Cats may have surpassed dogs as pets in Japan for the first time in more than 20 years, but that hasn’t stopped the nation preparing for the year of the dog with canine events and all manner of engimono lucky charms to see you through the year. Here are a few picks for those who want to indulge in a little puppy love.
The earliest evidence of domesticated dogs in Japan dates back to the Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.), so it’s no surprise that they have since been featured in various works of art or as motifs in traditional patterns. The Tokyo National Museum (TNM) is opening its doors on Jan. 2 for a special “Celebrating the New Year with Dogs in History and Art” exhibition, showcasing a selection of masterpieces, including those by Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828).
In tandem with a new year special showing of other national treasures and Important Cultural Properties, this looks to be a lavish educational show of prints, paintings, textiles and art objects. Early birds on Jan. 2 to 3 can also receive a free illustrated worksheet with a calendar from the Imperial Lounge on the second floor of the Honkan building.
For those in Kyoto, the Kyoto National Museum (KNM) is also holding dog-related show, “Puppies Galore: Celebrating the Year of the Dog.” Visitors here can learn more about Emperor Ojin (circa 200-310), who loved his hunting dog so much that he buried it in a special tomb after its death. The exhibition includes sculptures, paintings and scrolls, with the highlight being “Flowers, Plants, Birds, and Animals,” by Mochizuki Gyokuse (1834-1913), which has a delightful detail of puppies frolicking in the grass.
The TNM exhibitions run through Jan. 28, with an entry fee of ¥620, while “Puppies Galore” at the KNM’s Heisei Chishinkan Wing runs through Jan. 21, with an entry fee of ¥520. For more details, check the websites.
In a fusion of native and Chinese traditions, it is customary in Japan to place an engimono of the year’s Zodiac animal at the entrance of the home to welcome good luck into the house, while discouraging bad fortune at the door.
Most of these are made by local craftspeople working in hariko papier mache, wood and ceramics, but if you’re looking for something a little more unusual, then Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten — a treasure trove of artisan and designer collaborations — has several humorous alternatives.
The Zaru Kaburi Inu (Basket on Head Dog, ¥3,888) is a funny literal take on the wooden kokeshi doll. The kanji for “laugh” can be split into two parts, with the top being the kanji for “bamboo” and the bottom looking very similar to that for “dog.” Hence this dog has a bamboo basket on its head just to make you giggle.
For a porcelain ornament, the Banken A Un (¥3,240), are fashioned after the stone guardian dogs seen guarding Shinto shrines. Made of unglazed ceramic, the Banken A Un wear elasticated collars that can be easily removed so that owners can paint the pair in whatever style suits them best.
The most traditional looking offering is the Kodakusan Inu (Big Family Dog, ¥3,672). A simple, white tsuchi ningyo (clay doll) it wears the customary boldly painted bib but has the added details of a puppy looking out at the front and another snuggled up asleep at the back.
Of the engimono dogs, however, a personal favorite is in fact not a Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten product but something the company is promoting by one of its collaborators, the Good Job Center, which works with the disabled in Nara Prefecture to create hariko items.
The Good Dog Hariko hot dog on legs is a bizarre but ridiculously cute creature. There are various versions — some decorated with squirts of mustard, others appearing as multicolored sweet confections, with mini ones priced at ¥1,944 and large ones at ¥3,240.
All feature a sausage dog hitching a ride on the back of its bun-dog buddy. They are available via the Good Job Center website, but if you’re really lucky, you may also find a mini one in Muji’s new year mystery cans, which offer another twist to a New Year custom in Japan.
Instead of the usual bargain-priced fukubukuro bags of mystery goods that stores often offer to offload old stock, Muji’s fukubukuro cans (available in stores only) contain a Muji gift card of ¥2,018, a roll of festive masking tape and an engimono. And they’re priced at ¥2,018, so even if you don’t find a Good Dog Hariko, they’re still a bargain.
The Shiba Inu, one of Japan’s most popular native dogs, is known for its loyalty, something retailer Felissimo plays on for its Year of the Dog campaign. For those who want to keep up the dog theme well into 2018, the online store is offering a series of limited-edition goods featuring a new Shiba Black dog character to customers who commit to a six-month campaign.
For a Year of the Dog special subscription of ¥1,296 (similar campaigns have been ¥2,160), customers will receive one of six Shiba Black items each month, which range from plush key covers to an unusual pouch that brings a whole new meaning to the term “bum bag.” Thankfully, it opens from the other end.