When you stroll around Fukuoka, you may notice some houses with monkey masks hanging over the entrance. These simple unglazed masks may have a whimsical appearance, but they are said to ward off evil spirits because the word for “monkey” (saru) is a homophone of the word for “go away.”
When Fukuokans need a monkey mask, they go to Sarutahiko Shrine in Fujisaki, Sawara Ward. This small shrine is usually quiet, but people line up to buy masks when koshin comes around. Koshin (also pronounced kanoesaru) is the 57th branch in the Chinese sexagenary cycle for counting days and years. Since it repeats every 60 days, there are six or seven koshin in a given year. The first koshin of the year, or hatsu-koshin, is thought to be the most auspicious, so a festival is held at Sarutahiko Shrine on this day. (In 2018, this will be January 28.)
Sarutahiko Okami, the god to which Sarutahiko Shrine is dedicated, is the god who guided the sun goddess Amaterasu’s grandson Ninigi-no-Mikoto on his descent to earth to create the Japanese archipelago. Originally, he was enshrined near the entrance to major roads as a dosojin (protector of travelers), and in fact where Sarutahiko Shrine is located in Fujisaki is the entrance to the old Karatsu Kaido road.
The custom of celebrating koshin came from China in the latter half of the 8th century. On the night of koshin, people would stay up all night because it was said that if you fell asleep, insects inside your body would crawl out and tell the gods about your sins. It is thought that these beliefs merged together because kanoesaru (the other term for koshin) and Sarutahiko both contain saru.
Although there are Sarutahiko Shrines all over Japan, the one in Fukuoka is the only place where you can procure monkey masks, which, by the way, are handcrafted by Hakata doll makers. In recent years, they have even become popular among test-taking students as a talisman against failure because of the old saying that “monkeys never fall from trees.”
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn229, Jan. 2018)