A surprise twist on traditional Japan that includes a giant kokeshi doll. 

Last week, as the sun rose over Kiyomizudera, one of the most famous and historic temples in Kyoto, something was a little different.

It was almost as if aliens or time travellers from the future had landed overnight, because there, beside the main gate to the temple, was a giant kokeshi doll.

Image: Twitter/@naa_lul

The main gate at Kiyomizudera, known as Nio-mon, is massive — it measures 10 metres (32 feet) across and 14 metres (46 feet) in height — but its giant proportions are thrown off when an equally giant kokeshi is laid beside it.

Image: Twitter/@Capt_Bee

That wasn’t the only mysterious object to land at the temple, because just past the main gate, over to the right at the West Gate, known as Sai-mon, there was another giant surprise — two shiny guardians.

Sai-mon, pictured above, is believed to be a gateway to paradise, due to its amazing sunset views. Now, that gateway is being protected by two komainu, the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

Komainu (known as “lion-dogs” in English) are stone statues that appear in pairs at the entrance to Japanese Shinto shrines, warding off evil spirits with their fierce appearance. The komainu standing guard at the stairway to Sai-mon don’t look like the ones usually seen at holy sites like this, though.

▼ These ones look like mecha komainu that have landed from the future, with their beautiful matte black sheen, shiny silver details, and giant red eyes.

▼ Those shiny details look even more imposing at night.

Image: Twitter/@yanobekenji

Komainu pairs always feature one statue with its mouth open and the other with its mouth closed, and that detail is one you’ll find in this futuristic duo as well.

▼ The open-mouthed komainu is said to be pronouncing the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, “a”…

▼…while the komainu with its mouth closed is prounouncing “un”, the last letter of the Sanskrit alphabet.

Together, they pronounce “aun”, (“ohm“), the syllable that represents the primordial trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

So why the giant guardians at Kiyomizudera?

Well, it’s all part of Artists’ Fair Kyoto 2022, an annual event that uses corporate buildings and Important Cultural Properties in the city as “eccentric exhibition spaces” to exhibit the work of local artists.

The giant kokeshi is an inflatable doll created by an artist called Yotta, and it also made an appearance at Osaka’s Expo ’70 Commemorative Park in 2021.

As for the futuristic Komainu, they were created by contemporary artist Kenji Yanobe ( @yanobekenji ), who is also a professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design. The stunning pair of lion dogs is a 2019 creation called “KOMAINU ―Guardian Beasts−” and the attention to detail on each one is absolutely breathtaking.

▼ This video of the komainu standing guard at the temple shows them in all their glory.

According to Yanobe, komainu can be perceived as spirit beasts that protect Buddha, gods, and people. This particular pair first made their debut at Hieizan Enkeiji Temple in 2019, after which they were installed at the Uryuyama Campus of Kyoto University of the Arts, where Yanobe teaches.

▼ KOMAINU ―Guardian Beasts− at Hieizan Enkeiji Temple.

Now, during the pandemic, and times of global unrest, the world needs giant guardians like these to watch over them more than ever.

This makes their appearance at Kiyomizudera all the more moving, and you’ll be able to see them on guard at the site from now until 13 March.

Source: Kenji Yanobe via Net Lab
Featured image: ©2019 Kenji Yanobe

Insert images: ©2019 Kenji Yanobe unless otherwise stated
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