22 May

Hi blog.

Looking through my stats, I have found that search terms for snakes top the list of views for this site.

Clearly, it is time for another serpentine-themed post!

Wada Heita Tanenaga killing a giant snake by a waterfall, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c.1834.


I was going to do something about the cryptozoological giant snakes of Japan – I’d even found a folk story which fitted in nicely to my post about sweet flag and mugwort – when I found a site citing an old New York Times article from 1891.

New York Times 13 August 1891

Swallowed by a Snake A Japanese Story of a Woman-Eating Serpent San Francisco Aug 12, 1891 The steamship Oceanic, which arrived last night from Hong kong and Yokohama brings copies of a native Japanese paper called the Kokkai, which publishes a remarkable story of a monster serpent.

It says that on the 17th inst. a man called Neemura Tahichi, twenty-five years of age, went out with his wife Otora, who was forty-eight, to pursue his usual avocation of tree cutting in Koshitamura Province of Lamba. The husband and wife separated at a place called Matsu Yama. Shortly afterward, while engaged felling a tree, Tahichi thought he heard his wife cry out. Running to the place he was horrified to find that a huge snake, described as being three feet in circumference had Otora’s head in its mouth and was engaged in swallowing her despite her struggles. Tahichi ran off to the hamlet and summoned seven or eight of his neighbors, who when they reached the scene of the catastrophe found that the snake had swallowed the woman as far as her feet and was slowly making its way to its home. They were too much terrified to touch it, and it finally effected its escape unmolested.

The Province of Lamba is one of the most desolate in Japan and monster reptiles and wild animals are frequently killed there.

The article as it appeared in the New York Times in 1891.

OK, there is no place called Lamba in Japan… nor could I identify the newspaper Kokkai…  Neemura seems an unlikely surname, unless they meant Niimura… and no luck with Japanese internet searches….

The lack of information was astonishing.  This allegedly took place at a time when collector of Japanese stories Lafcadio Hearn was based in Japan.  Yet none of his writings mention giant snakes.

And then I stumbled upon this one from the Brisbane Courier, dated September 9th, 1891:

The Japan Mail translates the following wonderful snake story from the Kokkai, a Tokio paper:-It says that on the 17th July a man called Nomura Tahichi, 50 years of age, went out with his wife Otora, who was 48, to pursue his usual vocation of tree-cutting in Koshitamura, province of Tamba. The husband and wife separated at a place called Matsu-yama. Shortly afterwards, while engaged in felling a tree, Tahichi thought he heard his wife cry out. Running to the place, he was horrified to find that a huge snake, described as being 3ft. in circumference, had Otora’s head in its mouth, and was engaged swallowing her, despite her struggles. Tahichi ran off to the hamlet and summoned seven or eight of his neighbours, who, when they reached the scene of the catastrophe, found that the snake had swallowed the woman as far as her feet, and was slowly making its way to its hole. They were too much terrified to touch it, and it finally effected its escape unmolested.

As it appeared in the Brisbane Courier.

 At least the age of the husband seemed more in line with that of the wife (50 and 25 aren’t that hard to differentiate, are they?), we have a real province (Tamba), a real surname (Nomura), and a citation of the secondary source.  Not to mention no hyperbole at the end.

A search shows no results for a place called Koshitamura in Tamba, but there was a Kashitamura in the former province.  I still have not been able to find any results in Japanese searches.  My final hope is that the Japan Mail was later absorbed into the Japan Times.  Perhaps this paper has the original locked away somewhere in its archives…

It is also worth noting that the old Tamba province is the setting of old stories about monsters.  There are several legends and folk stories involving giant snakes in Tamba, and it seems likely that the hyperbole at the end of the New York Times article was referring to this.


I will continue my hunt, but the chances of anything turning up seem quite slim.  Whch is a pity – the story is a little hard to swallow.

Heard But Not Seen and Victory Is Mine

9 May

Hi blog. 

You could be forgiven for thinking that I had given up Wild in Japan.  I’ll spare you the excuses, except the climatic ones.

April brought some shocking weather, especially after the glorious conditions we experienced at the end of March.

Temperatures plummeted to February averages, cloud and rain were the order of the day for a couple of weeks, and I had to drag out my winter jacket from storage.

It even snowed on April 8th!!

Not only was the weather miserable for most of the first three weeks of April, I was miserable and had no motivation to write anything. (A unilateral decision for me to quit all budo activities until further notice – notice which is unlikely to come for several years – didn’t help, either)  Nor was there anything to write about.


Finally, the weather warmed up, sunny days and cool – not cold – nights have the norm.  Glorious weather for cycling to work, with the wisterias coming into full bloom and the occasional call of the bush warbler.

 I’ve mentioned this bird before, and how it is usually heard and not seen.  I’ve paused and searched for the source of the call, but to no avail.

“One day, bush warblers.  One day.”


Then came Golden Week, and I was too busy doing family stuff to even think about wildlife (Activities during this time can be more taxing than actual work)

It was after I came home on May 5th that an idea for a post.


Every year, our kind elderly neighbours give us some leaves for one of the Children’s Day festivities, shobu-yu, a bath infused with certain leaves.

Leaves bundled for the bath.


One type of the leaves is readily identifiable as Japanese mugwort (Artemisia indica var. maximowiczii).  This plant has a plethora of common names in Japanese, the most significant being mochigusa (餅草), a reference to its use in mochi rice cakes; mogusa (艾) – the origin of the English “moxa”; and yomogi (蓬), the most common of its common names.

Close-up of the mugwort leaves.


The Japanese mugwort is known for its medicinal properties, but it is not considered necessary for shobu-yu.

Stumbled upon. A mugwort growing wild within the grounds of one of the schools I work at.


The vital leaf for shobu-yu is a complicated matter.  The leaf in question is the sweet flag (Acorus calamus var. angustatus), known as shobu (菖蒲) in Japanese.  The leaves of this plant not only have reputed medicinal properties, they bear a slight resemblance to sword blades (to cut through evil spirits) and the name shobu is a homophone for a word meaning martial spirit (尚武), or even an allusion to victory (勝負).

[Check boxes for 1) lucky shape and 2) fortunate homophone.]


That should be a simple matter, but nothing ever is.


You see, there are  two other plants with similar shaped leaves and similar names, just to confuse the situation.

One of these plants is the Japanese iris (Iris ensata var. ensata) which goes by the Japanese name hanashobu (花菖蒲) – literally “flowering shobu”.

The other culprit is the Siberian iris (Iris sanguinea), which goes by the local name ayame, which can be written in kanji as 文目, but is more commonly rendered as 菖蒲 – the same as shobu!

As a result, a lot of people think that shobu-yu is a bath with iris leaves… I admit that I was included in this group until very recently…

I realised that I needed to talk to my neighbours about the identity of the leaves… given that they have no pond, sweet flag seemed to be out of the question… leading me to suspect one other plant… 


The plant in question is the Japanese sweet flag (Acorus gramineus), alias Japanese rush, alias dwarf sedge.  Its local name is sekisho (石菖), a reference to it being a flag with a tendency to grow on or around rocks.  While this plant prefers to grow in water, it will survive (but not flower) on “dry” land.  It also has medicinal properties similar to the sweet flag, as well as the sweet smell.


Shobu-yu – bath of champions!

No Albatross around my neck…

6 Apr

And a good south wind sprung up behind;

The Albatross did follow,

And every day, for food or play,

Came to the mariners’ hollo!

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Hi blog.

Japanese TV news is notoriously poor.  One is lucky to catch a genuine news item in between the sports, weather, reports about food and fashion, and celebrity gossip.

Fortunately, I happened to be paying attention when an item about the short tailed albatross breeding program came up.  A quick internet search came up with a couple of relevant recent articles – bless the Japan Times – so sit back and enjoy.



Conservationists aim to nurture population of endangered albatross on Torishima Island

Feb 18, 2015

On uninhabited Torishima Island, in the Pacific Ocean about 600 km south of Tokyo, every day is hard physical work for the Environment Ministry officials trying to conserve an endangered albatross population.

Ranger Koji Nitta, 54, joins researchers in traveling to the island in the Izu Island chain every summer after albatrosses have bred and departed on their annual journey to the North Pacific.

His job is to cut down the shrubs that could obstruct the birds when taking off, and place sandbags around their breeding ground to keep mud out.

“What we do is to support their breeding, and that’s the only thing humans can do,” Nitta said.

“It’s a series of simple tasks,” he said. “Our conservation work is substantially physical work.”

Some call albatrosses “queens of the sea” because of their white feathers and ability to fly for hours without flapping their wings.

Hundreds of thousands are believed to have lived on islands in the Northwest Pacific, but over-hunting for their feathers pushed them to the verge of extinction. Conservation efforts, however, have helped the population to recover to an estimated 3,500.

In Japanese, albatrosses are known as “aho dori” (stupid bird), a moniker that belies their true nature.

“Albatrosses are very cautious,” Nitta said, noting that they are clever enough to be wary of humans. “They are absolutely not ‘aho.’ “

In an effort to further boost the wild population, Nitta is also creating a new breeding site on Muko Island on the Ogasawara Islands, further south. The team tries to attract the birds by deploying static albatross decoys and playing a recording of their cries.

Last spring, a suspected albatross chick was recorded on a neighboring island in the first sign of their successful nesting in the Ogasawara chain.

Nitta grew up in Azumino, a mountainous area in Nagano Prefecture.

He undertook a significant career change after years serving with Japan National Railways. His interest in climbing led to a job as a park ranger at the ministry, Nitta said. He joined it in 2007.


Rare albatross found breeding in Ogasawara Islands

Mar 27, 2015

The endangered short-tailed albatross is breeding in the Ogasawara Islands south of Tokyo for the first time since the end of the war.

The finding on Nakodo Island, announced Thursday by the Environment Ministry, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, is considered significant for a species that once faced the threat of extinction.

The DNA of a feather from a baby bird found on the island last May has been confirmed to come from a pair of albatrosses on the island.

Previously, the seabird’s breeding areas in Japan had been thought to be confined only to Torishima Island in the Izu chain, also in the Pacific, and the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

The Ogasawaras used to be a habitat for tens of thousands of the seabirds and a major albatross breeding site, but it disappeared in the 1930s due to overhunting caused by demand for its feathers.

The institute transferred 70 young birds from Torishima Island to Muko Island in the Ogasawara chain from 2008 to 2012 to reintroduce the species. The 6-year-old female of the pair that produced the chick whose feather was tested is one of the birds that was transferred during that period, they said.


You can find more about Operation Decoy at this website.


Toadworks Ahead

21 Mar


Hi blog.

Just another “stumbled upon” events. (Aren’t those the best?)

A pair of Japanese toads “at work”.

Fortunately, this road doesn’t get much traffic.

“If you want a prince, you have to kiss a lot of frogs” – Well, being a frog yourself makes it a little easier.


“I’m not sure I’m ready to Kermit”


“Let’s go to the hop” – actually, Japanese toads don’t hop, they crawl.


How to Kill Your Elephant

16 Mar

Hi blog.

It’s well into March, and not a single post.  Spring has finally arrived – we’ve reached the stage when the days with double digit maximums outnumber those with only single digits.  I’ve even seen turtles basking in the late morning sun.  Winter’s claws haven’t gone altogether, however.  Cold rainy days are to be expected, and the Japanese have a term for this kind of weather – sankan-shion (三寒四温), literally “three cold, four warm”, meaning that three days of cold weather will be followed by four days of cold weather.


Some time back I said that I would get around to talking about the killing of the elephants at Ueno Zoo during the war, and its horrible re-telling in the Sunshine textbook.  I’ve been feeling more than a little cynical lately about Japan’s selective memory of events 1905-1945, so that time has come.

I’ll give you the full text first, then my analysis. 


Faithful Elephants
Many years ago, there were three wonderful elephants at the Ueno Zoo. The elephants were John, Tonky, and Wanly. They could do tricks. Visitors to the zoo loved to see their tricks.
Japan was at war then. Little by little the situation was getting worse. Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day.
If bombs hit the zoo, dangerous animals will get away and harm the people of Tokyo. So, the Army ordered the zoo to kill all the dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears.
Before long, it was time to kill the three elephants. The zookeepers did not want to kill them, but they had to follow the orders. They started with John.
John loved potatoes, so they gave him poisoned potatoes together with good ones. But John was so clever that he ate only the good potatoes. Then they tried to give him an injection. But John’s skin was too hard for the needles to go through. When this did not work, they decided to give him no food. Poor John died in seventeen days.
Then the time came for Tonky and Wanly. They always looked at people with loving eyes. They were sweet and gentle-hearted.
However, the elephant keepers had to stop giving them anything to eat. When a keeper walked by their cage, they stood up and raised their trunks high in the air. They did their tricks because they were hoping to get food and water.
Everyone at the zoo said with tears, “If they can live a few more days, the war may be over and they will be saved.”
 Tonky and Wanly could no longer move. They lay down on the ground, but their eyes were beautiful.
When an elephant keeper came to see them, they looked so weak. He became too sad to go back to see them.
Bombs continued to drop on Tokyo. And a few days later, Tonky and Wanly died. Later, when the bodies of the elephants were examined, nothing was found in their stomachs — not even one drop of water.
Today, the three elephants rest in peace with other animals under the monument at the Ueno Zoo.

Now the analysis, with relevant pieces of text in quotations, and my comments in bold text.  Be warned, this won’t be pretty.


OK, let’s begin with the title: Faithful Elephants?  The original Japanese title translates as “Pitiful Elephants”, which is much closer to reality.  The story contains no acts of faithfulness.


“Many years ago, there were three wonderful elephants at the Ueno Zoo. The elephants were John, Tonky, and Wanly. They could do tricks. Visitors to the zoo loved to see their tricks.”

Comment: Actually, Jon, Tonki and Wanli.  Jon and Tonki were purchased from India, and Wanli was a present from the Thai State Youth Organisation, but was frequently referred to as “Hanako”.

It seems that Jon, despite being a trained elephant, started to ignore keeper’s commands and was becoming dangerous.

Also note that “they could do tricks” implies that the elephants were trained in a similar manner to circus animals.

Elephants at Ueno Zoo, from the zoo’s newsletter, March 20, 1938. More of a circus than a zoo display, I think.


“Japan was at war then. Little by little the situation was getting worse. Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day.”

Comment: The events described in this story happened in August-September, 1943 – some six months before the Tokyo air raids.  Bombs were NOT dropped on Tokyo every day.  This is a straight out distortion of the facts.

A little kid in an air-raid helmet visiting the zoo in 1941. Japan had not been bombed at all in 1941.


“If bombs hit the zoo, dangerous animals will get away and harm the people of Tokyo.”

Comment: Notice the incorrect grammar in a textbook purporting to teach grammar?  To make matters worse, this is not the only instance of a type 2 conditional being used in place of a type 3 in the Sushine series.  If you don’t want to use a certain conditional because it is not taught at junior high school level, then use a different expression!!


“So, the Army ordered the zoo to kill all the dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears.”

Comment: It was not the military who ordered the killing, but the governor of Tokyo – one Shigeo Odachi – who had, prior to this appointment, served as mayor of occupied Singapore.

Some 27 animals fell under the category of dangerous and were disposed of.  Yet, despite the zoo having two Winchester rifles, all these animals were poisoned, clubbed, stabbed, garrotted or starved.


“Before long, it was time to kill the three elephants. The zookeepers did not want to kill them, but they had to follow the orders. They started with John.”

Comment: Actually, the process for killing the bull elephant Jon was started on August 13th, 1943, before the order for disposing of dangerous animals was given.


“John loved potatoes, so they gave him poisoned potatoes together with good ones. But John was so clever that he ate only the good potatoes. Then they tried to give him an injection. But John’s skin was too hard for the needles to go through. When this did not work, they decided to give him no food. Poor John died in seventeen days.”

Comment: While the potato story appears to be true, the poisoned needle story is suspicious at best.  Zoo records show that the elephant Tonki had been given injections in the past, and that it was possible to take blood samples (presumably via needle) from the dying elephants later.  Critics are of the opinion that starvation was intended from the beginning.

Jon is dead.


“Bombs continued to drop on Tokyo. And a few days later, Tonky and Wanly died.”

Comment: The narrative repeats the falsehood about the air raids.  Furthermore, there was a memorial service held for the three dead elephants held on September 4th, 1943.  This is noteworthy because the two female elephants were still alive but slowly and painfully starving to death!  Wanli died a full week later, and Tonki (the most popular of the three elephants) lasted until September 23rd.


Analysis ends here.


It is also worth remembering that other animals were later starved to death – the hippopotamuses being a notable example.  The three giraffes were the only large animals to survive to the end of the war.


The zoo remained open throughout the war, and some enclosures were used to raise animals for meat.  Also noteworthy was the imprisonment and display of downed bomber pilot Ray Halloran in the old tiger enclosure in 1945.


For a fuller understanding of the situation, please read the excellent and extensively researched article Starving the Elephants: The Slaughter of Animals in Wartime Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo by Frederick S. Litten.


The elephants and other animals were more victims of a bloody-minded administration than innocent victims of war.

Crash Site

24 Feb

Hi blog.


Tokorozawa likes to think of itself as the home of Japan’s first powered flight.  That isn’t quite true – the first flight was at the Imperial Army’s Yoyogi Parade Ground (now Yoyogi Park).  Tokorozawa can instead lay claim to being the home of Japan’s first permanent airfield.  Incidentally, it was the same pilot – Captain (later Lt. General) Yoshitoshi Tokugawa – who was responsible for both inaugural flights.


The other first Tokorozawa can lay claim to is the site of Japan’s first fatal air crash.


On March 28, 1913, Lieutenants Suzujiro Kimura (pilot) and Kin-ichi Tokuda (passenger) were returning to Tokorozawa from the Aoyama Parade Grounds (now the Meiji Shrine outer gardens) in their Blériot when, just before noon, a sudden gust of wind broke the left wing, causing the plane to crash in a barley field.  Both men died almost immediately.

Both had transferred to the newly formed air corps from the artillery and infantry, respectively.

Kimura (left) and Tokuda (right)

The funeral procession for the aviators passes by the Aoyama Parade Grounds.


A monument to both men now stands in Kokukoen Park (the site of the original airfield and air corps), having been moved several times since its unveiling.  In fact, many people think that the crash site is where the monument currently stands.


The crash site is about one kilometre away, ironically enough, at the edge of a cemetery.

Yes, that is a cemetery.


I decided that it would be worth taking a detour on my way home on a relatively warm and sunny Friday.

Found it! When the few sign posts directed me into the parking area of the local cemetery, I became worried that I would never find it.


Tokorozawa city office information sign. Don’t worry, there’s not much on there that is not covered in this post.

Stone memorial for the aviators. You can see the cemetery in the background.  I wonder if there is anything on the back of this stone…

… of course there is!

And a small stone monument marking the exact crash site.

Today, Tokorozawa’s connection with aircraft is limited to the Aviation Museum and the Air Traffic Control Centre for the Kanto region.

However, seeing the crash site satisfied my curiosity (I had been meaning to go there for some time), and I even spotted some Chinese bamboo partridges around the marker.  It pays to keep your eyes open!


Ume, harbinger of spring

19 Feb

In the plum blossom scent, the sun pops out, a mountain path




Hi blog.

While the kan may have officially come and gone, there is still little sign of spring.  The days are getting longer – the sun doesn’t set until after 5:00 these days – but the cold weather, especially the icy cold in the mornings, continues.  Looking for signs of spring, I can see that the magnolias are beginning to bud, the cold north-westerly winds generate dust storms and add time to my commute to work.  There is, however, a better candidate – ume.

See the pink? That’s ume in the early stages of blossom.

It makes for a change of scenery…


Ume (Prunus mume) is a plant lost in translation – it is widely known as the Chinese plum or Japanese apricot, while its flowers are often translated as plum blossom.  It is also known by the Chinese name mei or mai, the Japanese name ume, or its scientific name mume.  The latter is sometimes said to be derived from Chinese.

 Since the plant is neither plum nor apricot – it actually sits between the two – I’ll use the name ume here.

Ume (梅) is originally from China and was brought to Japan around the 6th or 7th centuries.  Growing between four and 10 metres in height, it is valued for its fragrant blossoms and fruit.  The trees blossom – in the Kanto, at least – from February to early March, producing five-petalled flowers (although double blossoms are also known) in various shades, from white to pink to red.

The white blossoms are commonly known as hakubai (白梅), and the red ones as kobai (紅梅).

Some white blossom poking its way through some bamboo.


The blossoms are also prized for their fragrance, which is noticeably absent in cherry blossoms.

Early blossoming pink ume left as an offering to one of the local statues of Kannon.


Originally, flower-viewing parties meant either ume or wisteria until the Heian period, when cherry blossom became the norm.  Even so, there is poetry dating from this era which praises the ume over the cherry.

Blossoming in winter has also earned the ume a place in the “three friends of winter” next to pine and bamboo.  Ume designs are often found on New Year greeting cards, and small potted ume are sold as New Year ornaments.

Moreover, the blossom has found its way into several heraldic designs.


Reversed double blossom.

Ume crane.


In addition to its blossom, the ume is valued for its fruit.  Many of these are pickled with salt and are called umeboshi.  Ume are also used in jams, dipping sauces and juices.

My personal favourite, however, is umeshu, a liqueur made from white spirits, ume and sugar. This is typically steeped for six months to a year, but I once had the pleasure of receiving a small bottle of 25 year-old umeshu, dark and syrupy, in which even the stones of the fruit had dissolved.

Umeboshi. These are rather small ones, but with a hint of sweetness. I love the plump ones flavoured with honey, and avoid the hard red ones.

Around the time the fruit ripens, the East Asian monsoon season sets in.  This is known as tsuyu or baiu in Japan, and is written 梅雨, literally “ume rain”.

 Owing to its gnarly wood and relative hardiness, the ume is also a favoured subject for bonsai.  There is even a specific word for this  – bonbai.


The ume is the official flower of dozens of cities, towns and wards in Japan, and as I write this, the parks and gardens boasting thousands of ume trees will be gearing up for the tourists coming to see the blossoms.


I may or may not be able to make a trip out so far, but luckily there are are few ume trees on my commute.  Now all I need is some warmth!  (And a glass of umeshu…)

Happy New Year!

4 Feb


Happy New Year!


“Huh?”, I hear you ask.

Let me explain.  February 3rd is Setsubun, literally “division of the seasons”.  On the lunar calendar, this was the end of the kan – the coldest part of the year – and folklore holds that from now the weather will get warmer.*  (For more information, see “24”)

Setsubun kit sold from the supermarket – demon mask, dried soybean plant and false holly.


New Year’s cards often have the word “risshun” (立春) – literally “rise of spring” – on them.  This stems from the fact that, prior to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, Setsubun was the division between the old year and the new year.  February 4th (or roughly there about) was the first day of the new year.


So, Happy New Year!


* Unfortunately, no-one has told the weather that it is supposed to be getting warmer.  More cold weather – including fridge temperature maximums –  and snow have been predicted for this week.

Photos in Kyoto

24 Jan

Hi blog.

Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Rumours of me being too lazy to put together a decent blog post are pretty well spot-on.

Of course, I will try to rationalise it away – it’s cold out there, I don’t have my own camera, family commitments, the trip to Kyoto…

Ah, Kyoto.

Everyone who is someone, or even anyone, in Japan has been there.

Ryoma was here. This was a spot we stumbled upon – it was on a main street on our way to Gion.

That soy sauce could kill you…

My first experience of Kyoto was during my stint as an exchange student back in 1989.  It would be more than 25 years until I visited again, this time as guide and chaperone to my niece (on her second trip – she had to wait less than one year).


This isn’t a travel blog, so I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking.

Kyoto had received its heaviest snowfall in over 60 years, and we were warned to expect snow and extreme cold.  Luckily, there was almost no trace of that snow, nor was it particularly cold during our stay.

We arrived on January 10th at a little before 11.  After leaving our luggage at the hotel, the first stop on the agenda was the Gion area, specifically the Yasaka Shrine.

The entrance to the Yasaka Shrine from across the road.

My own reasons for visiting this shrine were very much WIJ themed – I remembered another blogger’s post about the kirin there.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my the wife’s camera (I was forced to leave that home), and my mobile phone doesn’t quite cut it in less than optimal conditions, so please excuse the quality of my photos.

The lion dogs which guard shrines are known as komainu (狛犬), but you’ll notice that one of the guardians of the Yasaka Shrine has a single horn.  This has led some people to believe that it is not a lion dog but in fact a kirin (麒麟), or unicorn.

The horned guardian.

You can see the horn more clearly in this shot.

(There are bizzare theories that this is related to the lion and unicorn on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom, suggesting a Semetic origin of the Japanese!)

Komainu or kirin?


From Yasaka, an easy walk to the famed Kiyomizu Temple, my favourite spot on my previous visit… only to find that it is currently under repair!  No photos there!

Pagoda on the Yasaka Road heading towards Kiyomizu.

OK, I lied. I got one photo at Kiyomizu. This is a decorative roof tile known as an onigawara (literally “demon tile”) Many temples have their own distinct onigawara.


A bus ride to Ginkakuji, whose garden is well worth the entrance fee.  I hadn’t visited this before, so it was quite a treat.

The main pavillion.


Now, that’s a sandcastle! The Kogetsudai is said to be to reflect the moonlight, or to repesent Mt. Fuji.

View of the pavillion from across the sand garden.

The other main temple building and pond.

Raked sand art.

The pavillion viewed from the hill. Note the Chinese pheonix on the roof.

It was here that my niece asked me about various Japanese plants, and I was able to explain about Aucuba, coral bush, and several other plants.  She astutely observed the lack of flowering plants and that most of the colour to be seen was fruit.

After Ginkakuji, we took a short stroll along the Philosopher’s Walk and stumbled upon another temple, the Honen-in.  It cost us nothing to enter the grounds, but the garden was quite good.

Sand art…


… and more sand art.


We decided to call it a day – most temples and shrines close to the public at 4:30 in winter – and made our way back to the hotel.  There, I plotted out our route for the next day.

The first stop on day 2 was Kinkaku-ji.  No-one seems to care that the current building dates from the 1950’s, and after all, it is a very nice piece of real estate.  My niece was interested in the carp in the pond, while I pointed out the night heron waiting in a tree.

The main gate and entrance to Kinkakuji.


The pavillion on the pond.


A closer view.


Note the phoenix on the roof again. This one is also featured on the ¥10000 note.


Ryoanji was next on the agenda.  This was my first visit, but I had heard and read a lot about the famous rock garden.  It is certainly worth visiting.

The onigawara on the main temple building at Ryoanji.

♬ I am a rock, I am an island ♫

“Enlightenment?” “Nah, it’s just a bunch of rocks”

On a warm day I coud just sit and watch these things for hours.

Door post decoration. I reckon I was one of the few people who weren’t too distracted by the rocks to notice this.

I have to admit, that rock garden is a pleasant distraction.


Next, we paid an impromptu visit to Ninnaji.  A couple of the buildings were under repair, and for me it lacked something – maybe I was suffering from temple overload.  Still, we were able to enter the grounds for free.



One of the temple gates.


Nio statue.



From there, a bus ride to the Arashiyama area.

The bamboo forest walk was quite impressive, and no camera can capture the feeling of being surrounded by huge bamboo stalks.

World’s tallest grass?


I don’t think any of the other tourists stopped to take photos of the bamboo until I did.



Next was Tenryuji, a large temple with a nice garden and large pond.  Here, many of the plants were labelled – how thoughtful!

The pond at Tenryuji. Yes, that is my fiinger on the top left.




Nice rocks in front of the temple building.


Nicely twisted and gnarled red pine.


Finally, we walked down to Togekkyo.  The bridge was a disappointment – a modern concrete structure, complete with traffic.  A bridge too far?  Oh, well… tomorrow is another day.

Anyone for bridge?


The morning of the 13th brought snow, but it stopped during our late-ish breakfast.  My plan was to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha and maybe one other location, time permitting.  Time didn’t permit – no-one told me that the shrine complex extends up a hill and needs at least 2 hours to complete the circuit!

The first torii gate and main shrine building.

A guardian fox.

And so it begins… the circuit of thousands of torii gates and pockets of Inari shrines.

Shrines everywhere!

Mossy fox. Inari is usually either depicted as a fox, or foxes are the god’s messengers.

There are a few Buddhist dieties here and there among the foxes…

… and the occasional toad.

A sign proudly states that the shrine complex was voted the most popular destination in Kyoto among overseas tourists in 2014.  Each to their own, I guess.

There were other places I would have liked to visit, and I really needed more time for those unplanned “stumble upon” experiences.  I just hope I don’t have to wait another 25 years for my next Kyoto visit!


Many thanks to my sister and niece, without whom this trip wouldn’t have happened.





2014 in review

2 Jan

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.


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