ll try and translate some of them, but the first two are quite tricky to make any sense of:
小坊主ひとりに天狗八人 or 小坊主に天狗八人 ”Like the little monk facing eight tengu by himself”, to ignore one’s own relative weakness even in the face of impossible odds, to face adversary without any realistic hope of success.
天狗の投げ算 ”To calculate like a tengu”, haphazard calculation, on the back of the envelope estimate, an estimation thrown together on a whim, not very exact.
Tengu were initially considered to be very vain and narcissistic, so there are two proverbs relating to people being full of themselves:
天狗になる ”Become like a tengu”, to be so full of yourself that you are all puffed up and long-nosed like a tengu.
釣り天狗に聞き耳なし ”Don’t even bother listening to a fishing tengu”, as in anglers and fishermen who love to brag about their own catches, no matter what you say or what the conversation is about it will undoubtedly be turned to their own bragging.
This one is pretty easy to understand, due to the fact that tengu are good fliers:
天狗の木登り ”Like a tengu climbing a tree”, as an example of something ridiculous and unheard of.
And finally one about the great physical strength of the tengu:
天狗に唐傘取られたよう ”Like a tengu grabbing a paper umbrella”, as an example of something that you just can’t help, a force so strong that you can’t resist it, a strong wind ripping the umbrella from your hand, something that there was no use in resisting.
I am sure a native speaker could correct my translations, proverbs aren’t used very often in spoken Japanese and I don’t have nearly enough time to do as much reading as I’d like to these days. I took these photos of tengu statues on one of the main tengu “homelands”, Mount Takao in Hachioji City in western Tokyo. The first two statues are huge, while the last two are much more humble in size.
Like other mythological creatures the tengu have become quite popular in recent years and they can now be found on everything from tourist brochures to Awaodori dance teams! There’s also another great place to see tengu close to Tokyo, the Kenchoji temple in Kamakura.