Return of the Turtles (and Requiem)

Hi blog.

Despite my claim in my last post that it seemed that the rainy season had started ridiculously early this year, we have had several days without significant rain and the temperatures have topped out near the 30 degree mark.

You may remember last year I encountered some Chinese softshell turtles in the nearby river. Well, I was able to see them again.

Not the best of pictures (heavly zoomed and cropped from a mobile phone camera) but you can tell that it is a softshell turtle.
There is absolutely no doubt that this is a softshell turtle. I was surprised to see it in such shallow water.

I was quite chuffed at getting photos that proved conclusively they were in fact softshell turtles, as some people had dissmissed my previous claims of these turtles living in that river system as mistaken identity.

This was even more surprising. I hadn’t anticipated spotting one partially out of the water. I wondered if it was coming out to lay eggs.

Unfortunately, it seems that the large individual that had rested on the shore was not long for this world. I spotted it again in the same spot the following morning and that afternoon, and again the next day, with no signs of movement. Also, flies had begun to swarm.

The other two turtles I am aware of also seemed to sense something was wrong and lingered in the vicinity.

Two other softshell turtles seem to know that something is amiss here.

I confess to feeling very disappointed at the larger turtle’s demise, especially since I suspect it was a female and therefore vital to the continuation of the turtles’ existance in the river system. I sincerely hope that there is at least one breeding pair in my area.

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Scaredy Crow

Hi blog.

The rainy season has officially started in western Japan, three weeks earlier than usual, and we are experiencing rainy season-ish weather here even if the Bureau of Meteorology hasn’t announced it yet.

Cloudy days, on and off rain all day and high humidity are the norm. As well as cycling to work wearing rubber boots – which looks really goofy – lest it buckets down during the commute.

This is another “stubbled upon” or “managed to get close enough to film” posts, this time featuring a carrion crow.

I often pass within a few metres of crows, usually jungle crows, on my bike but they are wary and will quickly increase the distance between us if I stop. So corvid photography is almost always out of the question.

I encountered this particular crow in an empty field (it was scavenging for food, either the remains of vegetables that had been plowed back into the soil or the invertebrates that feed on the same.

It wasn’t going to let me get a shot with anything less than maximum zoom, and wasn’t going to hold still long enough for a photo. Thank goodness for video.

Anyway, watch and enjoy.

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The Fortress and the Waterfall

Hi blog.

Here I am during Golden Week, mostly stuck at home. While no State of Emergency has been declared for Saitama, I am being more cautious than the national government, who plan to end the State of Emergency in time for the president of the International Olympic Committee’s visit. Coincidence? I think not!

About this time two years ago I attended the Takinojo Festival, but since that has been cancelled (twice now) due to the pandemic, I thought now would be a good time to write up about the castle in question. A visit to a largely deserted ruin achieves both getting out of the house and maintaining social distance.

The area the castle (or probably more accurately, fortress) occupied had been populated for centuries before its construction, as the excavation of graves – from under the rise the ruins stand upon – dating from the 7th century attests.

A sign on the castle grounds detailing the graves found in the slope under the castle ruins.

As a military base, Takinojo may have had its origins as far back as Minamoto no Yoritomo and his fiefs, but we are almost certain that the “castle” was built by the Oishi clan, who fell into the servitude of the Later Hojo. (Some sources claim that it was built by Ota Dokan, who was the architect of Kawagoe Castle) It served as a sub-castle for Takiyama Castle and later Hachioji Castle (both located in modern Hachioji) and as a rallying point for Hojo forces on some of their expeditions.

An aerial photo of the castle area. The blue point in the lower left is one of the two wells while the red point in the top right is the waterfall.
A survey map of the castle. The light blue-green areas are dry moats and the brown parts represent walls or embankments. The light blue 井 mark at the bottom is the same well in the above photo and the point at the top right is the waterfall.
A (not very good) photo of the official mock up of the main castle grounds on an orientation close to the map above.

The structure was built on high ground overlooking the Yanase River to the east (itself a minor but significant barrier) with a sudden steep rise that would have made a direct attack from the east very difficult. A system of dry moats – still in existence today – plus walls and various obstacles and fortifications would have provided extra protection. Several watchtowers commanded a view of the surrounding area. At least two wells were in the grounds, plus water could be obtained from a small waterfall from which the castle gets its name. The waterfall has since dried up, only flowing after rain.

The “waterfall”.
A heavily weathered sign greets visitors approaching from the west.
One of the dry moats around the secondary grounds.
The sign marks a double moat.
A stone marker on the site of one of several lookout towers, this one located between the double moats..
One can imagine how much view could be gained from a tower. The photo doesn’t really capture the depth and sense of slope.
The same view in reverse.
A sign marking the site of the “chi-no-deru matsu”, a black pine that allegedly secreted blood-red sap. Legend says that the tree had absorbed the blood of warriors who had died in battle. The tree died and was removed in 1972. Apparently there have been several attempts to plant pine trees on the same location, none of which have succeeded.
A statue stands to the right of a marker showing the location of another lookout tower. I normally have a fondness for roadside statues, but I don’t like historical sites being coopeted by shrines. There are several statues within the castle grounds, but they post-date the castle’s destruction.
The Kiri-fuki well site. This is the same one I pointed out in the maps above. This well is on a much lower level of the grounds.
The south entrance to the shrine and the main castle keep ruins.
It wouldn’t be a shrine without a steep set of stairs. I included this because it does give some idea of the slope that attackers would have had to overcome – under musket and arrow fire.
A view from the main keep area. Much of the ground between the river and the rise is now a park.
A view slightly left of the one above. One can imagine the level of visibility from a raised tower and if the trees and bamboo were cut.
The obligatory marker for the main keep.
The obligatory informative sign for the main keep. I suppose I should be grateful – I remember visiting the sites of similar fortresses where there was nothing except a sign, and often with less information.
The Shiroyama Shrine building. There are several tiny shrines on the castle grounds.
The “Meoto kashi”, literally “husband and wife oaks”.
Behind the Shiroyama Shrine a sign marks the site of a gate. It is believed that a bridge crossed the moat at this point.
The site of the gate to the main keep from the third keep. The bridge would have been just behind here.
Sign marking the third keep. Its other name, Channomikuruwa, is said to have arisen from Hojo Ujiteru enjoying tea with his retainers here.
The site of the main well, in the third keep.

Much of the original grounds are now roads, parkland or private property. I actually spotted a lookout tower marker in the garden of a house in the area.

Before I publish this post, I need to pay a visit to a certain public hall and get photos of a model of the castle to give you a better idea how it would have looked.

Part of the model of the castle grounds. The Kiri-fuki well is on the left, with the chi-no-deru matsu almost directly above it. The waterfall is just off the right.
An approach from the south. You get some idea just how hard it would be to assault the castle from the east.
From east-northeast. That is the waterfall on the right.

The castle fell in 1590 when Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s forces pushed east and the Hojos were toppled. It was burned to the ground and never rebuilt.

It was worth a stroll around the grounds.

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Poppy

Hi blog.

It’s good to be back behind the keyboard for the first time in well over a month. Where did all the time go?

Well, frankly, I was busy with work stuff – new school year, new English textbooks (complete with poor grammar, unnatural expressions, and a poor choice of topics – including the elephant story – with a whole new batch of grammatical patterns for the students to learn)

On the bright side, I have been granted permission to return to Aikido practice. I must say that returning to Aikido has already made a huge improvement in my outlook on life.

The weather has been erratic, with huge fluctuations in temperature, humidity, wind and basically every other meteorological variable. This, naturally leads to tiredness.

I had hoped to go for a hike at the end of March or early April and blog about that, but nothing came to pass. What would I blog about this month? I was really stuck for ideas.

I thought I might be able to get a photo of the crows nesting at my school. No luck there.
A photo from a foray one day when I desperately needed to get out side. The cherry blossoms are pure coincidence.

Then on the way to work I caught myself saying, “You never used to see so many poppies along here”.

I don’t remember seeing these poppies here in such numbers in previous years.

Bingo!

Up close and personal with some poppy heads. More of these had opened into flowers the following morning.

One needs to be aware when talking about poppies in Japan. The generic name for the family Papaveraceae is keshi (usually katakana but sometimes 芥子 or 罌粟), which is typically taken to mean the opium poppy!

The poppies I refer to in this post are long-headed poppies or blindeyes (Papaver dubium), known locally as nagamihinageshi (again, usually katakana but also 長実雛芥子 or 長実雛罌粟), which are an economically important plant. In a bad way.

Originating in the Mediterranean, these plants were observed in Tokyo in 1961. They then spread out, initially following roads and railway lines, but eventually invading agricultural land. They are now found in almost every prefecture in the country. Since 2016, a number of prefectures have designated them as a problematic introduced species.

The poppies grow between 15 and 60 cm in height, depending on the soil conditions. They prefer a slightly alkaline soil but will grow virtually anywhere there is sun. They even grow in cracks in concrete.

I was taking out the garbage when I noticed this poppy growing in the gaps between asphalt and concrete.

Furthermore, the poppies produce an allelopathic chemical which suppresses the growth of competing plants.

The poppies flower in April and May, and each plant can produce up to 16000 seeds. The seeds can remain viable for 5 years or more, giving the poppy a high ability to reproduce and multiply. Seeds have been known to attach themselves to wet car tyres, explaining the spread along roadways.

Also, the poppies protect themselves by means of alkaloid toxins, something which needs to be remembered when attempting to weed by hand.

All in all, the long headed poppy is a rather pretty flower that is just a noxious weed.

Just as an appendix to this post, in the day between finishing the main text and adding the photos and final editing, one of the office staff at work collected a poppy from the school grounds to plant in her garden. I was pleased to be able to tell her the name of the flower and give her the appropriate cautions.

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How Bizarre

Hi blog.

We are about halfway into March and only now am I posting anything.

It’s that weird time of year when work can be really rushed or really lax; those high and low pressure cells could bring a cold headwind as I cycle into work and a warm headwind as I cycle home; one day’s minimum temperature might be higher than the following day’s maximum; there could be the scent of magnolias and camellias on the breeze or a dust storm.

Late last year a section of woods (I estimate nearly an acre) on my cycling route was cleared and a huge pit dug.  Mat and I spent quite a long time guessing what was going on.  They are now filling in the pit and have cleared the neighbouring section of wood for what I suspect is the same purpose.

Wooded area being cleared. It is now just bare earth.

My encounters with wildlife have been few.  Sure, I have spotted herons, egrets and kingfishers on the river (and we know how difficult they are to photograph), I’ve seen crows building a nest in my school grounds, I’ve run into toads on the trip to work, but nothing much out of the usual.  So imagine my surprise when I found a newt on the road.

I was riding in to work on the 13th, a very wet Saturday morning.  I had promised one of the teachers that I would go in to help him with a lesson.  I had decided to forego my usual backpack since I only needed to take in a USB drive (there aren’t many things worse than having a wet backpack) and travelled light.

I followed my usual route, turned through a residential district that backs onto market gardens and tea fields, and spotted a newt on the road.

What the hell was a newt doing on the road?  I suspect it either escaped from or was washed out of an outdoor pond during the heavy rain.  I knew that it would almost certainly not survive if I left it alone and decided to rescue it.  One more newt at home would not make any difference.

I started to curse not having my backpack (I always have a plastic bag in my backpack) but remembered my rainsuit pouch in my rainsuit pocket.  By chance I still had the plastic case from a nasty caterpillar under my desk at school.  I collected the newt and was about to set off when I spotted another newt… and then another… and then another!

Four newts?!  There was no way I could keep four newts, but I knew that I could find a home for them.  I was certain that the school’s science club would be delighted to adopt them, or I could donate them to the neighbouring elementary school.

And just to add to my list of good deeds, I assisted a toad off a road further on.

As it turns out, with the pandemic curbing club activities, the teacher in charge of the science club initially refused my offer of donating the newts to the school, but then suggested that I release them into the pond the science club had made back in 2019.  Done!

Just to be sure, I returned home by the same route and kept an eye out for any other newts.  I found one that had been crushed by traffic, but was able to locate two survivors.  Unfortunately, one of those died this morning.  I hope the other one fairs better and that the ones I released into the pond thrive and possibly breed.

The surviving newt. It is about half the size of the one we collected seven years ago.

I will make another search of the area very soon.

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Three Heads are Better than One

It was National Foundation Day (February 11th) and I found myself leaving home while it was still dark.  Oddly enough, the temperature was slightly higher than an hour later the previous day.

I was heading to Tachikawa where I would meet up with Ian and Y for a climb up Mt. Mito. (Mitosan 三頭山. literally “Three Head Mountain”), a mountain with three peaks, the highest being 1531 m.  It also has the distinction of being the highest of the “three famous mountains of Okutama”, the other two being Mt. Otake and Mt. Gozen.  (The Japanese make a big thing of the “three famous ________”.)

We would get the bus from Okutama Station to the Ogouchi Jinja bus stop on Lake Okutama and start our hike from there.  We would be passing through sections of beech and oak forest, and the chances of us encountering some real wildlife seemed reasonable.

Almost 100 km from the sea, and an elevation of 530 m.

The floating bridge. It was not the most stable of structures.

The first stage of the hike was crossing the lake by floating bridge.  The wind blowing over the lake was chilly, but once we entered the forest we didn’t really feel the cold.

This particular route required us to climb two other mountains before reaching Mt. Mito; Mt. Iyo (イヨ山) and Mt. Nukazasu (ヌカザス山).

Mt. Iyo, at less than 1000 m – and therefore technically not a mountain – was standard fare for mountain hikes in Okutama: a mixture of gradients, with trees ranging from cryptomeria or cypress plantations to groves of red pine to mixed broadleaf forests.  There were only a few other hikers on the trail, meaning we were out of sight of other people for most of the hike.

Going up… there were lots of cryptomeria and cypress trees here.

Mountains viewed through a patch of red pine.

In fact, Mt. Iyo was so unremarkable that I didn’t even bother getting a photo of the summit marker.

Looking back at Lake Okutama.

Mt. Nukazasu was a somewhat different story. This involved going along a fairly steep and narrow ridge, and offered few options to rest.

A rough sign noting the peak of Mt. Nukazasu. Here it is written in the unofficial kanji. I had ventured that the name had its roots in the word “unpassable”. Further research says that it comes from an old dialectal word and so is typically written in katakana.

The real climb, however, was yet to begin.

We, foolishly, had not considered the possibility of the white death.

We soon found ourselves on a steep slope with the trail covered with snow in many places.  We had to keep our wits about us since the trail markers also disappeared and our only way of being sure we were still on the trail was to find the occasional footprint or the imprint of crampons in the ice.  Crampons!  I was going to regret not bringing my 12 spike crampons with me on this trip…

I think it took over half an hour to move just 300 metres forward through the worst point.

The view was spectacular, but we were very tired and hungry… and still nearly 2 km from the summit.

By the time we reached the summit I was starving.  I ignored the summit marker and headed straight for the clearing.  I saw a sign on my left and went to see what it was about, and walked right past a magnificent view of Mt. Fuji.

The position of the sun made for less than optimum contrast, but I think this will give you an idea.

You can see a dot of light about halfway between the summit and the bottom of the snowline. We suspect that is the sun reflecting off the window of a mountain hut.

Looking the other way into the mountains of the Chichibu-Okutama-Kai National Park. We could see both Mt. Kumotori and Mt. Gozen.

I missed the fact that this is not the summit marker. I was too busy with coffee and lunch.

Coffee and lunch and taking up the view while soaking up the sun.

From there, it would be a minor detour to a hut for the toilet break, then a half hour descent to the waterfalls before  heading along a paved road to a bus stop.

Or so we thought.

The downward trail toward the waterfalls is on the northern side of the mountain… which means it is in almost permanent shade at this time of year… which means that snow remains on the trail.  People walking on the snow compact it.  It partially thaws during the day and then refreezes overnight, leading to a trail covered in slippery ice.

We gingerly picked out way along the trail, trying to find bare rocks, relatively soft snow or handholds, and occasionally just leaving the trail altogether for the safety of snow as opposed to ice.  We still all fell over numerous times, and the going was painfully slow.

I was cursing not bringing my crampons the whole way down.

The remains of an old charcoal pit. Making charcoal was once a staple of mountain life.

Well over an hour had passed by the time we reached the waterfalls, and we were going to miss our bus.

The waterfalls, however, did provide a lovely distraction.

Frozen.

These are a tourist attraction in this village.

Icicles.

From there, it was a walkway covered in woodchips, then a very fast walk along the road for about 3.7 km to catch the 5:30 bus.

My first real winter walk in years.  I had forgotten how much fun it can be.  I had also forgotten just how hard it can be.

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The Empty Walk

Hi blog.

It was Saturday.  After a very busy and sometimes infuriating week, I decided that I needed to get out of the house.  The afternoon weather was warm enough to not require a jacket or hat, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

I hoped that a walk to an old Jomon period site might provide something blog-worthy, as well as just some walking.

Well, I did get some walking done.

The Jomon site (someone on the Internet had listed it as a burial mound, whereas this was actually the remains of pit dwellings.  Or rather, now a corner of a residential area built on the site of an old Jomon pit dwelling.

The informative sign, standing in a corner of a residential block.

Disappointed, but not overly surprised, I decided to go home via Yamaguchi castle, which is also marked by a sign and nothing else.

The highlight of the walk was seeing the entrance gate to the Shokoji Temple.   This gate was built in the 17th century.

The gate is quite impressive; the temple was nothing special.  The red building on the left is the bell tower.

Although the walk was almost worth it just for this view.

This was an urban walk, and I came across practically nothing wild.

I need to rectify this situation.

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Starlings at Sunset.

Hi blog.

We are well into the depths of winter here, with mornings of sub-zero temperatures and daytime maximums not reaching above ten degrees being the norm.  One particular sub-zero morning was extremely tough on the body during my commute to work – I could barely move my fingers to work my bike brakes by the time I arrived (despite wearing a double layer of gloves), and at least 15 minutes of being inside a heated room elapsed before I regained full control of my fingers again.

As I write this, we are on our second day of cold, cold rain.  I suppose I should be grateful for something to suppress the dust, but having to spend a whole weekend indoors…

This will be another short post.

I have mentioned white-cheeked starlings or grey starlings (Spodiopsar cineraceus) in previous posts and even mentioned the noise they can make.  Well, on the evening of that particularly brutal morning I encountered a mass gathering of the birds on the way home.  It seemed like a good opportunity to get some evidence to back up my claims of them being loud.

Suffice to say that the city council is known for brutally pruning trees around the station specifically to prevent these birds from roosting.

I suppose I will have to do a proper blog post on these birds some time in the not too distant future.

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Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Hi blog.

I had been hoping to make one more post last month, but my material was thin and I ended up being busy with other things.

We are in the depths of winter here, with some days not getting above fridge temperature all day.  Riding to work on the first day of term was murder on the fingers, toes and ears.

After much pressure from prefectural governors, the Japanese government announced a state of emergency covering Tokyo, Saitama, Kanagawa and Chiba.  These measures are largely toothless – more guidelines than law –  and seem to assume that the corona virus is inactive before 8 PM and doesn’t affect politicians who want to go out drinking while telling the general population not to.

Anyway, I decided I needed to get outside and go for a walk.  Not to mention blog something…

I thought I’d take a simple walk down the Azuma River to Kokukoen and back again.

Ice on the Azuma River. You know it’s cold when the river is still iced over in the afternoon.

Although I was willing to get side-tracked…

This mistletoe caught my eye from a about 200 metres away. Unfortunately, it was in a tall tree in the middle of a private kindergarten, so I couldn’t get any closer.

And perhaps take a slightly roundabout route to get there.

The giant snake at the Kumano Shrine. I had actually considered writing about this a long time ago, but wasn’t able to find any information about it.

A close up of the head.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”  Did I sound like Humphrey Bogart?

Kokukoen has a small section dedicated to wintersweet, and I thought I should see them before they peak.

One of dozens of wintersweet trees in blossom.

A open flower. You can see that most of the flowers are still buds at this stage.

I started the return trip via the pond, where a small bird (sparrow sized) was playing on the ice.

Try as I might, I could not get a clear picture of this bird. I had to use full zoom, and it just wouldn’t hold still. Either that or it was using some avian stealth technology…

A field guide identified it as a grey wagtail.

Other birds were slightly less camera shy.

A jungle crow preens itself while on sentry duty.

More alert this time.

And one last surprise was a jorogumo.  I thought they all would have died by the end of December, but this girl was still hanging in there.

A large jorogumo, with a very red belly.

Getting this photo involved climbing over the guard rail and frantically trying to get a macro shot while also trying to not sip into the river.

While this post was short and didn’t contain anything particularly new, I really enjoyed getting outside.

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Bird on a Wire

And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles
They can always fly away from this rain and this cold

You can hear them singing out their telegraph code
All the way down the telegraph road

Dire Straits, Telegraph Road

Hi blog.

Just a VERY short post based on a few photos.

Although the winter solstice isn’t here yet (and this year will be marked by a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, so I hope it is clear) we have already had the earliest sunsets for the year, with the sun setting before 4:30.

I was waiting for Mat at our usual meeting place.  He was running late and I noticed some crows on the powerlines and line towers not so far away.  OK, quite a few crows.  OK, a lot of crows.

Crows. Jungle crows. Lots of them.

Mass murder?

Mat messaged me that he was running late and it would probably be best to go on without him.

I ended sharing these photos to a corvid group page on Facebook, and Mat replied that he had also seen this mass of crows and estimated that there were about 350 on and around that tower.

The following evening I was able to get a couple of shots of a crow considerably closer.  (But not nearly a close as I would like)

There’s no mistaking that beak. It’s a jungle crow.

I wish I had a proper camera for encounters like this.

Now I just hope the skies are clear on the 21st.

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