February 7, 2020

The Myth of Shuten Doji

Hidden away in the extreme western reaches of Kyoto, Mt. Oe is the mythical home of the vengeful Shuten Doji, the so-called "drunken demon."

Kyoto Prefecture's remote Mt. Oe shrouded in the clouds of the early morning

Admittedly, I am a bit of a history buff and love to study the annals of Japan’s past. Alas, as a busy director at a listed Japanese marketing agency, I often don’t have the time to sit down and pour over original source material. As eloquently put by this eternally popular meme, ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead of doing the reading myself these days, I occasionally resort to letting other content creators do the heavy lifting summarizing for me. Then, I simply consume the video, article, or podcast my contemporaries produce to further educate myself on Japanese history.

When it comes to learning about Japan’s bygone eras, lately my two go-to sources have been the History of Japan Podcast and a hilarious guy on YouTuber by the name of Linfamy. If you’re into nerdy, historical deep dives then I really can’t more highly suggest that you check out either of them. Anyway, recently by chance, both of these awesome creators put out a piece of content on the Japanese myth of Shuten Doji. Not one to dismiss the omens when they manifest themselves, I took this coincidence as a sign that I had to travel to the roots of this legendary ancient terror.

Shuten Doji’s story is one that I’ve been aware of for some time now. After all, this mythical oni (an ogre-like class of Japanese demons), is known to be one of the three most terrifying yokai spirits in all of Japanese folklore. Somehow though, I had managed to miss the memo that Mt. Oe, the setting of the Shuten Doji story, is also chock full of compelling attractions to check out. Incidentally, I somehow happened to stumble upon these when I was doing some further study to compliment the previously mentioned pieces of content by the History of Japan Podcast and Linfamy.

Given that most readers are likely unfamiliar with the narrative of the Shuten Doji myth, I am going to go ahead and provide a brief summary. Thereafter, I’ll delve into what’s on offer on Mt. Oe. Without a proper understanding of the myth, this destination loses much of its appeal. That said, if you happen to already have the context, feel free to skip the next section…

The Myth of Shuten Doji

A traditional Japanese rendition of Minamoto-no-Raiko battling with Shuten Doji, the drunken demon

Long ago, during the reign of Emperor Ichijo, a perplexing amount of young women living in Kyoto (which was then known as Heian-kyo) mysteriously started to disappear. In response, the imperial court sought the counsel of a famous diviner to figure out what was going on. Through the use of onmyodo, this mystic was able to discern that the demon king of Mt. Oe was the culprit. Not able to afford the loss of any young ladies, the court summoned one of their most powerful warriors to put a stop to the abductions. Known as Minamoto-no-Raiko, this fearsome soul was actually a historical figure whose deeds were immortalized as legend.

Anyway, after being charged with eliminating the threat on Mt. Oe, Raiko set out to gather a group of loyal allies. Ultimately, this band ended up being comprised of other semi-legendary warriors who similarly had their legacies mythologized (Watanabe-no-Tsuna, Sakata-no-Kintoki, Urabe-no-Suetake, and Usui Sadamitsu). Before departing, the group decided that it would be best to seek the blessings of the gods. Splitting up into groups, the troupe visited three important shrines in the Kansai region. Raiko himself visited Iwashimizu Hachimangu in Kyoto which enshrines the patron deity of the Minamoto clan, the war god Hachiman.

As you might imagine, venturing into territory controlled by oni is risky business. To mask their motives, Raiko and and his retinue opted to disguise themselves as yamabushi who followed the teachings of an ascetic amicable to demons. Eventually, as the group neared Mt. Oe, they came across three old men. These elders advised Raiko and company about how to reach the oni’s stronghold and also informed them of the leader’s name, Shuten Doji (which literally means “Drunken Demon”). Allegedly, this hellion was one of the strongest of his kind, both in terms of sheer strength and his ability to knock ’em back if you know what I mean.

In addition to the tidbits of advice on how to best hunt down Shuten Doji, the three wise men also bestowed Raiko with a vial of “magic” sake and an unbreakable helmet. Not one to be slow on the uptake, Raiko soon realized that these three geezers were actually the deities his men had prayed to but now in human form. In thanks for their divine guidance, Raiko and friends immediately got down on their knees and thanked the gods before heading off to find Shuten Doji. On their way, they encountered a noble maiden who had been kidnapped by the oni. After informing her of their plans, the lass gives Raiko and team further tips on how to reach the palace of Shuten Doji.

Eventually, our heroes end up finding themselves oh so heroically captured by the oni of Mt. Oe. While the fiends consider devouring them on the spot, one of the cooler headed ogres instead suggests that they consult Shuten Doji first as acting without notifying their boss would only stoke his ire. When the disguised warriors were brought before the demon king, Shuten Doji remarked that he was surprised that anyone could find his lair as surely Mt. Oe must be untraversable for humans. Here, Raiko smartly replies that they are following in the footsteps of that mountain ascetic who was friendly to demonkind.

“There’s nothing false in the words of demons.”

— Shuten Doji

Surprisingly, this line works on Shuten Doji and he elects to host Raiko and his team for the night. Still a little suspicious though, he offers the band some maidens’ blood sake and a side of human flesh. Shockingly, Raiko and his comrades go to town on these offerings claiming that their sect compels them to willingly accept any gifts offered to them. Humbled, Shuten Doji tells the warriors that there is nothing false in the words of demons. Apparently though, there IS actually a lot of falsehood in the worlds of humans as our hero Raiko is essentially a top-tier bullshitter who hasn’t uttered a single iota of truth thus far.

After having been treated by Shuten Doji, Raiko reciprocates the favor by offering the alcoholic beast some of the sake that was gifted to him by the three gods. As previously noted, this liquid is “magical” and is said to have the power to render demons impotent (I’m not sure about you, but this sounds a lot like a Strong Zero to me…). Unable to resist, Shuten Doji and his boozing buddies down Raiko’s “gift” and proceed to get absolutely smashed. With his minions out cold on the floor, Shuten Doji drunkenly tells Raiko and friends that he will retire for the night.

With the demons now thoroughly intoxicated, Raiko and his warrior allies slip out of their yamabushi disguises and arm themselves to go demon slaying. Then, the sly and cunning champions slip into Shuten Doji’s room. Wearing the helmet gifted to him by the three deities, Raiko brings his blade down on the sleeping Shuten Doji’s neck while the others hold him down. At the last minute, the fiend awakens. In a final act of vengeance, Shuten Doji’s decapitated head flies towards Raiko in an attempt to bite off his head. Were it not for the helmet, our hero would likely have lost his life here.

After butchering Shuten Doji, Raiko and his friends go about slaughtering the remaining drunk and unconscious demons. Soon after, they free the captive women and other prisoners before heading back to Kyoto. Back home, Raiko and his comrades are lauded with praise and the whole court celebrates their victory over the oni of Mt. Oe. In some versions of the story, Raiko brings back the severed head of Shuten Doji with him whereas in others, it is left on Mt. Oe. By the by, this isn’t the only variation on the Shuten Doji myth as the story has gone through many incarnations over the years.

Getting to Mt. Oe

The rural Kyoto Tango Railway that takes you to Mt. Oe in the rural parts of Kyoto Prefecture

Oh my god, I am surprised that Raiko and company ever managed to make the journey to Mt. Oe. This mountain of myth is one of the hardest places to reach that I’ve ever traveled to. Put simply, this ain’t one for the faint of heart and I certainly wouldn’t fault you for opting to appreciate this one from afar. Those few intrepid souls out there who actually want to make the trek will want to begin their expedition in either Osaka or Kyoto. If you attempt to start the outing from Tokyo, it will be nightfall by the time you finally arrive at your destination. Alternatively, you can also consider staying somewhere western Kyoto as this will enable you to get an earlier start.

Now, there are a few ways to skin this cat depending on where in Kansai you’re coming from. Rather than confuse you with arcane suggestions on which trains to take, I’ll just refer you to the ever-helpful Hyperdia instead. Regardless of which option you choose, you’ll first need to make your way to Fukuchiyama Station. From this semi-rural hub, you’ll need to take the Kyoto Tango Railway. Your destination will be Oe Station. Note that you’ll need to give your ticket to the train conductor before exiting the station as there’s no electronic gate like in the big city.

Once you get to Oe Station, the real fun begins. Here, you’ll need to exit the station and find the lone bus stop. Unfortunately, the schedule is only in Japanese. To decipher when the bus is arriving, you’ll need to look for the characters 大江山の家 (Oeyama-no-Ie). From what I saw, service is quite infrequent with one shuttle coming every hour and a half or so. By the way, while it’s technically called a bus, the adorable little vehicle that actually pulls up is more of a hop-on, hop-off style van. Each ride will run you two-hundred yen.

Attractions Near Mt. Oe

Found near Mt. Oe, Kyoto Prefecture’s Amanohashidate is a spectacular site to behold

OK, let’s finally cover what’s on offer in the vicinity of Mt. Oe. Seeing as this one is already starting to get quite long, I’ll opt to just provide you with a list of the attractions. As always, I’ll include a short blurb as well as a link to a Google Map so that you, the reader, can get your bearings…

  • Japan Oni Cultural Museum
    Though the content is only available in Japanese, this museum features a plethora of oni paraphernalia. Entry to the facility will run you a few hundred yen. You’ll find it located within the Oeyama-no-Ie complex, right beside a massive ten ton onigawara tile. To get there, you’ll just need to hop the shuttle bus to the final stop.
  • Motoise Naiku Kotai Shrine
    This antediluvian sepulcher is said to predate the ancient Ise Jingu by more than 54 years. Seeing as Ise Jingu is basically older than history itself, this is quite the claim. You’ll find the Motoise Naiku Kotai Shrine about 15 minutes away from Oeyamaguchi Naiku Station. Be sure to also check out Amano Iwatoji Shrine in the ravine out back too.
  • Onitake Inari Shrine
    A former incarnation of this small shrine is said to have been placed here eons ago to pacify the vengeful spirit of Shuten Doji. Perched high up on Mt. Oe, Onitake Inari Shrine boasts a commanding view of the “sea of clouds” that amasses between the crags below. Refer to the image at the start of this article for a hint of what you can expect if you nail the timing just right.
  • Amanohashidate
    Last, but certainly not least, we have the picturesque Amanohashidate. Highlighted above at the start of this section, this location is often hailed as one of the top three scenic vistas in all of Japan (along with Matsushima in Sendai and Miyajima). To get there, you’ll want to take the Kyoto Tango Railway to Amanohashidate Station.

And there we have it, another hidden gem in Japan put onto the digital map…