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Freaky field guide: Tokyo's top 10 mythical beasts
You won't find these bizarre creatures in any zoo, but they’re watching over us all right
Everyone knows Tokyo's home to some pretty strange inhabitants. No, we aren't talking about the ones you wake up next to after a long night in Kabukicho or Roppongi. Even weirder than that.
And much, much older. Creatures from myth, legend, fairy tales, arcane religious texts. They're there, lurking quietly in the shadows ... and sometimes right out in the open.
Don't believe us? We don't blame you. That's why we prepared a little roadmap. The kind of thing you won't find in any guidebook.
And the best part is, the stops are all 100 percent real. Hang on, it's going to be a strange trip ...
Description: A mythical beast said to hail from China. It may look ferocious, but it actuality punishes the wicked, eats only fruits and vegetables and is seen as an all-around harbinger of good fortune.
Trivia: Giraffes are also known as kirin in Japanese, as scholars confused the African animal for the mythical creature when they first learned of it.
How to find one: This is easy. Go to the convenience store and purchase a six-pack of Kirin Beer. You'll find the Kirin right on the label -- and who knows, perhaps right before your eyes if you slam those "tall boys" quickly enough.
Description: A Japanese chimera. Head of a monkey, body of a tiger, tail of a poisonous snake. Bad news all around if you encounter one -- Nue are said to induce sickness in any who so much as lay eyes on one.
Trivia: The A-list anime company “Studio Nue” takes its name from this creature.
How to find one: Give it up. It’s too dangerous to track one down. But you can see the next best thing at the Tokyo National Museum -- a ceremonial katana sword bestowed upon Minamoto no Yorimasa for felling a Nue that was harassing the Emperor back in 1153.
Description: Superficially resembling the animals called tapirs (which, not coincidentally, are also called baku in Japanese), these stout creatures with elephant-like noses are voracious eaters ... of dreams.
Trivia: Chanting “I give this dream to you, Baku” after a nightmare will ensure you never see the bad dream ever again.
How to find one: Baku are commonly used as design elements in Buddhist temples. Look up at the eaves of a temple next time you visit -- you might just see a Baku looking back at you. The Yakuoin Temple atop Mount Takao is a good place to start.
4. Maneki Neko
Description: Ostensibly a totally normal cat ... save for that one paw raised in a feline high-five. The name translates into “beckoning cat,” and they are symbols of good fortune and prosperity.
Trivia: A cat’s cupped paw resembles the typical way Japanese people beckon each other over -- palm-side down as opposed to the Western palm-side up.
How to find one: C’mon, you can’t walk five meters without spotting a Maneki Neko statuette in this city. But for those who really want to beckon in the loot, we recommend visiting Gotoku-ji Temple in the Gotokuji neighborhood of Tokyo, which has hundreds of the lucky kitties on display.
5. Catfish God
Description: In times of old, the Japanese believed that earthquakes were caused by an enormous Catfish God thrashing deep beneath the surface of the earth.
Trivia: Some scientists believe the long whiskers of the Japanese catfish are capable of detecting tremors before they occur, but so far hard evidence is scant.
How to find one: Disaster evacuation routes throughout the city and suburbs are marked with super-cute catfish mascots, a nod to the old legends.
Description: Usually (but not always) carved from stone, Komainu flank the entrances to Shinto shrines and serve much the same purpose as gargoyles on Western churches. Always found in pairs, one with its mouth open and the other with its mouth closed.
Trivia: The open-and-closed mouths are said to resemble the shape of the mouth when pronouncing “a” and “um,” which taken together sound like “beginning and end” in Sanskrit.
Where to find them: Almost any shrine, but there’s a particularly splendid pair to be found right outside of Asakusa Shrine, just behind Senso-ji Temple.
Description: Also known as the “Japanese phoenix,” these indescribably beautiful avian creatures represent harmony and tranquility. Said to descend in times of peace and leave when threatened, it’s not particularly surprising that nobody’s actually seen one for generations.
Trivia: In China, the Houou is paired with the dragon in a symbol of matrimonial bliss ... and conflict.
How to find one: Good luck finding a real phoenix in the era of seemingly endless conflict and disasters that we live in. You can enjoy the next best thing by searching for carvings of them on temples and shrines. Those of Taishakuten Temple (Shibamata Station) are particularly fertile phoenix hunting grounds.
Description: Creatures that resemble a mix of fish and dragon that sit in pairs atop the roofs of traditional Japanese buildings. Their curved bodies give castles and other structures their distinctive “horned” silhouette.
Trivia: Shachi is the Japanese word for orca or killer whale, and some theories speculate that Shachikoko and the cetaceans are one and the same.
How to find one: The more opulent the building, the higher a chance you’ll see Shachihoko. One of our favorite hunting spots is the East Garden of the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which features a rare Shachihoko on display at ground level.
Description: Giant, serpentine creatures of the sort that have populated myths in Asia and abroad for ... well, forever, really. Capable of exhaling both water and fire, they are formidable beasts of Chinese, Korean and Japanese mythology.
Trivia: The Dragon King’s palace (Ryugu) supposedly sits on the seafloor near the Okinawan islands (Ryukyu).
How to find one: Dragons are common design motifs on temples throughout Japan. Here’s one you may have missed -- the next time you visit Asakusa’s Kaminarimon Gate, stand beneath the giant red lantern and look straight up. You’ll find a dragon carved into its base.
10. Gama’s Toad
Description: A three-legged toad that acts as the familiar of Gama Sennin, one of the Eight Taoist Immortals of Chinese legend. Gama supposedly found the strange little creature in a well one day, and they’ve been fast friends ever since.
Trivia: Gama’s Toad can exhale a cloud that represents the “life-breath” that animates all living beings.
How to find one: We left the trickiest one for last; Gama and his toad are obscure even by the standards of veteran creature-watchers. There is a faded, centuries-old painting of the pair on the left side of the Honden (worship hall) of Mitake Shrine, atop Mount Mitake, but you’ll need to attend a service to see it.