Visiting Hakone Shrine: Subshrines & Komainu

(To read this series from the beginning, click here!)

Hakone Shrine sits on the shore of Lake Ashi, in a grove of massive, sacred trees. The scents of pine and cedar follow visitors up the shaded paths. In winter months you may also catch a whiff of wood smoke in the air.

After visiting the purification fountain, most visitors either head down to the water gate on the shore of Lake Ashi or up the steps to the shrine’s main worship hall.

Although the stairs look steep in the photo above, the path is actually a number of long, flat paths with short flights of stairs between them.

About halfway up, a short path branches off to the left. It leads to one of several subshrines nestled beneath the trees.

This particular subshrine is my favorite one at Hakone Jinja, because of its expressive komainu, or guardian lion-dogs.

I adore komainu statues–which can be found at almost every Japanese Buddhist temple and Shintō shrine.  (In fact, I’ve blogged about them before.) The statues show an enormous range of variation, both in the carvings themselves and in the way that age and wear affect them. In some ways, the statues’ character seems to develop over time.

Adherents of Shintō and Buddhism would probably say this has to do with the things the statutes have seen and experienced while on guard.

Although I don’t believe the statues are alive, or have memories, I do find them exquisite and compelling works of art. This one, in particular, also reminds me a little of the “dog-beasts” from the movie Ghostbusters (the original film with Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd).

In Japan, old or broken-and-mended objects are considered to acquire a special beauty and meaning – they are stronger and more special for the damage they sustained. In many ways, people are the same – our challenges may leave us cracked, or broken, but we too can become stronger and more beautiful as a result.

I hope you’ll come back on Friday for the next leg of our journey through Hakone Shrine!