Hihi – No Laughing Matter

16 Oct

Hi blog.

Nature in Japan hasn’t been terribly friendly as of late.  It seems that if the climate isn’t trying to kill you, the geology is.

So, let’s take a break from nature per se and look at some folklore – which is often just a more primal interpretation of nature.

Enter the hihi…

My first encounter with the hihi was during a re-run of an episode of Hissatsu Shigotonin, sometime in late 1989 or early 1990.  What I didn’t know when I reached for my Japanese-English dictionary and found the definition of hihi as “baboon” was that the hihi is also the name of a mythological creature.

It never really entered my mind again until earlier this year when, thanks to the wonders of TV, a cartoon of an old tale also depicted the hihi.

The hihi (狒々, 狒狒 or比々) is of Chinese origin but has firmly taken root in Japanese folklore, where it has fused with legends of the sarugami and yamawaro.  It is depicted as a large to giant-sized ape or macaque.

Some commentators suggest the hihi is inspired by early descriptions of gorillas or orang-utans, while others point of fossils of primates larger than those extant today.

Descriptions vary – the Wakansansaizue describes the hihi as being black, whereas most popular depictions in ukiyoe, drama and TV are of a white-haired beast, although the red face and long, flapping lips are almost universal.  Some say that a snow monkey that reaches an extreme old age transforms into a hihi.

The hihi as depicted in the Wakansansaizue

Living in the deep mountains, they hunt wild boars but will also prey upon humans.  Most descriptions agree that the hihi will laugh before devouring a human – the laugh being the reason behind the name.  Stories of them catching and running off with women are staple fare of folk stories, kagura theatre and ukiyoe.  (Incidentally, the word hihi is also sometimes used as a pejorative for a lecherous old man.)

A hihi by Sekien.

Masasumi’s 1853 painting of a hihi.

The two most famous stories involving the hihi are of the semi-historical Jutaro Iwami (often identified as the real-life Kanesuke Susukita) and Shippeitaro (or Hayataro, as he is also called, depending on the region).

Both these stories are similar in plot.

In the former, the mighty warrior hears of a village that is forced by some mountain god to make a sacrifice of a maiden once every year.  Not believing that a god would be so evil, Jutaro decides to take the place of the maiden and hides in the offering casket.  Night falls and a hihi comes down from the mountains to collect his meal…

A composite of Tsukioka’s 1865 print of Jutaro Iwami about to ambush the hihi and other goblins.

Jutaro Iwami vanquishes the hihi in this 1859 woodblock print by Utagawa.

Iwami’s movie debut. A promotional poster for a 1917 film.

In the latter story, a maiden must be offered to a menacing mountain god.  A wandering priest hears of this and decides to investigate.  Hiding behind the shrine at night, he hears voices calling to each other.

“Is Shippeitaro near?”

“No, we have no need to fear tonight”

The priest goes off in search of Shippeitaro, envisaging him as a mighty warrior.  Imagine his surprise when he finds that Shippeitaro is a dog!

He borrows the dog, who hides in the casket in which the offering is to be made (some versions have a shrine building instead).  Night falls, shadows come down from the mountains and open the box.  (One would think that villians in Japanese folklore would wise up to this trick…)

The next morning the priest finds the bodies of dozens of monkeys and a giant hihi (some versions have three hihi).  The wounded Shippeitaro makes his way back home, but dies from his injuries.

There is a temple in Komagane, Nagano Prefecture, which claims to house the grave of Hayataro (as he is known in that region), and to also be his birthplace.

Curiously, this story was translated into English by one T. H. James in 1888, but she replaced the monkeys and hihi with phantom cats.  (Perhaps she thought that hihi wouldn’t translate well, and replaced them with the dog’s enemy in Western folklore.  In Japanese folklore, dogs and monkeys are antagonistic toward each other, and people who hate each other are said to have a monkey and dog relationship)

Just to tie all the folklore and nature back together again, the Shippeitaro/Hayataro legend claims the dog as being a “yamainu” (山犬).  This is a very vague term, and has been used not only to describe domestic dogs which have gone wild, but also wolves.  Some also suggest that it may be a separate creature altogether, possibly a domestic dog-wolf hybrid.

The wolf cult is a complex and fascinating topic, and I hope to write about it sometime.

Stuck in the middle

6 Oct

So much I could blog about, so much I haven’t blogged about…

Just over a week has passed since that sudden eruption on Mt. Ontake – Japan’s deadliest in the post-war era – that claimed over 50 lives, all of them climbers.  If the weather had been bad, the death toll would have been zero.

Right now, Typhoon 18 is making its way eastward, and is expected to make a direct hit on the Kano region.  Various locales can expect flooding, landsides and the usual damage typhoons on this scale bring.

school is closed for the students, but staff are expected to show up.  And I have to record the listening tests for tomorrow!!

More Bad News Bears

24 Sep

Hi blog.

It must be tough being a bear.  They never make the news except when they attack people or cause damage.

Read on…


First from the Japan Times


Bear attack: Up close and way too personal

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

 Aug 23, 2014

On Aug. 14, I was attacked by a black bear. It all happened suddenly and in a blur of fur, paws and gnashing teeth as the tsukiwaguma charged out of the trees 10 meters from me in a forested, hilly area in Gunma Prefecture in the Kamimoku district of Minakami.

I sustained light injuries, a few gashes to the head and upper arm, but it probably would have been a lot worse if my dogs, Goro (10) and Rhubarb (14), had not chased it off. They are mostly shibainu, a dog bred for bear hunting. It’s a popular domestic house pet, but somewhere lurking in the DNA is an incredible ferocity and fearlessness when it comes to bears. Lucky me. Boars they are afraid of.

During the past two decades of hiking in Gunma I have encountered bears about a hundred times, but almost all have been unthreatening visual sightings. I’ll be writing, take a break by going for a walk in the woods using an old ski pole as a walking stick, and get lost in my thoughts. It’s good exercise, and the dogs and I enjoy the pleasant natural surroundings, passing abandoned charcoal kilns, irrigation ponds, scattered stone memorial tablets, bamboo groves, streams, a Shinto torii and on and up through abandoned rice fields to stretches of beech and oak forests that have the nuts bears like to eat.

There is nothing quite like a bear to waken one from thoughtful reveries and get the blood pumping. Over the years I probably got too complacent because nothing bad ever happened. Seeing bears just seemed to be a normal thing and only part of the rich wildlife one encounters less than two hours from Tokyo. I also see Japanese serow, deer, boars, raccoons, fox, iitachi (golden-tailed martens), pheasants, quails, hawks and snakes. The most dangerous animal where I grew up in Connecticut was the porcupine, and my Irish Setters never quite learned the part about not biting them.

Since the early 1990s, I have watched Kamimoku’s farming population age and its sericulture all but disappear. The mulberry groves are now mostly neglected and in summer the mulberries, used to make jam and wine in my native New England, are left for the birds and animals. One summer I wandered into a grove and suddenly realized there was a bear snacking up in the branches and quickly walked away.

But it is the blueberry that helped save me from bears. I went to a pick-your-own blueberry farm and at the cash register noticed a picture of the farmer on the wall with him standing over a dead bear, rifle in hand. I asked what he did if a bear charged and he didn’t have his rifle. He warned me not to run, because they are way faster than people, but in a jam he said to run downhill, because its awkward for bears. He also advised against climbing trees — they are better at it — or playing possum, because they can inflict serious wounds even if you curl up. He said the best bet is to stand your ground, wave your hands and yell as loudly as possible. Good advice until now.

Since then I have been charged about 10 times and I did exactly what he said almost every time, and the bear always veered off and ran away. The one time I didn’t it was near dusk and I lost my footing and fell backward in an irrigation ditch as the bear just ran by me.

I started wearing bear bells a few years ago after a way too close face-to-face encounter. Now I wear several bells, clanging and jangling on the paths, relying on the tintinnabulation to warn the bears off. But this has not always worked because some bears apparently didn’t get the memo and don’t run away. One came down a tree nearby, unimpressed by my bells. So I also carry bear spray. But this attack happened way too fast. And that ski pole I bring? Just as useless as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “third arrow.”

Twelve years ago a Danish couple, just weeks from their wedding, asked to come along for a hike and thought I was trying to scare them off when I said I had seen fresh bear scat. So along with my wife and two dogs — Ochan (10) and his daughter Rhubarb (then only 2) — we headed up into the hills. About an hour later Rhubarb tore off barking and treed a bear. But the bear changed its mind and came back down and Rhubarb was not giving an inch, barking furiously. We were about 20 meters away and watched in horror as the bear moved in. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Ochan ran in between bear and daughter, lunging at the bear and chasing it up the hill, nipping at its heels as it ran away.

Lars and Henriette were in shock — way too close for comfort with their wedding approaching — and disbelief that a 14-kg dog took on a 100-kg bear. Ochan’s story circulated around Tokyo, getting better and more improbable with the telling in the way that urban legends are made. A couple of years later at an embassy party a diplomat regaled me with the embellished saga of this heroic dog, by then a shoo-in for the Hachiko Hall of Fame.

That brings me to Ochan’s biological son, Goro, who came running from behind me to chase off the bear after it landed a haymaker to my head, putting a few bear-claw etchings into my scalp with aging Rhubarb barking up a storm in support. They got steak that night — and the next.

I posted a selfie of my bandaged visage and bloodstained T-shirt on social media and got some interesting responses, including a disconcerting 73 likes! Referencing my column, someone said it must be a pro-Abe bear. Others noted that five years ago in Minakami a jogger had his nipple torn off, among other gruesome injuries. That guy actually had a brawl with the bear and insists he ended up tossing it over the railing into a ravine. In my dreams!

I actually met the hunter who killed that bear and he joked about the earlier incident, telling me he presented the jogger with a replacement from the bear. To be honest, I hope he doesn’t kill my bear. I have seen way too may dead bears around here, one time six carcasses piled up, but the farmers I’ve spoken to see them as a pest to be eradicated.

Many people tell me I am dumb to continue hiking after so many bear encounters, and I plead guilty.

It’s one of those fun things that’s just too hard to give up, somewhere on that list with off-piste powder skiing and untracked lift-lines.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

And from the Asahi Shimbun


Bear sightings on record pace across Japan, raising danger of encounters

September 22, 2014


A spike in bear sightings across Japan including western Tokyo has some experts raising the alarm, following a recent attack on elderly field workers in Iwate Prefecture.

The increase has been particularly high in the mountainous Tohoku region and in some parts of western Tokyo.

On Sept. 12, three men and women in their 60s and 70s who were working in fields near their homes in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, were assaulted by an Asiatic black bear.

The encounter left them with injuries including scratches on their faces and backs.

Prior to the incident, the prefectural government issued bear warnings for the first time in eight years. According to the prefecture’s nature preservation division, bears were spotted in 12 cases as of Sept. 19 this fiscal year, which ends in March 2015.

The Environment Ministry said preliminary data show that bears were spotted on 2,080 occasions across Japan from April through May, nearly 40 percent higher than the same period last year, and among the highest figures in the past five years.

In the Tohoku region’s six prefectures, bear sightings rose 80 percent to 941 for the April-May period. Seventy-one sightings were reported in Gunma Prefecture and 21 in Tokyo in those months.

With just four or fewer sightings during the same period in Tokyo in the past five years, it is unclear what is behind the spike.

Iwate Prefecture officials and the government-affiliated Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute said the situation can probably be explained by the birth of more cubs than usual, thanks to last year’s bumper beechnut harvest.

They also said a shortage of leaves due to outbreaks of gypsy moths may have driven more bears toward human habitats. Bears eat leaves during the spring and summer.

Experts say more bears are likely to appear near human settlements toward winter, as the creature searches wider areas for food to store nutrients in preparation for hibernation.

An anticipated poor harvest of acorns and nuts, a main food source for bears in autumn, is expected to exacerbate the situation.

“A poor beechnut harvest, especially in the Tohoku and Hokuriku regions, is likely to lead to an increase in bear sightings,” said Toru Oi, a researcher who heads the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute’s Department of Wildlife Biology.

“All conditions that drive bears into human habitats are being met this year,” the bear ecology expert warned.

To avoid attracting the creature, Oi advised people not to leave leftover food or other garbage outside for long periods.

“When in mountainous areas, wear accessories that produce a sound, or clap your hands, to make bears aware of your presence,” Oi said.

According to an estimate by the Forestry Agency’s Tohoku Regional Forest Office, beech trees will bear few nuts this season in Iwate, Akita and Yamagata prefectures, with poor harvests anticipated in Aomori and Miyagi prefectures.

A Tohoku Regional Forest Office official said the dearth is likely to be the most severe since fiscal 2006, when a record 5,185 bears were captured nationwide and 150 people were assaulted by the animals.

After a couple more attacks on the Equinox holiday making the Japaneses language news, we can reasonably expect more in English over the next day or two.

Good Gourd

15 Sep



Hi blog.

We’re past half way through September, and not a single post. Blame the weather, upcoming sports days, karate competitions, speech contests and laziness.

The news on the environmental front of late was the terrible landslides in Hiroshima that claimed about 100 lives, and the first known outbreak of dengue fever in and around Tokyo for about 70 years.

Meanwhile, much of western Japan received only about 45% of its average summer sunlight, but 300% of its average rainfall, causing vegetable prices to soar.


I would be stuck for something to write about if it wasn’t for one of our school caretakers who found an interesting fruit and put it on display in the staffroom.

Pretty, don’t you think?

Actually, I am somewhat familiar with the fruit in its autumn-winter form, when everything else around it is withering and the fruit is a red-orange colour.

The fruit in question is Trichosanthes cucumeroides, a plant without a proper English name.  Some translate it as snake gourd, which is in fact a related but different plant (Trichosanthes cucumerina).  Known in Japan as karasuuri (烏瓜) – literally “crow gourd” or “crow melon” – Trichosanthes cucumeroides also has a number of alternate names, including tamazusa (玉章) in reference to its seeds, which look like folded letters; and kitsunenomakura (狐の枕), literally “fox’s pillow”.


Curiously enough, there seems to be no particular explanation for its most common name.


I was not familiar with the unripe fruit, which is hard to spot when everything else is a mass of green vines, and the distinct white lace-like flowers bloom only at night. (I can’t even claim to have noticed these…)  It is thought that the lace-like structure helps moths, which pollinate the flowers, locate them.


The unripe fruit has a name – uribo (瓜坊), literally “gourd priestling” – which is also come to be used for the piglets of wild boar, due to their similar colour patterns of white lines along the length.

You can see the lines like the ones on wild boar piglets.

While the fruit is generally considered unsuitable for consumption (usual caveats apply…), parts of the plant have been used in folk medicine, the fruit is sometimes used as ornaments; and the seeds are said to bear a resemblance to the magic hammer of folk tales, so are put in wallets or purses for good fortune.

I have to admit, these gourds DO make nice interior decorations.


As autumn advances I’m likely to encounter the ripe fruit, and hope to bring you some photos of these.


Special Bonus:

A large wasp spider  (Argiope bruennichi) seen on the roadside.

She’s a big one, isn’t she?

My 100th post.

Holy cow… err… horse?

23 Aug

Hi blog.

It’s a little late to be talking about O-Bon – it finished on August 15th here – but I managed to get a couple of interesting pictures.

Anyone who spends the summer in suburban Japan will encounter cucumbers and eggplants with four pieces of chopstick pushed into them (to create legs) placed on street corners.  (I admit to being baffled on my first encounter – I thought they were some kid’s handiwork.)

A typical example of the eggplant and cucumber decorations.

These are called shoryouma (精霊馬), in which shoryo refers to the spirit of the dead (typically an ancestor) and uma is a horse.  Curiously, the cucumber represents a horse and the eggplant represents a cow, but there is no customary name for the cow alone.  The pair are known as horses!

It’s a horse. (Often it is made with the curve facing downwards for better effect)

The cow with no name… apparently it is also shoryouma!


The role of the horse and cow are not defined exactly.  Depending on whom you talk to:


The horse is for the spirits to arrive on so they come quickly.  The cow is for the spirits to depart on so that they leave slowly.


The cow is for the spirits to arrive on and the horse is for them to return on.


The horse is for the spirits to ride and the cow is to carry their belongings.


I was pleasantly surprised to discover straw versions too.  The shape is sometimes difficult to tell apart – one website I found during my research suggested only the shape of the tails were different!

The cow is blue and the horse is red.

Note the difference in the tails.


There are other Bon decorations, but these tend to be displayed indoors.  Shoryouma are the only kind of Bon decorations one simply stumbles upon.

Along Came A Spider

17 Aug


Hi blog.


Avid readers (surely there are one or two of you out there…) might remember that I promised one day I would write a post on a certain spider.  Well, that day has come.


I’ve written up on most of Japan’s large web spinners – jorogumo and onigumo spring to mind.  This time I’ve managed to get some reasonable shots of the other major orb weaver – Argiope amoena.

This spider seems to lack a common name in English, so I’ll use the local name koganegumo (黄金蜘蛛) here.


This spider belongs to the same genus as the wasp spider (A. bruennichi) and the St. Andrew’s cross spiders (A. keyserlingi and A. aetherea), to which it bears a strong resemblance.  Like its close relatives, the female spins a web with some kind of stabilimentum, or web decoration, and sits in the middle of the web, head downward, and the legs stretched out into an X shape.

Look what I just found! The legs are held out into an X shape, and you can see the web decoration.

The shape of the stabilimentum varies between individuals, but is typically a combination of one to four / and \ patterns extending from the centre of the web.  The best known is the X-shaped combination.  The exact function of the stabilimentum is unknown, although research suggests that it reflects ultraviolet light which attracts prey insects.

A clearer view of the stabilimentum.


The female koganegumo grows to just under 20 mm in body length, and has a wide abdomen.  The abdomen is decorated with wide horizontal gold and brown bands.  The male grows to a mere one fifth that size and is typically a dull brown.

It is found throughout Japan minus Hokkaido, and its range also includes the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and parts of China.  Apparently, however, it is quite rare here in Saitama and is listed as an endangered species on a prefectural level!


This spider has a number of regional names, some of which are shared with the jorogumo.  (Actually, a lot of people are actually unaware of the differences between the two – they tend to lump spiders into a single category, usually a visceral conglomerate of fear and disgust)


Like their close relatives, these spiders have a single year life span, with males mating once or twice – they never survive a second mating – and eggs are laid in summer.  The hatchling spiders survive over winter, but the adults die during autumn.

Larger than life. Actually, she’s quite a pretty spider, don’t you think?


While not embedded deeply in folklore like the jorogumo, the koganegumo used to play a part in children’s games – its web was used to catch cicadas.

Furthermore, there is a tradition of pitting female spiders against each other in the old Satsuma fief in modern Kagoshima.

Apparently, this was started in 1592 by Yoshihiro Shimazu, lord of Kagoshima, as a means of instilling fighting spirit among his men.  The event continues to be held today and is designated an important cultural event.


The spiders are deprived of food for three days before the fight.  They are placed on a horizontal stick and forced to encounter.  The winner is the spider which forces its opponent to fall, starts to wrap it in silk, or succeeds in biting its foe.

It seems that intervention prevents arachnidian deaths.

As seen on NHK news…


I’m sure you’ll agree that the koganegumo is a fascinating and beautiful spider.

Two to Tango… 1953 Strategic Air Command combative measures footage

15 Aug

Taking another break from wildlife to look at budo, this came my way as a post on E-Budo.com combined with information from an electronic book sample I happened to stumble upon.

Ignoring the cheesiness of the commentary and the patriotic corniness of the presentation, the tile of the video is misleading on two counts.

American airmen of the Strategic Air Command learn the ancient art of judo from Japanese instructors in Japan.

The YouTube description goes on to say:

American airmen of the Strategic Air Command learn judo in Japan to be in top physical condition. The airmen learn self defense methods of judo. They learn the basics of the ancient art of judo from Japanese instructors. They practice judo in a hall. Location: Japan. Date: May 28, 1953.

First of all, judo is not an ancient art.  Judo was developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and much of what is passed on today bears little resemblance to the judo developed by Jigoro Kano.

Secondly, the video clearly shows arts other than judo.  The karate is very distinct, and this video is interesting in that one can see Gichin Funakoshi supervising paired work.

Some aikido is also demonstrated, but neither it or karate are mentioned in the commentary.  As far as the film makers were concerned, it was all judo.  (I hate it when different martial arts are lumped together by the media)

It was later that I was able to fill in some of the gaps when I encountered a digital version of TAIHO-JUTSU: The Art of Arrests by Steven Kaplan.  The opening chapter contains some notes by U.S. taiho jutsu pioneer and early SAC instructor Larry A. Lent:

Finally, after long anticipation, we boarded a plane for Japan….. After we landed at Tokyo International Airport, we were taken to Army Hall which is located just across from the Imperial Palace.  This was to be our home for the next two months.  However, we did not see too much of it.  Our schedule went something like this:

0745 We departed for the Kodokan. After an hour of warm-up exercises, we studied Karate under Obata, Nishiyama, Okazaki, and Terada.

1200 We took a break for lunch.

1400-1500 We had Combative Measures.

1500-1645 We had Judo under Kotani, Otaki, Takagake (all Eighth Degree Black Belts), Sato, Shinojima (Seventh Degree Black Belts), and Yamaguchi (Fifth Degree Black belt).

…..This schedule went on for the first, third, fifth, and seventh week.  The second, fourth, sixth, and eighth weeks we studied Aikido under Tomiki (Eighth Degree), Yamada, and Inuzuka.  These same weeks we also studied Taiho-Jutsu under Hosokawa (Seventh Degree), and Kikuchi (Seventh Degree). 

From this description it appears that all the SAC Combative Measures classes took place at the Kodokan, the home of judo.  Maybe the film makers can be forgiven for thinking everything they saw was part of the Kodokan’s program.

The video itself stands up to repeated viewings as long as the sound is turned off.

Yes, We Have No Elephants Today

7 Aug

The third year English textbook has a “chapter” titled Faithful Elephants, which is a highly abridged (abridged too far?) translation of the book Pitiful Elephants (Kawaisona Zo), a tale of the suffering of Ueno Zoo’s wartime elephants and the means by which they were “euthanized”.

Like most Japanese textbook accounts of the war, some important details are missing…

Someday I might write up a critique, but for now I’d like to look at Japan’s other elephants.

“Huh?” I hear you say.  “Elephants aren’t native to Japan.”

And you’d be right.  But not between several million and about 15000 years ago…


Note:  many of the fossil elephants that were endemic to Japan lack English common names, and I want to avoid using some of the awful word-for-word translations that are out there (“dawn elephant”?).  I’ll also abandon my usual practice of giving the Japanese name as these are often common or scientific names rendered into Japanese (e.g. steppe mammoth becomes “suteppu manmosu”) and make for a result not unlike the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show.


Artist’s impression of a woolly mammoth.

Fossils of woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) and steppe mammoths (M. trogontherii) have been found in Hokkaido (plus one set of fossils dragged up from the sea bed in a fishing net around Shimane!)  Japanese taxonomists recognise Mammuthus protomammonteus as a distinct species and as an ancestor of the woolly mammoth.

While the common image of the woolly mammoth is of a gargantuan beast, they were typically the same size or slightly smaller than the African elephant – although that is no small feat in itself!


In addition to the mammoths, there were a number of stegodonts in Japan too.  One of these, the Stegodon orientalis, was distributed around China and Japan, but two others seem to have been endemic to the Japanese archipelago.  One of these, the largest mammal known to have lived on these islands, was discovered in Mie Prefecture and goes by the name Stegodon miensis.  The other is a smaller elephant, Stegodon aurorae.  This one was a mere 1.8 metres tall, less than half the height of S. miensis.

A skull of Stegodon aurorae at the National Science Museum in Tokyo. Picture taken from Wikipedia.


Finally, there was another species of elephant.  Believed to be descended from individuals that crossed over from the Asian mainland, Palaeoloxodon naumanni is also thought to be closely related to modern Asiatic elephants.  This elephant is the subject of taxonomical wars, some asserting that it is in fact a subspecies of Elephas namadicus, (E. namadicus naumannni).

The Japan Times (9 July, 2014) labelled this specimen from the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Natural History as Elephas namadicus. Photo taken from the Japan Times.

While mammoths were restricted to Hokkaido, and the stegodonts seem to have not extended their range to that island, Palaeoloxodon naumanni seems to have been distributed across the Japanese mainland.

The jawbone of Palaeoloxodon naumanni, excavated from the site of Meiji Jingu Mae Station! Photo taken from Wikipedia.

It was slightly smaller than its modern relatives and was built to deal with a colder environment – thick hair and a layer of fat.  Like the mammoths and stegadonts, both sexes of these elephants were tusked.  While fossils of this elephant have turned up in construction sites – including railway stations and banks – some of the best known samples come from Lake Nojiri in Nagano.  Some of these have been fashioned into tools, indicating that the elephants were probably hunted by Palaeolithic humans.

Diorama at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Archaeology depicting the hunting of Palaeoloxodon naumanni. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

These elephants became extinct some 15000 years ago, and apart from the odd fossil turning up in the field of Chinese medicine, they were almost completely unknown in Japan until the modern era.

Ladybird, Ladybird

21 Jul

The hunt begins…


No, I am simply looking for something to feed our frog.  Small grasshoppers or crickets are the best food.  Small worms are also excellent, but difficult to find.  Slaters (woodlice, sow bugs, or whatever they are called in your part of the world) are acceptable, although not the ones with a tough carapace and that roll up into a ball.

Damned fussy eaters, frogs.


On the leaves of our cucumber plants I notice several insect larvae.  They look like lady beetle larvae, but are a green-yellow instead of the usual black.  I also notice a small yellow insect with a typical lady beetle outline.


It looks like a lady beetle larva (above) and an adult lady beetle (below)

Identify this!

I’m not going to try giving beneficial insects to the frog, and lady beetles secrete toxic fluids, so I ask the good wife to do a quick internet check to see if there is some kind of yellow lady beetle.  Yes, there are yellow lady beetles.  Yes, they are beneficial.

Close-up of the larva.

I decide this little insect is going to be worth checking into…


Note: The English language has a plethora of old and regional names, including “ladybird”, “ladybug”, “lady cow”, “may bug”, “golden bug” and “barnabee”.  However, these insects are beetles, and entomologists use the terms “lady beetle” or “ladybird beetle”.  I prefer to use the term “lady beetle”, using other terms only as popular common names.


 So! Bein’ a ladybug automatically makes me a girl. Is that it, fly boy? Eh?

Francis, A Bug’s Life


The Japanese generic name for lady beetle is tentomushi (天道虫), tento being a reference to the sun – it’s worth noting that in the Japanese collective consciousness the sun is red.  The name is also sometimes rendered as 紅娘 or 瓢虫.

Specific beetles then go by the name tento.  For example, the seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) is known as nanahoshi tento (七星天道).


The beetle in question is the yellow ladybird beetle (Illeis koebelei).  Its name in Japanese is kiirotento (黄色天道), which corresponds perfectly with the English.  I’ve also seen it referred to as the yellow spotless ladybird.

It’s so clean and spotless…

A small beetle (3.5 – 5 mm in length), it is best known for feeding upon powdery mildew, making this a truly beneficial insect.  It has no spots on its abdomen, but has a pair of black spots on its thorax and large eyes, which look like spots to the naked eye.

Caught in the act! Here you can see the spots and the large dark eyes.


Lady beetles apparently have a short lifespan – just two months, although some individuals have been recorded as living for nearly a year, and beetles born in autumn somehow manage to hibernate and survive into the next spring.  I’m going to see if I can’t find some eggs.

A short life that has its ups…

… and downs.


Special bonus!

Although I have not been able to identify the species, I’ll let you enjoy the photos of the baby praying mantis that has made a home on the cucumber plants.


The praying mantis is one of the few insects that can turn their heads.

Wild about Aikido

17 Jul

Hi blog.
Taking a quick break from nature writing – millipedes being the most common critters in my life right now, and I’m sure you don’t want to read about them! – so I’ll give you something martial.

I was recently asked by the Sayama International Friendship Association to demonstrate how to present an aspect of Japanese culture in English.
Now, in all modesty, I consider myself fairly knowledgeable on Japanese culture.  I’m sure that with a little research I could have adequately presented just about any topic. However, some of the points I wanted to make in my presentation was that one should have more than superficial knowledge of their topic, and that possessing a genuine interest and enthusiasm is vital. I also wanted to make the point that showing or demonstrating something is vastly easier – and more attention grabbing – than talking about it. Finally, I wanted to present something that most people in the audience would not have any background knowledge in.

Aikido fitted the bill perfectly…

One of the slides used in my presentation.

You’re probably wondering why I’m dressed like this.
Today, I want to introduce one of my favorite pieces of Japanese culture – aikido.
What is aikido? This is a simple question, but the answer can be quite long and complex. I’ll try to keep it simple.
Aikido is a modern martial art created in the mid-20th century by Morihei Ueshiba. Ueshiba based aikido primarily on Daito Ryu aikijujutsu, which in turn was derived from the martial traditions of the Takeda clan.
The techniques of aikido basically fall under throws and break-falls, locks, pins, chokes and weapons. The weapons generally used are the wooden sword, staff and wooden knife. These weapons are not taught as fighting methods as such, but rather as a means of further understanding aikido body movement.
The name “aikido” refers to meeting or blending with the energy or intent of one’s partner, and the nature of the techniques reflects this. A combination of entering and turning movements gives rise to the actual techniques, and the aim is to perform the technique without relying on mere physical strength. That said, aikido techniques have the potential to be painful or even dangerous. Practitioners are encouraged to adjust their technique to match their partners. For example, I have trained with people of both sexes, in all shapes and sizes, aged from 12 to over 70.
Millions of people around the world practice aikido, and I hope that from this short presentation you can understand why.
I would be happy to take any questions you may have.
Thank you.

As you can see, I avoided the use of any Japanese terminology or jargon – something I reckon the publishers of English textbooks could learn from. There is no mystification and no cultural snobbery; these two frequently make me retch.

I received a few questions, most of which I was prepared for: the nature of competition (Simple – there is no competition.); if I had ever “used” aikido “for real” (If you mean taking a fall from being hit by a car without getting injured, or avoiding fights, then yes. Actually fighting? – no.); and some questions by a practitioner of qigong about ki (Not enough time)

Taking a backward break fall. This is how I dealt with being hit by a car!

It was difficult to demonstrate much without a partner. I borrowed people from the audience to show principles such as unbalancing someone without using strength, or applying a wrist lock (on me, of course), but the only things I could show at full power were break falls and weapons – luckily I’m pretty sharp at those.

Roughly half way through the 13 count jo kata (jusan no jo)

Many thanks to the people at SIFA for their cooperation with my demonstration.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 155 other followers

%d bloggers like this: