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Sacred Animals In Japan - See Japan's Religion Through Its Animals
There is a great overlap between the animals that you find in Japan and those held sacred at shrines and temples. Here are some of the most important creatures to Japanese religion and where you can find them in Japan.
While there are plenty of adorable wild animals that call Japan home, there are also many that have held a special place in the hearts of the Japanese for generations. These sacred animals are often the messengers of Shinto or Buddhist deities or are symbolic of Japan as a whole.
Komainu - Shrine Guardians
Komainu are the stone lion-dog statues that stand at the entrances to many shrines across Japan. These dogs are said to be protectors and messengers for the deities of that particular shrine, which is why you may find different creatures standing guard at different shrines.
The origin of the komainu is debated, with some saying they came from China, others believing them to be a representation of a different mythical creature. In either case, any visit to a shrine would not be complete without looking at these sometimes fierce, sometimes friendly statues.
Not every shrine has komainu however - some have rabbits, monkeys, and wolves, or ookami. Actually, wild wolves are extinct in modern Japan, but in the past, there were many more throughout the countryside. If you want to visit an ookami shrine in particular, then Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, Saitama, or Musashi Mitake Shrine on Mount Mitake, Tokyo, would be your best choices in the greater Tokyo area.
Foxes - Divine Messengers of Inari
The messenger of the harvest god Inari is the fox. So strong is the identification of this deity with foxes that the fox statues you can see on shrine grounds have also come to be called Inari in Japanese.
Inari shrines, found throughout Japan, have statues of foxes standing watch over them - sometimes only two at the entrance, or there may be over a hundred of them, such as at Keihin Fushimi Inari Shrine, in Musashi Kosugi in Kawasaki, Kanagawa.
Foxes play an important role in Japanese religion and folk culture; wherever you find the term 'inari' in a shrine name, you'll know that the guardian creature of that shrine is a fox. Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine is the head shrine of the roughly 3,000 shrines in Japan with 'inari' in their names, but you can also find these foxes in Oji, in Tokyo, and even hidden away at a tiny shrine in the shopping haven of Ginza.
Sacred Cows - Tenmangu Shrines
While to some cows may seem like dull or not very bright creatures, they are actually very smart - so much that, in Japan, they have come to be associated with the god of scholars, Tenjinsama.
At Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto, you will find a variety of cow statues, some life size and some quite small. According to legend, at the time of Sugawara no Michizane's (*1) banishment, all the cows in the area began to weep. To read more about this legend and shrine, take a look at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto - Offer A Prayer To The God Of Scholars.
*1... Sugawara no Michizane (845 - 903) - A nobleman, scholar, and politician during the Heian Period who is deified as the god of knowledge at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.
White Snakes - Sacred to Benzaiten
Benzaiten is the Japanese Buddhist goddess of the arts and monetary success and is one of the Shichifukujin, or Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Originally she is connected to the image of water and of things flowing, which is why her guardian animal and messenger became the snake. Specifically, a large white snake.
Shirohebi Jinja, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Houkan Shirohebi Benzaiten, can be found in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi prefecture, alongside a white snake research and preservation center where you can visit these peaceful snakes for yourself.
Monkeys - Family Blessings
In Nagatacho, Tokyo, you will find Hie Shrine. Despite this area being a hub of business and politics, Hie Shrine is perhaps best known as being a fertility and safe childbirth shrine. Japanese monkeys are often referred to as being prolific parents, and good ones at that, so it makes sense that these monkeys would come to symbolize parenting to the Japanese.
If you are hoping to start a family soon, or just really like monkeys, make sure to pay a visit to Hie Shrine and pick up some of their omamori charms. To read more about Hie Shrine and its monkeys, check out Sacred Monkeys In Central Tokyo: Hie Shrine.
Eto - The 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac
The eto is essentially the Japanese version of the Chinese zodiac: a system of 12 animals representing every year, with each animal having its own traits. 2018 is the Year of the Dog, but the other animals and their symbols are:
子 (Ne): Rat
丑 (Ushi): Ox
寅 (Tora): Tiger
卯 (U): Rabbit
辰 (Tatsu): Dragon
巳 (Mi): Snake
午 (Uma): Horse
未 (Hitsuji): Sheep
申 (Saru): Monkey
酉 (Tori): Rooster
戌 (Inu): Dog
亥 (Inoshishi): Wild Boar
In Japan, the representative animal changes each year, and this animal is often featured on Japanese nengajo, or New Year's Greeting Card. To learn more about eto, take a look at Eto - The Twelve Animals Of The Zodiac In Japan.
Last But Not Least - Manekineko!
The manekineko, or beckoning cat, is an internationally known symbol of good luck found in shops and restaurants of all kinds all over the world. When its right paw is raised, it beckons financial fortune, and its left, customers. With one paw or the other up waving in customers and good fortune, the manekineko is a sight that cat lovers are sure to be thrilled by.
If you'd like to find yourself surrounded by manekineko of all shapes and sizes, then pay a visit to Gotokuji Temple in the Setagaya Ward of Tokyo. This temple is said to have been the origin of the manekineko itself. According to legend, the feudal lord of the time was saved from a thunderstorm by a cat beckoning to him at this very temple.
For more about these cats and the temple itself, see A Must See For Cat Lovers! Gotokuji Temple Is Full Of Maneki Neko.
Whether you are interested in Japanese history, religion or just a fan of animals, at temples and shrines across the nation you will find animals that have been both beloved by and sacred to the Japanese for generations. Why not see if you can find your own favorite creature in Japan too?
By the same author:
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Born in 1959. Currently working as a freelance translator, after 21 years in various companies.