Deep Within Tanuki Valley: Tanukidani

The Tanuki is neither raccoon nor dog, but rather a strange mix of the two that has long been a symbol of luck, prosperity and fortune in Japan. However, even within Japan, the animal is elusive.

The day started with the slow creep of the sun’s rays into the tatami room of an Eastern Kyoto apartment. The Town Mouse was off to work, leaving this Country Mouse to her own devices. Having lacked the time recently to do the things she enjoyed, she took her bike down to the point at which the Takano and Kamo rivers make union of their currents. There she visited the local gardening shop, where she was able to procure soil for her blueberry bush, tomato and bell pepper plants, as well as some varieties of fire hued flowers. This she took back to her abode on the mountain by use of some parts physical determination and some parts sheer luck.

Even after two hours of tilling the earth to start the garden that would make the new house feel the true home, the sun was high in the afternoon blue. Previously, this Country Mouse had learned of a large temple complex at the top of Higashi-yama (Eastern Mountain) and therefore she decided to make the trek up through the mist and drizzle to see what lay there.


The road leading toward Tanukidani traveled the curves of the mountain, and the path was lined with a stone fence inscribed with the beautiful script of the mountain priests. In a small outlet marked by a large boulder, a dip of flat land that could be used as a resting area could be seen- Acala is enshrined there. His stone body wreathed in red flame, a sword in hand, the shadows which cast themselves over his face merely accentuated the wrath of the god that ought not be tempted. Yet, despite that intense gaze, fresh water was made ready for the weary traveler, though there were signs forbidding dogs from progressing further. From this point on, it was Tanuki territory.
The walk only got steeper, the mist gathering until it was certain to be rain instead, and suddenly, under an old and weathered monolith, there lay hundreds of figures of the Tanuki, Japan’s elusive raccoon-dog. Armed with a hat (to brave the sudden changes in life one experiences), his sake gourd and his engorged testes (the source of his mojo, or magic-making) the Tanuki look out upon travelers to this mountain with an expression of bemusement. After they greet you, you have entered the mountain complex of the eclectics.

Small red tori gates wound up one side of the stairwell, the aroma of freshly burning incense wafting down, though there was nothing but the chorus of forest frogs within ear shot- indeed, this Country Mouse found herself quite alone on the mountain for the entire duration of her journey. After washing her body in incense, it was time to continue up the stairs, wherein she came across the statues of the seven gods of fortune and the iron statue of the eclectic who founded the temple. At the eclectic’s feet, hundreds of little straw sandals had been tied by other pilgrims, gentle prayers of people seeking enlightenment. After passing the statue, a small sign informs you that you have begun to ascend the blessed path- 250 steps that will bring you closer to fortune and The Way.

It is a long journey, but at the top of those stairs there is a temple that rises out from the granite of the mountain- Tanukidani. With architecture that resembles that of Kiyomizadera, the temple has a majesty about it, and surrounded by nothing but the falling water of a mountain stream and the forest, ravens’ calls echo in the mist, completing the aura of the mountain’s retreat.

Acala again appears, his statue placed under the head of a small waterfall where travelers are encouraged to wash their hands, mouths, and drink the clean, unadulterated water before entering the complex. Of course the complex is usually closed- this temple is still in use by the eclectics- but you can still use the trails to ascend the mountain itself.

Rounding the final corner within the complex is a wall of stone buddhas- buddhas with small pinwheels and candles, bibs and red cloaks. These are the buddhas of lost children- miscarried, aborted, stillborn and infants lost. In the quiet of the mountain, a bib reading “I love Mom” is enough to bring tears to the eyes.

The trail beyond the complex goes up the mountain, the trail intermingling with the creek. The Country Mouse wandered deep into the trail, following the markings of the buddhas, but eventually, it seemed that a different trail had opened up, and she took that one instead. Progressively, this trail narrowed, as if it was not used frequently, and eventually, signs began appearing that this was not a human trail at all, but one belonging to an animal. 

Droppings, broken branches and impressions in the soil helped along the theory, though she didn’t turn back- just a little further and she might be able to see the Kyoto skyline. However, a flash of ivory caught her eye, and looking down, in the clearing just before the trees cleared, were bones. The bones could have belonged to any number of animal- a deer, a boar (for they still roam wild in the mountains) or a Tanuki. The Country Mouse tread carefully the rest of the way, and after getting her view of the city, she rushed back down the mountain, the sky opening as she did so, and a torrent of rain and thunder following. So ended the journey to Tanukidani, at least that time.