The cat vs dog debate will rage for ages, but whether one is a dog lover (犬派) or cat lover (猫派), most people can agree that the loyalty and warmth of dogs are unrivaled in the animal world. In Japan, there are a few places in particular that honor the special bond between dogs and their masters, and they can all be seen during a day or two of sightseeing in Tokyo. Visitors should be advised to bring a handkerchief. Here are the sites and their back stories, from most famous to least famous.
Tokyo University professor of agriculture Hidesaburo Ueno adopted Hachiko, a pure bred akita, as a puppy in 1924. By all accounts, they formed an unusually strong bond and spent all their time together, even bath time. Professor Ueno lived near Shibuya, and Hachiko took up the habit of accompanying his master to the train station to see him off in the morning and coming to welcome him home in the evening. This pattern continued for one happy year until Professor Ueno collapsed without warning during a class. He had suffered a brain aneurism and passed away the same day.
That night, Hachiko went to Shibuya station to meet his best friend. It was a night like any other night, except his friend didn’t get off the train. Hachiko waited, and waited, but train after train came and went with no sign of the professor. Perplexed, he went home.
The next evening his master still hadn’t shown up, so he went back to the train station and waited again. Still, nothing. How does one tell a dog that his friend is never coming home? Day after day Hachiko waited. The weeks turned into months, and the months into years. A curious ex-student of the professor followed Hachiko home from the station one day and published his story. Instantly, Hachiko became a national phenomenon and beloved pet of Shibuya station. People would often stop to feed him and play with him. The loyalty he showed as a family member was held up as an example for all of Japan to follow. He would live out the rest of his life between his home, and Shibuya station until he died of natural causes in 1935.
All in all, Hachiko steadfastly waited for Professor Ueno for nine years, nine months, and 18 days. His body was cremated and buried with the professor in Aoyama Cemetery so they could be together at last.
For those who want to pay their respects today, there are three other options. The most famous is the Hachiko statue at Shibuya station, next to the world famous Shibuya scramble crossing. The bronze statue sits with one ear cocked, waiting patiently for his friend. It’s a very popular site both for visitors and Japanese people, and is a frequently used meeting place.
Second, Tokyo University recently erected a statue of Hachiko and Ueno, finally reunited in a friendly embrace.
Finally, while Hachiko’s remains are buried with his friend, his coat has been preserved and stuffed, and he can be visited at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno, Tokyo.
In 1958, a Japanese expedition of scientists set forth from Japan for the last great wilderness on Earth, Antarctica. In those days before CAT’s and snowmobiles, explorers and scientists alike relied on sled dogs for transportation. The bond between the human team and the dog team became strong, as they worked together day in, day out in one of the most remote places on the planet.
In the face of an advancing storm, the expedition had to unexpectedly evacuate to the icebreaker Soya. A substitute team was to replace them when the storm passed, so the sled dogs were left chained up outside the base. Tragically, the plans to send a new team were canceled and despite the team’s protests, the ship’s captain deemed the conditions too dangerous to attempt a rescue. The Japanese scientists had no choice but to return home, leaving the fifteen-dog team alone in Antarctica, without food, chained to their post. The abandonment of the dogs was a source of national shame, and the team leader never got over the guilt.
Exactly what happened in the intervening year will never be known (although an excellent dramatic reimagining of the events appears the 1983 film 南極物語, An Antarctic Story), but when the next team returned to the base almost one whole year later, they were greeted with an unbelievable scene. Some dogs had passed away at their post, some had broken free and died near the base, and some had disappeared, but two surviving dogs came rushing up to joyfully greet the returning scientists, some of whom they knew from the previous expedition. Their names were Taro and Jiro, and against all odds they had survived alone for an entire year in the harshest environment on Earth. They instantly became national heroes. Taro returned to Japan and lived out the rest of his days in his native Hokkaido, while Jiro continued to work in Antarctica until his natural death.
Like Hachiko, these two national figures were also stuffed. Fans of Taro will have to go to Hokkaido to see him on display at Hokkaido University’s museum, but Jiro is with Hachiko at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno.
The tribute to the whole team (pictured first) stood at Tokyo Tower for many years but was recently moved to the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo. In another interesting parallel, the statues were even designed by the same artist who designed the Hachiko statue in Shibuya.
Finally, our canine tour of Tokyo leaves behind the national figures of loyalty and heroism, and turns toward regular dogs from regular families. This site is far less well known, but it’s overflowing with everyday, genuine love for pets, both dogs and cats. Five to ten minutes west of Shinjuku, there is a small suburb called Chofu, where a beautiful Shinto pet memorial exists in the literal and metaphorical shadow of the much better known Jindaiji Temple.
There is a central tower, ringed by a low, semicircular structure reminiscent of a bunker. To the right as one enters, traditional Shinto wooden plaques with prayers written on them called ema (絵馬) are visible. Rather than the standard wishes for health and good fortune, they are all prayers for departed pets.
Inside the semicircular building, there are innumerable boxes filled with offerings honoring pets. Common objects include pictures, urns of ashes, favorite foods, flowers, and messages.
Outside, a series of low walls lines the building. They are full of graves, each engraved with poignant messages of thanks and farewell.
“Gifts from God”
“Thank you for all the happy days”
Anyone who’s known the joy of a pet or the heartrending pain of losing one won’t be able to help being moved by this memorial.
The unconditional love and loyalty of dogs is unforgettable to the many people who have lived it. A common experience to people of many countries and cultures, it makes a great common point to bond over. Take a day or two around Tokyo to visit these sites, relive those happy days, and fully appreciate all the reasons why dogs are truly mankind’s best friend.