The entrances to temples and shrines are usually guarded by a pair of statues, one on either side. They can take different forms, but for a Shinto shrine they are a pair of lion-dogs, mythical creatures called shishi. One will have its mouth open, the other closed; that has been explained to me as representing the beginning and the end, birth and death. I took the photos above in Nagoya on Saturday; it’s a pity one was in shade and the other in full sunlight. I’ve seen similar (but smaller) statues outside private houses, too – miniature versions of the lion-dogs sitting on gateposts.
In the entrance gate to the Todaiji temple in Nara, there are two huge wooden figures, carved by (or under the direction of) the famous carver Unkei in around 1200. These are Nio protectors, the Buddhist version of shishi. The basics are very similar – they ward off evil spirits and represent the beginning and the end, one open mouth and one closed.
At a small shrine between my flat and Ikea, a pair of foxes stands either side of the shrine. These are kitsune, and are used at shrines dedicated to the god/goddess of agriculture. I haven’t been able to find out what they’re holding in their mouths.
On the other hand, there’s a house close to the office in Center Minami with Mickey and Minnie statues outside. Perhaps that’s something completely different.