A few weeks ago, I talked about Rokuyō, the six-day calendar cycle of varying auspiciousness. Another key part of Japanese astrology, or Onmyōdō1, was concerned with auspicious and inauspicious directons.(en.wp:Onmyōdō) Which directions were auspicious or inauspicious for a given person, along with monoimi (personally inauspicious days), were determined by Onmyōji, professional diviners licensed by the court. They depended both on the calendar and on the time of day, in a similar way to the Rokuyō.

These divinations weren’t limited to cardinal directions; 24 directions were used, associated with animals in the Chinese zodiac, the 10 calendar signs (each in turn a combination of one of the 5 elements2 and yin or yang), and one of the eight trigrams of the I Ching.(ja.wp:干支) These associations were often mapped out with ornate compasses along the lines of the following.

(Image by Locoluis.)

When a direction was inauspicious, a noble would not travel in that direction at all for fear of misfortune; either he would delay until the direction was no longer inauspicious, or he would find an intermediate location to stop at on his way. For example, if you needed to travel north, you could visit a friend whose house was to the northeast, and then travel northwest to your final destination. These intermediate visits seem generally to have involved staying the night, and conceptually overlap with the measures taken to avoid starting a journey on an inauspicious day.

Examples of inauspicious directions being taken seriously abound in Japanese literature. An entry in The Gossamer Journal dated 968 describes the author stopping for a night at a temple to avoid traveling in an inauspicious direction.(CJP:151) Conversely, the Kagerō Diary of 974 recounts an auspicious direction being an important consideration when secluding oneself for childbirth.(TJL:227) Sei Shōnagon complains in her Pillow Book (~1005) of friends who she visits to avoid inauspicious directions not doing anything to entertain her,(TJL:257) though I can understand their feelings. Later, in the 13th-century Journal of the Sixteenth-Night Moon, the nun Abutsu recounts hearing of the inconvenience of the Empress and her entourage having to move en masse to avoid traveling in an unlucky direction, showing that these considerations were still respected, if complained about.(CJP:362)

From the Heian period, concern about directions became a famous pretext for romantic interactions and other social trickery. A noble secretly spending the night a lady could explain that he was visiting a particular house by his need to avoid traveling in an inauspicious direction. Similarly, inauspicious directions provided a convenient excuse for not visiting someone. Since the characteristics of directions differed from person to person, it wasn’t even necessary for these excuses to always reflect actual divinations. An example is in another entry in The Gossamer Journal, where the author recounts her husband using a favorable direction as a pretext for riding past her house with his first wife, showing his preference while having a covering excuse.(CJP:116)

While my research has yet to reveal the mystic secrets behind how these directions were determined, this directional divination was historically an important part of Japanese high society. And if you ever need an excuse to go or not go a particular way, I won’t tell anyone that you’re making it up.


  1. Onmyōdō was a mix of various beliefs, including yin-yang, feng shui, and Buddhist elements. It initially came to Japan in the 5th century, but evolved and incorporated new beliefs through the centuries while remaining mostly distinct from Shintō and Buddhism. It is still practiced today.(en.wp:Onmyōdō)
  2. The two earth element calendar signs are not associated with any direction.