Kagekakushi Jizo

Hi blog.

Long time followers may remember several years back when I talked about writing about some Jizo statues with an interesting story or history behind them.  Well, one of the primary schools (or “elementary schools”, as my employers like to use) has changed and I now have legitimate reason to travel further afield.

The story behind this particular statue goes like this:

Next to the Oshu Highway in Kamihirose stands a statue of Jizo.

It was during the wars between the Minamoto and Taira clans that Yoshitaka, eldest son of Minamoto Yoshinaka of Kiso, was sent to Yoritomo in Kamakura as a hostage.  However, under the orders of Yoritomo, Yoshinaka was killed by by his cousins Yoshitsune and Noriyori.

Yoshitaka, realising that he was in danger, disguised himself as a girl and fled from Kamakura.  He ran through Fuchu and Tokorozawa and crossed the Iruma River.  Looking back, he saw a horseman in pursuit.  He ran as far as the Oshu Highway, but he could not outrun the horse.

Just next to the road was a statue of Jizo.  Yoshitaka prayed, “Please protect me” and hid behind the statue.  Amazingly, his pursuers passed on without noticing him.

To this day, the statue is known as the Kagekakushi Jizo (the Jizo of Concealment)

Kagekakushi Jizo (影隠地蔵) standing by the crossroads.


As it happens, I first read about this statue several years ago, but with the prospect of being able to blog about it, I did some more thorough research.

A simplified family tree of the Minamoto clan ending with the players relevant to this post.  Yoritomo later had both Yoshitsune and Noriyori killed.  The Nitta branch of the Minamotos produced the famous warrior mentioned in Kotesashi Roadside, while the Ashikaga branch would eventually usurp the position of Shogun.


That statue really isn’t big enough to hide behind.

So, what became of Yoshitaka? 

Yoshitaka, as depicted in 1n 1844 picture by Utagawa.

He was soon captured and executed near the Iruma River.  He was just 11 years old. 

Curiously, he was married (!) to Yoritomo’s daughter Ohime (!!)  Allegedly, it was Yoritomo’s wife, Masako, who aided Yoshitaka’s escape, and the six year old (!!!) Ohime was devastated at the news of her husband’s death.

The statue that stands today dates from the 1870s.  According to the Sayama City website, the original wooden statue – originally located elsewhere – was destroyed during the anti-Buddhist upheavals at the start of the Meiji Era.

It is said that Masako raised a shrine on the site of Yoshitaka’s burial to placate his soul, but a flood in 1402 destroyed it.  Remaining monuments were removed to the grounds of a temple, which was later destroyed.

In 1959, a shrine dedicated to Yoshitaka, the Shimizu Hachimangu, was built on the site believed to be where he was killed.

The Shimizu Hachimangu next to route 16.

The main shrine building. Yes, it’s very small.

The smaller inner shrine.

I will be looking out for more statues with stories.


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Gullible Travels?

Hi blog.

Well, we are well into April (start of the academic and financial new year) and no posts.  I hope that this will remedy that.

March weather was a little different this year – we didn’t get so many of the high winds and dust storms.  And while late March is supposed to be the period of sankan shion (three days of cold, four days of warm weather), we had days on end of glorious weather.  At a time when it is unusual to have more than three consecutive days of sunny weather we received nearly two weeks of consecutive days with more than ten hours of sunlight.  We even had a days where the temperatures soared past 25℃!

The weather really caused things to speed up.  My persimmon tree and hydrangea burst into leaves, and the cherry trees exploded into full blossom much earlier than usual – in fact, the blossoms had all fallen well before entrance ceremony.

Curiously, this post is related to school, only because I was thinking of writing about a certain topic –  an old map, specifically – and was comparing it to some later maps when I noticed something uncanningly close to one of our textbooks.

The old map in question is part of the digitally restored 1587 planisphere by Urbano Monte.  Monte was able to meet the Japanese delegation to Milan in 1585, and his map of Japan – while not particularly accurate – has many more place names than later maps.

Monte’s projection of Japan. The country is laid out east-west rather than north-south, and Kyushu is not depicted as an island.

You can zoom this map by clicking on the link below.


Monte’s projection is something of a nightmare to interpret.  Its geography is inaccurate, and trying to match the place names with their modern counterparts is very difficult due to his arbitrary transliterations.

The Kinki and Chubu regions on Monte’s map. This is one of the easier regions to try to deal with. Lake Biwa is not labelled but obvious. Kyoko is known simply as “capital” (Miyako), and rendered as “MEACO”. NABVNAGA almost certainly refers to warlord Oda Nobunaga. Guifo probably refers to Gifu, and Voari is probably Owari. Osaka is notably absent.

The Kyushu area on Monte’s map. The location “nagasaqui” is, without a doubt, Nagasaki. Kagoshima is rendered as “cangosina”.

Later maps still frequently borrowed spelling conventions from earlier maps, even when the mapmaker used a different language.  So even some 18th century maps in English were rendering Oshu Province as “Oxo”, and the island of Shikoku as “Xicoco”!

So where am I going with all this?

The seed of crystallization set when I was flicking through the textbook for ideas for this year.  The section in question is a conversation about Gulliver’s Travels, (correctly Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships) and Gulliver’s visit to Japan.  (It’s worth noting that Japan is the only real place that Gulliver visits in the book, but it accounts for just 2% of the book’s content.  Also of interest is that the emperor in the book actually represents the Shogun, and that Swift describes the practice of fumie.)

Ms. Wood: There is an interesting story in Gulliver’s Travels.

Mike: What is it?

Ms. Wood: On his way back to England, Gulliver visited Japan.

Mike: Really?

Ms. Wood; When he stayed in Japan, he visited”Nagasac” and”Xamoschi”.

Mike: Which cities are they?

Ms. Wood: Some people think that they are Nagasaki and Kannonzaki in Yokosuka.

Yuki: Why do they think so?

Ms. Wood; Write down these names.

Yuki: Now I understand.

From the textbook.


On the 9th day of June, 1709, I arrived at Nangasac

Let’s look at Nangasac first.  I have no doubts that the town in question is Nagasaki.  Older dialects of Japanese would often produce the “ga” mora as “nga”.  We must also not forget received pronunciation – the same way modern Japanese think Australians say “die” when they say “day”.  Japanese also tends to de-emphasise final -i and -u sounds in many words.

In researching for this post I looked at dozens of maps from the late 16th century through to the late 18th century and found spellings including Nangesacque, Nagasaky and Nangaſaki.  I even came across one slightly newer than the first printing of Gulliver’s Travels that comes close.

Moll’s 1736 map. Yes, that is Nangasak. You can see a lot of other odd spellings – Tanegashima is “Tanxima”; Sakai is “Saccai”; Tosa is “Tonsa”…

We don’t know the exact source for Swift’s inspiration, but it is not difficult to see how he would have reached his eventual spelling.

Xamoschi, by comparison, is quite hard to crack.

We landed at a small port-town called Xamoschi, situated on the south-east part of Japan; the town lies on the western point, where there is a narrow strait leading northward into along arm of the sea, upon the north-west part of which, Yedo, the metropolis, stands.

While Kannonzaki is on the west side of Tokyo Bay, I have reason to doubt its claims to be the site of Swift’s Xamoschi.

Firstly, maps predating Swift were using “X” to represent “shi”, “tsu” and several other sounds.  Shimosa, for example, is rendered “Ximoosa” on some maps.  Some sources claim Shimosa as the site of Xamoschi; however, Shimosa was east of Edo.  (Likewise, some have suggested Shimonoseki, but that is nowhere near the site of Edo.)

Secondly, of the dozens of contemporary maps I have examined, none have detailed sections for the area around Edo; Odawara and Kamakura are sometimes included, but never more than that.  Where would Swift have heard of Kannonzaki?

From the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels. Note that there is no Nangasac or Xamoschi.

This illustration (exact source unknown) shows Xamoschi.  However, Edo is not in its correct position, and the location for Xamoschi doesn’t match the description in the text.

My personal theory is that either Xamoschi is based on somewhere on either the Miura or Izu peninsulas, such as Shimoda, Jogasaki or Jogashima, or is pure fantasy – and should we not expect fantasy in a fantasy novel?


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Common Kingfisher

See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water

Grantchester Meadows, Pink Floyd

Hi blog.

If you go to a wooded riverbank or lake, you are quite likely to see people with magnifying scopes and long telephoto lenses waiting to get a good picture of the birdlife.  One of the most desirable photos is that of the common kingfisher.

The seven subspecies of the common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) have a huge range across Africa and Eurasia, with Alcedo atthis bengalensis being the subspecies extant in Japan.  Its name in the Japanese vernacular is kawasemi (which can be written 川蝉, 翡翠, 魚狗, 水狗, 魚虎, 魚師 or 鴗, with the first two being the most common kanji form)

The characters 翡翠 were originally used in China as the name of the bird – with the character 翡 taken to mean the male bird and  翠 to be the female –  but have since come to mean “jade”.  This becomes very confusing when one considers that both the crested kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris) and the black-capped kingfisher (Halcyon pileata) can written as 山翡翠!!

Common kingfishers grow to slightly larger than sparrow-size.  Their presence is considered an indicator of water quality – clear water makes hunting for fish, tadpoles and insects easier, and also much of this prey is sensitive to pollution.

Researching for this post, I was surprised that a couple of assumptions I had made were wrong.  I have spotted birds with what I thought were orange bills, when in fact only the lower mandible is orange.  (In my defence, the birds were in mid-flight)  The other assumption was that the ones with the orange on the bill were male.  It turns out that it is the females with this distinction.  Live and learn.

Apparently, mortality is quite high in this species – young adults are expelled from their parents’ territory and may not have learned to fish by this time.

These birds are quite jittery and shy, and will rarely hold still long enough for anyone without a good lens to get a picture.  Indeed, I have spotted them several times on the Azuma River, usually in flight.  At no time have I ever been able to get close enough to photograph one with my phone camera.

You may be wondering, then, about my decision to blog about a bird that is so hard to photograph.  Ueno Zoo to the rescue!  A recent trip to the zoo and its much improved Japanese bird displays enabled us to get close and photograph a kingfisher.

A male common kingfisher. Note the rust-coloured throat and brilliant blue back and wings, plus the slightly oversized straight bill.

This bird is the official bird of several dozen cities and towns across mainland Japan, in addition to being a symbol of healthy wetlands projects.

The kingfisher as the symbol of Fujisawa.  From the official Fujisawa government site.

A closer picture of the common kingfisher. Unfortunately, the lighting was reflecting off the glass.

I hope to see more of these on my commute to work.


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The Fire Walkers

I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter
You’re the firestarter, twisted firestarter

Firestarter, The Prodigy

Hi blog.

Yes, I know my posts have been too few and too far between.

No, you do not want to know why.


March 11th marked the seventh anniversary of the Great East Japan Disaster, a tragedy which still effects tens of thousands of people to this very day.  I remember the buildings shaking even this far away from the epicentre, and feeling sick to my stomach, not to mention the genuine fear.  I can barely imagine what it would have been like on those coastal towns where the tsunami hit.

On a lighter note, March 11th this year was the second Sunday of the month… and, as Ian told me in an e-mail announcing his arrival in the area, the second Sunday of March is the date of the Mt. Takao Hiwatari-Sai.

On the second Sunday of March each year a large open-air fire ritual called Saito Goma-ku is held in the open area in front of the Kito-den Hall at the foot of Mount Takao. As though it were by the hands of Izuna Daigongen, worshippers rub their bodies with sticks called nadegi, which are later thrown into the flames. When the fire dies down, yamabushi and participants walk barefoot over the hot coals, praying for protection against sickness and calamity and for safety within the family. The flames are considered to purify people by burning all defilements away.

From the Yakuon-in official site.

Ian warned me that it would be crowded, and he wasn’t kidding.  The ceremonies were due to start at 1:00, so we met up at Keio Takaosanguchi Station just before noon.  We were discussing the location of the ceremony when a group of yamabushi went past.  Following them seemed a good idea!  It turned out that they were visiting a few shops to chant sutras before heading to one of the temple buildings to prepare for the ceremony.

Yamabushi ceremony at one of the shops at the base of Mt. Takao.

We finally found where the ceremony was to be held and made our way there, hopefully before the crowds got too thick.  (Ambushing Yamabushi?)

We found a spot just outside the roped-off area, only two or three people deep… unfortunately, this turned out to be the entrance for the participants, and, sure enough,  security came and asked us to move just before the sacred procession arrived.  After this, we found ourselves about a dozen rows back and would spend the next couple of hours trying to squeeze off photos between heads and mobile phones.  Indeed, several times I was able to hold my camera above head level and line up a decent shot, only to have a mobile phone thrust into the middle of my viewfinder.

The ceremonies began with long greetings and introductions, plus all the Shingon rites and rituals.  These included the ceremonial use of an axe, a sword and bow and arrow, well before we even saw any sign of fire.

The axe used in the ceremonies. I was able to get this shot before the guards moved us.

A Yamabushi with the sword. None of the photos of him using it are worthy of this post.

A Yamabushi prepares to shoot an arrow.

Fire plays a large part in Shingon ritual and purification.  It is also said that when wishes are written on wooden tablets and burned, the smoke carries the wishes to the heavens.

“The’re a bit slow getting this barbie going”  A Yamabushi about to set flame to the pyre. I suspect the leafy matter is hinoki cypress.

Where there’s smoke…

… there’s fire. We could feel the heat from where we were standing.

This Yamabushi used the bundle of leaves to splash boiling water over himself.

The actual fire walking was over with quite quickly, and from our position it was impossible to see if the Yamabush had actually walked over the hot ashes or (as I suspect) in the bare earth rows between the heaps of ash.  People who have paid a special fee not only get a seat for the ceremony, they are invited first to follow the Yamabushi in the walk.  After that, the general public are invited to walk between the heaps of ash.  I would have been interested, but the huge queue put me off.  This did, however, disperse the crowd and finally we were able to get some close-up shots.

Members of the public participating in the ceremony.

Some needed a little help.

I took advantage of the lack of crowds to get a closeup of the horagai trumpets made from giant triton shells.

The salt is probably a ritual purification material. Participants trod in a pile of salt at both the beginning and end of their walk.

Going…  The Yamabushi procession leaves the grounds.

… going…

Gone. The priest in purple under the red umbrella is clearly the head priest.  I don’t know the significance of the child in priest’s garb.

This was certainly an interesting experience, and one I would recommend.  Remember, the second Sunday in March at Mt. Takao.

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The Big Chill

Hi blog.

I’m doing my best to avoid the Olympics without the option of fleeing to another country.  Luckily for me, Japan had not won any medals and was forced to fill news time with something else.

That something else was about hundreds of tropical fish found washed up on the beach at Shirahama, Wakayama prefecture.  (It helped that some of the fish were clown fish of Finding Nemo fame and therefore cute enough for media attention.)

It seems that tropical fish that ride the Kuroshio current can survive the winter around Wakayama because the temperature typically doesn’t drop below 12℃.  This year, however, has seen a shift in the current and also unusually cold weather.  (It seems that I’m not the only one affected by the cold)

I looked for some coverage in the English language press and found a closely related article.


Odd current route, cold water whitening corals off Wakayama


February 12, 2018 at 17:05 JST

TANABE, Wakayama Prefecture–Abnormal conditions have led to a drop in seawater temperatures near here, causing 30 to 40 percent of corals to whiten and sensitive fish to die.

Since autumn 2017, cold air waves have repeatedly hit the area, while the warm Kuroshio current, which normally runs northeast in a straight line along the Pacific coast, has taken a meandering route that veers south from the Kii Peninsula.

This combination has led to chilly water temperatures that are whitening corals and killing such fish as moray eels.

According to Tomoki Ri, 45, a local diving guide, it is rare for the seawater temperature in the area to fall below 16 degrees.

But on Feb. 9, the water temperature was 14 degrees around Okinoshima island, located about 2.7 kilometers off the coast of Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, in the southern part of the peninsula.

In early February, the temperature of the sea area fell below 12 degrees.

In that area, part of “kushihadamidoriishi,” a coral that forms a table-shaped colony, has whitened. Phytoplankton, called zooxanthellae, that live together with the corals have fled due to stress from the low temperature, turning white the corals’ healthy colors of green or brown.

If the phytoplankton do not return to the corals, they will die.

A similar situation has been observed in sea areas off Shirahama, south of Tanabe, although on a smaller scale.

“Corals live in warm seas. They whiten and die in environments with temperatures lower than 14 degrees,” said Keiichi Nomura, 59, director of the aquarium at Kushimoto Marine Park in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture.

“If the seawater temperature continues to be low, it will lead to a serious situation. If the seawater temperature rises, the corals could revive again,” he added.

Article ends.

All I can say about the situation is simply I’m glad it doesn’t immediately appear to be due to human activity.


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Its bite is worse than its bark

Hi blog.

It is still cold here in the mornings, with minus temperatures around 6:00 the norm.  The phenomena of needle ice, known locally as shimobashira (霜柱) is a daily occurrence – as is having my bike stand buried in ice and my front wheel frozen.

I have ranted on mentioned in passing my dislike of winter, a dislike that is going to increase a thousand-fold for the next 18 days or so as the Winter Olympics are held.  Should a Japanese athlete win a medal, expect to see the event replayed 64,000 times a day for the next three days, along with interviews with their parents, team-mates, fourth grade teachers, the bloke who installed their TV antenna… you get the idea.

And should the Japanese team fail to win a medal (gasp!), we can expect endless mindless coverage of the North Korean cheer squad to fill in time.

Anyway, this crossed my news feed, and I thought it was Wild in Japan worthy… and we are unlikely to see anything else relevant to this blog for the next 18 days.


Nara announces record number of deer bites as tourists flood in



FEB 8, 2018

Famed wild deer in the city of Nara appear to be growing increasingly frustrated with tourists who make them wait to munch on crackers while trying to frame the perfect photo.

The Nara Prefectural Government said Thursday that the number of injuries caused by the deer in Nara Park hit a record 164 cases between April 1 last year and January 31, exceeding the 118 cases reported in the previous fiscal year. Of the 164 cases, around 80 percent involved foreign tourists — most of them Chinese — it said.

Most of the injuries were minor, with tourists having their hands bitten lightly while feeding the animals, according to the prefectural government.

The rise is partly due to the increasing number of foreign visitors, prefectural government official Yuichiro Kitabata said. But he also blamed tourists’ increasing eagerness to stage good pictures with the deer.

According to Kitabata, many tourists lure the deer with shika senbei (deer crackers), which are sold in Nara Park. But once the deer approach the tourists hide the snack, making the animals wait as they try to snap the perfect shot. And that makes for some irritated deer.

“Such cases are increasing greatly. … Some people think the deer are tame and trained not to harm people,” Kitabata told The Japan Times on Thursday. “But they are wild animals.”

Some tourists also anger the deer by climbing on their backs, he said.

The prefectural government has tried to advise tourists about how to behave around the animals, releasing informational videos and posting 40 signboards in several languages around the park. But the effort appears to have fallen short.

“The deer basically won’t attack people unless we do something to them,” Kitabata said. “They are used to people. So, it’s OK for tourists to feed them shika senbei in a normal way … but please keep in mind that they are wild animals.”

The park — home to nearly 1,500 wild deer as of July last year — is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Nara. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, the number of foreign visitors to Nara Prefecture surged to 1.65 million in 2016 from 285,000 in 2012. Of the 1.65 million, 42 percent were Chinese, followed by 18.3 percent from Taiwan, and 10.3 percent South Korea.

Article ends.

Ah, semi-wild deer.  Add tourists (often with fewer inhibitions than the locals) and who tend to lose their common sense while trying to take selfies.  Trouble won’t be far away.

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Hi blog.

As you probably know, I am not terribly fond of winter.  January 22nd gave us our heaviest snowfall since that really big one four years ago.  Some of the snow and ice still remains piled up (or compressed) on roads and footpaths.  I have to be careful with commuting because bikes and ice are NOT a good combination.

We are experiencing our eighth consecutive day with a minimum temperature below freezing –  yes, and that includes the coldest temperature recorded in over 50 years.  One morning saw nearby Saitama City with a lower minimum temperature than Sapporo!!  The greater Tokyo area has experienced thousands of household water pipes bursting (my school had a pipe freeze and burst too)

I have, however, found a (generally) positive article that is definitely within the realms of Wild in Japan.  Not to mention that at least some people are happy with this cold.


Ice fishing ban lifted

The Yomiuri Shimbun Anglers in small tents fish for wakasagi smelt on Harunako lake in Takasaki on Tuesday.

The Yomiuri ShimbunTAKASAKI, Gunma — The ban on fishing wakasagi smelt on the frozen surface of Harunako lake in Takasaki was lifted on Tuesday for the first time in seven years.

According to the Haruna tourist association, the lifting of the ban was postponed partly due to the aftereffects of the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011. The lake was also not frozen enough for fishing because of warm winters.

The area where fishing is allowed covers about two-thirds of the entire lake. The thickness of the ice in some places reached up to 22 centimeters. Anglers rushed to the ice-covered lake as soon as the ban was lifted at 6:30 a.m. on the day.

Taking away wakasagi smelt was prohibited at one point, mainly due to the accident at the power plant, but anglers can now take the fish home.

Article ends.

“The lake was also not frozen enough for fishing because of warm winters” says it all.

Apparently, much of Lake Suwa in Nagano has also frozen over and produced the effect of ice floes converging and building jagged lines across the lake in an effect known as Omi watari (御神渡り), literally “gods’ crossing”, which has been occurring with less frequency in recent years due to warmer winters.

A news item from last November, when the Omi watri phenomena occurred for the first time in three years.




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Fluffing up fugu and eating eels to extinction

Hi blog.

A couple of news items.  The first is almost worthy of those “crazy things that happen only in Japan” segments.

Japanese pufferfish (Takifugu rubripes) in a holding tank at a restaurant.


Deadly fugu fish flub prompts emergency warning in Aichi


 JAN 16, 2018

The Aichi Prefecture city of Gamagori has activated an emergency warning system to alert residents to avoid eating locally purchased fugu (puffer fish) after a mix-up saw toxic parts of the delicacy go on sale.

A supermarket in the city sold five packages of the fish without removing the livers, which can contain a deadly poison.

Three of the potentially lethal specimens have been located, but the other two remain at large, local official Koji Takayanagi said.

“We are calling for residents to avoid eating fugu, using Gamagori city’s emergency wireless system,” which broadcasts over loudspeakers located around the city, he said.

“Three packages will be retrieved today, but we still don’t know where the remaining two are,” he added.

Fugu is one of Japan’s most expensive winter delicacies, and is often served in thin slices of sashimi or hot pot.

But the fish’s skins, intestines, ovaries and livers contain a poison called tetrodotoxin that can be fatal.

The part of the fish that contains the deadly poison differs from one kind of fugu to another.

Japanese chefs are required to obtain a special permit to prepare the fish, but several people in the country are killed each year by incorrectly prepared fugu, with dozens more suffering nonfatal side effects, according to the health ministry.

“Eating fugu liver can paralyze motor nerves, and in a serious case cause respiratory arrest leading to death,” regional officials said in a warning statement.

Article ends.

Incidents like this are uncommon enough to make news when they do happen, but still seem to happen with regularity.

The second one is perhaps more relevant to Wild in Japan, mostly because I have commented before on Japan’s appetite for eels and how the eel industry is not sustainable.

The article doesn’t mention that the current prices for glass eels are approximately equal to the price of platinum.


Baby eel catches are extremely low

The industry is worried about a possible shortage of adult eels by the time the peak eating season of summer arrives.

Most eels consumed in Japan are cultured. The fry are caught in the wild from December to spring and then placed in farms.

A report from Japan’s fisheries agency says 200 kilograms of baby eels were released into aquaculture ponds last month. That’s only 3 percent of the amount during the same period the previous year.

The agency officials say catches in mainland China and Taiwan are also low, putting a squeeze on supplies that could be imported into Japan.

Experts say the ecology of eels remains mystery, so they are in the dark as to the reasons behind the extremely low catches. Some are speculating changes in sea currents could be a factor.

Article ends.

Unfortunately, the TV news covers items like this as “it can’t be helped, price increases will push eel prices out of the reach of ordinary households” and ignore ecological consequences.

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Reblogged: A walk on Mt. Mitake brings encounters with wolf and mountain lore | Heritage of Japan

Hi blog.

Avid readers may remember posts about the Mitsumine Shrine and the wolf cult centred around it.  I mentioned a similar set of beliefs based at the Mitake Shrine on Mt. Mitake.

oguchinomagami Mitake

Well, Heritage of Japan has tied up some of those loose ends with a very in-depth look at the Mitake Shrine.

Check out this article:

The Musashi-Mitake-jinja Shrine is believed to have been founded in 90 BC by Emperor Sujin, which makes it one of the oldest in Japan. However, the shrine also records that Priest Gyōki built a hal…

Source: A walk on Mt. Mitake brings encounters with wolf and mountain lore | Heritage of Japan

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The Snow Woman

Hi blog.

It’s winter, my holidays are coming to a close and I still haven’t blogged anything.

To rectify this problem, let’s take a break from wildlife and look at some folklore that matches the weather (well, almost)

In a village of Musashi Province (1), there lived two woodcutters: Mosaku and Minokichi. At the time of which I am speaking, Mosaku was an old man; and Minokichi, his apprentice, was a lad of eighteen years. Every day they went together to a forest situated about five miles from their village. On the way to that forest there is a wide river to cross; and there is a ferry-boat. Several times a bridge was built where the ferry is; but the bridge was each time carried away by a flood. No common bridge can resist the current there when the river rises.
Mosaku and Minokichi were on their way home, one very cold evening, when a great snowstorm overtook them. They reached the ferry; and they found that the boatman had gone away, leaving his boat on the other side of the river. It was no day for swimming; and the woodcutters took shelter in the ferryman’s hut,–thinking themselves lucky to find any shelter at all. There was no brazier in the hut, nor any place in which to make a fire: it was only a two-mat [1] hut, with a single door, but no window. Mosaku and Minokichi fastened the door, and lay down to rest, with their straw rain-coats over them. At first they did not feel very cold; and they thought that the storm would soon be over.
The old man almost immediately fell asleep; but the boy, Minokichi, lay awake a long time, listening to the awful wind, and the continual slashing of the snow against the door. The river was roaring; and the hut swayed and creaked like a junk at sea. It was a terrible storm; and the air was every moment becoming colder; and Minokichi shivered under his rain-coat. But at last, in spite of the cold, he too fell asleep.
He was awakened by a showering of snow in his face. The door of the hut had been forced open; and, by the snow-light (yuki-akari), he saw a woman in the room,–a woman all in white. She was bending above Mosaku, and blowing her breath upon him;–and her breath was like a bright white smoke. Almost in the same moment she turned to Minokichi, and stooped over him. He tried to cry out, but found that he could not utter any sound. The white woman bent down over him, lower and lower, until her face almost touched him; and he saw that she was very beautiful,–though her eyes made him afraid. For a little time she continued to look at him;–then she smiled, and she whispered:–“I intended to treat you like the other man. But I cannot help feeling some pity for you,–because you are so young… You are a pretty boy, Minokichi; and I will not hurt you now. But, if you ever tell anybody–even your own mother–about what you have seen this night, I shall know it; and then I will kill you… Remember what I say!”
With these words, she turned from him, and passed through the doorway. Then he found himself able to move; and he sprang up, and looked out. But the woman was nowhere to be seen; and the snow was driving furiously into the hut. Minokichi closed the door, and secured it by fixing several billets of wood against it. He wondered if the wind had blown it open;–he thought that he might have been only dreaming, and might have mistaken the gleam of the snow-light in the doorway for the figure of a white woman: but he could not be sure. He called to Mosaku, and was frightened because the old man did not answer. He put out his hand in the dark, and touched Mosaku’s face, and found that it was ice! Mosaku was stark and dead…
By dawn the storm was over; and when the ferryman returned to his station, a little after sunrise, he found Minokichi lying senseless beside the frozen body of Mosaku. Minokichi was promptly cared for, and soon came to himself; but he remained a long time ill from the effects of the cold of that terrible night. He had been greatly frightened also by the old man’s death; but he said nothing about the vision of the woman in white. As soon as he got well again, he returned to his calling,–going alone every morning to the forest, and coming back at nightfall with his bundles of wood, which his mother helped him to sell.
One evening, in the winter of the following year, as he was on his way home, he overtook a girl who happened to be traveling by the same road. She was a tall, slim girl, very good-looking; and she answered Minokichi’s greeting in a voice as pleasant to the ear as the voice of a song-bird. Then he walked beside her; and they began to talk. The girl said that her name was O-Yuki [2]; that she had lately lost both of her parents; and that she was going to Yedo (2), where she happened to have some poor relations, who might help her to find a situation as a servant. Minokichi soon felt charmed by this strange girl; and the more that he looked at her, the handsomer she appeared to be. He asked her whether she was yet betrothed; and she answered, laughingly, that she was free. Then, in her turn, she asked Minokichi whether he was married, or pledge to marry; and he told her that, although he had only a widowed mother to support, the question of an “honorable daughter-in-law” had not yet been considered, as he was very young… After these confidences, they walked on for a long while without speaking; but, as the proverb declares, Ki ga areba, me mo kuchi hodo ni mono wo iu: “When the wish is there, the eyes can say as much as the mouth.” By the time they reached the village, they had become very much pleased with each other; and then Minokichi asked O-Yuki to rest awhile at his house. After some shy hesitation, she went there with him; and his mother made her welcome, and prepared a warm meal for her. O-Yuki behaved so nicely that Minokichi’s mother took a sudden fancy to her, and persuaded her to delay her journey to Yedo. And the natural end of the matter was that Yuki never went to Yedo at all. She remained in the house, as an “honorable daughter-in-law.”
O-Yuki proved a very good daughter-in-law. When Minokichi’s mother came to die,–some five years later,–her last words were words of affection and praise for the wife of her son. And O-Yuki bore Minokichi ten children, boys and girls,–handsome children all of them, and very fair of skin.
The country-folk thought O-Yuki a wonderful person, by nature different from themselves. Most of the peasant-women age early; but O-Yuki, even after having become the mother of ten children, looked as young and fresh as on the day when she had first come to the village.
One night, after the children had gone to sleep, O-Yuki was sewing by the light of a paper lamp; and Minokichi, watching her, said:–
“To see you sewing there, with the light on your face, makes me think of a strange thing that happened when I was a lad of eighteen. I then saw somebody as beautiful and white as you are now–indeed, she was very like you.”…
Without lifting her eyes from her work, O-Yuki responded:–
“Tell me about her… Where did you see her?
Then Minokichi told her about the terrible night in the ferryman’s hut,–and about the White Woman that had stooped above him, smiling and whispering,–and about the silent death of old Mosaku. And he said:–
“Asleep or awake, that was the only time that I saw a being as beautiful as you. Of course, she was not a human being; and I was afraid of her,–very much afraid,–but she was so white!… Indeed, I have never been sure whether it was a dream that I saw, or the Woman of theSnow.”…
O-Yuki flung down her sewing, and arose, and bowed above Minokichi where he sat, and shrieked into his face:–
“It was I–I–I! Yuki it was! And I told you then that I would kill you if you ever said one word about it!… But for those children asleep there, I would kill you this moment! And now you had better take very, very good care of them; for if ever they have reason to complain of you, I will treat you as you deserve!”…
Even as she screamed, her voice became thin, like a crying of wind;–then she melted into a bright white mist that spired to the roof-beams, and shuddered away through the smoke-hold… Never again was she seen.
(1) An ancient province whose boundaries took in most of present-day Tokyo, and parts of Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures.
[1] That is to say, with a floor-surface of about six feet square.
[2] This name, signifying “Snow,” is not uncommon. On the subject of Japanese female names, see my paper in the volume entitled Shadowings.
(2) Also spelled Edo, the former name of Tokyo.

KWAIDAN: Stories and Studies of Strange Things

By Lafcadio Hearn, 1904

Hearn’s story has firm roots in Muromachi period legends – the poet Sogi (1421-1502) claimed to have seen a yuki-onna during his travels to Echigo Province – modern Niigata – an area famous for its heavy snowfalls.  We can safely assume that yuki-onna myths had already been well established before then.

Yuki-onna by Sekien Toriyama.

Yuki-onna (雪女) is the generally accepted term for this particular supernatural being.  The name literally translates as “snow woman”, although learners of Japanese soon find out that the English “snowman” does not translate directly.  [The Japanese word for snowman is yukidaruma, literally “snow Dharma”, while the literal snowman translates as yeti or abominable snowman!]

A bronze statue of Shigeru Mizuki’s portrayal of the yuki-onna. Mizuki was also hugely important in shaping the general image of supernatural beings in Japan. Photo from Wikipedia.

Like many supernatural beings, she has a plethora of regional names (yukimusume, yukijoro, yukinesa, yukinba, yukionago ) and her attributes may also vary, plus there is often overlapping or merging with other supernatural beings.  However, Hearn’s version has come to be the modern standard – a beautiful woman with white skin and wearing a white kimono, and with breath that freezes her victims and/or drains them of their life.

Interestingly enough, Hearn heard the basis of his (re)telling from a man and his daughter from a village in what is now Ome in western Tokyo (hence the direct reference to Musashi Province) and now a marker stands by Chofu Bridge to acknowledge the area as the birthplace of the yuki-onna. 

I will have to make a trip there someday.

Posted in Folklore and Mythology | 1 Comment
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