Things That Make You Go N

22 Dec

Whoops!  It’s been far too long between posts and the winter solstice is upon us yet again.  Japan has a few traditions relating to this date.  Yuzu-yu is one, there are also ideas about eating azukigayu, a kind of red bean and rice gruel, but I also recently stumbled across some information about eating food with a specific phonetic value.

Fresh yuzu. Lovely fragrance, not so lovely taste.

I have mentioned this in passing, usually related to homophones (the kelp kombu sounds similar to yorokobu – to be happy) or shape (soba noodles which are long and therefore associated with long life).  Only this time, the desired phonetic value is an “n”.

Left: The kanji (Chinese character) “mu”. Right: the hiragana “n” which is derived from it.

Let me explain a little about the Japanese language.  It is a syllabic language, and every syllable (or, more correctly, mora) contains a vowel value, either as a stand-alone vowel or consonant-plus-vowel combination  – except the “n” mora.  This odd-man-out is also sometimes represented by an “m” (as in the above-mentioned “kombu”) since it often changes phonetic value when preceding a “b”, “m” or “p”.

Anyway, there is a belief that eating food with the “n” sound will prevent cerebrovascular disease, or at least bring good luck (“n” sounds similar to un, meaning “luck”)

Up close and personal with a raw lotus root from the supermarket. I love these sliced finely and fried into chips!

Examples include carrots (ninjin), giant radish (daikon), lotus root (renkon), udon noodles (which have the added advantage of being long, therefore promoting long life into the bargain) and pumpkin.  (That’s winter squash for those of you from the U.S.A., who think that pumpkins come in orange only.)

Pumpkin is an interesting example because its most common Japanese name (kabocha – said to be derived from the Portuguese name for “Cambodia”, whence Portuguese sailors first brought pumpkin to Japan in the mid-16th century) doesn’t have the “n” sound.

But don’t worry.  As regular readers of this blog know, many things in Japan have more than one name, and the pumpkin is no exception.  One of its other names is nankin uri (南京瓜) – literally “Nangking gourd” – and often simply shortened to nankin (with two of the lucky “n”s!)  Curiously, the afore-mentioned word kabocha is rendered into kanji as 南瓜.

A quarter pumpkin from the supermarket. Believe it or not, they price these things by the one hundred grams.

The most common pumpkin dish is possibly pumpkin simmered in stock.  Personally, I prefer pumpkin tempura, which also has the lucky “n” – although I can’t recall it making me particularly lucky.

With its high sugar content, it is one of the few autumn vegetables that will keep into the winter.  It is also rich in vitamins, particularly vitamin A and beta carotene, and is frequently listed as a food to prevent colds and flu.

While there is a fair chance that I won’t be eating pumpkin this solstice, typing this has given me a craving for pumpkin.  And – who knows –  maybe I might just get lucky.

On my hand for some sense of proportion. You can see the green skin around the edges.


Today’s Wild In Japan was brought to you by vitamin A, β carrotene, and by the mora “n”.


1 Dec



The weather has been erratic lately – we’ve had glorious days with the maximum in the mid- to high- teens, and cold, wet and miserable days.  The ground is covered with fallen leaves, only a few persimmons remain on my tree, and the days are becoming ridiculously short.

The azure-winged magpies are making their presence known with their calling out to each other and squabbling over fruit, but most other wildlife has switched off.  The only praying mantises I’ve seen recently are dead ones, only a few jorogumo are left alive, and the vines that turn local forests into jungles in summer are rapidly dying and rotting.

I’ve also noticed that the number of visitors to Wild in Japan has petered off a little, but that my posts on raccoon dogs and snakes still seem to be the favourites… time to write about a snake!

 I mentioned the Japanese keelback (Amphiesma vibakari vibakari) in my previous post, and would like to talk more about this fascinating animal.  (I wanted more time to look at the specimen exhibited at the zoo, but got dragged away by the kids)

 The Japanese keelback or Asian keelback is one of Japan’s smallest snakes.  It has a natural range from Hokkaido to Kyushu and the immediately surrounding islands.  A subspecies (Amphiesma vibakari danjoense) is found only on Oshima Island, Nagasaki Prefecture, while a third subspecies (A. v. ruthveni) is found in parts of China, Russia and the Korean Peninsula.

 Growing to a maximum length of between 40 and 65 cm, the Japanese keelback feeds mostly on small fish, tadpoles, small frogs, and worms.  They live in forests, and prefer areas around water – not at all surprising considering its diet.  Japanese keelbacks are crepuscular – active around dawn and dusk –  although they may become active during the daytime following rain.

Part of my interest in this snake was inspired by its local name, hibakari (日計 or sometimes 日量), which could be translated as “the measure of day” or “that day only”.  Just as the tiger keelback was long thought harmless when it in fact possesses some of the most potent venom of any Japanese snake, the Japanese keelback was once believed to be venomous; a bite would cause the victim to die by the end of that day – hence the name.  The Japanese keelback, in fact, does not possess venom.

I hope to get some photos to add to this post some day in the not-too-distant future.

Daddy’s takin’ us to the zoo

20 Nov

We’re goin’ to the zoo, zoo, zoo

How about you, you, you?

You can come too, too, too

We’re goin’ to the zoo, zoo, zoo.

“Going to the Zoo” Peter, Paul & Mary


November 14th is Saitama Prefecture Citizens Day, making it a day off for me.  (Well, a day when there are no classes, but I have to take a paid holiday if I don’t want to go to work…)

The weather was fine and I decided to take the kids to Ueno Zoo.   At only ¥600 for me and no admission fee for the kids, it was a relatively cheap day out.


I have mixed feelings about zoos.  I would rather see animals in their natural environments, but that just isn’t possible.  Modern zoos are improving their enclosures and keeping methods, and often play an important part of animal research and conservation.  Would we know, or care, about the conservation status of pandas if we couldn’t see them in zoos?


Ueno houses the only pandas in Japan (I believe they are on lease from China), and that keeps visitors coming.  Luckily there was little in the way of queues that day, despite the thousands of people there.  I had ideas other than pandas, however…


…but no good photos to show for it.  (The window style enclosures affect our camera’s ability to focus, plus I would be in real trouble if there were photos of animals and not kids)


I almost had my first encounter with a Japanese badger.  I say almost because the critter was asleep in its shelter, only a patch of fur being visible.  Also disappointing was the lack of marten and weasel displays.  We were, however, able to see most of the other important Japanese mammals – the Hokkaido brown bear was particularly impressive, and was the favourite of a certain little boy.


We also had our first view of the masked palm civet, albeit from a distance – it was up a tree!  Enclosures which display the animal in a close reproduction of its natural environment are most welcome.  Some of the Japanese bird enclosures were also excellent, as was the squirrel cage.  I just wish I could say the same for the larger birds of prey.  (Admittedly, each one would need an enclosure roughly the size of the entire zoo to fully appreciate them, but they seemed so cramped)


The zoo had a special display (actually, a reboot of one they did a few years ago) on defences used by reptiles and amphibians.  This one actually has some English explanations, but the zoo could do with a better proof-reader – “…these animals defense themselves…”

My special interest is local wildlife, so it was refreshing to see more Japanese reptiles and amphibians on display.  A certain little boy was excited to see fire bellied newts just like the pair he has at home, while my interest was in the giant salamander and Japanese keelback snake.


The day was a little too short – I would have liked to arrive earlier, seen some of the other parts of Ueno Park, and stayed at the zoo longer.  Still, given that my daughter said she would like to go again with her friends, that day may not be so far off.


When pigs… swim

7 Nov

Hi blog.

Wild boars make minor news stories quite regularly, usually after they run amock in an urban area.

This time there have been several cases of these pigs being filmed swimming in the sea, or landing ashore.  Here’s one, courtesy of the Asahi Shimbun and the Takamatsu Coast Guard of a wild boar (Sus scrofa leucomystax) about 15 km offshore in the inland sea.

Sit back and enjoy!


On the good news front…

4 Nov

Hi blog.

A new post is long overdue, and I’m lucky to have stumbled onto some good news for a change.

Sea turtles seen laying more eggs

The Yomiuri Shimbun

4:37 am, October 31, 2014

The Yomiuri Shimbun More sea turtles have been coming ashore in Japan to lay eggs in recent years, according to a survey finding by the Environment Ministry. Loggerhead musk turtles, one of the species seen in the nation, were spotted laying eggs on 9,661 occasions in fiscal 2012, compared with less than 2,000 in 2006.

The findings were based on data collected by local volunteers, who surveyed the egg-laying habits of sea turtles at 41 sandy beaches, including those in Chichijima island in a remote part of Tokyo, in Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture, and on Iriomote Island in Okinawa Prefecture.

“Sea turtles who were born after the nation’s sand beaches were markedly rejuvenated in the 1970s or later across the country may have returned to the beaches upon maturing,” said an official at the ministry.

The sea turtles that lay eggs on sandy beaches in Japan are mainly green turtles, loggerhead musk turtles and hawksbill sea turtles, all of which are registered on the ministry’s red list of endangered species.

Of them, loggerhead musk turtles, which can be seen on beaches ranging from Ibaraki Prefecture to Okinawa Prefecture, were seen to have laid their eggs on 3,562 occasions in fiscal 2004. There were only 1,919 such occasions in fiscal 2006. In the following years, however, the number started rising to reach 9,661 in fiscal 2012.

Green turtles, which are often spotted on beaches in the Ogasawara islands, were recorded to have laid their eggs on 265 occasions in fiscal 2012, up from around 100 times a year up until fiscal 2009.

Meanwhile, hawksbill sea turtles, which were spotted laying eggs no more than four times a year — and sometimes not at all — until fiscal 2009, laid their eggs nine times in fiscal 2011.

Sea turtles are said to become mature at ages ranging from 30 to 40, laying eggs once every two to four years.

Sandy beaches in Japan have been steadily renewed since the 1970s thanks to relocating wave-dissipating tetrapods closer to land and introducing sand, according to the ministry.

The latest survey results also showed that since fiscal 2008, the predation of eggs by such animals as wild boars and raccoon dogs was reported on many occasions. On Iriomote Island, as many as 60 percent of the egg-laying spots were attacked by predators in one year.

The ministry will also expedite its efforts to implement countermeasures such as setting up protective fences.

I’m hoping that the up-beat mood of the article is justified and not just another feel-good piece of journalism.  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Good luck, turtles.

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.


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