This past summer, I led a summer camp in Korea with the theme of magical creatures. I have plenty of magical creatures in my own books—some of them borrowed from mythology (dragon, unicorns, perytons, etc.) and some are completely made up (like Tug the skyger, who is a main character in The Secret of Zoone).

But there is a creature I’ve been becoming more and more interested in, and that’s the fox spirit, which is prominent in Asian folktales and myths. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Korea, or maybe because so many of my creative writing students in Canada come from Chinese or Korean backgrounds. And, of course, my son being adopted from Japan has something to do with it.

The fox spirit in myth and legend

Legends about the fox spirit vary from country to country, story to story, but a common theme is that it is depicted with multiple tails—often nine. In Japan, it is called kyūbi no kitsune (literally fox with nine tails), in Korea it is called kumiho or gumiho (also, literally, fox with nine tails), and in China it’s called húli jīng or jiǔwěihú. Sometimes the foxes are seeking to gain all nine tails, which will take a thousand years (gaining a tail every hundred years) and allow them to transcend to a greater wisdom or being. They are sometimes associated with being evil (especially kumiho in Korea)—they can shapeshift into beautiful women and are often portrayed trying to seduce young men, even desiring to eat their livers!

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Last summer, when we first met Hiro, I encountered many fox effigies at the temple sites throughout Japan. When we returned to Tokyo this summer with Hiro, I made a point to seek out one of the temples in the city featuring the fox.

These are the benign versions of the fox spirit. Kitsune is associated with the God Inari, who is worshiped for fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture—essentially prosperity and success. That is why kitsune can be found at so many Shinto sites.

A trip to Toyoa Inari Betsuin

On a sweltering morning in Tokyo, we headed to Toyoa Inari Betsuin to see the many kitsune assembled at the shrine. It’s not always easy to make the trek across the city with a one-year-old in tow, especially when it comes to navigating the subway system. Actually the Tokyo subway system itself is easy—finding ways in and out with a stroller aren’t, especially at the older stations.

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But that minor inconvenience was offset by the beautiful shrine.

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When it came to finding foxes, we weren’t disappointed—there were countless ones at Toyoa Inari Betsuin.

Here are just a few of the many photos of the kitsune . . . such delightful creatures! Many of them were wearing a red bib (a symbol of good luck).

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To provide a bit more information about the shrine, I transcribed the information from the welcoming sign, which is also in the photo below:

The Toyokawa Inari is in reality the Toyokawa Dakini Shinten, one of the many Buddhist saints who were Protectors of the Buddhist doctrines. This saint has a beautiful countenance mounted on a white fox, carrying the ear of rice, and is called Toyokawa Inari. It has been enshrined in the Myōgon-ji, a temple in Toyokawa City, Aichi Prefecture, since the first founder Kangan Giin received an inspiration, enshrined it about 700 years ago. Since then, it has been worshipped by peoples of all walks of life, bringing them happiness and saving them from the suffering through the generations to this day.

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I’m pondering the idea of incorporating a magical fox with multiple tails in one of my upcoming middlegrade books. I think my many students with Asian backgrounds (not to mention my son!) will like it, though I know my magical fox won’t be an antagonist, but rather a helpful character.

The multiple tails also seem to match up very nicely with another main idea I’m developing for the book. I don’t have much else to say on it at this point, but let’s see how it goes . . .

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2 thoughts on “In search of the nine-tailed fox

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