A man’s fortress is his castle

Hi blog.

The rainy season has arrived.  That means temperatures ranging from just below 20℃ to upwards of 30℃ – all in the same day – along with high humidity.  And rain.  Lots of rain.

Last month I took the opportunity to attend the Tokorozawa Takinojo Festival held at one of the old castle sites in Tokorozawa.  The festival was good fun, and it has been getting bigger each year since its inception.

I mentioned working at a new school, and, as it turns out, this one is also near some ruins.  In this case, the structure was a fortress rather than an actual castle.  It’s official name is Shiroyamatoride (城山砦), although is is also known as Uesugitoride (上杉砦).  Some people, however, just call it Kashiwabara Castle.

No, it does NOT read “Abandon all hope, ye who enter”

The fortress ruins stand – I use this term loosely since there is actually nothing left standing – on a fluvial terrace overlooking the Iruma River.  It was surrounded on three sides by dry moats averaging three metres in depth and between three and seven metres wide.  It is believed that lookout towers would have been erected, giving a commanding view across the river and towards Kawagoe.

An informative sign.

The view into Sayama and Kawagoe.

No ruin is complete without a shrine constructed on top…

… this one being an Inari shrine.

I remember visiting the Sayama City Museum several years ago when they held a display about the fortress, including both a diorama and a near life-size display showing how difficult it would have been to attack the fortress.  Unfortunately, I have no pictures of that display.  (This blogger did get some good pictures)

The path leading up to the ruins.

Remnants of one of the moats.

Some people believe that the site may originally date back as far as the Kamakura Period, and that it was the residence of one Kashiwabara Taro, a retainer of the Genji Clan.  What we do know is that the fortress was controlled by the Uesugi Clan in the Warring States Period, and was used as a base in the Uesugi’s attempt to recapture Kawagoe Castle from the Hojo Clan.

You can start to appreciate the depth of some of the moats even today.

The siege of Kawagoe lasted from October 31st, 1545 to May 19th, 1546.  An army of some 80,000 from the Uesugi and their Ashikaga allies faced a garrison of a mere 3000.  A relief force of around 8000 Hojo soldiers was brought up and was able to coordinate a counter-offensive with the garrison at night which resulted in huge losses (estimated between 13000 and 16000) for the Uesugi with only minimal losses to their own forces.  The battle secured Hojo supremacy in the region until 1590.

The fortress at Kashiwabara would have naturally fallen under Hojo control.  It is thought that the Hojos used it as a walled manor.

The site has been excavated and surveyed several times, but filled in each time to protect the surrounding area.  I hope that one day more permanent excavations will take place, or even reconstructions. 


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Furious in Japan

Hi blog.

This is an article on a truly “No, sorry, wrong!” affair.  It is doing the rounds of some major news outlets worldwide but seems to have been missed by Japan’s English language press.  (The BBC did release a Japanese language translation of its coverage)


Japanese whale hunters kill 122 pregnant minke

30 May 2018
File photo: Three minke whales dead on the deck of the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru inside a Southern Ocean sanctuary, according to anti-whaling activists Sea Shepherd, 5 January 2014Image copyright AFP
Activists have called Japan’s programme “an illegal whale hunt”

Japanese hunters caught and killed 122 pregnant minke whales as part of its Antarctic summer “field survey”.

A report sent to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) reveals hunters caught 333 minkes in total.

The team left Japan in November 2017 for the Southern Ocean and returned in March 2018.

Japan says its whaling programme is for scientific purposes, despite a 2014 UN ruling against its “lethal research” and widespread condemnation.

In a new research plan published after the UN ruling, Japan said it was “scientifically imperative” to understand Antarctica’s ecosystem through collecting and analysing animals.

How many whales did Japan catch?

The country’s New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean (NEWREP-A) sent a report to the IWC detailing the 333 minkes caught, 152 male and 181 female, during its “third biological field survey” in the area.

Japan cut down its catch by two-thirds under its new research plan, and has stuck to taking about 330 whales each year.

The data shows that in the 2017/18 hunt, 122 of the female minkes captured were pregnant, while 61 of the males and 53 of the females were not yet adults.

After a few weeks of surveys, the team caught all the whales within just 12 weeks before setting off back to Japan.

The whale meat is then sold to be eaten.

Whale sushi made with sliced minke meats and blubber, at a sushi shop in Japanese whaling town Ayukawahama, Miyagi prefecture, on 16 June 2010Image copyright AFP
Japan makes no secret of the fact that the meat resulting from its so-called scientific whaling programme ends up on the plate

Why does Japan hunt whales?

Under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, signed in 1946, countries can “kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research”, and this is the rule Japan says it follows in its hunts.

Aside from its research claims, the Japanese government says whale hunting is an ancient part of Japan’s culture.

Coastal communities in Chiba prefecture and Ishinomaki in northern Japan have long practised coastal whaling, while Taiji in Wakayama prefecture holds annual dolphin hunts.

A dish of whale meat carpaccio, being served in a restaurant in Tokyo during the during Ebisu whale meat festivalImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Once a staple, now a novelty

However, expeditions to the Antarctic for whale meat only began after World War Two, when the devastated country depended on whales as its main source of meat.

While the meat is still sold, it is increasingly unpopular, with far fewer businesses selling it now than in the past.

Does anyone else hunt whales?

Figures from charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) show that many countries other than Japan still catch whales.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC), which regulates the industry, agreed to a moratorium on commercial whaling from the 1985, with exceptions.

Norway and Iceland still hunt whales for meat, the former rejecting the moratorium and the latter only partially agreeing.

A fin whale caught north of ReykjavikImage copyright AFP/GETTY
Iceland still hunts whales

So-called aboriginal subsistence whaling for local communities continues in Greenland, Russia, the USA, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

But Japan remains the only country to send ships to Antarctica to catch whales, under the scientific research exemption.

Is the hunting wiping out Antarctic whales?

Japan says it is conducting its research to show the Antarctic whale population is healthy and can be sustainably fished.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says there is insufficient data to determine whether the Antarctic minke whale is threatened.

While the number of minkes is “clearly in the hundreds of thousands”, they are investigating a possible decline over the last 50 years.

Depending on how significant the drop is, the Antarctic minke could be classified as Least Concern, or as Endangered.

Article ends.

I will refrain from commenting, following the adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

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Rice fish, baby

Hi blog.

May weather has been somewhat erratic this year – we’ve had some glorious clear days, days of gale-force winds, days of bucketing rain and the coldest day in May in 35 years.

It was on a Saturday afternoon when I was cleaning the fish tanks, partially in a bid to remove some of the Brazilian pondweed and duckweed which was threatening to fill the tanks.  I often take the excess pondweed to school (where it is used in science lessons – the thin leaves make for excellent microscope viewing) but they already had enough this year, so I ended up transferring it to an unused pot.  The duckweed went into the garden as mulch.

The smallest tank contains the striped loaches mentioned in the previous post and a breeding stock of freshwater shrimp.  However, I felt that it needed some surface and middle dwellers.

The following Monday, I called by our local pet store to buy some crickets for the frog.  It was then that I saw the wild form of Japanese rice fish on sale for ¥54 each…

A male rice fish.  Photo from Wikipedia.

Japanese rice fish or medaka (目高) are members of the killifish group.  This can be confusing because a search in a Japanese-English dictionary will often bring up the definition “killifish”.  (Much like wanting to know the word for “blue” and getting the term “colour”…)

The name medaka comes from the position and relative size of the eye of the fish, although a huge number of regional names has been known – one study found over 4600 dialectal and regional names for the same fish!!   Due to the fish being used in national science curricula, however, these other names are falling into disuse.

While the regional names are dying off, the taxonomical names may be increasing.  Until 2012 Japanese rice fish were classified as Oryzias latipes, but now a second species, Oryzias sakaizumii, is recognized.  Further research is needed to confirm whether or not either of these species are endemic.

With a native range across Japan, excluding Hokkaido, these tiny fish (the adult size is about 35 to 40 mm) inhabit a variety of waterways.  They tolerate a wide range of temperatures and can survive in brackish water.  They were once very common in gentle-flowing rivers, ponds and irrigation channels, but chemical pollution, construction of concrete banks, and the introduction of predators such as bass and bluegill have greatly reduced wild populations.  They also face competition from the distantly related and superficially similar mosquitofish.  They are listed as “vulnerable” under the IUCN Red List.

A school of rice fish in a stream. Photo from Wikipedia.

Japanese rice fish feed mostly on plankton, but are particularly fond of mosquito larvae.  (One wonders at the misjudgment of introducing mosquitofish when a native fish does such an excellent job)

As the temperature rises to a constant warm temperature and the daily length of sunshine reaches over 13 hours the fish start to breed.  A female will typically lay between five and twenty eggs at one time, hold them for a short period between her anal fins, and then deposit them on aquatic plants.  The eggs are said to hatch after a total temperature of 250℃ – that’s just ten days at 25℃.  A female can lay over 1000 eggs per season.

Of course, very few of those eggs will result in adult fish.  Japanese rice fish are close to the bottom of the food chain – other fish, crustaceans, birds, turtles, snakes and even aquatic insects and the larvae of dragonflies prey upon them.  Clearly, they need to be prolific breeders just to survive as a species.

Rice fish have been raised by humans for centuries – they were a popular pet along with goldfish in Edo.  At least one variation – a breed lacking pigmentation, resulting in an orange colour similar to goldfish – has been known since the Edo era, and nearly a dozen variants have been bred since then.  It seems perverse that a creature endangered in the wild can be cultured so easily by humans.

A pair of orange coloured rice fish. This variety has been known for centuries.
Photo from Wikipedia.

Today, rice fish are a common sight in science laboratories.  They are used extensively in testing water quality as well as genetics and toxicology.  The Japanese rice fish also holds the distinction of being the only vertebrate to breed in space.  Pet stores also sell rice fish as food for other aquarium fish.  (I admit to occasionally buying these for my eel)

Some regions have a tradition of eating the fish.  Today, most of these fish are artificially raised.

My own attempts at raising this fish, however, have always come to nothing.  Unfortunately, this time has proven to be the same. 


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Japanese Striped Loach

Hi blog.

It was the end of a long week and the first day of a three-day weekend. (Cue Homer Simpson’s “Woohoo!”)  Actually, we were pretty lucky about the three day weekend; the April 29th holiday fell on a Sunday and so that was carried over to the Monday.  Last year we were gypped when the day fell on a Saturday.  (Cue Homer Simpson’s “D’oh!”)

Anyway, the father-in-law wanted to take the kids somewhere.  After some some thought and debate it was decided to just visit the Iruma River in Hanno, where the river splits and forms an island.

Fish, shrimp, frogs and freshwater crabs inhabit this area, and a little messing around with simple dip nets was in order.  Most of the fish in the shallows – mainly fry – were too quick and too alert to be taken.  However, my youngest and my father-in-law were able to catch four young loaches.  (And we were allowed to bring these home as I had a small tank used only for raising shrimp that they could be housed in.)

The loaches in question are difficult to identify specifically – even the guidebooks say that an exact identification often can’t be made on appearance alone.  However, given the region, the best bet is the Japanese striped loach (Cobitis biwae).  Its common Japanese name is shima dojo (縞泥鰌 or 縞鰌), with “shima” meaning “stripe”, although a plethora of regional names exist – one website cites some 30 regional names.

A Japanese striped loach. Photo from Wikipedia, due to difficulties in photographing very small fish in an outdoor tank.

Unlike the better known pond loach or Japanese weather loach (Misgurnus anguillicaudatus), whose range extends into China, Korea and Taiwan, this is an endemic species.  It is found native to Shikoku and most of Honshu, but is invasive in Lake Chuzenji.

Japanese striped loaches prefer running water and are typically found in the lower to middle reaches of rivers.  They are substrate dwellers, where they feed on insect larvae, aquatic worms and detritus.

They grow to around 14 cm long and breed in the late May to early July period.

Like their better-known relatives they are sometimes eaten, but they have made more of a name for themselves in aquaria.  Apparently, they were quite popular in the 1980s, and have been known to live for up to six years in captivity.  While attractive and comical, they are valued cleaners and help turn over the substrate.

I plan to look after these.


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The Peony and the Tiger

Hi blog.

It was an unseasonably warm – 29℃ – April day, I had no real responsibilities for most of the day, and I felt like going outside and doing something blog-worthy.  I suddenly recalled that a temple in Tokorozawa, the Tamonin (多聞院), is famous for its peonies.

The Tanomonin seen from across the road

I haven’t had much to do with peonies since I worked in Shichiku Garden in Obihiro.  But the flowering season in Hokkaido is considerably later than here.  A quick internet search suggested that the season here is from late April to early May.  I thought I would catch the early bloomers…

…I was almost too late!  That same early and extended burst of warm weather that had caused the cherries to blossom and fall early had accelerated the peonies’ bloom too.  Most were past their prime.

I was a day or two late photographing these.

Peonies are a group (somewhere between 33 and 40 known species) within a single genus (Paeonia) within a single family of flowering plants.  Japanese divides these into two groups, botan (牡丹) and shakuyaku (芍薬), although botan is also used as the generic name.


… some pink…

… and yellow.

Believe it or not, there were about a dozen people jostling for prime position to photograph the flowers that day.

I had some high hopes for the temple building too.  The Bishamon Hall dates from 1766, and is said to house a four centimetre tall gold image of Bishamonten (Vaiśravaṇa) that the great daimyo Takeda Shingen (“the tiger of Kai”) kept in his helmet for protection, and – if legend is to be believed – proved its worth at the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima.

A late 17th or early 18th century print depicting Uesugi Kenshin breaking through the Takeda headquarters and attacking Shingen. Shingen is said to have parried the blow with his signalling fan. In reality, it is unlikely that the two leaders would have actually gotten within sight of each other, let alone engaged in single combat.

Of course, such treasures are never on display – assuming they exist at all.

The Bishamondo. The hall – originally a shrine – is usually closed up. The passage leading off the right is a more recent addition.

A baku (left) and komainu (right) forming part of the main pillars.

Tigers play an important role in this temple.  Shingen was the Tiger of Kai, and Bishamonten is said to have taken on the aspect of a tiger.  Because of this, there is pair of guardian tigers (these dating from 1866) standing outside the hall.

Clearly the artist had never seen a real tiger.

It looks more like a leopard.

The Tiger Festival is held there every May 1st, and the grounds were being prepared.  As it happens, the Bishamon Hall is opened on the day of the Tiger Festival in the year of the tiger.  I’ll have to check my 2022 diary…

The temple also houses a pair of tiger ema with dating from the 1850s, one by a famous artist, which are not on general display.

These appeared in a local newspaper in 2010 – the year of the tiger – and I’m hoping that just maybe they will be displayed on that one day every twelve years when the Bishamon Hall is open to the public.

Small tiger images for writing wishes on can be bought, and these can be seen all around the temple.

Tigers placed on the hallway between the Bishamon Hall and the new temple building.

And dozens more below the bell.

Ema featuring Bishamonten are also popular.

Bishamonten Ema.

Several stone markers and statues are to be found around the temple grounds.  Some are clearly quite old.

An old stone marker. I couldn’t work out exactly what it is.

A Bato Kannon marker.

A Hyakubankuyo marker by the roadside.

There are also some statues within the temple grounds; many of these look fairly new.  Unfortunately, for me, that generally spoils the experience.  The “Demon’s Enlightenment”, however, had certain charm.

Oni no satori, “Demon’s Enlightenment”. I took a liking to this modern statue.

There was also a statue of Kishimojin (usually written 鬼子母神 but here labelled 鬼子母尊神).

Kishimojin.  She is one scary mother.

I found some old statues and markers in the cemetery.

A Kannon in the cemetery with peonies in the foreground.

There is a shrine, the Shinmeisha (神明社), next to the temple – the two were part of a single complex until the forced separation of religions in the Meiji Era.

The torii gate leading to the shrine complex.

Unfortunately, there were few old buildings or markers.  What I did find interesting, however, was a shrine dedicated to the sweet potato god – two officials wh0 brought sweet potato farming to the area are deified there.

The sweet potato shrine.

I might visit Tamonin again when the flowers are in season.

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Kagekakushi Jizo

Hi blog.

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

The story behind this particular statue goes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

So, what became of Yoshitaka? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shimizu Hachimangu next to route 16.

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

The smaller inner shrine.

I will be looking out for more statues with stories.


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Gullible Travels?

Hi blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

So where am I going with all this?

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

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

Mike: What is it?

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

Mike: Really?

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

Mike: Which cities are they?

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

Yuki: Why do they think so?

Ms. Wood; Write down these names.

Yuki: Now I understand.

From the textbook.


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

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

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

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

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

Xamoschi, by comparison, is quite hard to crack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Common Kingfisher

See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water

Grantchester Meadows, Pink Floyd

Hi blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Fire Walkers

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

Firestarter, The Prodigy

Hi blog.

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

No, you do not want to know why.


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

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

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

From the Yakuon-in official site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Yamabushi prepares to shoot an arrow.

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

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

Where there’s smoke…

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

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

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

Members of the public participating in the ceremony.

Some needed a little help.

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

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

Going…  The Yamabushi procession leaves the grounds.

… going…

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

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

Posted in Culture and Tradition, Folklore and Mythology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Big Chill

Hi blog.

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

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

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

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


Odd current route, cold water whitening corals off Wakayama


February 12, 2018 at 17:05 JST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article ends.

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


Posted in Suburban wildlife | Tagged , , | Leave a comment
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