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Kuramae Jinja and the dog that wanted to be human

I live in a literary area. Well, I would, wouldn't I? I didn't even realize it was famous for its storytellers until after I'd moved to this neighbourhood, but I probably gravitated here thanks to a psychic paranormal DNA-cum-fate thing.

I've already told you about the temple for dead stories and the origin of senryū (satirical haiku), and here's yet another story about stories: this one focuses on rakugo and a white dog that wanted to be human.

Wikipedia describes rakugo as follows:

Rakugo (落語, literally "fallen words") is a Japanese verbal entertainment. The lone storyteller (rakugoka) sits on a stage, called a kōza. Using only a paper fan (sensu) and a small cloth (tenugui) as props, and without standing up from the seiza sitting position, the rakugo artist depicts a long and complicated comical story. The story always involves the dialogue of two or more characters, the difference between the characters depicted only through change in pitch, tone, and a slight turn of the head.

Rakugo was popular in Edo, and many storytellers lived in the shitamachi (the area where I live now). You bump into interesting historical titbits around every corner, for example, this:

Shiro, the dog that wanted to be human

It's a statue of a Hokkaidō Inu, a breed that's probably best personified by Kai-kun, otherwise known as Otōsan in the Softbank commercials.

Kai-kun, the father in the Softbank commercials.
Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Kai-kun is famous, but he's not the first Hokkaidō Inu celebrity. That honour belongs to a dog called Shiro (), who was immortalized in a rakugo called Moto Inu (元犬). Shiro lived at an old shrine called Asakusa Kuramae Hachiman Jinja, which was an off-shoot of Kyoto's famous Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū. He was a beautiful dog with a pure white coat.

Everybody admired him and told him that he was beautiful. "Shiro, you're so perfect that you'll be reincarnated as a human being," his fans predicted. All this adoration went to Shiro's head, and he decided that he wanted to be a man not in his next life, but in this life.

Shiro was a very handsome fellow!

So he prayed and prayed and prayed, and … the gods listened. They granted him his wish: his beautiful white coat disappeared and he became as buck-naked as a human, but he was still a dog.

You can imagine the comic potential in this story, and how funny it could be in the words of a master storyteller.

Asakusa Kuramae Hachiman Jinja (established in 1694) still exists, but it's been merged with other places of worship, relocated and renamed. Nowadays it's known as Kuramae Jinja (蔵前神社), and you'll find it in a small side street in Kuramae 3-Chōme.

The shrine remembers Shiro and honours rakugo with a statue of a Hokkaidō Inu that was sculpted by Kitagō Satoru (北郷 ), a professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts.

Shiro's statue at Kuramae Jinja

His model was a dog called Nana-chan. I found Nana-chan's photo on the shrine's website (link).

Nana-chan

Further Googling uncovered a website that shows the unveiling of the statue in 2010, which was attended by Nana-chan. Look! Aww!

I also found this lovely story about a female rakugo artist. Edit added on 6 July: Thanks to Sarah, I've also learned that there's a British woman, Diane Orrett, who performs rakugo in both Japanese and English. (See comments below.)

Finally, two videos of a rakugo artist performing Shiro's story, which I've embedded at the end of the post.

This post is dedicated to my favourite dog, Sox, a Shiba Inu that belongs to Dru. You can see a photo of Sox and Sky Tree here.

Shiro's statue next to the torii at Kuramae Jinja

Kuramae Jinja

Detail at Kuramae Jinja

Detail at Kuramae Jinja


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