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The Yokai Files – Raigo/Tesso: The Iron Rat

Tesso (The iron rat) is truly a one of a kind yokai. A rat demon the size of a full-grown man, armed with metal teeth and claws, capable of shredding and tearing almost anything. Combine this with a pied-piper like ability to call a legion of real rats to do his destructive bidding, and Tesso becomes quite a formidable foe to be reckoned with

Today’s yokai shares something in common with Hashi Hime in that also Tesso began life as a human, a buddhist monk named Raigo, but was later transformed into a vengeful yokai. Again it was sheer force of will, and a driving anger, that provde the catalyst for the transformation.

I already knew the basic story of how Raigo came to turn into his rodent form, however as Raigo’s temple (Mii-Dera) is  not far from where I live, I decided to make the trip there and see if I could dig up anything connected with the myth.

Having expected there to be nothing but a small, hard-to-find and hidden away shrine (like the one dedicated to Hasi Hime in Uji), I was surprised to find that Mii-Dera is in fact a big, well-known, temple complex built on the hills overlooking Lake Biwa.

An initial search of the grounds and buildings didn’t seem to turn up any obvious mention of Raigo or Tesso – though there were several pictures and carvings around that looked distinctly yokai like – though maybe more like Oni than anything else (like the red and blue figures below). Having said that one picture did show a red-figure with huge teeth and (apparently) whiskers, which could easily have been Tesso.

Deciding that I wasn’t going to find much without any help, I made up my mind to approach one of the monks on hand around the temple. First, I asked about Tesso, and was disappointed by the blank incomprehension I got back – but as soon as I mentioned Raigo that all changed and without much more encouragement he launched into a quite spirited retelling of the story.

So, here it is….

Late in the Heian Era Emperor Shirakawa came to power, but he found himself in want of a son to succeed him. So it was that he approached Raigo at Mii-Dera and called upon him to pray on his behalf for birth of a strong son. In return the Emperor promised to grant Raigo one favour of his choosing.

Raigo took to his task with a great fervour, praying day and night for the birth of an heir. When Prince Taruhito was finally born, the delighted emperor returned to Raigo to fulfill his promise. Raigo’s only request was to have his own monastery where he could train new novices taking holy orders at the temple.

However, Mii-Dera had a local enemy. A rival sect strong with both military and political power – the warrior monks of Enriyaku-ji, in the mountains near Kyoto. (The rivalry between these two temples is unbelievable – but as an example, in the 11th century alone the monks of Enriyaku-ji burned Mii-Dera to the ground no less than four times)! Now there are three things which the Emperor can’t control (which the monk telling the story is enumerating on his fingers in the picture above) the direction the wind blows, the roll of a dice and the monks of Enriyaku-ji – who exercised their considerable influence to ensure that Raigo never got his monastery.

Although the Emperor tried to placate Raigo he was inconsolably outraged, and protested by means of a hunger strike that ultimately killed him.  However, the death of Raigo was the birth of Tesso, the dead monk was reborn in a new and monstrous form which he was quick to exploit for revenge.

As Tesso, he and his army of rats marched on his enemies at Enriyaku-ji and swarmed through stores and libraries where they kept all their most treasured scrolls, books and artifacts destroying anything they came across – as beautifully illustrated here by Toriyama Sekien (one of the greatest Yokai commentors and illustrators in history – check out the notable works links on his Wikipedia page for more examples of his work).

Whether Raigo’s rage eventually abated and Tesso disappeared, or whether he was somehow destroyed, is not clear, though there are rumours that Tesso may be buried somewhere around Oyama in Tochigi-ken.

As for any trace of him being found in Mii-Dera? Our story-teller pointed us in the direction of a shrine dedicated to the memory of Raigo.

This small shrine (and a sign giving a brief version of the legend, in Japanese) is all there is at Mii-Dera to remember Raigo by – but in some ways it is a fitting memorial. While the main halls, and other major buildings of Mii-Dera, face east (as is traditional in buddhist architecture) – Raigo’s shrine looks defiantly north at the mountains – and Enriyaku-ji.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Images From The "Kaibutsu Ehon" - A Japanese Book of Monsters

  2. That was interesting! I’ve been to Miidera too.

    March 10, 2011 at 11:20 am

  3. This is a personal favorite story of mine, as well as the lovely Toriyama Sekien print (I love his work). I know it may sound strange, but I have domesticated rats that are friends to me like Tesso’s rats in this story, so I love it.

    Thanks for sharing about the temple!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:22 am

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