A Day in Kamakura

19 Apr

“And there is a Japanese idol at Kamakura”

Rudyard Kipling


Kamakura, after some half-dozen visits, still remains my favourite travel destination in Japan.  If fate had swung differently, and I hadn’t put down roots in Saitama, I probably would have made an effort to live there.

Sandwiched between the sea and hills, this coastal city is rich in history and – if you can sneak away from the tourist traps – the opportunity to engage in some good hikes.  My most recent trip was not to be so (boss wife, kids and in-laws in tow), and one of the “highlights” of the trip would be eating the city’s famed whitebait.

[I have never really grasped this preoccupation with travel for the express purpose of eating some purportedly famous dish.  Nor am I a fan of whitebait – it’s essentially a collection of eyes, scales and backbones and other parts of a fish you probably wouldn’t normally eat anyway.  Just let them grow up, OK?]


It was a clear and sunny day (the cool breeze helped keep the clouds away) and the city was fairly crowded.  (I knew we should have left home earlier…)


Our first stop, despite protests of being tired and hungry, was Engakuji in Kitakamakura.  I had wanted to visit here for a long time, mostly because of its monument to Gichin Funakoshi, the “father of modern karate” – a concept that non-karate people find hard to appreciate.   This revelation of the plot brought further protests, but actually the kids enjoyed their little stroll around the temple grounds.  One really needs at least an hour to enjoy the place, but stomachs were rumbling and – heaven forbid – the whitebait might all be sold out, so it was back on the train for Kamakura proper and lunch.

空手に先手なし “Karate ni sente nashi” There is no first attack in karate – Gichin Funakoshi


This bell at Engakuji is a national treasure.


After lunch we headed for Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu. I never tire of seeing this place, and this was my first visit since the giant ginkgo tree had been brought down in a typhoon, so I was curious to see what had become of it.

The stump of the old ginkgo. Apparently, it has taken root.

En route, my son fell asleep, so I took my daughter for a short walk to see the grave of warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the Kamakura Shogunate.

The approach to Yoritomo’s grave. That’s a shrine on the left.


Yoritomo’s grave

A rickshaw paused under the cherry blossoms on our return route to the Hachiman Shrine.

On our way back to the Hachiman shrine I pointed out the black kites (Milvus migrans lineatus) to my daughter and encouraged her to listen for their shrill cries.  I even spotted a nest. 

Known locally as tobi or tonbi (鳶), these birds are particularly associated with the Kamakura-Enoshima area, where they have gained an unfortunate reputation for stealing food from visitors.

For me, however, the relationship with black kites goes back to my days in Hokkaido, and the call of the kites brings back memories of wide open spaces with breath-taking mountain views.  If I believed in fortunate omens, the kite would top the list.

Anyway, the kites also play an important role in helping control the Formosan squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus thaiwanensis) which now runs feral in the Kamakura area.  I didn’t notice any of these squirrels, known in Japan as taiwanrisu (大弯栗鼠) on this trip, although I have seen them in the city on previous trips.  They are now thought to outnumber native squirrels and are out-competing them.


The main shrine building viewed from the approach.


The shrine also serves as a Tendai temple, and here is one of the Nio statues in the form of Yoritomo.


Having explored the Hachiman area sufficiently and even seen Shinto wedding ceremonies taking place, we woke up my son and took the Enoshima line to Hase to visit the Great Buddha


Approaching the Great Buddha.


You start to appreciate the size as you get closer.

Up close its size is quite daunting.

This is another sight worth visiting again and again – centuries old, 12 metre tall bronze statues can’t be found just anywhere.  The fact that it is not housed in any kind of building (not since the last one was washed away in a tsunami several centuries ago) makes for easy photography.  Unfortunately, time was running short, and access to the inside of the statue – yes, you can pay ¥20 to go inside – had finished, much to the disappointment of at least one little boy, as this was what he had been looking forward to the whole trip.  The light was failing, and soon the Kotoku-in announced closing time.  And time for us to head back home.

The two-metre or so straw sandals at Kotoku-in.

In retrospect, any future trips to Kamakura (and there will be!) should start much earlier.  I would have liked to have spent more time at Engakuji.  A hike to Tsurugaoka via Zeniarai Benten Ugafuku shrine would have been far more interesting than a JR train ride.  I would have liked to have visited the Hase Kannon and explored Enoshima.


If you find yourself around Tokyo with a free day or two, Kamakura is a must.  My recommendation?  Spend two days there and explore the whole area!





Trees don’t just grow on trees…

2 Apr


I took advantage of some free time during a sunny and warm period to go for a little walk and look for wildlife.

Unfortunately, nothing except pigeons seemed to be on the out-and-about.

However, you don’t see this every day…

Growing in the fork of a coppiced oak were two seedlings, an oak and a maple.

The taller of the two appears to be an oak, and the shorter one a maple.

Spring has Sprung

19 Mar

Hi blog.

The first week or so of March was largely “Winter version 2.0″, but we’ve finally got to the point where most days have a maximum in the teens.

Apart from the increase in temperature – I no longer have to wear two layers of thermal underwear – and the ume and early cherry blossom, there are other signs of spring.

Such as ploughing the fields.  (Regular readers will remember the dust storms last year created by ploughing without sowing cover crops)

Seeding dust storms?

The north winds can be strong – particularly when I’m cycling to work.  And sometimes the unexpected happens…

Umm… I think that is supposed to be in your field, not in the power cables…

On March 17th, a much neglected birthday, I spotted my first turtle for the year.

A large Mississippi red-eared slider suns itself on a warm afternoon.

But, most importantly, the Bureau of Meteorology declared late last night that Haru Ichiban – the third-latest since recordings started in 1951 – had finally hit the Kanto region.

Spring has truly sprung.

Orange Crush

2 Mar

I see a orange
See a orange
Ooh, one or two

Orange Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Welcome to March and the official beginning of spring.  February 28 gave us an unseasonably high maximum of 18℃, and finally put paid to most of the remaining snow from that heavy fall over two weeks ago.  Double digit maximums will be more common from now on, but we can also expect gloomy rainy days and high winds.

What to write about?  Finding topics is often a challenge.  They don’t just pass across your desk at work.  Or do they?

Every month, we get a list of the next month’s school lunches, some nutritional information, and some facts or quasi-facts about some of the food items.  Most of this escapes my notice – I’m usually only interested in when “curry day” is that month – and that page soon finds its way to the recycle bin.  Only, this time, the section on seasonal food caught my attention.

Of the five items, one was something I encountered a couple of years ago but couldn’t photograph, one was part of an idea for a post that floated around inside my head before being shelved in development hell, one has made a single photographic appearance in this blog before, and the other two are orange.

[slight pause]

OK, a cursory look has persuaded me to look at the orange ones: the Kiyomi orange and the dekopon.


Before we begin it helps to remember that, even though the Japanese like to make a big fuss over how “natural” their diet is, most fruit and vegetables we eat are not products of nature, but of cross-breeding and cultivation.  (As an example, think of the humble carrot.  You probably eat the root and throw away the leaves and stalk.  In the case of early carrot varieties, people ate the leaves and threw away the root, which was often woody and not suitable for eating.)

The Kiyomi is a tangor, a cross between an orange and a mandarin (often confused with the closely related tangerine, from which the name comes: tangerine  × orange).

Incidentally, the orange itself is probably descended from the mandarin via natural and artificial hybridization, which makes for interesting reading of the “family tree”!

The Kiyomi demonstrates the desirable traits of its parents, having a mandarin-like flavour and an aroma similar to an orange, in addition to being seedless.

Kiyomi oranges. Photo from Wikipedia.

The Kiyomi holds the distinction of being Japan’s first tangor, created in 1949 at an agricultural research station in Shizuoka.  It takes its name (清見) from the nearby temple Seikenji (清見寺) and lagoon Kiyomigata (清見潟).

Naturally, tangor development didn’t end with the Kiyomi, which is also used as a basis for new varieties.  One of these is the dekapon (actually a brand name), otherwise known as the shiranui/shiranuhi (不知火).

The dekopon™ takes its name from the protrusion on the fruit – “deko” (凸) referring to a bump or lump – and its other parent fruit, the ponkan tangerine.

“So, which parent do you take after?” Here you can see the bump that gave rise to the brand name Dekopon. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

March 1st has been officially declared Dekopon Day, although most people don’t notice.


It’s still the season for catching colds, so I’m grateful when the fruit comes with my lunch.  And I’ll keep an eye out for the occasional tree in gardens.

Snow – the saga continues

18 Feb

Well, we can forget about that earlier blog entry’s claim for the heaviest snow in 20 years!

Around Tokorozawa station on Friday afternoon

Digging out paths around Tokorozawa station.

The snowfall on Friday was not only heavier here, it was followed  by a few hours of rain on Saturday, which makes the snow piled up on roofs etc. denser.  Locally, several carports and verandas collapsed under the weight of the snow – my bike park at work also fell in.

And, to make matters worse, it looks like more snow is on the way…


Over 9,000 people in Japan cut off due to heavy snowfall

TOKYO (Kyodo) — More than 9,000 people remained cut off Monday after heavy snowfall on the weekend, with roads blocked in some mountainous areas of Yamanashi, Saitama and Gunma prefectures as well as western Tokyo.

People traveling in vehicles in parts of Yamanashi, Nagano and Gunma prefectures were stranded as some highways were closed, and some Chuo Line train passengers were taken to hotels and other facilities as the trains were stuck in snow in Yamanashi.

The number of deaths related to the snow, excluding people involved in traffic accidents, has risen to 19 in eight prefectures, mostly in the Kanto-Koshin region centering on Tokyo, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

In Yamanashi Prefecture, 1,200 people in the town of Hayakawa and 1,300 in the villages of Kosuge and Tabayama were cut off, while at least 1,600 people were isolated in Kofu and other parts of the prefecture.

Helicopters airlifted food supplies in Yamanashi as main roads were closed in the prefecture.

East Japan Railway Co. on Monday suspended all 60 of its limited express services on the Chuo Line to and from Tokyo.

The Japan Meteorological Agency expects further snow along the Pacific coast of western to eastern Japan from Wednesday to Thursday.

February 17, 2014(Mainichi Japan)

If it’s cold, white and not vanilla ice cream, I don’t need any more of it.

It’s very pretty, but you don’t want to be IN the picture!

Snowed Under

11 Feb

Hi blog.

It’s a public holiday today, but I have a feeling that I’ll be doing more of what I was doing on the weekend – shovelling snow!

It seems hard to believe that we had March/April maximums at the end of January (18℃ at one point) before temperatures plummeted to 4℃ maximums and then the heaviest snow fall for over a decade.


5 die, over 600 injured as heavy snow hits eastern Japan

          A man walks on snow-covered tree-lined road in Yokohama on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. The Japan Meteorological Agency issued the first heavy snowfall warning for central Tokyo in 13 years. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

A man walks on snow-covered tree-lined road in Yokohama on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. The Japan Meteorological Agency issued the first heavy snowfall warning for central Tokyo in 13 years. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Heavy snow hit eastern Japan on Saturday, disrupting transportation systems and leaving five people dead and over 600 people injured in snow-related accidents, a Kyodo News tally showed.

The Japan Meteorological Agency issued the first heavy snowfall warning for central Tokyo in 13 years. Snow accumulation reached 26 centimeters there, the heaviest snow in the Japanese capital since February 1994 and the fourth largest snowfall since World War II, the agency said.

Several universities in Tokyo delayed the starting times of their entrance examinations for the new academic year that begins in April.

Snowfall marked a record 30 cm in Chiba and 16 cm in Yokohama.

Temperatures in many cities in the Kanto region centering on Tokyo stayed below zero during the day and the agency issued a blizzard warning for Chiba Prefecture and parts of Kanagawa Prefecture.

At Tokyo’s Haneda airport, Japan Airlines Co. and All Nippon Airways Co. suspended all domestic flights from noon and 3 p.m., respectively, affecting about 98,000 people.

The Tokaido and Sanyo bullet trains operating in central and western Japan fell behind schedule as they operated at reduced speed, affecting about 180,000 travelers, the operators said.

Sections of expressways, including the Shin-Tomei and Chuo expressways, were also closed due to the snow. Tokyo Electric Power Co. said 48,000 households in the Kanto region were without power Saturday night due to heavy snow.

Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest broadcasting tower at 634 meters, was closed from 11 a.m. due to strong winds, its operator said.

February 08, 2014(Mainichi Japan)

Another Piece in the Puzzle? – Alligator Fossil Found on Oki Island

29 Jan

I saw on the TV news the other day that a near-complete fossilised head of a sea turtle had been discovered in Hyogo.  Hoping to find something about it in the English language press I did a web search, but to no avail.  I did, however, come across an article from late last year which adds another layer of possibility to the origins of the wani in the tale of The White Hare of Inaba.

Exerpt from The Japan Times

MATSUE, SHIMANE PREF. – Shigenori Kawano, 32, found last summer what was later identified as East Asia’s oldest fossil of a giant alligator, dating from around 20 million years ago, on Oki Island in the Sea of Japan.

In mid-July, the researcher at Shimane Nature Museum of Mount Sanbe found a 30-cm rock on the Shimane Prefecture island’s shore while studying local animal and plant life.

Kawano said that when he saw part of a bone exposed on the surface of the rock, he instantly knew it must be that of a reptile.

“The size was nothing compared with that of a turtle or a soft-shelled turtle,” he said.

After carefully examining the rock, he learned that the bone, which measured 21 by 18 cm, was a fossilized portion of the backbone of an alligator estimated to be up to 7 meters long.

Full article here: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/12/30/national/paleontologist-finds-fossil-of-gator-dating-back-20-million-years-on-oki/#.UugOFrSAbIV



Masked Palm Civet – Newcomer, Oldcomer, or Native?

23 Jan

Hi blog.

We’re experiencing some of the coldest weather for years.  Snow has been forecast on a few days but hasn’t fallen to any real extent.  Instead, we’ve experienced days of single digit maximum temperatures – including at least one when the maximum outside converged with fridge temperature, and another when the pipes froze up enough to stop all water to our kitchen until after 11!

Apart from birds – and we know the logistical problems of photographing those with a mobile phone – the possibilities for finding interesting wildlife to write about are quite limited.

I thought I’d take a break from nature and look at some folklore and mythology, and borrowed some books about ghosts and supernatural creatures from my local library.  But an apparently real historical account with a strange animal grabbed my interest.

According to the Kikaishu, a pair of strange animals were sighted at a shrine in Edo in the summer of 1799.  The larger one escaped, but the smaller one was struck with a stick and brought to the home of the land owner.

The actual description is quite vague.  The animal revived, and was observed to eat chicken, fish, and fruit, but ignore grains.  It was about the size a small dog, but looked like a weasel.  Its colour was black with a yellowish-red patch from its chest to its jaw, interspersed with black spots, but no information is recorded as to the number of toes, whether or not it could climb trees, and the like.  What is certain is that the observers were familiar enough with weasels to recognise it as something other than a weasel, ermine or marten.

The illustration is not particularly helpful either – we have no idea as to whether the artist even saw the creature in question.

The creature described in the Kikaishu

However, I believe the mystery animal is a civet.

A masked palm civet, courtesy of Wikipedia

I’ve mentioned the masked palm civet (Paguma larvata) in other posts, and there are arguments as to whether or not it is a native species, a species introduced centuries ago, or a late-19th century or early-20th century import, or possibly even a combination of the above.

I personally suspect its official status as an invasive species and unofficial status as agricultural pest are interlinked – it is easier to declare an animal a pest if it is perceived to not be native.

So, if the masked palm civet (or possibly other civet species) existed in Japan pre-1869, where is the evidence?  There appears to be no fossil evidence of viverrids in Japan.  However, there are regional variations in Japanese civet’s coat patterns, and differences in skull measurements between Japanese and overseas specimens, suggesting the existence of a native sub-species.  And while there are no old records specifically of civets – there was no Japanese name for them at that time – it is easy to imagine them included under the old names of mujina and mami.

Furthermore, there are dozens of cryptids in Japanese folklore.  Some believe the civet to be the basis of (at least some of) the legends of the raiju.  Raiju (雷獣) – literally “lightning beasts” – were believed to live in the skies but occasionally fall to earth during thunderstorms.

Raiju in an 1841 print by Takehara. These creatures bear more than a passing resemblance to masked palm civets, don’t you think?

The raiju has many regional –and often bizarre – variations, including appearing like a six-legged, two-tailed wolf, a crab that walks on four claws, and a seahorse-like beast.  The ones relevant to this post, however, are typically described as: being the size of a dog, cat or mujina; possessing a racoon dog-like coat; having five eagle-like claws; having sharp teeth; and being racoon dog-like in appearance.  More about the raiju can be found here.

Masked palm civets are sometimes confused with racoon dogs, badgers, raccoons and even cats to the extent that pest control companies, local governments and NPO groups publish pamphlets on how to distinguish and identify the animals in question.  If semi-rural people in the internet age have trouble telling a racoon dog from a civet, imagine how much harder it would have been for an urbanised Edo-ite.

Masked palm civets are partially arboreal and generally nocturnal.  However, it is not hard to imagine individuals being knocked out of or forced down from a tree during a thunder storm.  Growing to a body length of around 60 cm and a tail of 40 cm, it is significantly larger than a weasel and matches the size of some of the cryptid animals described above.  Equally important, civets have five toes on each foot, distinguishing them from cats and racoon dogs.  They are omnivores, and like fruit with high sugar content, in addition to small prey.

Now, nothing I’ve said proves anything about the origins of Japan’s masked palm civets.  I personally believe that they were most likely introduced – possibly unintentionally – several hundred years ago.  I’d be even happier, though, if solid evidence could point to a native population.  Hopefully, research will throw more light on the subject.

The Great Gonzui

11 Jan

Hi out there.

The New Year celebrations have come and gone, and things have settled back to their usual routine.

We have passed the solstice, and I notice the days getting longer – it’s not dark at 4:30 any more, but we are still only in the shokan* part of the calendar.  This means that we still haven’t entered daikan*, the coldest period of the year – although we’ve already had days with frozen puddles and ice needs, and one morning when the pipes had frozen enough to cut off water from our kitchen until after 9 o’clock.


I’d like to make this a quick post about a little critter we saw at the Sunshine Aquarium on January 6th.  While this is not exactly suburban wildlife for us in Saitama, it is certainly a realistic possibility for people on the coast.


Today’s guest is the Japanese eel catfish (Plotosus japonicus).

A rather poor shot of the eel catfish (flash photography wasn’t permitted, and they were darting all over the place)

Known mostly by the name gonzui (権瑞), although it has a plethora of regional names including ugu, yurube, urube, gingi, gigime, gugu, gyugyu, and gui.


Growing to around 20 cm long, this fish looks like a smaller but more colourful version of the Amur catfish, but lives in a marine environment.  Another noticeable difference is their schooling behaviour – the fish (particularly juveniles) swim in closely-packed schools, often in a ball-shape.  This is known as “gonzui-dama” (gonzui ball), and is caused by pheromones the fish release.  Adult fish tend to swim alone or in pairs.

Regular readers will remember that, by contrast, the Amur catfish is a solitary animal.


Japanese eel catfish breed in the summer months, laying between 200 and 600 relatively large eggs.  Apparently, the male protects the nest.


Another important point (no pun intended) about the Japanese eel catfish is that it has poisonous spines on both its dorsal and pectoral fins.  While reliable information about this poison is sparse (various internet sites claim potency levels ranging from low to lethal), avoiding getting barbed sounds like good advice.

Actually, a former workmate of mine got barbed on our wharf fishing antics during a staff trip to the Izu Peninsula a few years back.  He reeled in the fish and, not knowing what it was, grabbed it… oops!

Another workmate recognised the fish and had him visit a doctor.  Needless to say he survived and was drinking like a trooper that evening.


Despite being well known to fishermen in the Izu area and even in Tokyo Bay, but has never been considered a table fish.  Some web sites claim that it was virtually unknown to the general Edo populace because it was never sold at fish markets.

While the Japanese eel catfish is eaten in some areas, most fishermen consider it a junk fish.  In fact, there is a tree (Euscaphis japonica) which is also called gonzui – possibly because it too is widely considered worthless.


As for myself, I see them as beautiful fish (in the water, not on the table).


*see my post 24

2013 in review

3 Jan

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,600 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

A bit of a surprise for me was that four out of my top rating posts for 2013 were written in 2012.

I would like to thank WordPress for giving me a platform (soapbox?) to do my blogging, the people who actively follow my blog (my stats show 20 followers), my referers – especially Facebook (my FB friends know who you are),  hanlonsrzr.blogspot.jp, Ian, and even Wikipedia (yes, my obscure blog is referenced in a Wikipedia article); and of course you, the reader.

As for 2014, I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open, and see what I can find to blog about.

I hope to “see” you again soon.


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