Welcome back folks, for another fun installment of the ‘Weekend Yokai Hunter!’ I trust you’ve all had a fun-filled week? If not, allow me to turn that frown upside down as I invite you to join me on my venture into the mischievous and downright wacky world of TANUKI!
My first encounter with these creatures was actually within a couple of months of moving to Japan when I discovered the animated works of Studio Ghibli. I immediately fell in love with titles such as ‘My Neighbor Totoro’, ‘Spirited Away’, and my personal favorite ‘Princess Mononoke’, but It wasn’t until I saw their 1994 classic ‘Pom Poko’ that I found myself a new favorite animal. If their cuteness and mischievous personality wasn’t enough to capture my heart, their anatomy certainly was!
Despite often being mistranslated into English as “raccoon” or “badger,” Tanuki are actually a subspecies of the Asian raccoon dog. Though an actual animal, they have a very long history in Japanese folklore dating as far back as the Nara period (AD 710 – 794) but it wasn’t until the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333) that their role in folklore really began to take root. Tanuki, you see, are also Yokai.
Possessing the incredible magical ability to assume the shape of any object or person they desire by placing a leaf on their head, Tanuki also have the exclusive bragging rights of being the creature with the biggest scrotum known to man. I’m not even kidding, their testicles are simply HUGE! Impressive as their ballsacks may be however, they actually play a crucial role in their everyday lives since they use their magical, ludicrously elastic scrotums in a number of mind-boggling ways, ranging from transformation, to fishing, catching birds, sailing and even sumo! Known for their love of alcohol, Tanuki are also famous for their mischievous behavior and enjoy nothing more than tricking humans. Popular methods include, conjuring up illusions, imitating the shape of regular household items, making noises outside by drumming on their bellies, and most common of all, assuming human form. Shape-shifting is so fun for them in fact, it’s said that the most adept of Tanuki have actually assumed a human form and gone on to work in society as priests and high-ranking government officials! Talk about being grandmaster-level pranksters!!
So then, how does one go about meeting these cheeky little buggers? Visitors to Tokyo will be pleased to know that there are in fact two locations worth checking out. The Chingodo shrine at the Sensōji temple in Asakusa is a great place to visit for tourists who could use a quick respite from the otherwise bustling temple street nearby. My personal favorite location though, is the Yanagimori shrine in Akihabara. Despite being very close to the station, it somehow remains rather well hidden as it sits just across from the Kanda river. Yanagimori shrine is a great place to both avoid the electrical gadget-hungry masses, and to enjoy some peace and quiet with the city’s Tanuki community. Visitors that make it there during the cherry blossom season will also reap the added benefit of enjoying the huge sakura tree that stands proudly in the center of the shrine grounds. Don’t forget to check out the beautifully endowed Tanuki at the entrance too!
Tanuki have well and truly embedded themselves in popular Japanese culture. Not only have they been featured in countless manga and anime over the decades such as Rumiko Takahashi’s hugely popular ‘Inuyasha’, Masashi Kishimoto’s ‘Naruto’, and Cocoa Fujiwara’s ‘Inu x Boku SS’, they’ve also sneaked their way into the childhoods of millions around the world who grew up playing Super Mario Bros. 3 and beyond – who can forget that awesome Tanuki outfit that granted our Italian heroes such awesome flying powers!? Like the mighty Kappa, Tanuki also have a food dish named after them in the form of tanuki udon which is a bowl of thick noodles containing flakes of fried tempura batter. (Curious readers will be pleased to know that tanuki udon DOESN’T contain scrotum extract – I’ve already checked!). In fact, whether you visit the countryside or the city, you’d be hard pushed to NOT see a Tanuki depiction. They’re quite literally everywhere from train doors to convenience store point cards making them quite possibly the most popular Yokai of all!
So there you have it, a walk on the wild side with the cheekiest, yet most lovable Yokai Japan has to offer. As I gear up my backpack and prepare for my next weekend skirmish with the supernatural, I invite you all to be on your guard too – especially in the face of any too-good-to-be-true situations. Remember, if you see testicles or a tail, it can’t be trusted!!
Till next time!