Shinto Shrines & Snake Oils

“Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades…sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings.” ~ Stephen Vincent Benet, from John Brown’s Body


Snake Oil. The phrase, for most of us who watched cheesy Western reruns on Saturday afternoons, immediately conjures up images of shabby swindlers exploiting the naïvely unsuspecting public by peddling fake cures. The Oxford English Dictionary defines snake oil as “a quack remedy or panacea,” a characterization that most Americans would not dispute. The OED, however, doesn’t note that the phrase’s genesis is linked inextricably to American flirtations with the Far East.


Makes the FDA not seem so bad….

Snake oil is an expression that, 100 years ago, referred to fraudulent health products or unproven medicines. In more modern times it has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, snake oil salesmen are people who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who are themselves a fraud, quack or charlatan. But why?


Coolies and Our Railroads

During the mid-1800s, America was in the midst of a fantastic building project: the Transcontinental Railroad. To support such a massive and dangerous undertaking, and to do it at minimal cost, thousands of Chinese workers were “imported” to the United States where they basically became indentured laborers, responsible for most of the most dangerous, heavy lifting of the rails. About 180,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States between 1849 and 1882, the vast majority coming from peasant families. In the “New World,” these unskilled Asian laborers came to be known as “Coolies.” See my blog Beauty and Honor Enshrined for another Coolie connection between East and West.


And of course the Chinese brought with them their culture, customs and traditions. Which included various medicines, such as snake oil. Made from the Chinese water snake, the oil actually did help reduce inflammation, and was used primarily to treat joint pain (specifically arthritis and bursitis), from which the Chinese no doubt suffered from their back-breaking daily labors. The Coolies would ingest and or rub the oil on their joints after surviving yet another day toiling across America. And, of course, the Chinese workers began sharing their ointment, used for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years in the far-away Far East, with Americans, many of who marveled at its healing properties.

Snake Oil/Patent Meds We All Could Use!

Snake Oil/Patent Meds We All Could Use!

Too Good to be True

Too Good to be True

Due to the massive lack of government oversight at the time, there was a massive explosion in “patent medicines” at the same time. Sold by shady traveling salesmen, or advertised in the obscure classifieds of questionable newspapers, such tonics promised often an unbelievable wide range of cures, including chronic pain, headaches, “female complaints” and pretty much anything involving the GI track. Over time, as these “cures” became more and more known as false, they came to be known as “snake oil.”

Shinto Sales

Shinto Sales

14725978451_679b92773c_bThe Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples here in Okinawa and Japan have, like most religions, their own versions of snake oil. And, like all other houses of worship in the world, raise a good deal of money from their sale. Now I’m not saying that these talismans are all false or that they don’t offer their sacramental protections or blessings to the buyer. But, like most religiously based claims, little concrete proof of their efficacy can be offered, other than rather subjective spiritually improved prognoses. What is obvious, though, is that the mere promise of help, protection, or just plain good luck leads to their massive popularity here in what is already a highly superstitious culture. And that leads to the “ching-chinging” of cash registers….


For instance, we visit our local Shinto Shrine at Futenma each New Year, and well-attended ritual throughout Japan. Kadomatsu (門松) can be purchased and serve as much more than New Year decorations to the faithful. They are intended to welcome the kami (spirits or gods) of harvest to ensure the coming year’s crops. Other examples of local Shinto Shrine snake oils are described below.



11812222966_3157ccdfc2_bOmikuji (御御籤 or 御神籤) are oracles written on strips of paper, nothing more than a fortune. For the Japanese, their oracles are chosen using the time-honored Chinese method of selecting a fortune-telling stick; for us gaijin (foreigners), we just reach into a box and select one from the thousands found there. These are often found at shrines wrapped around tree branches, a way to either multiply a good fortune, or to leave a bad so it won’t follow you home….


My Omikuji tied at the Shrine

16199643279_80b0af4be5_bOmamori (お守り) are amulets on sale at shrines and temples for particular purposes. And by particular, I mean particular. There are hundreds to be found and purchased, with each Shrine or Temple having a specific focus. For example, there are suction-cup charms designed for car windshield to protect the vehicle’s occupants. Students can purchase trinkets to assist them in studies or test-taking. Businessmen buy trinkets to ensure success and prosperity in the coming year. But the most can be found to support health or fertility!


A Collection of Various Omamori for Sale

Hamaya (破魔矢) is literally an “evil breaking arrow,” sold during the New Year at shrines and kept at home all year to keep evil at bay.

Hamaya For Sale

Hamaya For Sale

16359893076_50ddb00b30_bEma (絵馬) are small wooden plaques on which worshippers write their prayers or wishes, which are then left hanging where kami receive – and hopefully act on them. They bear various pictures, often of animals or other Shinto imagery, and many have the word gan’i (願意, “wish”) written along the side. The ema of today are stand-ins for more traditional offerings to the religious houses of the past, such as animals and food-stuffs. And then there are specific ema which can be purchased, such as for success in work or on exams, marital bliss, to have children, and for good health.

The Futenma Shrine's Ema

The Futenma Shrine’s Ema


Shinto Sales

Shinto Sales

As you might be able to read from between the lines, I’m not a firm believer or supporter of any one type of organized religion. All are a creation of man, and based on highly suspect scriptures, rooted in no longer relevant tradition and practices. And there is simply no escaping the financial aspect of all these talisman for sale, a seemingly rather transparent notion that the faithful everywhere take for granted. But clearly there is a spiritual dimension to our shared human condition. And in embracing and trying to capture that spiritual quality, I have no issue in partaking of the best of each religion that happens to be at hand.

Leaving our Prayers and Wishes in Kyoto

Leaving our Prayers and Wishes in Kyoto

So, yes, we display Kadomatsu for the New Year, and we take great pleasure in getting our Omikuji each year. We purchase various Omamori for help in the coming year, for protection on the roads and to help in insuring our health. We even bought a very nice Hamaya, which remains protectively poised at the threshold of our home, warding off evil on a continual basis. And not only do we collect Ema for their artistic quality, we take great care in crafting our wishes each year so that they will be heard and cared for by the kami.

Brisk Sales!

Brisk Sales!

Because, like for most snake oils of the past, the cure is often times in faith, not whether the ingredients actually work or not. And besides, what is lost other than a few bucks that hopefully are put ultimately to better use? No, there is nothing lost here buying from such sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings, but everything to be gained.


Okinawa: A Year in Review

  “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson


Well, when I wrote this we had just celebrated our one-year anniversary of relocating our domicile to Okinawa, and although it’s now over two months past due, I still thought it would be a good idea to do a “year in review” blog. So, here’s an eclectic summary of the King’s Flirtations with the Far East to date (as of this past August), along with a personally favorite blog selected for each month.


July 2013.  Preparations for our overseas move.

See Sayonara Amerika to read and see our Asian-inspired going-away blowout


August 2013.  Moved!  Rented our Florida home and moved overseas with our cat!

See Jody Drives Naked about used-car shopping in Okinawa.


September 2013.  Divine winds!  Experienced something like 8 typhoons in two months.

See Surf Nazis Must Die to read about a scuba diver’s angst with the powers that be on Okinawa.


October 2013.  Scuba Diving!  Kevin becomes a PADI scuba-diving instructor!

See Are You Breaking Up with Me on Mount Fuji for perhaps my favorite breakup story of all time!


November 2013.  Jody’s birthday!  Celebrated by exploring the northern reaches of Okinawa.

See Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys about my first foray to Okinawa in 1999.


December 2013.  Household goods!  Our forgotten “stuff” finally arrives on-island.

See Oh Christmas-Half-a-Tree to read about Christmas in Okinawa.


January 2014.  Kevin’s birthday!  Celebrated by our first off-island trip to Kyoto, Japan.

See Okinawa Kijimuna for Okinawa’s version of “Red Power!”


February 2014.  Contracted!  Dive the Blues Scuba gets well underway.

See Surprising Swastikas about an unlikely and unfortunate connection between East and West.


March 2014.  Earthquake!  Friends breaking bad on Okinawa.

See Cat Cafes in Japan to read about the special bond between the Japanese and their feline friends.


April 2014.  White Day and Zip-Lining on Okinawa.

See Timeless Townhouse for our rustically historical stay in Kyoto, Japan.


May 2014.  Iriomote!  Off-island weekend getaway to this remote nature preserve.

See Tainted by Tats to read about the stigma of body art in this corner of the Far East.


June 2014.  My daughter gets married!  A whirlwind trip home to the states and detour because of an unexpected hospital stay.

See Placenta: Prescription or Placebo to read about some strange herbal remedies popular in Japan.


July 2014.  Ishigaki!  Off-island weekend getaway to dive with manta rays.

See The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa to read about the special guardians of the Ryukyu Islands.


August 2014.  Okinawan World and Hospital Caves.

See Okinawan Hillsides & Hornets to read about my past explorations in the Okinawan jungles searching for traces of WWII.


The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa: Guardian Shisa

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.”  ~ Sigmund Freud

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”  ~ Bernard Williams

Thankfully, not this kind of Cat-Dog.

Thankfully, not this kind of Cat-Dog.

Sometimes I really want a dog.  These daze (pun intended), maybe even most of the time.  I have been suffering a rather serious (physical) ailment, and a family member who would be ecstatically happy to see me come home, who would be a whore for my love, and who would understand at least a few f-in’ words of English would certainly alleviate my darker moods.

But don’t tell all that to Cleopatra.  Who is certainly not a dog.

A yawn is about as close to a roar as we get out of Cleo.

A yawn is about as close to a roar as we get out of Cleo.

Cleo is a cat.  And I have had many.  Cats I mean, not Cleos.  Although I do adore the right dog, I am also honest with myself:  I, in no way, want the daily duties (and doodies) that caring for a canine involves.  Leaving for a long 3-day weekend?  Just leave dry food and water out for the cat and she’ll slothfully sleep away your absence.  Have a social engagement straight from work?  Don’t worry about the cat pissing on your curtains and leaving you a welcome-home surprise on the living room rug!  Unless you count vomit.

Okinawa Jan 2014, Shisa, rooftop lion-dog at Pizza in the Sky

Okinawa Jan 2014, Shisa, conceptual Shisa Talisman in the Okinawan Prefectural MuseumScuba Diving Okinawa Nov 2013, Maeda Point, Shisa Dog standing watch at the CapeLuckily, Okinawa, along with much of the rest of the Far East of Asia, offers just the right mix…of bothShisa (シーサー Shīsā,), or “lion-dogs,” are perhaps the ubiquitous, most visually recognizable and culturally distinct artifact of the Okinawan culture.  These effigies, large and small and stylized in any number of ways, can be found standing guard on most tiled rooftops, flanking the gates to homes, or gracing the entrances to businesses and shops all over Okinawa, all to help ward off evil.

Alexander and Cleopatra

Alexander and Cleopatra

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hedo, shisa dog in the mountains11165104594_9d07055525_bDon’t get me wrong, I still very much love my cat.  Problem is my cat apparently loves my wife…more.  Cleo was adopted along with her brother by me in 2010 BJE (Before Jody Era) when they were just eight weeks old.  The previous winter Sammy, my favorite cat ever (don’t tell Cleo this, either), went missing.  After somewhat recovering from that mammoth loss, I was ready for more cat-company.  Cleopatra and Alexander grew up as indoor cats, but become indoor-outdoor tabbies since Jody’s house came complete with a small pet-door.  Cleo was always very aloof and distant, letting her brother be the warm, loveable cat.  The very day he went missing, however, her personality underwent a radical metamorphism.  Afterwards a much more vocal and affectionate feline…for a girl-cat…she is still no…well…dog.

Distant Cousins - Gothic Gargoyles of Europe

Distant Cousins – Gothic Gargoyles of Europe

Foo Dogs

Foo Dogs

Okinawa Nov 2013, Shisa, clay lion-dog at Ryukyu Mura

A relative of the Chinese shishi, lion-dogs were first introduced to Okinawa in the 14th century via trade and cultural exchange with the nearby Chinese mainland.  However, shisa and its forerunner shishi both share a common ancestry with the Persian empires of long ago, where they took the form of more traditional (Asiatic) lions, and which traditions moved East with trade on the fabled Silk Road.  Interestingly, they along with European-centric and beasty gargoyles of gothic times all serve very similar roles.  The oldest shisa on Okinawa, dating to 1498, continues to stand guard on a bridge at Shuri, although now certainly worn and weathered.

Jody with the old Tomori Stone Shisa on Okinawa

Jody with the old Tomori Stone Shisa on Okinawa

If you haven’t figured it out, I remain a rather hard-core cat person.  I respect their lofty independence and envy their sleep schedule.  But sometimes it’s very frustrating to talk to your cat, only to be met with vacant, silent contempt.  It’s beyond me that cats just can’t figure out certain words (besides their names), or bring a frickin’ toy back after they bat it all the way under the large love-seat in the corner.


Okinawa Nov 2013, Shisa dog as a fountainOkinawa Nov 2013, Yomitan, cracked and weathered shisa guard dogChinese guardian lions (Chinese: 獅; shī; literally “lion”), often called “Foo Dogs” in the West, date back to roughly the 1st Century BCE, and by the 6th century CE, they were popularly depicted guardian figures.  Pairs of guardian lion statues (hence shi became shishi) are still common decorative and symbolic elements at the entrances to restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and other structures throughout China and in most corners of the globe where Chinese have settled, especially in local “Chinatowns.”

Cleo did use to hang out on our roof.

Cleo did use to hang out on our roof.

Cleo doesn’t do much guarding around our household, except from maybe spiders and roaches.  The mere sound of the doorbell brings on high-alert, and I’m not sure who would be more of a scaredy-cat if an actual ghost were to appear.  All I know is that she fits easily under the bed, which in the feline realm apparently is instinctually employed as a domestic surrogate for cavernous and secret shelter.


My daughter, long ago.

My daughter, long ago.

Okinawa Jan 2014, Shisa, rooftop shisa lion-dog at Peace Prayer Park

One the of primary differences between Chinese shishi and Okinawa shisa is that in the former’s case, the male rests his paw upon a gold-embroidered ball, which in Chinese imperial historical contexts represents worldwide supremacy, while the nurturing female guards a cub with a frightful open-mouth roar.  Okinawan shisa are also displayed in a pairing of the sexes, one with a closed mouth on the left to keep in spirits of virtue, and the other on the right with an open mouth to frighten away the wicked.  Although there is some debate about their sex, it seems that most often the male is considered the closed-mouth lion.  This may or may not have anything to do with how much women like to talk…(wink).

This one is pretty clearly a female....

This one is pretty clearly a female….

Okinawa Nov 2013, Shisas full of color and character in Yomitan 26730672213_38b3305216Although originally fearsome and regal guardians of royal palaces and shrines, today’s Okinawan shisa are found to be much more frolicsome, and sometimes almost cartoonishly humorous, especially like those in tourist gift shops.  Long before Jody actually considered moving to Asia, she banished my old shisa from the inside of her house.  She actually was a little disturbed by their fearsome, foreign appearance.  They sat outside bordering our front door, and since they were made of resin and not designed for outdoor use, they were ravaged by the Florida weather and sub-tropical sun.  Our domicile, however, remained shielded from supernatural things bad, and they continue to stand watch today at the threshold of our condo in Okinawa.  But this time they are just inside the door (wink)!

My well-worn and worthy Shisa still standing watch.

My well-worn and worthy Shisa still standing watch.

Now that Jody understands their fundamental role as protectors, she is at ease with their presence.  And she even wants to replace the ones damaged.  Quite honesty, though, it’s hard to push my shisa aside simply to get “fresher” ones.  It seems at once disloyal and superstitiously unethical, both reasons why I have undoubtedly failed to settle on a replacement pair.  All this much to Jody’s ongoing chagrin and growing guilt.  If she had her way, we would have a whimsically playful pair of protectors.  What good would that do?!?

Our newest Okinawa Shisas from Ishigaki-jima

Our newest Okinawa Shisas from Ishigaki-jima

8278755027_e2e046ce4c_o8520049532_b55d329c7c_bCleo is actually highly regarded by all our friends and cat-sitters.  She is playful, seeks attention, and has a serious and somewhat embarrassing fetish for shoes, socks and feet (the more smelly the better).  But only men’s feet.  Go figure.  I do believe that while she may not have spider-sense about impending earthquakes that happen here – she barely wakes up for them – she does influence our potentially paranormal surrounds.  I’m just not sure which way.


So, do I really want a dog?  Nah, I don’t.  Me and my miniature lion guard get along just swell.  After all, I’m counting on her to help protect me from my illness getting any worse.  And while a puppy’s tongue may be good therapy, a purring cat’s trusting cuddle is sometimes all the security I need.


For more photos of Okinawan Shisa, please see my Flickr collection here:  Shisa

For more reading on Shisa, please see my blog on the Tomori Stone Lion

Finally, to hear about how I almost killed during our move to the Far East, see Nine Lives & Hard Travels