Akita Inu are the much-loved dogs of Japan. Known for their fox-like features, cute curly tails and beautiful orange and white coats, they are a symbol of the country for dog-lovers everywhere. Whether you’re a canine-fan or not, these creatures are undeniably cute, and whether you’re in their hometown of Akita or in Tokyo, there are plenty of spots to see them.
Characteristics of the Akita Dog
There are two varieties of Akita dog - the Akita Inu (also known as the Japanese Akita) and the American Akita. Both are of the Spitz variety, meaning they have thick, short hair, pointed ears and curled tails.
The Akita breeds have a short, double-coat and are considered a hardy type of job well suited to families, although they can be territorial. While they’re seen as adorable and cute by their fans, the dogs are suited well to being guard dogs as they respond well to training and form strong bonds with their owners.
The Japanese variety have a strict colouring while the American variety includes a wide variety of colours. The most common Japanese colouring is known as ura-jiro which means white-underside, and is paired with a tan or orange top colour. There is some debate as to whether the Japanese and American Akita breeds are separate. They are recognised as such across the world, however, in America, they are considered two varieties of the same breed.
Japanese Varieties of Shiba Inu
While many of Japan’s Akita Inu look similar, there are marked differences depending on the size of the dog. While regular Akita Inu are considered large dogs in Japan, elsewhere they would be considered medium. Within Japanese classing, there are five medium-sized varieties: the Shiba-inu, Kai-ken, Kishu-inu, Hokkaido-inu and Shikoku-inu. The Shiba-inu is the smallest of the five, around the size of a large cat.
The History of Akita Dogs in Japan
Originating from the mountains of Northern Japan, the Akita Inu were originally trained to hunt wild boar, bears and other animals. They have long been companions to samurai and were also involved in the now-condemned sport of dig-fighting in the 17th century. As dog breeding grew in popularity in the 1900s, the original traits of the Akita Inu were lost, but a special effort was made to bring them back to their former strength, using the Japanese Matagi hunting dog.
The traits if the Akita Inu made them perfect for training as tracking and rescue dogs as well as guards during Japan’s war with Russia at the start of the 20th century. Following a surge in popularity for the breed following the loyalty of Hachiko, Akita dogs were named a Japanese Natural Monument and official standards for breeding were decided upon. In the Second World War, however, the dogs were nearly lost entirely, with many killed for food and clothing and the surviving animals ordered to be killed to prevent the spread of disease. Dedicated owners released their dogs into the mountains in an effort to save them and following the war an effort was made to breed them back into safe numbers.
The first Akita-Inu to be sent abroad was a gift to the famous author and disability rights activist Helen Keller, who had long been a fan of the breed. Many were also taken home by soldiers following the occupation and bred with German Shepherds, leading to the American variation of the breed.
In Japan, small Akita statues are given to newborn children as a symbol of longevity and happiness. Their loyalty and strength are viewed as admirable and they are considered to be cat-like in their fastidiousness, especially when it comes to self-grooming.
Famous Akita Dogs In Japan
The most famous Akita dog in Japan is, without a doubt, Hachiko. Having walked his master to and from work every day, he was left waiting on a May afternoon. His owner, Hidesaburo Ueno had died suddenly at work and did not arrive to meet Hachiko on his usual 4pm train. Every day until his death over nine years later, the loyal Hachiko walked to the station to await his owner. Shortly before he died, a statue was erected at Shibuya Station in recognition of his dedication. With films and books written about him, Hachiko has remained a symbol of loyalty in Japanese culture is known world-wide.
A lesser-known and older Akita tale from Japan involves a dog named Shiro and his owner Sadaroku. Caught by the guards of local lord when he accidentally strayed onto their land while hunting, Sadaroku sent his faithful companion Shiro to fetch his hunting license. Despite trying his best in the deep snow, the dog return too late to save his master, who had been executed. The region was struck with a series of terrible events that were blamed on the anger of Shiro. To appease his soul, a shrine was built nearby and can still be visited today, deep in Odate’s Kuzuwara region in Akita prefecture.
Akita Dog Statues In Japan
While most people visit the statue of Hachiko in Shibuya, there are other statues across Japan that are more unusual. For example, at the University of Tokyo, a statue of Hachiko reunited with his owner was unveiled in 2015, giving a heartwarming end to their separation.
In Akita, an annual Inukko Festival is held with giant ice statues of Akita dogs carved lovingly by talented ice sculptors. The dogs are dressed with Shinto ceremonial ropes to show they are sacred. The dogs were used as hunters in the region for many years and have a strong place in the hearts of Akita’s communities even to this day. The streets of Odate are filled with Akita Dogs, from designs on the manhole covers to street decorations.
Akita Dog Visitor Center
Opened in 2019, the Akita Dog Visitor Center is a great first stop for those arriving in Odate. Not only does it have great exhibitions on the history and roles of Akita dogs as well as displays showcasing the many gifted Akita dogs There are two full-time Akita Dog Ambassadors working in the town who greet visitors at the station and Visitor Center and provide information and tips on what to do. The two dogs, Shodai and Omochi, have also been named as honorary station masters in recognition of their hard work.
- Name: Akita Dog Visitor Center (大館市観光交流施設「秋田犬の里)
- Address: 1 Chome-13-1, Onaricho, Odate, Akita,
- Location: The Visitor Center is located directly across from Odate Station on the JR Hanawa and Ou Lines.
- Hours: 09:00 - 17:00 (Dog exhibition room: 09:30 - 16:45)
- Regular Closing Days: Dogs not available on Mondays
Akita Dog Museum
Founded by the Akita Preservation Society, the Akita Dog Museum aims to teach visitors all about the history of Akita Inu. At the entrance, the museum has a statue of Hachiko beside a bright red bridge with the loyal canine looking towards his hometown. The museum strives to teach visitors about all elements of Akita Inu, including their physical form, cultural significance and social value. There are dogs waiting to greet visitors every day of the week, including white-furred Yuki who is the receptionist and her friends Kurobei, Gin, Puko and Madoka who all have red fur.
- Name: Akita Dog Museum (秋田犬会館)
- Address: 13-1 Sannomaru, Odate, Akita, Japan
- Location: The museum is located close to Keijo Park and is a 15-minute walk from Higashi Odate Station on the JR Hanawa Line.
- Hours: 09:00 - 16:00
- Regular Closing Days: Saturday Afternoons from Nov 4th - April 20th and closed for New Year from Dec 12th - January 3rd, also the afternoon of August 13th.