Bake-danuki, Tanuki and Meneki Neko – Sagano bamboo forest, Arashiyama near Kyoto, Japan
‘What the hell is that thing, some kinda ball-bag bear?’ I said.
The old man screwed up his face and insisted it was not a bear but a Japanese raccoon dog.
We were at the Nonomiya shrine, deep in the heart of the Sagano bamboo forest and something had caught my eye. Something with gargantuan testicles and a smile almost as large beaming back at me. It was as though he was mocking me with his disproportionately huge man-bag. Hubris will be your undoing ball-bag bear.
‘A raccoon dog?’ I enquired.
‘Yes, this is a spirit of the forest.’ said the old man bowing towards the small painted figure nestled in the moss beneath an old tree.
My new friend went on to explain that the Bake-danuki are a kind of tanuki yōkai (ghost) found in classic Japanese literature and folklore. This is a spirit creature often iconized as a small statue to be found in gardens, woods or at shrines and is supposed to represent the Japanese raccoon dog, known as tanuki which is native to the islands.
Since ancient times, these animals have been very prominent in Japanese folklore. With a mischievous reputation, the tanuki are considered to be masters of disguise, shape-shifters; yet somehow laboured by a bumbling naivety and a lack of presence of mind.
‘Why’s his junk so big?’ I went on.
The old man was visibly pained by my preoccupation with the statue’s exaggerated genitals.
‘It’s like they’re sucking in all the other ball-bags in the vicinity. I can feel the gravitational pull from here.’ I said.
‘The Bake-danuki have many special powers bringing good fortune, and eight important traits as represented by the Hachi symbol you can see on the sake bottle he’s holding. Perhaps you’ve seen this symbol on the sake bottles I imagine you guzzle down every night.’
‘His traits are the big tail providing strength and stability in the attainment of success, large eyes giving the vision to make sound judgments, the sake bottle to represent virtue although in your case I think this is unhelpful…’
‘Steady there chief!’ I stammered.
‘… the large hat to protect against the elements, a promissory note for confidence and trustworthiness, the big belly to show sage decisions with a calm mind, a friendly smile for good nature in all things, and finally yes, a large, as you say ball-bag, to represent good financial fortune for the future.’
I thanked the old man for his patience in educating a poor misfortunate fool such as I and went about the shrine, looking through the prayer cards and watching the faithful purify themselves with bamboo ladles from a stone trough before prostrating themselves to the shrine’s inner sanctum.
net fishing in the river
visiting Konpira, the guardian deity of seafaring
Circa the mid-1840s, ukiyo-e master Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) painted a series of illustrations on wood showing the tanuki making use of their show-stoppingly large scrota to masterful effect.
shelter from the elements
making dashi (soup stock)
In fact the more I thought about the old man’s words on the Bake-danuki, I started to conclude that perhaps he’d misjudged the value system behind the creatures’ traits. Surely that wide-eyed glazed expression was more to do with excessive inebriation rather than virtue. I should know. And the promissory note was doubtlessly a fake, used in conjunction with the large shape-shifting scrotum to trick sake vendors and women alike. As for the beer belly representing wisdom, I’d began to see the little critters as more like affable woodland hobos on the lash, rather than noble mischievous spirits.
I left the Shinto shrine through the Torii gate and took to the paths of the great bamboo forest. A light breeze rustled and swayed the great bamboo overhead, displacing rays of sunlight across the ground ahead. I paused and marked a moment of stillness in my disposition, a moment cherished after the ferocity of Tokyo.
It was not lost on me that this country struck a seamless harmony between the competing forces of the ancient customs and the modern technological age; in the pace of the cites and trains to the tranquility of the gardens and parkways; and in the reticence and nobility of the people to the backdrop of the frankly beguiling and bizarre manifestations of culture through their fashion, art and sexual expression.
The scenic Saga narrow gauge train could be heard off in the distance through the tall forest of grass, and I sat for a while to watch young couples embrace against the cold early April air, giggling as they squeezed too tightly. Although in a dialect I could not understand, I imagined hearing expressions of love, utterances of bashful sincerity, romantic gestures of honourable intent and half-whispers of trembling folly. All the trials of curious youth played out in earnest in this bamboo grove of ancient temples and shrines, home to the old world ghosts blessing those who come to pay their respects.
It was later in the afternoon when I found myself returning back to the main street of the town where I joined two young school girls on a bench outside at a soba noodle stand which marked the beginning of the trail into the forest. They paid me little mind as they greedily slurped at their bowls with hungry intent. My steaming bowl of soup and noodles came to me with a mackerel fillet and spring onions and I held the bowl in my hands for some time to get the blood back into my fingers.
The old lady working the stall could not have been a day under eighty or an inch over five feet tall. It occurred to me she was probably one of the Bake-danuki in human guise. With a keen interest I became troubled as to where she was hiding that colossal ball-bag.
Perched on the counter of her stall was a large porcelain cat, its left paw raised and the other holding two large golden coins. This is a Maneki Neko lucky beckoning or inviting cat. I’d soon learned about these ubiquitous little animals upon arrival in Tokyo as they seem to adorn every place of business whether a soba noodle stall on a street corner or my guesthouse in Kyoto.
Similar cats appeared all over the Far East from the Korean Peninsula right down to Singapore on the Malaysian Peninsula. They can be typically golden, black or white and made from cheap plastic, wood or porcelain; the raised paw can be either the right or left and either static or waving to and fro.
They are adorned with a veritable array of accoutrements which invariably all represent either fortune, wisdom or strength. The gold coins are koban, a common currency from the Edo Period (1603 – 1867), the latter half of which is believed to be the time when the Meneki Neko began to appear.
Sometimes the Meneki Neko carry a fish to represent courage and strength, as the carp swims upstream, but again it can also mean fortune. Hyotan is a hollowed-out dried gourd in which Sake and other beverages were traditionally kept. The god of wisdom and longeivity, Fukurokuju, is one of Japan’s seven lucky gods and is frequently represented with a hyotan, leading to their association with good fortune, which may contribute to the hyotan appearing with the Maneki Neko.
Another prominent symbol is the lucky mallet or uchide nokozuchi . It is usually seen in the hand of Daikoku Mantra, the god of wealth and farmers, and every time he swung the mallet coins would fall out.
By the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), the symbol of the Meneki Neko began to really come to prominence in the literature of the time, becoming commonplace in the windows and storefronts of people’s places of business. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether the raised left paw is to beckon customers and the right to bestow good fortune as they seem to go hand-in-hand, though it is generally agreed that the taller the arm the more powerful the tidings.
An interesting note on the provenance of the symbol as a dominant figure in the culture of Japan occurs in the post-Edo period of the Meiji. Under the isolationist zeitgeist of the Edo Period, ‘houses of amusement’ sprang up everywhere and inside these dens of iniquity, phallic talisman would be displayed on a good luck shelf.
Indeed, this tradition continues to this day in the penis festivals held around parts of the country. It was under the rule of the Meiji governors in an age of openness and trade with the wider world that these talisman disappeared and the Maneki Neko took up residence on the lucky shelf.
It is speculated that the beckoning paw is representative of the young ladies of the house cooing in passing men. Frankly why you’d consider it bad taste to have phallic talisman on a shelf in a brothel rather seems to overestimate the moral character of the people likely to see it. It is noted however that the rise of the Maneki Neko coincides with the death of the phallus in the popular culture of the period and one can draw their own conclusions in that regard.
After paying the soba lady I took a stroll back across the Togetsukyo Bridge to the Arashiyama station where I patiently waited for the next train to Kyoto. Here are a few legends I read whilst sitting under a large cherry blossom tree…
Gōtokuji Temple, 17th Century
This is a well-known Japanese story. There once was a poor monk at a poverty-stricken temple. He shared what little food he had with his pet cat. One day, Lord Ii Naotaka of the Hikone district near Kyoto was caught in the rain near the temple on his way home from hunting. Taking refuge under a nearby tree, he beheld a cat beckoning him to enter the temple compound. As soon as he ventured forth to investigate this strange cat, the tree was struck down by lightning. The lord quickly became the temple’s patron, and the temple soon became prosperous. It was renamed Goutokuji Temple in 1697 – even today, the walls of this temple in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward are adorned with paintings of bobtail cats. When the cat died, it was buried in Goutokuji’s cat cemetery, and the Maneki Neko was made in honor of this magical cat. According to some, the Maneki Neko since that time has been considered an incarnation of the Goddess of Mercy, the deity who watches over and protects people in the earthly realm. The Goutokuji Temple today is home to dozens of statues of this legendary cat, and owners of lost or sick cats come to the temple to stick up prayer boards containing the image of the Maneki Neko.
Courtesan Usugumo, 18th Century
During the Edo Period, in the eastern part of Tokyo called Yoshiwara, there lived a courtesan named Usugumo. She loved cats, and kept her feline pet at her side constantly. One night, on her way to the powder room, her cat began tugging at the hem of her kimono violently, refusing to let go. The owner of the amusement house came to her aid, and suspecting the cat to be bewitched, lopped off its head with his sword. The head flew to the ceiling, where it killed a snake poised to kill Usugumo. She was terribly distraught by the wrongful death of her beloved cat. To make her feel better, one of her customers gave her a wood-carved image of the cat, which later gains popularity as the Maneki Neko.
Old Woman of Imado, 19th Century
There once was a poor old woman who lived in Imado (now eastern Tokyo). She kept a pet cat until severe poverty forced her to abandon it. Not long thereafter, the cat appeared to her in a dream and instructed her to make its image in clay. She obliged, and to her delight, people were soon asking to buy the clay statue. The more she made, the more they bought, and her poverty was replaced with prosperity.
Three legends sourced from http://www.onmarkproductions.com