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Beyond Tokyo SEPTEMBER 2020

This month’s destination: Shigaraki, in Shiga Prefecture

Let’s go to Tanuki Town: A quaint mountain village filled with all manner of tricksters

🦡 Deep in a valley that runs through the mountains of Shiga prefecture lies the little town of Shigaraki, which is best known as the place where all those grinning tanuki figures are made. You’ve seen them outside of bars and restaurants, right? The cheerful raccoon-dog wearing a straw hat, with a sake flask in one hand and a wad of unpaid bills in the other? You may have wondered why this mammal is constantly trying to get you inside to spend money, but I bet you might have been too polite to ask why he’s always got such a MASSIVE SCROTUM?

Ceramic tanuki figures in Shigaraki
Tanuki figures always feature outsized ballsacks, and the reason for that actually has nothing to do with their studly prowess. Makers of gold leaf used to wrap the nugget of gold in tanuki skin while working it. The skin is so tough, it’s said that a tiny piece of gold wrapped in it can be hammered into a sheet that will cover eight tatami mats. The Japanese words for “small ball of gold” and “testicles” sound so similar that tanukis with outsized wedding tackle are associated with good fortune and stretching one’s pennies to this day.
Woodblock print by Juniyoshi showing tanuki hunting geese by throwing his huge scrotum at them
And since the tanuki is the wily coyote-equivalent in Japanese folklore, the idea of a testicularly talented trickster has generated its share of bawdy woodblock prints depicting just how useful a pair of giant balls might be. This tanuki, for example, is hunting geese by just flinging his giant scrotum at them

But let’s go now to the town where they’re all made, and discover just how many excellent varieties of tricksters there might be!

Giant tanuki figure phone booth in Shigaraki
We’ll know we’ve arrived when we see the enormous Phone Tanuki that greets us right outside the train station (pay phone for scale!)
Ceramic tanuki figures in Shigaraki
But that’s only the first of many…
Ceramic tanuki figures in Shigaraki
Because the streets are lined with kilns that make tanukis in all sizes, shapes…
Ceramic tanuki figures in Shigaraki
…and specialities. There’s a tanuki dedicated to bringing good fortune to any business, whether you run an ice cream shop or a gardening store

And the tanuki goodness doesn’t end on the shopping street. As we walk the tiny lanes that climb the hills of this old-fashioned village, tanuki figures customized by artists hide around every corner…

Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figures in Shigaraki
They all started with the same basic clay figure, but some became still-recognizable samurai tanuki, while other became figures depicting the eternal struggle between good and evil within each of us
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figure in Shigaraki
This one doesn’t seem convinced we’re winning that battle
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figure in Shigaraki
…but this one seems to think we’re at least trying
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figure in Shigaraki
Some remain fairly true to their tanuki character…
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figure in Shigaraki
While others were transformed into other creatures entirely, including this rival bringer of good fortune, the maneki-neko waving cat
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figure in Shigaraki
And this crazy pink bird WAT
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figures in Shigaraki
Baseball tanukis keep more saintly figures company…
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figures in Shigaraki
…and riotously camoflaged tanukis pretend not to notice those who have embraced their inner kappa imp
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figure in Shigaraki
This charming Buddha tanuki blesses the sign warning people to be careful of children crossing the street
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figures in Shigaraki
…while these diva-tanuki offer blessings of a different sort
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figure in Shigaraki
This lovely tanuki lady isn’t judging you for using the cigarette vending machines she’s sandwiched between
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figure in Shigaraki
but this one feels like it’s warning us against all kinds of stuff.
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figures in Shigaraki
The tanuki figures are everywhere, even in the most surprising places. These lurk amid an overgrown garden outside a contractor’s shed
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figure in Shigaraki
While this one is tucked behind a telephone pole
Artist-designed ceramic tanuki figure in Shigaraki
And this one is kind of lurking behind that utility pole, ready to surprise innocent passers-by (or flocks of geese) with, yes, those legendary large cojones
Soto-en kiln in Shigaraki noborigama style
Here’s the kind of kiln where all those tanukis are fired—this one belongs to the Soto-en company, and it’s been in production since the samurai era. This is what I actually went to Shigaraki to see…
Shigaraki-ware tea ceremony bowls for sale in Shigaraki
…because this is also where National Living Treasures turn out tea ceremony bowls, like the one in The Last Tea Bowl Thief

Here’s where Shigaraki is:

Map showing Shigaraki, Japan

Here’s how to get to Shigaraki from Tokyo:

No matter what time of day you go, it takes around four hours. I left Tokyo super early in the morning and returned the same day, but as you can see by the map, a trip to Shigaraki gets you within shouting distance of all kinds of other great stuff to see in the Kyoto area. Bonus travel experience: the last train on this route—the Shigaraki Kogen Railway—is one of those quirky local lines with a theme:

Ninja train on Shigaraki Kogen Railway Line
Yes, it’s the ninja train! Shiga prefecture actually is in legendary ninja territory—besides pottery tricksters and tea ceremony ware, it’s what the region is most famous for
Train Route from Tokyo to Shigaraki

I used the Japan Navigation phone app to figure out this route, and you can easily use it too, when your actual date and departure time. It’s also good for finding the easiest way to get to Gyōda from where you’re staying. Here’s where to get the app and how to use it and here’s where to buy a Japanese transit card and how to use it. (I searched the route from Shinjuku Station, because it’s huge and central, but you might find a closer place to catch the Shonan-Shinjuku Line, if you search from where you’re staying.)

And if you’re up for a visit to Shigaraki without leaving the comfort of your reading chair, The Last Tea Bowl Thief will whisk you away in the blink of an eye…

Advance praise for The Last Tea Bowl Thief:

“I don’t know when I’ve been more caught up in a story. A masterful achievement.” —Terry Shames, award-winning author of An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock

For three hundred years, a missing masterpiece is passed from one fortune seeker to the next, changing the lives of everyone who possesses it…read more

Here’s a sample

Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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