Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Tanuki in the Garden
You do not need a guide to savor Japan. American travels with no more Japanese than "thank you" and "goodbye" can check into hotels, ride the trains, and read the wealth of English-language tourist information available from the Japan National Tourism Organization.
For those who want a richer experience, however, you can hire a guide and there is an organization of volunteer guides, the Association of Independent Tourist Assistance in Japan, that will help you. On one of my trips several years ago, a sweet, middle-aged Japanese woman stopped my wife and me on the Nara train platform to ask if she could be our guide for the day. Always skeptical (and speaking enough Japanese to get around without help), I was reluctant to put us into the care of a stranger. But she looked harmless, she had an official looking badge, and we took a chance. It was wonderful. She took us to gardens and sites we could not have gotten into without her.
A guide can point out small things that you might simply overlook. The picture above is a statue of a tanuki, a raccoon-dog, a creature in Japanese folklore, and statues of which, like this one, you often see outside noodle restaurants. The legendary tanuki is mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absent-minded. The tanuki has eight special traits that bring good fortune: a hat to protect against trouble; big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions; a sake bottle that represents virtue; a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved; over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck; a promissory note that represents trust or confidence; a big belly that symbolises bold and calm decisiveness; and a friendly smile.