When we got our golden retriever-chow mix from the Denver Dumb Friends League, we thought she looked like a fox. In honor of this, we named her Kurama Kitsune, “mountain fox” in Japanese. My daughter came up with the name after watching a Japanese anime cartoon that had a half fox-half human character named Kurama in it.
With her thick red coat, pricked ears and bushy tail, the name fits the dog well. Even her amber eyes look a bit foxy.
By the time she was out of doggy adolescence, it was clear that Kurama was a very social dog. Every person she met was, in turn, her new best friend. To fulfill this outgoing personality, she and I joined the Lutheran Hospital Pet Therapy Program, in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Now, each month we go to visit patients in the hospital, chatting with them, and giving them warm fuzzies.
A few months ago, when I was visiting the hospital with Kurama, I came into the room of an elderly Japanese lady. I introduced myself and Kurama, but it was obvious that the lady didn’t speak English. It was only when she saw Kurama that her eyes opened wide. She sat up in bed, put her hands together and bowed from the waist down. To Kurama. I had no idea what to say, and words didn’t really seem necessary. Whatever was going on, I was only there as Kurama’s handler.
We left the room after a few minutes. The entire time we had been there, the lady never stopped bowing to Kurama. I was totally baffled.
This spring, my daughter and I went down to the Cherry Blossom Festival at Sakura Square in downtown Denver. While we were there, we saw pictures of kitsune – foxes. Further investigation revealed that in Japanese folklore, foxes are magical if mischievous creatures. Seeing one is usually considered good luck. Some people in Japan believe them to be spirits today, just as some people in Iceland believe in elves and some in Scotland believe in brownies and banshees.
Armed with this new understanding of what kitsune are in Japanese culture, I remembered the incident with the Japanese lady. I tried to put myself in her place. I’m sick and in a strange and frightening foreign hospital. My family tried to explain what is wrong with me and what is going to happen to me. But they may not have understood exactly what was going on, either. Anyway, they aren’t here right now. I’m alone, and I’m afraid.
Then in walks a gaijin, a white woman, saying a few words I understand: “mountain fox-spirit”. And there it is – a kitsune. A fox-spirit that brings good luck.
It must have made quite an impression on her – a friendly spirit had come to visit her in the hospital. And so she had bowed to it.
As I figured all this out, it made quite an impression on me. It is a humbling realization that Kurama and to a lesser extent, I, had been an agent of someone’s divinity. I have never before, nor do I ever expect to again, have that honor.