“… And we’ll throw in a pair of giant isopods”

27 Jan

“I will hug him and squeeze him and call him George”

Looney Tunes

Hi blog.

From the local vernacular news, a regional product out of the ordinary.

The hometown tax (“furusato nozei”) has caught on, mostly as a variation on online shopping.

This month, the city of Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture announced that it will send, in return for donations of ¥10,000 or more, a pair of live giant isopods (Bathynomus doederleinii), shipped by home delivery service within about three weeks.  The isopods, about 7 cm in size, are caught by fishermen in Suruga Bay.

The website requests that would-be owners make preparations for keeping the isopods before placing an order.  Apparently, even though they are nominally deep sea creatures, they can live in an appropriately cool and dark aquarium.

You can view the site here.

One TV news program took up the story and reminded viewers that isopods can also be eaten… (see here for an older story in English on the topic)  This news made a bit of a splash last year.

My favourite part of this whole circus is that the official website reminds readers that these are not Bathynomus giganteus, which are the giants of the isopod world.

A screenshot of the website, showing a close-up of the isopod, along with the the recommendations about preparing an appropriate environment (without actually stating what that is…)

Much of the feedback has been negative, ranging from concerns about trading live animals to people without the knowledge or means to care for them properly, concerns about the image Yaizu is projecting, to just “they’re gross”.

My take: I have no objections to people willing to invest the time, effort and money into providing an appropriate environment for these animals.  However, I’m pretty sure there will be people who take them first without the faintest idea how to take care of them.

I have to admit though, a pair of those would look pretty cool…

Sweet Dreams and Life Imitates Art

18 Jan

Hi blog.

While this winter has been warmer than usual – ski resorts were having to resort to snow machines, ice smelt fishing areas remained closed due to lakes not freezing over, and golf courses unexpectedly found themselves open for business.

Then the cold came, bringing frost on the ground and on leaves, and freezing up my bike’s gear shifter.  Believe me, riding to work stuck in bottom gear is NOT fun.

My brain was equally stuck for ideas for new posts when inspiration struck.  Why not write about animals whose names were inspired by myth?

The two mythical creatures I want to look at both have their origins in China.

The first is the kirin (麒麟), which is the Japanese reading of the Chinese qilin.  Legends concerning this creature go back to antiquity – one was said to have appeared before the mother of Confucius –  and descriptions have changed over time.  They have been said to resemble deer but with a dragon-like head, horse-like hooves and a golden mane.  They have been depicted as either being hornless or having one, two or three horns (more like deer antlers than actual horns), with the single- and double-horned  versions being best-known in Japan.  Other attributes include not treading on living grass or eating anything that lives.

Kirin, from the Wakansansaizue.


Qilin/Kirin are sometimes known as Chinese unicorn, but there are very few similarities between the two animals.

In Japan, images of the kirin tend to be limited to Buddhist art or as carvings on shrine buildings.  In a previous post I mentioned kirin as guardians of the Yasaka Shrine.  

What appears to be a horned kirin at the Yasaka Shrine.

However, the best-known image is commercial – the logo of the Kirin Brewery Company on its fine, fine products.

The offical Kirin beer logo kirin.

As a piece of trivia, the name Kirin appears as three katakana symbols hidden within the kirin logo (with the キ and リ in the mane and the ン in the tail) on the beer labels.

Where to find the hidden “kirin” on the label. This is great to know at drinking parties.

Before this turns into a beer commercial, let’s look at the real-life animal that takes its name from the mythological one.

In 1419, one Zheng He returned to the Ming court from a voyage to eastern Africa.  and presented the emperor with gifts of live animals including leopards, lions, zebras and giraffes.  The emperor particularly liked the giraffes, which were declared to be qilin.

A Ming attendant with the gift giraffe. This may or may not be the original 15th century artwork. Taken from Wikipedia.

The name filtered through China’s sphere of influence, including the Korean peninsula and Japan, although most modern Japanese use the katakana script when referring to the giraffe.

Curiously, the modern Chinese name for giraffe no longer reflects any connection to the mythological beast.


“Devour, O Baku ! devour the dream !”

Lafcadio Hearn

The second mythological creature also originates in China, but has made firm footing in the Japanese imagination.

Known as baku (獏)  in Japanese (very different from the Chinese “mo”), it has undergone a few transformations.

The animal was described as having the trunk of an elephant, the eyes of a rhinoceros, the body of a bear, the tail of an ox and the legs of a tiger.

Baku from the Wakansansaizue

In China the mo was said to prevent illness, and that a pillow made from the creature’s fur would prevent nightmares.  Following its transition into Japan, the baku became an animal that ate nightmares.  (Some are of the opinion that the baku was confused with a nightmare-devouring Chinese god read as “bakuki” in Japanese).

Baku by Hokusai.

There have been customs since then of placing a picture of a baku under one’s pillow to ensure pleasant dreams, or of having a baku-shaped pillow or having a picture of a baku on one’s pillow.  The treasure boat of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune sometimes has the character for baku written on the sail.

Baku makura, pillows depicting baku. From the Tokyo National Museum.

Carvings of baku can be seen at temples and shrines.  They could be mistaken for elephants with short trucks, except for their clawed feet.  Look for them on the corners of large shrines.

Look at the carving at the top right – notice the trunk and tusks? That is the baku.  At the Mitsumine Shrine.

Now, as for the real animal… it is the tapir!

Many modern Japanese are unaware that there is actually a difference between the mythological baku and the real tapir, and depict the former as the latter.

A bronze statue based on Shigeru Mizuki’s cartoon art. Taken from Wikipedia.

There are theories that Malayan tapirs may have existed in China in early times, along with elephants and Indian rhinoceroses.  One professor claims that a bronze statue of a Malayan tapir has been dug up at a Chinese archaeological site.  

Maybe the real animal is named after a mythological animal which was modelled on the real animal…


Lucky Seven

6 Jan

Hi blog.

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for several years now, but I always miss the season.   My wife and her family don’t follow this particular custom, so I can’t personally relate to it.  In fact, I only heard about it a few years ago (on the TV news, no less).

The custom I’m referring to is making and eating rice gruel / rice porridge using the “seven herbs of spring” and eating it on January 7th.  The word “herb” needs to be used in its widest nuance, since the Japanese word is “kusa”(草 or 種), literally “grass”.  This word covers grasses, herbs, vegetables and even flowers.  (Most Japanese are blissfully unaware of this, and will gladly talk about eating grass, when in fact they mean wild vegetables!)

Anyway, the “seven herbs of spring” – haru-no-nanakusa (春の七草) – are boiled together with rice to make a gruel dish known as nanakusa gayu.  The number seven is derived from Chinese cosmology – there are seven “herbs” for summer and autumn too, and the seven gods of good fortune make their appearance at this time of year.

There is a song for recalling the ingredients.  The traditional names for the seven herbs are archaic, and some differ from modern names.  Also, there are regional variations for both the ingredients and the exact date for the dish to be made.  The accompanying chant for chopping the herbs is also subject to regional variation.

I’m not big on folk songs, so I’m not 100% sorry that we don’t carry out this custom at home.

Anyway, here is a rundown of the seven herbs of spring:

Traditional name Modern name notes
   seri (芹)  same  Oenanthe javanica, or Java Dropwort.  Not to be confused with the similar-looking but poisonous Mackenzie’s Water Hemlock.
   nazuna (薺)  same or sometimes penpenkusa  Capsella bursa-pastoris, shepherd’s purse.
   gogyo (御形)  hahakogusa (母子草)  Jersey cudweed, Gnaphalium affine.  
   hakobera (繁縷)  hakobe (蘩蔞)  Chickweeds of the genus Stellaria.  Long used in folk medicine.
   hotokenoza (仏の座) koonitabirako (小鬼田平子)  Nipplewort Lapsana apogonoides.  Not to be confused with henbit dead-nettle (Lamium amplexicaule), which is also known as hotokenoza.
  suzuna (菘) kabu (蕪) This is a turnip.  Only the leaves are used for the gruel.
   suzushiro (蘿蔔)  diakon (大根)  Giant Chinese radish.  Only the leaves are used in the gruel.

*All the above photos courtesy of Wikipedia.


I’ve even seen the seven herbs sold together as a set for making the gruel.  Maybe one day I’ll try making it, but on a cold winter day I’d rather have a big curry!

See the #fireworks Wild in Japan created by blogging on #WordPressDotCom. My 2015 annual report.

30 Dec

See the fireworks Wild in Japan created by blogging on WordPress.com. Check out their 2015 annual report.

Source: See the #fireworks I created by blogging on #WordPressDotCom. My 2015 annual report.

Don’t count your mantids…

28 Dec

Hi blog.

Christmas – and its Japanese version which I cynically call “Fakemas” – has come and gone.  I was able to carry out one tradition I insist on following, the making of a Christmas pudding (not a “pure” version, as getting the mixed peel here is virtually impossible) for my workmates.  (I have to make it at work, as some people at home don’t agree with the amount of gas used to boil the pudding for two hours)

Recently I cleared out our chayote vines, and found this.

Folklore holds that the height these are laid at is an indicator of the amount of snow that can be expected that winter. I hope not – this one was at head height!!

In case you don’t recognise this, it is the egg case, or ootheca, of a praying mantis.  Apparently each species of praying mantis produces a different kind of ootheca, and some searching on the Internet suggests that this one – the brown tinge is an important factor – belongs to a Japanese giant mantis (Tenodera aridifolia), known locally as o-kamakiri (大蟷螂 or 大螳螂).  As the name suggests, it is the largest mantis species found in Japan.  It is also extant in China, Taiwan, the Korean peninsula and parts of South East Asia.

Around April, around 200 mantid nymphs will (fingers crossed) emerge.  Most of these nymphs will be eaten before they reach maturity (cannibalism is rife among mantids) and maybe only two or three from each clutch will live to mate (and we all know what happens to the male…)

The foam casing becomes hard to protect the eggs inside.

I’m keeping the eggs in a container outside, partially to keep them at natural temperatures so they don’t hatch prematurely – in a season largely devoid of prey – and partially to avoid the wrath of certain people should 200 or so mantises make a sudden appearance.

Identifying mantis species is an art into itself, and I hope to remember some of the methods by next summer when the mantises are out and about.  That will be a worthy of a blog post.

Owl’s that?

19 Dec

Hi blog.

The erratic weather continued, with some unseasonably warm days, including the warmest December day recorded for over 140 years, with cold days in between.

My recent encounters with wildlife seem to be limited to birds – I’ve seen up to six egrets together on my morning and one morning spotted a pair of kingfishers on my morning commute.  I also encountered a female pheasant and a kite on the same morning.  But without a doubt, the best experience was when a kite perched near a window at my school and I got within four metres of it.

Getting close to a bird of prey is quite an experience, and I envy the family mentioned in this article from the Asahi Shimbun.  Clicking on the link will also give you access to a short video clip of the bird in action.


Giving a hoot about an endangered owl in Hokkaido

December 08, 2015


RAUSU, Hokkaido–Just past sundown on a stretch of river dimly lit by lamps, a rare owl suddenly swoops out of the darkness and glides down to a rock in the water. A family, watching from nearby, whoops with delight.

The bird remains motionless for several minutes. Then in a flash, it breaks the silence by leaping into the pool and catching a Yamame trout.

Known as the “guardian of the village” to the Ainu, the Blakiston’s fish owl is said to have once numbered approximately 1,000 in all of Hokkaido. But now it is on the government’s critically endangered list with about 140 remaining.

Visitors, such as the family above, are able to witness the Blakiston’s fish owl up close in a special program organized by the Shiretoko Rausu Tourism Association in Rausu, a town in the Shiretoko Peninsula of eastern Hokkaido.

The peninsula in 2005 became the first region in Japan to be selected entirely as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“The program is an attempt to promote conservation and raise awareness of a species rarely seen by humans by showing it to them,” said an Environment Ministry official. “We hope it progresses smoothly in the right direction.”

Measuring nearly 70 centimeters in length with a wingspan of about 180 centimeters, the Blakiston’s fish owl is the largest owl species inhabiting Japan.

They reside around rivers and lakes in Hokkaido and the Southern Kuril Islands (referred to as the Northern Territories in Japan). The ministry classifies it as an Endangered Species IA Class, meaning the bird is “critically endangered.”

Visitors watch the owl in action from a bird-watching station next to Washi no Yado (Inn of the eagle), an inn located beside Chitoraigawa river. Live fish are placed inside a small pool surrounded by rocks within the river and it is here that the bird can be watched by the tourists.

“The main prey of the Blakiston’s fish owl is the Dolly Varden trout, a kind of char. Considering the size of their population, we think only one owl family can inhabit a single river zone,” said Shinji Sato, a member of the tourism association who acts as a guide.

The Blakiston’s fish owl, which also dines on amphibians, crustaceans, birds and small mammals, was in danger of dying out with the population falling to about 70 in the 1960s and 1970s due to massive deforestation and dam construction projects.

The central government started working on the conservation of the owls from 1984, mainly by setting up feeding stations and bird houses in its habitat. Due to such efforts, the 140 or so Blakiston’s fish owls now live mainly around eastern Hokkaido, with about half of them inhabiting the Shiretoko Peninsula.

“Down here, the Blakiston’s fish owl shows its true form in the wild,” said Sato. “By looking at them, we hope for visitors to develop a sense of respect for nature.”

Article ends.
Certainly some good news about the owl population making a slow but steady recovery.
I would love to visit the Shiretoko Peninsula some day.  In the meantime, it is important to remind people why it is a World Heritage site.


Having a wail of a time…

5 Dec

Hi blog.

Bad news again as Japanese conservatives continue to get their way.

Normally I wouldn’t include an article from Japan Today, which has been bought out by the right-wing sympathetic Sankei group, but this one includes some interesting information.  Save yourself the bother of going to the link as the comments section displays the worst vitriol of the human zoo. (Comments by one “tinawatanabe” – who seems to magically appear like a rabid fairy godmother whenever Japan’s actions are criticized – are particularly jingoistic and caustic)


My comments in bold black.

Japan’s whaling fleet departs for hunt despite international outrage


Japan’s whaling fleet set out for the Antarctic on Tuesday to resume a hunt for the mammals after a year-long hiatus, prompting criticism from Australia as well as key ally, the United States.

Year-long hiatus?  Oh, yes.  The period when Japan – whose officials love to refer as “a nation of law” – actually decided not to ignore the decision of the International Court of Justice.

Japan aims to take more than 300 whales before the hunt ends next year and nearly 4,000 over the next 12 years as part of a scientific program to research the whales.

Research: “What’s the going price for minke whale meat?”

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled last year that Japan’s whaling in the Southern Ocean should stop and an International Whaling Commission (IWC) panel said in April that Japan had yet to demonstrate a need for killing whales.


But Tokyo retooled its plan for the 2015/16 season to cut the number of minke whales it intends to take to 333, down by two-thirds from previous hunts.

So, somehow, by killing “only” one third of your targeted goal, you think it will make it acceptable even when the ICJ’s ordered Japan to “…revoke any extant authorization, permit or licence to kill, take or treat whales in relation to JARPA II, and refrain from granting any further permits under Article VIII, paragraph 1, of the Convention, in pursuance of that programme”?

“Last year, regrettably, the ICJ made its ruling and we were unable to take whales,” said Tomoaki Nakao, the mayor of the western city of Shimonoseki that is home to the whaling fleet and part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s election district.

Wait a minute.  Abe’s election district.  Abe, revisionist, who seems to want to drag Japan back to the 1930s.  And if my memory serves me correctly, this is the very same port which received funds siphoned off from the Tohoku Earthquake disaster relief funds, purportedly because the other major whaling port had been damaged by the tsunami.

“There’s nothing as happy as this day,” he told the fleet’s crew at a ceremony prior to their departure.

Roll out that pork barrel!

Shortly before noon the ships sailed away under a clear blue sky, with family members and officials waving from the shore. The hunt is expected to last until March.

Japan, which has long maintained that most whale species are not endangered and that eating whale is part of its food culture, began what it calls “scientific whaling” in 1987, a year after an international whaling moratorium took effect.

Interest groups have always managed to play the “culture” and”tradition” cards, usually with a “race” card and the “racist” card (because being anti-whaling is actually racist, apparently) hidden up their sleeve to draw on the nationalist full house.

The meat ends up on store shelves, although most Japanese no longer eat it.

But plenty of noisy individuals will buy into the “It’s Japan’s sovereign right” argument.  Failing that, they will argue that “fish stocks are at dangerously low levels because the whales are eating them all”.

Officials, including Abe, have long said their ultimate goal is the resumption of commercial whaling – a pledge Abe repeated in a message read at the pre-departure ceremony.

Maybe the “research” is “Just how far can we flout the ICJ ruling?”  This is clearly  a pilot program to resume commercial whaling in Antarctic waters.  (And just how old is this so-called “tradition”?)

Australia and key Japanese ally the United States both opposed the hunt.

“We believe that all of Japan’s primary research objectives can be met through non-lethal activities and continue to oppose their scientific whaling programs,” said Russell F. Smith, the U.S. commissioner to the IWC.

Environmental activists also condemned the move.

“It is completely unacceptable for the Japanese government to ignore the International Court of Justice,” said Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, in a statement.

This is the same Japanese government that finds China’s flouting of an ICJ decision completely unacceptable.

“This is not ‘scientific research,’ this is straight up commercial whaling.”

You are absolutely correct, Mr. Sato.

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2015.

Article ends

How some people see minke whales.


29 Nov

Hi blog.

The weather continues to be erratic, with the minimum temperature one day being higher than the maximum temperature the next, alternating rain and clear skies, but the claws of winter are here.

Taking another break from wildlife, I’ve decided to do a brief write-up on something I’ve had sitting on the backburner for a couple of years.  The roots of this post, however, go back a couple of decades.

My host family in Obihiro had a large collection of ukiyoe books, and one image that struck me was one depicting a young, pregnant-bellied woman hung by her ankles from the rafters and an old hag sharpening a knife, wooden basin at the ready.  I didn’t know the story behind the art – a lot of ukiyoe art presents old stories as its subject – and so I was kept guessing for over two decades.

All that changed when I thought I’d read up on the yamamba, a (usually) demonic hag living alone in the mountains and typically portrayed as having an appetite for human flesh.  She shares some characteristics with the kijo (demon woman), which also extend into the word onibaba (鬼婆), often translated as “old witch” or “old demon hag”.  And that lead me to an old Japan Times article.


In search of the fearsome Onibaba

Legendary ‘Demon-hag’ gives Fukushima town a dubious claim to fame

 OCT 21, 2012

“Here’s as close as I can take you,” said my taxi driver, a charming fellow named Ishii whose pronounced zuzu-ben (Tohoku accent), was strong enough to cut with the proverbial knife.

“Just follow the path down the hill there — you can’t miss it.”

He promised to return to the same spot and — fate permitting as Halloween nears — pick me up in time to catch a train from nearby Nihonmatsu to Koriyama, where I could hop a shinkansen to the metropolis.

Disembarking from the car into a light rain, I popped open a folding umbrella and strolled through the Furusato Mura gift shop-cum-restaurant complex, out a side door and onto a path veering to the left. I soon passed the gate to the Kanzeji Temple and followed signs pointing to the ominous-sounding Kurozuka (Black Mound).

The path followed the rolling topography, first ascending a hill, then taking a sharp turn to the right that preceded a short descent.

Just then the wind picked up, violently rattling my umbrella as the rain came driving at me almost sideways. It was turning into a thoroughly nasty afternoon. But considering where I was headed, the ambience couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Reaching a narrow access road, I found myself on a bluff overlooking the Abukuma River, standing in front of old Buddhist statuary and a large Japanese cypress marked with worn signs.

It’s a forlorn place even today, and it’s easy to imagine how desolate it would have seemed to the people in ancient times who traveled through this part of the northeastern Tohoku region of Honshu known as Michinoku.

Beneath that solitary tree, according to local legends, repose the remains of Adachigahara no Onibaba, the so-called Demon-hag of Adachigahara. Also described variously as an “ogress” and a “goblin,” her story stands out as one of the most bloodcurdling legends in a country that has no shortage of grotesque, gruesome and barbarously chilling tales.

Perhaps due to the inclement weather and there being no one else about, I would have any spirit of the horrible hag’s undivided attention for the duration of my visit.

Truth be told, though, she also had mine, as I reflected on accounts of her dreadful deeds that appear to go back around 1,260 years, to the late Nara Period (710-784).

In those days her name is believed to have been Iwate, and she worked as a wet nurse for an aristocratic family in the Imperial capital. Then one day her high-born mistress fell ill, and Iwate was told by a seer that she could only be healed by consuming the raw liver of a pregnant woman.

Ever the loyal servant, Iwate left her own small daughter to set off in search of a cure, eventually taking up residence in Japan’s then remote and near-uncharted northeast.

Years passed until, one autumn evening, a young couple with the wife heavily pregnant approached her hut and requested shelter for the night. That evening the wife went into labor and her husband dashed off to seek medication. Seizing her chance, Iwate slashed open the young woman’s belly and began to remove her liver. In her death throes, the woman gasped, “I came here searching for my mother, from whom I’d been separated in the capital.”

Then to her horror, Onibaba recognized a talisman she had given to her daughter in infancy, and at that moment realized she had murdered her own beloved offspring. Driven to madness, she turned into a full-fledged serial killer and cannibal. The exact number of her victims is not specified — nor likewise the circumstances of her death.

Then eventually, according to one version, she was forced into irreversible permanent retirement by a holy arrow sent winging her way as a result of a Buddhist exorcism ritual.

It’s amazing how we humans can even scare ourselves — let alone others — and I departed the Kurozuka and retraced my steps, anxiously casting occasional nervous glances over my shoulder. The tree soon disappeared from sight and I found myself at the gate of the Kanzeji Temple, affiliated with the Tendai Buddhist sect that was founded in 726.

The main hall, according to information on the back of my ¥400 entry ticket, was erected in 1788. Just past the entrance there is a memorial, embellished with floral offerings and incense, where visitors can offer prayers to Onibaba’s victims. Behind this are several impressively large boulders, among which is the so-called Iwaya overhang beneath which, as the story tells it, Onibaba erected her hut.

Hence, presumably, this was the spot where her whole grisly, demented career began with that killing of her daughter.

As if the imagination weren’t already pretty active, another “attraction” here is a small feature dubbed the Deba-arai Ike (Knife-washing Pond), in which the Onibaba is said to have washed away the sanguinary residue of her vile deeds.

Next to the temple’s main hall is a one-room museum with various items related to the Onibaba legend on display.

Along with more modern works of art are several artifacts, including what appears to be a very old, corroded iron cutting instrument, reputedly the deba (knife) with which she butchered her victims, and the kuwa (shovel) she used to bury her victims’ leftover remains.

And surprise, surprise — the temple also sells a variety of protective talismans and packets of postcards.

A short walk from the temple, meanwhile, is a sprawling historical and cultural park called Furusato Mura, and a gift shop selling locally produced food items and other souvenirs. One corner is the domain of cellphone ornaments, stickers and assorted other items featuring “Bappy-chan,” the cute mascot spun off from the Onibaba legend. Such transformative efforts at endearment might be said to have echoes in “Barney,” America’s amicable purple Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a host of European folklore, myths and legends given the vapid Disney treatment.

An illustration of the Onibaba of Adachigahara appears in Toriyama Sekien’s 1776 picture book, “Gazu Hyakki Yagyo” (“The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons”). The kijo (deranged woman) has also been a recurring theme in Japanese literature, performing arts such as kabuki and noh dramas, in cinema and manga.

As a generic monster, the Onibaba takes many forms. One is an ogre who has assumed the form of a human female; another a human female who insanely engages in fiendish behavior.

As “The Goblin of Adachigahara,” she made her English debut in a 1903 book by Yei Theodora Ozaki titled “Japanese Fairy Tales.” That book has since been reissued by Tuttle among many other publishers.

In more modern times, the late cartoonist Osamu Tezuka featured his own variation on the Onibaba tale from 1956 in Shonen Jump comics magazine.

My own acquaintance with this ghoulish old gal and her bloodthirsty exploits came about through a famous 1885 woodblock print titled “Adachigahara hitotsuya no zu” by the master artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92). A pupil of the great Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi is regarded as one of the most versatile graphics artists of his day and arguably the last great woodblock drawer with roots in the Edo Period (1603-1867).

From early in his career, Yoshitoshi gained a reputation as something of an enfant terrible because of the shocking nature of his bloody muzan-e(atrocity pictures) of infamous murders. He returned to the theme two decades later in a series of prints portraying some of Japan’s best known akujo (evil women) — including the Edo Period’s most famous female firebug, Yaoya no Oshichi (featured in Ihara Saikaku’s 1686 novel “Five Women Who Loved Love”) and another legendary mass murderess named Omatsu, whose modus operandi was to persuade solitary samurai to carry her piggyback across river shallows so her kimono would not become wet. Then, once mounted, she would pull out a dagger and slit the do-gooder’s throat in midstream.

The pair of prints comprising Yoshitoshi’s famous vertical diptych on the Onibaba theme show a young female, bound, gagged and suspended head down from the ceiling by a rope. She is hugely pregnant, and her long hair dangles close enough to the hearth to be licked at by its sparks. The cackling Onibaba squats on the floor, her wrinkled torso bare from the waist up as she hones her knife to a sharp edge on a whetstone.

Without showing so much as a drop of blood — censors in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) had begun cracking down on works of art depicting gratuitous violence — Yoshitoshi’s print brilliantly suggests the greater horrors to follow.

Fortunately, Nihonmatsu’s reputation does not appear to have been sullied in the slightest by its ghoulish resident of yore. In fact, the town of 58,000 people is listed (yes, there are lists for everything) as one of the top 100 spots in Japan for viewing cherry blossoms, and is also famous for its locally brewed rice wine and Kiku-ningyo dolls.

Article ends.

Toriyama Sekien’s depiction of the Onibaba.

And yes, that very image that captured Mark Schreiber’s imagination is the same one that held mine.

Tsukioka’s classic 1885 print of the Onibaba about to do her darkest deed.

Also worth noting is that the story mentioned in the article (“The Goblin of Adachigahara“) is more a retelling of another story about a novice priest and a yamamba, and any connection to the Onibaba in Adachigahara seems to be tacked on.  As I said before, there was a lot of crossover and cross pollination between legends.

Kabuki actor Onoe Kikuguro V in the role of the Onibaba, by Tsukioka, 1890.

Someday I will get around to writing about the yamamaba.


For Duck’s Sake…

13 Nov

Hi blog.

I think it’s safe to say we’ve seen the last of any warm weather for next few months.  I find the thought that it will continue to get colder a bit depressing.

Also depressing was November 11th.  The Japanese don’t have Remembrance Day (Japan, despite being officially allied to the U.K. in World War 1, did not actively take part) and instead have fully embraced commercialism by declaring the date “Pocky and Pretz Day“, for crying out loud.

My protest was to wear my poppy badge, but almost no-one asked about it, and I got to mention the day in only one class.

And on the depressing news front, we have more copycat attacks on animals.  Unfortunately, most of these have not made the English language press.

The most notorious ones lately are ducks being attacked with blowguns.


Duck with dart shot through head rescued in Hyogo Pref.

A northern pintail duck is seen with a dart piercing its head, in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, on Oct. 29, 2015. (Mainichi)
A northern pintail duck is seen with a dart piercing its head, in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, on Oct. 29, 2015. (Mainichi)

ITAMI, Hyogo — A duck was found at Koyaike Park here with a metal dart through its head on Oct. 28, and captured for treatment by Itami municipal authorities the following day.

The about 10-centimeter dart was lodged in the duck’s skull from just in front of the left eye through to the right cheek. Now in the care of the city after a veterinarian removed the dart and treated the wound, the bird is reportedly active and eating normally. It will be returned to Koyaike Park in a few days.

According to the municipal government, a report came in at about 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 28 that “there is a goose and a duck swimming here that have been shot with darts.” A city employee sent to the park spotted the duck with the dart through its head, but was unable to find the goose.

Efforts to catch the wounded bird began at about 8 a.m. on Oct. 29, and took about five hours. The duck is a 30-centimeter-long female northern pintail, which migrates annually from Siberia. The missing goose is likely to be a Brant goose, a nationally designated protected species usually measuring about 60 centimeters in length. The Hyogo Prefectural Police’s Itami Station has stated the dart was likely fired from a blowgun, and that it is investigating the incident as a violation of the Wildlife Protection and Proper Hunting Act.

and, closer to home:


Duck with arrow in its neck spotted at Saitama park


A duck was found with an arrow in the neck at Sai no Mori Iruma Park in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture, last week, park authorities and police said Monday.

Authorities said the bird, which has proved too elusive to capture, was spotted eating and flying in the park despite the injury, Sankei Shimbun reported. The arrow appears to have been fired from a crossbow, police said.

The injured duck was first seen on Oct 25, prompting park officials to report the case to prefectural and local police authorities.

Police are investigating the case as a violation of the Wildlife Protection Law.

Officials from the Saitama prefectural environment department, meanwhile, are making every effort to rescue the bird, but have not been successful so far.

A similar case was reported in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture also in late October, where a duck was found with an arrow stuck in its head at a local pond, authorities say.

Japan Today

Article ends.

According to Japanese news sources, a decapitated crow was also found in the Koyaike park.  This follows on from random attacks on cats, pigeons and other animals this year.


Wolf at the door

3 Nov

Hi blog.

This post has been a long time coming.  The idea goes back several years, but it took a bit of luck and planning to bring it together.

There is a lot of disagreement and confusion when it comes to the Honshu wolf, one of two (or possibly more) wolves endemic to – and now extinct in – Japan.  Scientists can’t agree whether it was a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) or a separate species (Canis hodophilax).  No-one seems able to point to a single cause for their extinction (I can – I call it “the usual reasons”*).  The locals couldn’t even agree on a single name.

What we do know is that the last confirmed wolf was killed in Nara in 1905.  Apparently, there had been one kept in Ueno Zoo just over a decade before, but no photographs survive.  (And, alas, neither did the wolves)

An 1881 illustration of the Honshu wolf. Taken from Wikipedia.

*The usual reasons: habitat destruction, hunting, and humans being generally greedy and/or stupid.

Honshu wolves were revered since time immemorial.  The Japanese name for wolf (“okami” 狼) is believed to be derived from a homophone meaning “great spirit” (大神).  For primative agrarian people, deer, wild pigs, and hares were no doubt a major problem, destroying crops and possibly pushing whole villages over the brink of starvation.  Enter the wolf, which drives the pests away.  For the ancient crop farmers, it was a divine protector.

Wolf god at the Mitsumine Shrine.

Wolves found themselves as the centre of cults in various places around the country.  Perhaps the most well-known is the one based around the Okutama-Chichibu-Kai region.  Wolf skulls and jawbones were treated as amulets, and the possessors of such items believed their crops would be protected from foraging animals, while the wolves would leave enough deer and pigs for the farmers to hunt.  (Exactly how one would come into possession of a wolf’s skull is not mentioned.)  Some were kept as family heirlooms and handed down from generation to generation.  However, according to the Mitsumine Shrine museum, some of the “wolf” skulls passed down have turned out to be dog, fox or bear skulls!

Photo of a wolf jaw netsuke I found on an auction site.

This could be yours for a mere ¥50000!

Farmers in the Kawakami region of Nagano and around the outer reaches of Chichibu would allow their dogs to mate with wolves, and the (rare) Kawakami breed of dog can claim descent from wolves.  At least two other now extinct breeds – the Chichibu dog and Chichibu wolf dog –  could also make similar claims.

A rare Kawakami dog, one of the last descendants of the Honshu wolf. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

The wolf got a a second shot at divinity by being the guide of a lost Yamato-Takeru.  According to legend, the prince got lost in the fog in the mountains around the Chichibu-Okutama area, but a white dog guided him to safety.   The dog in the myth is usually understood to be a wolf.

One of the difficulties here is that historically the division between dog and wolf was not very clear.  Further blurring the distinction is the use of the word yamainu (山犬 or 豺).  Some believe that the yamainu was just another name for wolf, while other theories include:

  • The yamainu was a subspecies of the Honshu wolf
  • The yamainu was a different species of wolf altogether
  • The yamainu was in fact a wolf, and the Japanese wolf was a kind of wild dog
  • The yamainu was a wild dog
  • The yamaiunu was a hybrid of the Honshu wolf and a domesticated dog

Unfortunately, no samples with viable DNA have survived and so we are left to guess.  The Wakansansaizue treats wolves and yamainu as separate animals but, given that this work depicts fanciful creatures too, it should be treated with caution.

Yamainu from the Wakansansaizue…

…and wolf, from the next page.

Yamainu is the name used for heroic dogs in folk stories like Shippeitaro/Hayataro, but many of these date from the time Edo Period, a time when the term yamainu was popular.  And while it may have its own agenda, the Mitsumine Shrine Museum claims that Shippeitaro/Hayataro was a wolf.

There was also said to be a kind of supernatural being known as the okuri-inu (sending dog) or okuri-okami (sending wolf) – again, blurring the dog-wolf distinction – which would follow travellers at night.  According to legend, if someone being followed by visibly tripped and fell, the dogs or wolves would pounce and eat them.  (This could be prevented by pretending that one was merely sitting down to take a rest)  However, as long as the traveller was followed by the okuri-inu, they had no need to fear robbers or monsters.

Okuri-okami (sending wolf). Taken from Wikipedia.

Also blurring the dog/wolf distinction is the guardian deity Oguchinomagami (大口真神), who appears as a dog or wolf – this is said to the manifestation of the aforementioned creature which guided Yamato-Takeru out of danger.   Some sources give this as the root word for “okami”.  He is also known as Oinuama (御犬様) – literally “Lord Dog” – and is depicted around shrines such as Mitsumine and Mitake.

From the Mitake Shrine.

And from the Mitsumine Shrine.

I saved myself ¥3500 by photographing this instead of buying it!

Interestingly, both the Mitsumine and Mitake shrines – connected to the wolf cults – make it clear that dogs are welcome.

Wolves can also be found in place of the far more common komainu lion dogs seen at most shrines or the foxes at Inari shrines.  Again, the Mistumine Shrine is an excellent example of this.

Wolf guardian sitting outside the entrance to the Mitsumine Shrine. That’s the museum in the background.

The wolf on the opposite side.

An old statue of a wolf god in the museum. I surreptitiously took this shot just after discovering that no photography was permitted. Don’t worry, this is the only photo I took in the museum.

Definitely a wolf.

“All the better to eat you with, my dear!”

Another guardian wolf.

This wolf was vaguely familiar…


Next to one of the “power trees” at the Mitsumine Shrine.

Guardian wolves on a wooden luck tablet.

And as for the real wolves?  Rabies and distemper arrived with animals brought from overseas (curiously, the name for a rabid dog is yamainu); animal husbandry begun as an industry and wolves became seen as pests; forest land was cleared at a faster rate; freakish weather killed tens of thousands of deer – primary prey of the wolf – in Hokkaido, which seems to be a factor to the demise of the Hokkaido wolf equally as significant as poisoning.  I also suspect a change from shrine Shinto to state Shinto weakened the status of the wolf and made hunting and baiting more acceptable.  And the rest is history.

There are, from time to time, claimed sightings of wolves (for example, this one), but none have ever been confirmed.

There are also proposals to re-introduce wolves into the Japanese environment to help control deer and wild pigs.  I hope to get around to writing about that someday.

In the meantime, I hope to hike up to the Mitake Shrine and Mitsumine Shrine for more pictures and insights.

A wolf skin found in Chichibu around 2000 and now on display in the Mitsumine Shrine museum. No, I only scanned this from the museums’s pamphlet since I was not allowed to photograph it.

Rest in peace, Honshu wolf.

The stuffed and mounted specimen in the National Science Museum in Tokyo. This is the closest most people will ever get to the Honshu wolf. Photo from Wikipedia.


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