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 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.

Let it rain

28 Jun

One more rainy day

Once again my mind is grey

This is what a rainy day can do

One more rainy day

One more rainy day

Deep Purple

One of the wettest June months is drawing to a close, but I’d like to take a moment to talk about the old calendar month and its relationship to the rain.

The Gregorian calendar has been used in Japan since 1873, and the names of the months changed from old descriptive names to a rather boring number system – First Month, Second Month… you get the picture.

Sometimes people use the old month names in place of the corresponding modern month, but the actual time frames for the months do not always align well. For example, I am writing this on the 28th of June, but under the old lunar calendar, it would be the second day of the sixth month. This website calculates and transposes the lunar calendar onto the modern calendar.

The old name for the 6th month was Minazuki (水無月), and the characters for this literally mean “month of no water”. Since it is still the height of the rainy season, such a name does not make sense.
Some folk etymologies try to justify it with explanations such as there being no water left in the heavens, but in fact the second character is only a phonetic value for the possessive particle which actually turns the meaning into “month of water”.

Tokorozawa has an average June rainfall of 157.2 mm. This year, 164 mm fell on June 6th alone.

The “Month of Water” has been apt this year.


Loquat – I’m Lovin’ It

27 Jun


I must apologise for my lack of serious blogging efforts of late.  The sudden rise in temperatures and humidity, rainy days, and my desperation to avoid all things World Cup have taken their toll.

I was planning to write about the loquat as soon as some got harvested at work, but it looked like the heavy rain had damaged much of the fruit and that the bulbuls, azure winged magpies and starlings were getting the rest…

… and then I arrived at work to find two bowls of loquats in the staffroom.

Fresh loquats. Not the “woolly” stalks on the fruit.


Ripe fruit on the tree.


The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)) is believed to be native to sub-tropical China – the English name “loquat” is a corruption of the Cantonese “lo guat” – and brought to Japan over 1000 years ago.  It is a hardy broad-leafed evergreen, capable of withstanding winter temperatures of -10℃.


Known as biwa (枇杷) in Japanese, it is a fairly common garden tree, popular for its large dark green foliage, white flowers that bloom in the dead of winter, and sweet fruit in early summer.  The caveat is the number of years needed for the plant to bear fruit – we actually had one grown from seed in our garden, but it still didn’t fruit after seven years, and SWMBO decided it had to go.

Japanese folklore says “three years for peaches and chestnuts, eight for persimmons, and thirteen for loquats”.


The egg-shaped or round fruit itself is succulent and fairly sweet, but must be peeled (easily done with the fingers) and the large pips removed, which makes eating fresh fruit somewhat messy.

Up close and personal with the fruit.

Let’s split! This cutaway view shows how much has to be removed for the fruit to be eaten.


Canned loquats and loquats in jelly (yum!) are also popular.  Biwashu, loquat liqueur, is apparently easy to make, as is loquat jam.  (Furthermore, I am told that the best method is to make the loquat liqueur and then use those loquats the next year for jam).


Apparently, the leaves can be dried and used as a kind of tea, which is reputed to be good for skin conditions.

A leaf compared to my hand.


The wood of the loquat is light but hard, and has a long history in the manufacture of walking sticks and wooden swords.  Readers of the English translation of Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi may remember:

“Next!” shouted Kojirō, brandishing a long sword made of loquat wood.  At the beginning he had told them that a blow struck with a loquat sword “will rot your flesh to the bone.”

I have not been able to find any evidence of this assertion by the fictional version of Kojiro being true.  Incidentally, it is said that loquat was the real-life Musashi’s material of choice for his own wooden weapons.

I must admit to eying off loquat trees which might possibly be subject to felling or heavy pruning, with the intention of getting some wood for my own weapons…


Anyway, I am always pleased to receive free fresh fruit and have something worth writing about.

Out on a limb. Loquats on a tree.


20 Jun

Hi, blog.

Earlier this year the Saitama Aquarium was the victim of two large-scale poisonings in its outdoor pools, resulting in a total of over 900 large fish dying.  Toilet facilities were also vandalized in a third incident.

Police have finally arrested a suspect.

Former employee arrested for poisoning Saitama aquarium fish

A former employee of an aquarium in Hanyu, Saitama Prefecture, has been arrested for killing hundreds of fish and damaging property at the aquarium in April.

According to police, Masataka Yagisawa, 24, was arrested and charged with causing damage to private property and killing fish housed at the aquarium, TBS reported Tuesday. Police said that in April, Yagisawa mixed insect repellant chemicals into the water, killing 441 fish including carp. As a result, the aquarium was forced to close during the busy Golden Week period for repairs and clean-up.

In their investigation, police said they traced where the particular type of chemicals had come from, which eventually led them to Yagisawa.

Yagisawa had left his position at the aquarium in February after a dispute with his employer, police said. Yagisawa has denied all involvement in the case.

Police are also questioning Yagisawa about an earlier mass poisoning of fish at the aquarium in which over 500 fish were killed. That took place in February, just after Yagisawa left his job.

The one that didn’t get away.






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