Let’s find Onigawara! A part of traditional Japanese architecture at temples in Nara!

When visiting temples in Nara Prefecture, you’ll see ‘Onigawara’ on the roof tops and on the ends of the ridges of a gate. Onigawara is a roof ornament found in traditional Japanese architecture. They are roof tiles depicting the face of a Japanese ogre (oni).
I will explain the reason why Onigawara decorate temples in Japan. I’ll show you the relation between the many temples of Nara Prefecture and the roof tiles. I’ll also explain the origin and background of Onigawara. You can even experience making a small Onigawara!



Onigawara, the face of a Japanese ogre on the ends of the ridges of a temple gate.

When you have an opportunity to visit temples in Japan, please look at the ends of the ridges on the gates and roof tops. You’ll find roof tiles with the face of Oni (Japanese ogre). These tiles are called Onigawara and are used to guard the ends of a ridge.

Japanese people have believed since ancient times that God descended on a place closest to heaven. They decorated, celebrated and worshipped the ends of the ridges on the highest place of a temple, as the place where God descended to and dwelled. Onigawara are regarded as a talisman to guard the dwelling of God, prevent evil spirits from entering houses and to invite happiness.

The Oni is a legendary monster in Japanese folklore. It is a human shaped creature in loincloth. It has horns on its head and fangs in its mouth stretched from ear to ear. The ogre in Japanese folk tales was regarded a familiar god, as well as a scary entity that had magical powers and prevented diseases and calamities. Japanese people relied on its magical powers and decorated their roof tops with Onigawara roof tiles as a talisman.

Onigawara usually has the face of oni, but there are also various other designs, which are used depending on the type of building.

The manufacturing technique for roof tiles and the Onigawara with an oni face.

The first building with a tiled roof in Japan is said to be on the Asuka-dera Temple in Asuka village, Nara Prefecture. In 588, tile experts came to Japan from Baekje on the Korean Peninsula. They introduced the technique of roof tile manufacturing, but the onigawara were decorated with a pattern of a lotus, not an oni face at that time.

The Heijo Palace Site

The roof tiles with the face of oni were decorated mainly in the Kinki region, because during the Nara period, the capital (Heijokyo) was located in Nara. The tiles were first used at the Heijo Palace and the temples in Heijokyo, but were later used throughout Japan. You can see the roof tiles that were excavated from the Heijo Palace and HeiJokyo from the Nara period at The Heijo Palace Museum.

“Heijyo-kyo”, the capital of Japan during the Nara period and the Heijyo palace site ruins.

The Heijo Palace Museum.
Onigawara excavated from the Heijo Palace and HeiJokyo

The Tachibana clan created the foundation of Onigawara in Nara.

Onigawara used to be made by pressing clay into a mold until the middle of the Kamakura period (1185〜1333). Due to changes in the production system, onigawara started to be shaped by hand.

Horyu-ji Temple

Big temples in Nara like the Kohfuku-ji and Horyu-ji temples, had exclusive tile wrights.
Kunishige Tachibana, an exclusive tile wright of the Horyu-ji Temple, was said to be the one who created the three-dimensional Onigawara with two horns. His son Yoshishige devised a tile that holds itself to the roof. He used suitable clay for the tile with delicate patterns and intricate shapes. These tiles are now important for understanding the tile technology at that time.

After that, the Tachibana clan that worked actively in Kinki region from 14th century to 18th century contributed much to the basic form of Japanese Onigawara leading up to today.

Horyuji Temple was built 1,300 years ago and is a mysterious wooden building.

Why are Onigawara often seen at temples?

民家の鬼瓦 水
Onigawara used for a private house with ‘水’ (water) written on it.

Tile experts from Baekje introduced the technique for roof tile manufacturing, so those tiles were used mainly at temples and castles for a long period of time. The private houses of the day didn’t need clay tile roofing, because thatched roofs were commonly used. In the late Edo period (1603-1868) roof tiles were promoted to the common people throughout Japan, because they were fire proof.

The Onigawara with an oni face were used on the roof tops of private houses at first, but were later avoided because of the face of oni would glare down at the neighbors’ houses.
Therefore, the oni face of onigawara was changed to the figure of the God of good fortune and contained various wishes. This is why the onigawara with the face of an oni can only be seen at temples, and not on private houses.

Onigawara with oni face

Try the mini Onigawara making experience at Gado Corporation!


You can make a mini Onigawara of Todai-ji, Yakushi-ji, and Horyu-ji Temples at Gado Corporation.
●Process of the experience
1. Choose the face of a mini onigawara (Todai-ji, Yakushi-ji, Horyu-ji Temples)
2. Put the clay into the mold
3. Put your name on it and write your wishes on the back
(It takes 3 weeks for them to complete the process)

Why don’t you get it as a souvenir for your family or friends?
Click here for more information!
Gado corporation (Japanese text only)

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Writer/ Translator

I love Japanese folkcraft article, traditional handicrafts and antiques. I’m seeking the Japanese people’s religious outlooks and its origins that are behind Japanese people’s unique sense and techniques rooted in the ordinary life.


Address Gado Co., Ltd.,2366 Narazaka-cho, Nara-city, Nara- Prefecture
Hours 9:00am〜5:00pm
Price 2,200yen (tax included)
You should make a reservation 2 or 3 days before hand on their website.
Close Open 365 Days. (except for the year-end and New Year holidays)
Access Take the Nara Kotsu Bus Line from Nara Station on the JR and Kintetsu Lines and walk one minute from Narazaka Stop.
Phone 0742-22-2391
Website http://www.gado.co.jp