the online database of Japanese folkore

Kuzuryū

九頭龍
くずりゅう

Translation: nine headed dragon
Alternate names: various, depending on the individual dragon
Habitat: lakes and rivers

Appearance: Kuzuryū are nine-headed dragons who are worshiped as divine beasts and local guardian deities in several parts of Japan. Their details vary from place to place and legend to legend.

Interactions: Like most dragons, kuzuryū have power over rain and water. Shrines dedicated to them are usually organized around praying for rain and for the health of nearby rivers, and for protection from floods.

Origin: Kuzuryū legends can be found all over Japan. In some places, the worship of nine-headed dragon gods predates recorded history, while others are more recent. In Buddhism, nine-headed dragons are often associated with Washukitsu Ryūō (Sanskrit: Vāsuki), a many headed dragon who heard the teachings of the Buddha and gave up his evil ways. As Buddhism spread throughout Japan, many kuzuryū legends came to be viewed as local manifestations of Washukitsu.

Legends: The Togakushi Shrine in Nagano Prefecture is home to a famous kuzuryū legend. In 849 CE, a monk named Gakumon took up residence in a cave on Mount Togakushi. As he recited the Lotus Sutra, a fearsome kuzuryū appeared before him. The dragon told him that he was once the steward of a nearby temple, but he stole the donations made to the temple and kept them for himself. His sin caused him to transform into a dragon. As he listened to Gakumon’s recitations, he finally achieved enlightenment. The dragon pledged to remain in the cave and protect the area, and Gakumon sealed the cave’s entrance with a boulder. After that, the dragon blessed the land with rain and water. He was also especially good at curing toothaches for anyone who left him an offering of his favorite food: pears.

The Hakone Shrine in Kanagawa tells of a kuzuryū who lived in Lake Ashi. For years it tormented the villagers of Hakone by summoning storms and making the lake dangerous for boats. Every year the villagers selected a young girl to offer up as a sacrifice to appease the venomous nine-headed dragon who lived in the lake. In 757 CE, a priest named Mangan heard of these human sacrifices and went to save the people of Hakone. He bound the serpent to an upside-down cedar tree at the bottom of the lake and preached Buddhist teachings until it repented. The kuzuryū apologized for its evil deeds and promised to forever be a protective spirit of the lake. It offered three precious artifacts—an orb, a scepter, and a jug—to the people, and Mangan established a shrine honoring the kuzuryū.

The Kuzuryū River, which flows from Mount Haku through Fukui Prefecture is named for a nine-headed dragon who lives at the mountain’s peak. In 717 CE, a monk named Taichō made a pilgrimage to the summit of Mount Haku. While meditating beside Midorigaike Pond, a holy dragon with nine heads emerged from the water. The kuzuryū revealed itself to be an avatar of the Shintō goddess Izanami, while Taichō recognized it as a manifestation of the eleven-faced Kannon, a Buddhist goddess of mercy. Soon after, Taichō established the Hakusan Faith and built the temple Heisenji. In 889 CE, a nine-headed dragon appeared before a congregation of priests at Heisenji. The dragon was seen in the river, carrying a statue of itself downstream. After that, the river came to be known as the Kuzuryū River.

Alphabetical list of yōkai