Amazing Adventures in Hokkaido

The abundance of the natural environment, the lifestyles and culture of the people who live there – Hokkaido has many incredible stories that are as yet unknown.
In this column, we learn about the appeal of Hokkaido’s four seasons from the people who guide adventure tours there. We hope such stories enrich the time spent in Hokkaido, the next time you visit.

Special feature

Column: Tanuki Tales

The indigenous tanuki is ubiquitous throughout the four main islands of Japan, including Hokkaidō, and I see it quite frequently here, where I live, in the Akan–Mashu National Park. For most Japanese residents however, this creature remains rarely seen and more mythical than real. After all, it is widespread and numerous, at least in ceramic form, appearing outside taverns and eateries throughout the land, and every child learns, via folk tales and fables, of its strange guile and bewildering shape-shifting capabilities.

By Mark Brazil

The terrestrial tanuki is a unique species native to northeast Asia.

Tanuki are entirely terrestrial, ranging through heavily wooded habitat, especially mountainside forests, along forest edges, and often near water. These rather stout, short-legged creatures, with short, bushy tails and distinctive facial masks, are omnivorous. They feed on plants, seeds, insects and almost anything else to be found on the forest floor, including beetles, earthworms, amphibians, reptiles and birds, and they will gorge on nuts, fruits and berries in season.

Although distantly related to the dog family, tanuki are unusual in many ways, not just in being broadly omnivorous, but also because they are bark-less and hibernate. They do not actually sleep through the whole winter, but they do put on weight in autumn and then retreat to their burrows, where, bear-like, they become torpid for several months, emerging occasionally to eat. The stocky tanuki weighs up to 9 kg and has a dense, rather variable brindled fur coat of pale and dark browns, grey, tan and black.

Tanuki is commonly mis-translated as badger (an altogether different species). Its frequently used English name “raccoon dog”, is applied in North America to a dog used when hunting raccoons (and they, too, are an altogether different species).

Like most temperate mammals, tanuki mate and rear their young in the spring (they produce a litter of 3–5) and, as a result, their young have plenty of time before their first autumn and winter to learn their way around their home forest and find any nearby farmland and gardens offering tasty morsels in the form of ground-level crops and bird food. They begin wandering in search of food as dusk falls and may continue throughout the evening, and again during the early hours of the morning.

Tanuki's face pattern is reminiscent of the North American raccoon.
Ceramic tanuki are abundant throughout Japan, especially outside restaurants and bars.

There is little doubt that the tanuki’s habit of living on the edge of human habitation, where it can benefit both from the fruits of the forest and those of the farmland, has led it into encounters with humans ever since they first settled these islands.

The wild tanuki is typically rather shy and solitary, although pairs, families and even extended families may sometimes be encountered. Culturally, the tanuki is a very different creature and a prominent subject of innumerable amusing and intriguing myths and folk tales in which it is a mischievous, bumbling and humorous shape-shifter most famously linked with tea-kettles, because of its similar pot-bellied appearance and its capacity to turn into a kettle!

In ceramic form they are depicted as upright creatures, with swollen drum-like stomachs. As folklore would have us believe, the jolly, carousing tanuki drums on his rotund belly and sings to the moon to attract the ladies. Typically, these womanising, heavy-drinking characters sport a straw hat, a saké bottle and a notebook, for they are jovial fellows believed to bring good fortune to drinking establishments. For all that they drink, however, they never have sufficient money for payment, hence the notebook in which they write down their dues. The wild creature is equally as nocturnal as the mythical one, but differs in almost all other characteristics.

The author and a friendly tanuki at Komponji Nichiren Temple on Sado Island.

I wonder whether the association between tanuki and inebriation was founded on the sight of some tipsy tanuki, drunk on over-fermented fallen fruit in the late autumn. Their crepuscular and nocturnal habits place them on the edge of sight, so perhaps it is little wonder that tanuki have become the stuff of myth and folklore, performing sophisticated metamorphosing magic, as well as impish tricks and japes, at the expense of the local human inhabitants, especially when the reward for their efforts is food!

My local tanuki frequently appears in my garden at dusk where it raids the remnants of food beneath the bird feeders and entertains me at the same time, though I have yet to glimpse it shape-shifting.

Dr Mark Brazil, a British writer, naturalist, ornithologist and international expedition leader, is a long-term resident of Hokkaidō. He founded Japan Nature Guides in 2011. The author of ten books, mostly about Japan and East Asia, his latest are: Japan: The Natural History of an Asian Archipelago published in January 2022 by Princeton University Press, and Wild Hokkaidō: A Guidebook to the National Parks and other Wild Places of East Hokkaidō published by Hokkaidō Shimbun Press in June 2021.

Location

Akan–Mashu National Park

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