Japanese raccoon dogs are known for their large…ahem, appendages. But which one is the largest of them all?

Japan is a country filled with so many beautiful sites it can take a lifetime to discover them all. One way to tick some of the best spots off your bucket list is by visiting some of the country’s “Sandai”, or “Great Three”, which covers things like the Great Three Night Views of Japan, the Great Three Buddhas, and the Great Three Festivals.

One of the things that isn’t mentioned in any of the country’s “Great Three” lists is the humble tanuki, or racoon dog. We’re here to right that wrong today with our own list of the Great Three Tanuki in Japan, with a trip to Shigaraki in Shiga Prefecture, a place that’s famous for racoon dogs.

Before we set off in search of the big three tanuki, let’s pause for a second to take a look at what makes these animals so special in Japan. Besides being a real creature — not actually related to the racoon, but belonging to the dog family — the tanuki has been entrenched in Japanese folklore for centuries.

In its mythical form, the tanuki is known to shapeshift into objects or human beings, and it has one other defining characteristic…

▼ …a scrotum so large it can be used for flying, as seen in this image from Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko.

Image: Studio Ghibli

The tanuki’s big balls are said to be good for generating wealth — the bigger the balls, the more gold they can carry, and that’s just one of a number of lucky characteristics that make these racoon dogs especially popular with business owners, who like to stand ceramic versions of them at the front door to their business.

▼ The balls on tanuki figures are usually so big they’re often seen resting on the floor between their legs.

These ceramic figurines feature a number of lucky symbols that include:

▼ A sedge hat to protect from disasters.

▼ A big belly to bring guts and calmness to tough situations.

▼ A bank book in one hand (right, below) so you will always be able to buy and sell, even on little money.

▼ And a sake flask in the other hand, to ensure you always have plenty to drink and eat.

All the photos above were taken by our Japanese-language reporter Haruki Takagi when she went to visit Shigaraki, a famous pottery region known for Shigarakiyaki (“Shigaraki Ware”). This is where you’ll find the largest concentration of ceramic tanuki in Japan.

▼ Other unique finds include this tanuki holding an amabie, the yokai that’s said to ward off pandemics…

▼ …this odd tanuki, which has unusual spindly legs…

▼ …and these tanuki towers.

While these creations all looked unusual to Haruka, the weirdest, most bizarre specimens were yet to come. As she travelled around the area in her search for the Great Three, she struck up conversations with locals and business owners in the area, and discovered two unusual facts: Nobody has ranked the tanuki by size, and it’s not really fair to do so, as some are made of concrete and others ceramic, the latter of which is incredibly difficult to make on a large scale.

Still, Haruka was determined to track down the largest tanuki she could find in the area, and while she didn’t have a stepladder and tape measure to measure them all, she figured she would get a sense of their largeness by standing beside each one for a sense of proportion.

So let’s take a look at the 11 raccoon dogs she met during her travels, starting with her first stop, at Shigaraki Tanuki Village.

▼ This was a village alright — a village of tanukis, and lording over them all were three giant raccoon dogs, with equally large…testicles.

The concrete tanuki on either side of the photo above look like they’re different heights due to the angle of the photo, but in reality, they’re the same height. Haruka is 156 centimetres (5 foot one inches) tall, and judging by the looks of the giant tanuki here, they were around three Harukas in height, which makes them about 4.5 metres (14.8 feet) tall.

Next up, we have Zen Sawa, a facility where visitors can immerse themselves in the world of Shigaraki ware with a range of pottery experiences, souvenir shops, accommodation facilities, and restaurants onsite.

The giant raccoon dog here is particularly impressive as it’s made from Shigaraki ware, so it’s definitely one you should visit. It’s said to have been fired in three parts before being assembled, which requires a great amount of skill and care.

Compared to the giant trio at the Tanuki Village, this tanuki didn’t feel quite as big to Haruka when she stood next to it, but that may have been due to its more comical appearance and less rotund shape.

▼ Still, it was just as tall, measuring around 4.5 metres.

Haruka’s next stop was a bit of a surprise as it was located beside a business that wasn’t directly associated with pottery like the previous two. This giant raccoon dog was standing tall outside Ramen 9, a ramen restaurant that just opened in December last year along National Highway 307.

▼ This tanuki was on a plinth, but again, it appeared to be around 4.5 metres in height.

After enquiring around, Haruka discovered that the site of the ramen restaurant was once home to “Yakimono Yokocho” (“Pottery Alley“), and this tanuki was a remnant from that time period. It was dirty and faded after its Pottery Alley heyday, but when the ramen shop opened, the new owners had it repainted, bringing the lustre back to its appearance, and hopefully good fortune to its new owners.

Next stop — Marutaka Pottery, also located along National Highway 307, about 200 metres down the road from Ramen 9. This large store sells Shigaraki ware and offers ceramic art classes for visitors.  

▼ Again, another three-Haruka-high concrete tanuki, and this one looked similar to the ones at the first site she visited.

Staff at this store told Haruka she should head south to see even more splendid raccoon dogs, so she followed their advice, stopping about a kilometre south on the same road, at Kotani Pottery.

This ceramics business runs two stores, a Shigaraki ware store and an udon shop, on opposite sides of the road, and this 4.5-metre tall concrete tanuki keeps watch over both businesses.

The staff here were also happy to help Haruka in her pursuit of the big animals, telling her that the largest Shigaraki ware raccoon dog in the area was located nearby. Following their directions, Haruka hopped back on her bike and headed out of the city centre, over to a Shigaraki ware shop called Kaneba.

▼ Whoah. Now this was impressive.

It may have been the plinth or the tanuki’s upward-facing pose, but this felt like the largest tanuki Haruka had ever seen. After asking the staff here about their giant ceramic raccoon dog, they too said they were certain it was the largest Shigaraki ware Tanuki in Japan…but they also didn’t know its exact height.

▼ Gold balls = Extra lucky

▼ According to Haruka’s calculations, though, it seemed to be — yet again — around 4.5 metres tall.

Hmmm…this 4.5-metre height seemed to be the go-to standard for giant racoon dogs in the area, and Haruka began to think she might not see anything bigger. When she stopped at the next site, Marui Ceramics, she was surprised to see things were actually beginning to get smaller.

This raccoon dog had a very unique look to it, though, with a long slender snout that Haruka really liked. If only she had another Haruka with her, so she could stand on her shoulders and give the mammal a big smacker on its big toothy mouth.

▼ Only around two Harukas tall.

Her next stop, Yamayoshi Pottery, revealed a similarly sized tanuki out front. It too, had been crafted with unique facial features that appeared to give it individual character , but as the store was closed, she was unable to stand next to it for a size comparison.

▼ She guessed it was around two Harukas tall.

Her next stop, at Shigaraki Station, proved to be much more exciting, because that’s where this colourful, dressed, masked tanuki was waiting to greet her.

A cosplaying tanuki?

According to locals, this tanuki changes outfits according to the season and for special events. In the past, it’s worn a yukata summer kimono, a sailor suit uniform, a ninja outfit, and a snowman’s costume, all painstakingly made by the Shigaraki Town Tourism Association. On this occasion, it was wearing a dress for Valentine’s Day, and inside, it was hiding a surprise…

▼ …a public telephone!

This was certainly the weirdest tanuki Haruka had ever seen, and the weirdest spot for a telephone booth as well.

Moving on to her next stop, Haruka was greeted by a whole legion of staring tanukis at Matsumoto Pottery.

▼ Ruled over by one large, bright orange, three-Haruka-high tanuki.

Haruka’s final stop on her road trip was a gallery and restaurant called Tanukiya Bunpuku, which turned out to be her favourite tanuki of the day.

Forget having a tanuki set up next to your business — the entire building here was shaped like a raccoon dog! Haruka had never seen anything like it, although from some angles it reminded her of a reclining Buddha.

Those plump cheeks…that slender nose…those googly eyes…it was all absolutely lovely! When Haruka spoke to a few passersby, they told her this was one of the most famous raccoon dogs in Shigaraki.

▼ Walking around the back reveals just how huge this tanuki is, as it runs the length of a building so big it has an entrance at either end.

Haruka doesn’t know of anywhere else in Japan where you can walk in one end of a tanuki and out the other, so this tanuki definitely takes the top spot in her Great Three. As for second place, Haruka couldn’t go past the cosplaying tanuki with a phone in one leg, and in choosing a third, amongst all the three-Haruka-high offerings, she decided to go with the skyward-facing ceramic tanuki with gold balls at Kaneba.

So there you have it — the Great Three Tanuki of Japan. According to Haruka, that is, until the officials who decide these things get their act together and publish their findings. Regardless of her ranking, though, all the tanuki Haruka met during her trip were great in their own right, and what’s more, the people she met along the way were just as wonderful.

Hopefully the giant eyes on all these tanuki distracted you from the other giant features hanging between their legs, but if not, then you’ll probably want to move on to these ukiyo-e pictures showing enterprising uses for really huge tanuki balls.

Photos ©SoraNews24
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