兎 usagi—rabbit

The white rabbit of Inaba

The story goes that long ago, a rabbit found himself trapped on an offshore island, and hatched a plan to make his way back to the mainland by tricking some sharks. He challenged the sharks, saying “let’s see who has the most friends! Everyone line up so I can count you.” Once the sharks were in a line, he leapt from one to the next, using their backs as a bridge to reach the mainland.

But, unable to contain his pride at his own cunning, just as he was leaping off the back of the last shark, the rabbit blurted out, “I tricked you! I just wanted to get back to the mainland.” The shark was angered and grabbed the rabbit in his teeth, stripping him of his skin and fur.

The rabbit, suffering great pain, met some cruel men who advised him to wash in seawater. But this just made him suffer more. Then the brother of the men, the kindly god Daikoku, gave better advice: to wash his wounds in fresh water and wrap them in the fluff of bulrushes. Following this advice, the rabbit recovered.

Hakuto

When we were in Tottori prefecture last weekend, we visited the white rabbit shrine (白兔神社 hakuto jinja). I knew the story, but I had not realised it was associated with Tottori. Inaba is the name of an old province that now forms part of Tottori.

The whole area of Hakuto beach, not far from Tottori city, is full of white rabbit imagery. Hakuto is another way of pronouncing “shiroi usagi” which means “white rabbit”. We arrived just at sunset, and the coastline looked very beautiful against the evening sky. As you can see, some surfers were also enjoying the last of the daylight, unworried by sharks of ancient legend. You can also see a shrine atop the offshore rock, silhouetted against the sky.

The shrine

Here is the torii gate of the Hakuto (white rabbit) shrine. On the left and right of the gate, you can see steles with the characters 白兔神社 written vertically. Behind the gate, steps lead up through the trees to the shrine itself.

On the left at the top of the steps, we passed a shed with a sand carving depicting a scene from the tale.

There were many small white stones, each with a character stamped on it in red ink. These represent wishes by visitors to the shrine (probably wedding-related wishes). The path was lined with stone statues of rabbits in various postures, many with a white stone offering balanced on its head.

Further on, we passed the pool where, according to tradition, the rabbit washed itself in fresh water. It is called 御身洗池 “wash body pool”. In the photo, it is down to the left, but is too dark to see.

Finally, we arrived at the main building of the shrine. There was nobody else around.

Daikoku

Daikoku-sama, known as Ookuninushi no mikoto in Japanese, is one of the 7 lucky gods. There are many shrines devoted to him, including the important Izumo Taisha. The Osaka branch of Izumo Taisha is not far from here, and there is a bronze statue of Daikoku-sama and the rabbit just inside the gate.

As there are two rabbits in the statue, I guess that it represents a “before and after” narrative read from right to left, with a plaintive injured rabbit on the right and a happy healed rabbit on the left. Maybe.

Anyway, yesterday after the tea ceremony, we went walking in Daikokucho, a suburb of Osaka that is named for the god Daikoku. There we visited his shrine, and discovered that in addition to rabbits, he is also associated with rats or mice.

We’ve seen various species of shrine guardians before, most typically lions, lion dogs (koma-inu) and foxes, but this was the first time we had seen rats in the role. The rat on the left is holding a hammer, and the one on the right is holding a bushel of rice, his tail draped protectively over it.

One painting in front of the shrine shows a young Daikoku-sama with the white rabbit. (Sorry about the poorly-focused picture.) On the table is a cute little stone statue of a rabbit (and somewhat mysteriously, also a real dead turtle. Maybe the turtle is filling in for the shark.)

A second painting shows an older, more rotund and extremely contented-looking version of the god with rats and rice, and holding a hammer.

Note on the word of the day:

Was the rabbit bitten by a shark (same), or an alligator (wani)? The Japanese version of the story refers to wani, which normally means alligator, but for some reason they are always referred to as sharks in English translations. A version of the tale printed on a local signboard at Hakuto beach called them wanizame—alligator sharks. I don’t know what an alligator shark is, but I definitely don’t want to meet one.

The Japanese word for rabbit, usagi, is normally written in katakana: ウサギ. It was only on this trip that I came across the kanji character 兎 (variant 兔) and learned that its Chinese pronunciation is to. Hence: 白兔 hakuto—white rabbit.

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2 thoughts on “兎 usagi—rabbit

  1. Hi Dara,
    Love the blog. We’re in Japan soon, researching kimono book. Inaba no shirousagi myth intrigues me, and I have a great obi with two rabbits, one patched, the other in glowing gold threads. Could you tell me where the Osaka branch of the Izumo Taisha shrine is, please?
    Best,
    Maggie

    1. Hi Maggie, I’m glad you’re enjoying reading my blog! Thanks very much for taking the time to leave a comment.

      Izumo Taisha is in Sakai city, to the south of Osaka city.

      The nearest railway station seems to be Hatsushiba on the Nankai Koya line, about 5-10 minutes walk.

      Here are the lat-long co-ordinates – you can use them to find the location in Google Maps: 34.53707, 135.52090

      I hope you will enjoy your trip to Japan.

      Dara

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