Searching for symbols: Japan’s treasured animals
By Corinne Homer
Those who visit Japan often comment on its seamless partnering of the traditional with the new - and this is certainly true of their cultural belief in animals for luck and fortune. In a country built on Shintoism, a religion rich with animist belief, Japan has honoured its most significant animals in artwork, sculpture and folklore for centuries, and continues to do so in the present day. Read on to discover which animals are of most importance to Japan, and where to seek out their presence when touring this illuminating, multi-faceted country.
An unmistakable symbol of the Orient, the Japanese believe the koi fish represents good luck and perseverance. The famously dazzling strain of carp, recognisable for its gold, white, black and red patches, were first bred in Japan in the 1820s off the northeast coast of Honshu island. They were displayed to an impressed audience nearly a century later in Tokyo, and are now a proud feature of decorative water gardens worldwide. Take some pleasure in admiring these important national fish on your trip - they’re everywhere in Japan. Peer into the ponds of Shukkei-en Garden in Hiroshima, or Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, to see some marvellous koi. There’s also some particularly large specimens drifting through the waters of Kiyosumi Teien in Tokyo.
Graceful, long-limbed cranes are mythically believed to live for 1,000 years, thus are a magical sign of longevity in Japan. The elegant bird can be seen anywhere from the decoration on bridal kimonos and sake bottles to airline logos; and of course, in the form of the classic origami crane. According to Japanese folklore, a person who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish. This was the final mission of 12 year old Sadako Sasaki, who died in the aftermath of the WWII atomic bombing and subsequently became the face of Japan’s desire for peace. Her statue holds up a golden crane at the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima.
In reality, the Japanese red-crowned crane is a national treasure; classically beautiful against a wintry backdrop. Regrettably, to catch sight of these endangered birds in the wild is especially rare. There are a number of reserves for those willing to travel in winter; Tsurui’s Crane Sanctuary in Hokkaido is the best place to spot them in large numbers.
A prolific feature of Japanese folklore, the red fox, or kitsune, is often depicted as a paranormal trickster who can consume spirits or take on human form. Other stories paint them as guardians, friends or even lovers.
The much photographed Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto - famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates stretching into the distance - is littered with mystical fox statues; including two which flank either side of its entrance. Inari is the name of the Shinto god of crops, and the fox is considered a form of his spirit. See if you can spot the multitude of fox likenesses guarding the numerous Inari temples in Japan. If you’re feeling extra superstitious, clench your hands into fists - Japanese legend says that the artful kitsune spirit can enter the human body beneath the fingernails.
The Japanese macaque, or snow monkey, has long been present in the fairytales, proverbs and history of Japan. As part of the Chinese zodiac adopted by the Japanese, monkeys were frequently depicted in traditional Edo artwork to represent a particular year, and tobacco pouches and kimonos of that same period were held together with macaque-shaped clasps. Today you can spot the Three Wise Monkeys, positioned to ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ at many religious sites to ward off evil spirits, including in a carved relief at the entrance to Toshogu Shrine in Nikko.
For the real thing, the snow monkeys of Yamanouchi are one of Japan’s most intriguing tourist draws. At Jigokudani Monkey Park, throngs of wild macaques bathe together to keep warm in the steaming hot springs, miraculously human in their behaviour. Visit in the colder months if you want to admire their famed snow-covered fur, but they are present in the park all year round. Alternatively, spot them at Shibu Onsen in Yudanaka.
Since deer are considered sacred messengers of the gods according to Shinto belief, thousands of them are welcomed to freely roam alongside the visitors in Japan’s first capital, Nara. According to local folklore, deer from this area were visited by one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, who then appeared on Mount Mikasa riding a white deer.
Today the four-legged friends that graze the grounds of Kasuga and Kofuku-ji shrines are protected as national treasures, thriving as much for their respected status as for the amount of ‘deer crackers’ they are fed by tourists. Get up close and personal with these peaceful, though occasionally forward (!) creatures by exploring the charming Nara prefecture, only a short train journey from Kyoto.
As another of its good luck symbols, Japan makes no secret of its obsession with cats. Hello Kitty’s wordless visage appears everywhere from school bags and candy wrappers to television sets and toasters; the revered ‘beckoning cat’ figurine waves from every shop counter, and feline-themed mascots bumble and wave about the city centres.
For the chance to relax with a real kitty friend for an hourly fee, pop into one of several ‘cat cafes’ - Tokyo alone has around 60. If that’s not enough feline company for you, there are 11 ‘cat islands’ to visit where hundreds of stray cats wander freely, often far outnumbering the human residents. One of the most famous of these is Tashirojima, though it’s quite a journey to get to with few places to stay. If you’re short of time, a more convenient option is Enoshima, which still throws a good number of friendly moggies your way at a mere 90 minute journey from Tokyo.
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To seek out the mystical good luck charms of Japan, create a bespoke trip with our local experts by sending them an enquiry, or browse through our Japan tours. If you’d like to talk to someone in the office, call +44 (0)117 325 7898.