Dragons in Japanese Tattoos and the Oyama Pilgrimage

In Edo-period Japan (1603 – 1868), dragons had special importance for ‘hikeshi’ (firemen), as they were seen as creatures of the sea and therefore not being affected by fire. In Japanese belief, dragons are associated with koi fish. Legend says that a koi fish’s ability to swim upstream and over waterfalls without ever giving up in the face of adversity brought with it admiration from the gods who have granted the koi eternal life as dragons. It is also said that if a koi is caught, it will await the cut of the knife without fear, displaying courage and tenacity, attributes naturally embodied within the koi carp. This clearly portrays the cultural beliefs in the strength of the koi. As dragons, you can see the resemblance of their past life in their whiskers, trailing and coiling just like the rest of their scaled and slender body.

kunichika toyohara, japanese tattoo, irezumi
Kunichika Toyohara, Mount Oyama, 1882


Unlike western dragons that are seen as threatening, in Japan dragons are defending beings and in the case of firemen and tattoo designs, they are a protective force that also offer strength of character to their wearer. These men believed that the tattooed image of the dragon would act as ‘omamori’ (talisman) as they fought fires in the city of Edo (today’s Tokyo). For those men tattoos became synonymous with bravery. Enduring the pain and burning of having their entire bodies tattooed was a symbolic way of showing their defiance and their lack of fear.


As mythical creatures that live in all elements, dragons are highly regarded as symbols of an unwavering spirit and wisdom. Just like Japanese swords are forged in all five elements and depend on them in the production process, this is how dragons are also able to live in any kind of medium, including skin. Japanese tattooists trained in traditional Japanese aesthetics and imagery and who follow traditional techniques will usually leave the eyes blank until the very end, believing that the dragon’s spirit will come to life once the eyes are drawn in. As dragons are imagined beings, they can only exist in the artist’s rendition and the person receiving the tattoo becomes a living canvas, infused with a spirit and respect for tradition that have been passed down through generations. Despite the image being permanent the spirit’s lifespan is forever bound with the wearer.


Mount Oyama and its waterfall, located in today’s Kanagawa prefecture, have been a place of pilgrimage for centuries and hold special importance for tattooed people since the mid- 19th century. This has been historically documented within woodblock prints produced during that period, showing pilgrims making a journey to Mount Oyama, displaying elaborate tattoo designs on their bodies.

Yoshitora Utagawa, Mount Oyama, Japanese Tattoo
Yoshitora Utagawa, Mount Oyama Pilgrimage, 1862

The shrine on this mountain is dedicated to Fudo Myoo and houses a rare statue of this spiritual figure. It is also dedicated to Sekison Daigongen, a local deity taking the form of Fudo Myoo, reflecting the conversion of local deities when the teachings of Shinto and Buddhism merged. The founder of the mountain as a religious centre is said to be monk Roben (良弁, also known as Ryoben) who encountered a dragon one day during his meditation. The dragon told the monk that the waterfalls on Oyama had the power to purify all beings and bring enlightenment and protection to them. Oyama therefore became a preferred place for pilgrimage for firemen given the mountain’s association with water and fire. They saw the journey as a ritual of purification and a communion with the spirits. For firemen heavily tattooed with intricate designs of dragons, bathing under the waterfall would make the mythical creatures beneath their skin feel in their element and be blessed by the power of the mountain.


Oyama attracted a large number of visitors from Edo, including merchants, artisans and fishermen who believed in the healing powers of Fudo Myoo and the dragon deity’s ability to offer protection from fire. The pilgrims going to Oyama would carry a large wooden sword and dedicate it to the shrine and this appears depicted in woodblock prints very often. Due to the popularity of the pilgrimage and its protective qualities, imagery of heroes of the day under a waterfall are common.


Oyama pilgrimage is still practiced and its association with tattoos remains until today. This tradition was solidified in the 20th century when the Kanda Choyu Kai was founded, the first tattoo club of its type in Japan and coordinated by tattooist Horiuno I. Despite the stigma associated with Japanese tattoos, Mount Oyama still acts as a safe haven for those wishing to gather to cleanse, appreciate the art of tattoos out in the open, and provide a deeper spiritual meaning to their designs.


Text: Geanina Spinu for Japanese Gallery Kensington


Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, July-August 2020