The Great Kan and Creatures From the Deep

Hi blog.

Today is January 20th, officially Daikan (大寒), the coldest period of the year. (I have talked about this in more depth in an older post)

Daikan written in Japanese

Today started off cold (but not freezing) and topped at about 14℃. Next week, however, we may get snow, and a maximum of just 2℃ is currently predicted for the 25th! Did I ever mention that I don’t really like winter?

From my 10-day forecast…

Anyway, I’m in a hurry to get this post out, partially because of the significance of the date, and partially because the news I’m trying to sum up will soon be out of date.

The last couple of weeks have seen things coming out of the oceans and onto my news feeds.

Let’s do these in chronological order (or, at least the order in which they were covered in English…)

The first two are about giant squid.

Japanese divers shoot rare video of a giant squid swimming along coast

Thursday, Jan. 12, 15:04

A couple diving near the Sea of Japan coast have captured rare images of a giant squid.

Tanaka Yosuke and his wife Miki spotted the creature on the water surface near the Nekozaki Peninsula in the city of Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, in western Japan last Friday evening.

The couple are scuba-diving instructors based in the region.

They say the squid was about 2.5 meters long and that they saw it swimming while it slowly moved its long tentacles.

They say it disappeared about 30 minutes later while farther out at sea in deeper waters.

Yosuke told NHK he was surprised to see such a huge creature in the ocean.

Miki said she swam alongside while becoming absorbed shooting video. She said she was excited to be within reach of the squid, although its huge eyes made her feel afraid.

Honorary researcher Kubodera Tsunemi of the National Science Museum said that judging by its size, the squid was likely mature, at 1 or 2 years old.

He says such creatures are spotted several times a year along the Sea of Japan coast. But he says it is rare to have images of one swimming.

Kubodera expects that an increase in the number of similar sightings could contribute to research into the ecology of the giant squid.

Article ends.

Quite an up-close-and-personal experience most people can only ever dream of.

Giant squid washes ashore on Sea of Japan coast

Monday, Jan. 16, 11:41

Giant squid washes ashore on Sea of Japan coast

A giant squid has been found on a beach in Tottori Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast.

A local resident spotted the squid on a beach in the town of Iwami on Sunday morning.

Officials of the San’in Kaigan Geopark Museum of the Earth and Sea identified the creature as a giant squid, known as Daioika in Japan.

The squid is about three meters and 20 centimeters long. It had been severely damaged and had lost the tentacles that are used to lure and catch prey. Museum officials believe the squid was dead by the time it washed ashore.

Giant squids live at a depth of 200 to 1,000 meters, mainly in areas along the Pacific Ocean. They are rarely found in Tottori Prefecture, which faces the Sea of Japan.

A man who lives near the beach said he was extremely surprised that the squid was so big.

Koyano Yuzo, a curator of the museum, said the squid had somehow traveled to the Sea of Japan, which is rough and has lower temperatures than the Pacific Ocean side. He said these factors are believed to have weakened the deep-sea creature.

Article ends.

At least we can be fairly certain that this is not the same squid from the previous article.

The next article relates to the sperm whale that drifted into Osaka Bay near the mouth of the Yodo River and died last week. While I was expecting the carcass to be buried so that the skeleton could be recovered for research, the authorities had other plans…

Whale that died in Osaka Bay returned to the sea

Thursday, Jan. 19, 19:15

Whale that died in Osaka Bay returned to the sea

Officials in Osaka City, western Japan, say a stray whale that died in Osaka Bay has been returned to the sea.

The carcass of the sperm whale was carried on a boat to waters off the Kii Channel, south of Osaka, on Thursday.

On the previous day, workers removed the gas that had built up in the rotting body. They tied a 30-ton weight to it before its burial at sea.

The male whale was first spotted in shallow waters near the mouth of the Yodo River on January 9, and was affectionately dubbed “Yodo-chan” on social media.

The marine mammal appeared to be in a weakened state. City officials confirmed its death four days later.

An examination showed the whale was 14.7 meters long and weighed 38 tons. Officials say there were no conspicuous injuries on its body.

Experts plan to carry out detailed studies on its age and mode of life by examining its teeth and the contents of its stomach.

Sperm whales usually live in the deep ocean, and it is rare for one to appear in places such as Osaka Bay.

Article ends.

I was quite surprised when I saw the procedure on the TV news. I was convinced that the ballast and ropes were going to cut the carcass in two, but everything did appear to go according to plan.

Apparently whale carcasses in the sea create mini ecosystems that last for several years.

The next two articles are also about marine mammals, but are far more positive (at least at this stage).

Suspected Steller sea lion spotted in Tokyo Bay creates social media buzz

January 19, 2023 (Mainichi Japan)

Japanese version

The suspected Steller sea lion that was spotted in Tokyo Bay on Jan. 15. The line running at an angle on the photo is a fishing line. (Photo courtesy of the man who spotted the animal)

TOKYO — Extremely rare sightings of a suspected Steller sea lion in Tokyo Bay have recently been a hot topic on social media.

Steller sea lions are sometimes spotted off Ibaraki Prefecture and the Chiba Prefecture city of Choshi in east Japan, but hardly ever in Tokyo Bay. An aquarium worker commented, “The animal possibly became weak for some reason and was unable to follow its colony, and wandered into the bay after swimming on the southward tidal current.”

A 54-year-old resident of Tokyo’s Kita Ward said that he spotted the animal on the shoreline near a runway at Haneda Airport in the capital’s Ota Ward on the afternoon of Jan. 15 while he was fishing on a boat with a friend. The animal was nearly 2 meters in length and apparently dived into the sea while they were watching. “I often fish in Tokyo Bay, but it was my first time to see such a marine animal,” he said.

According to Sunshine Aquarium in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, it is highly possible that the animal is a Steller sea lion, judging from its fur and body color. Steller sea lions spend spring and summer in the Okhotsk Sea and the Bering Sea and go south to the waters around Hokkaido between November and May as they pursue fish to eat.

(Japanese original by Akira Iida, Tokyo City News Department)

Article ends.

Hopefully, the sealion will find enough food and make its way out of Tokyo Bay and back to its colony. If not, maybe capture and rehabilitation will be needed. Also, we don’t need people on social media to give it a “cute” nickname like they did with the sperm whale in Osaka…

Which leads us back to large marine mammals.

Coast Guard: Whale spotted in Tokyo Bay not a threat to boats

By IKUKO ABE/ Staff Writer

January 20, 2023 at 18:18 JST

A whale is spotted in Tokyo Bay near the Tokyo Wan Aqua-Line Expressway on Jan. 19. (Provided by Yokohama Coast Guard Office)

A whale is spotted in Tokyo Bay near the Tokyo Wan Aqua-Line Expressway on Jan. 19. (Provided by Yokohama Coast Guard Office)

YOKOHAMA–The Yokohama Coast Guard Office on Jan. 19 witnessed the unusual sight of a whale spouting water and then submerging into Tokyo Bay near the Tokyo Wan Aqua-Line Expressway.

The office received a report at around 1:20 p.m. from crew members of a nearby vessel, then dispatched a patrol boat that spotted the marine mammal at around 2 p.m.

“It is rare to spot a whale in the area,” said a representative of the office.

According to the Coast Guard, the whale was at least seven meters long and swam on the south side of the expressway, about five kilometers off the coastline of Kawasaki.

The Coast Guard kept an eye on the whale until the evening, but it did not appear to return to the sea.

The office concluded the whale would not pose a danger to vessels operating in nearby waters and stopped watching the whale in the evening.

Miyuki Sumi, a breeder at Enoshima Aquarium in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, said the mammal appeared to be a young sperm whale, based on the shape of its head and back fin.

There have been only two or so sperm whale sightings in Tokyo Bay over the past 30 years, she said.

Neighboring Sagami Bay is part of a migration path for dolphins and whales.

Sumi said the whale might have strayed into Tokyo Bay temporarily, but there should be no problem if it makes it back out to sea by itself.

But if it does not leave, it could spell bad news.

A sperm whale affectionately nicknamed Yodo-chan that wandered into Osaka Bay and was spotted on Jan. 9 near the mouth of the Yodogawa river became progressively weaker until it died. The carcass was buried at sea on Jan. 19.

Article ends.

This one is still a going concern – not least because different news agencies are reporting it as different species. One Japanese language article quotes the animal as being a 12 to 13 metre long humpback whale. Unless there are at least two whales in Tokyo Bay right now…

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Two Tales of a City

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Hi blog.

This isn’t the post I was going to write, but I quickly ran into problems with the one I started just the other day. However, a news item crossed my feed yesterday. At the same time – literally within minutes – my partner teacher at the elementary school I work at told me of a news item she had seen. Furthermore, these two stories take place within a few kilometres of each other.

Our stage for these events is Osaka: the third largest metropolis in Japan after Tokyo and Yokohama. I have never been there; my only “knowledge” of it is that it was once the political capital of Japan, it has a lot of canals, and it is famous for the reconstruction of the lavish castle that once stood there. It was for a long time the smallest prefecture in in the country until the land reclamation for the New Kansai Airport increased its area to be slightly larger than Kagawa.

Everything else is images and stereotypes – Osaka people are boisterous; they are stingy; they love their food; the crime rate in Osaka is higher than that of Tokyo. This will make more sense later on.

Let’s get the (probably) bad news out the way first.

A sperm whale drifted into Osaka Bay.

Whale spotted near mouth of Yodo River in Osaka

KYODO NEWS KYODO NEWS – Jan 9, 2023 – 19:53 |

An 8-meter-long whale was spotted near the mouth of the Yodo River in Osaka on Monday, a rare sighting of the large mammal in Osaka Bay, according to the coast guard.

A truck driver on an expressway parking area near the river mouth reported finding a whale-looking animal spouting shortly after 7:30 a.m. A coast guard vessel was dispatched to the site and monitored the whale to keep it from going further upstream.

Photo taken from a Kyodo News helicopter shows a whale found close to the mouth of the Yodo River in Osaka on Jan. 9, 2023. (Kyodo)

The coast guard also warned ships navigating the area to watch out for the animal.

“It could be a young sperm whale living in the Pacific Ocean that strayed from its herd. It may be frail because it looked as though it was just floating,” Tsutomu Tamura of the Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research said in a statement.

Photo shows a whale spotted near the mouth of the Yodo River in Osaka on Jan. 9, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Osaka Coast Guard Office) (Kyodo)

Osaka Bay is largely enclosed by Awaji Island, which leaves two narrow passages north and south. The southern opening leads to the Pacific.

Photo taken from a Kyodo News helicopter shows a whale found close to the mouth of the Yodo River in Osaka on Jan. 9, 2023. (Kyodo)

Jan 9, 2023 | KYODO NEWS

Article ends.

However, by the time I read the article, the whale appeared to have weakened to the point of being reported to not be moving. Nor was I impressed with some of the level of journalism, which tends to focus on the cute nickname the locals have given the whale more than on the whale itself.

Whale called ‘Yodo-chan’ barely moving in Osaka Bay


January 11, 2023 at 14:56 JST

An 8-meter-long whale nicknamed “Yodo-chan” moves near the mouth of the Yodogawa river in Osaka Bay, spouting water from time to time, on Jan. 10. (Provided by Asahi Television Broadcasting Corp.)

OSAKA–An 8-meter-long whale has remained in Osaka Bay near the mouth of the Yodogawa river, more than 30 hours after it was first reported there.

The whale has been nicknamed “Yodo-chan” on social media. Many are concerned for its safety.

The Osaka Coast Guard Office said the whale was barely moving and occasionally spouting water. It swam 100 meters southwest from the river mouth around 10 a.m. on Jan. 10 and then stayed in the same area until around 5 p.m., when officials stopped monitoring it.

The whale “won’t affect vessels’ navigation,” they said, adding they will monitor the whale on Jan. 11 at sunrise and sunset.

The officials received reports of the whale near the mouth of the river around 8 a.m. on Jan. 9 and spotted the whale about 350 meters south of the Nakajima parking area on the Hanshin Expressway Bayshore Route that runs along Osaka Bay.

The water there is 2 to 3 meters deep.

Yasunobu Nabeshima, 69, a visiting researcher at the Osaka Museum of Natural History who is familiar with the ecosystem of Osaka Bay, said the creature appears to be a sperm whale based on its nose and position of its dorsal fin.

Sperm whales live from the Arctic to Antarctica. An adult male sperm whale can reach around 16 meters in length. They dive down more than 200 meters and feed mainly on giant squid.

Nabeshima speculates the whale wandered into the shallow waters of Osaka Bay because “it lost its swimming ability for some reason and was being carried on the currents.”

In 2009, a sperm whale entered Uchinoura Bay in Wakayama Prefecture and returned to the Pacific Ocean on its own 20 days later.

Nabeshima said whales can survive for around a month without food thanks to the fat stored in their bodies.

“For now, we should wait and see how the situation develops,” he said.

(This article was written by Shigeko Matsuo and Rikako Takai.)

Article ends.

I feared the worst at this point, and my suspicions were proven correct this morning: the whale was confirmed to be dead.

Whale in rare sighting in Osaka confirmed dead


An 8-meter-long whale spotted near the mouth of the Yodo River in Osaka earlier this week was confirmed dead Friday, local officials said, after it had remained in the same spot for days and was not observed spouting water.

Workers of the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan in the western Japan city had approached the large mammal by boat to check if it was breathing, while Tsutomu Tamura of the Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research said that the blowhole that the whale would use to breathe had been submerged underwater since Wednesday.

Photo taken from a Kyodo News helicopter on Jan. 13, 2023, shows a whale near the mouth of the Yodo River being approached by people on a boat. (Kyodo)

The Osaka Ports and Harbors Bureau is expected to discuss how to dispose of the whale’s carcass.

The sighting of such an animal in Osaka Bay was rare, the coast guard said when the whale was first seen on Monday. The bay is largely enclosed by Awaji Island, which leaves two narrow passages north and south. The southern opening leads to the Pacific.

In July 2021, a whale carcass was discovered off the coast of Osaka. It was towed away and buried on land by the ports bureau, before its skeleton was excavated. It has been stored at the Osaka Museum of Natural History since December.

Article ends.

Some of the Japanese language news was speculating whether there was a risk of the carcass exploding… even before the whale was confirmed dead. (rolls eyes)

The other news item from Osaka is far more positive.

River in central Osaka City found to be habitat for eels

Tuesday, Jan. 10, 19:38

River in central Osaka City found to be habitat for eels

Researchers in Osaka Prefecture, western Japan, have confirmed for the first time that endangered Japanese eels inhabit Dotonbori River in the middle of Osaka City.

The prefecture’s Research Institute of Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries says researchers checked the river last November to see if any eels dwell there.

They caught 11 Japanese eels, designated as an endangered species by Japan’s Environment Ministry and international bodies.

The eels measure 30 to 60 centimeters long. The largest one is on display at the institute’s facility in Neyagawa City.

Eels are found in rivers throughout the prefecture, but it is the first time that an academic survey has confirmed their existence in Dotonbori River. Its waters flow through one of the busiest dining and entertainment districts in the city.

Institute researcher Yamamoto Yoshihiko says the finding of eels points to the existence of an ecological system with small fish, shrimp and crabs on which eels feed. He says this means Dotonbori’s water is much purer and less polluted with sewage than before.

Article ends.

Dotonbori is the main entertainment district in Osaka: any TV program or movie that wants to establish its setting as Osaka will show some of Dotonbori’s landmarks. The river (probably more accurately canal) is about 2.7 km long and gained a level of infamy as a highly polluted river by the 1970s.

I remember seeing news about some of the efforts to clean up the river in the early 2000s on TV: dredging the bottom removed not only tonnes of silt but also hundreds of bicycles that had been thrown into the river. (I said that some of those stereotypes of people from Osaka would be relevant.)

For some reason, it also became a thing over the years for over-exuberant sports fans to jump into the river when their team won – not a wise choice, given the amount of rubbish and the volume of E. coli in the water…

Apart from dredging, in 2003 Hyriopsis schlegelii, a kind of freshwater mussel, was introduced into the river, which improved water quality drastically, with the added benefit of producing freshwater pearls.

I hope that the river system will continue to improve and provide a habitat for aquatic life. Of course, that is entirely up to the actions of the people of Osaka.

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The Year of the Rabbit

Hi blog.

I am now on holiday, with the school term finishing on December 23rd. Although my second term seemed to drag on forever and then just fizzle out, I did manage to make a couple of Christmas puddings.

The weather has been cold, but at least this part of eastern Japan doesn’t get the huge volumes of snow that fall in the north or the west – some areas have reported twice or even three times the average snowfall for December, and no fewer than 17 people have died due to snow.

I was convinced that I wouldn’t get another post in this month – and therefore this year – when an idea coalesced. I started making New Year cards to send out, and 2023 is the year of the rabbit – or, more likely, hare. However, in keeping with the standard English translation I decided to make one design based on the Amami rabbit – possibly the only rabbit native to East Asia.

A mounted specimen of the Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi) at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Out of curiosity, I did a quick internet search to find out if there were any on display at zoos in the greater Tokyo area. As it turns out, only one zoo in the entire country – Hirakawa Zoo in Kagoshima – keeps any of these rabbits, and even then, they are not on display to the public! (Link to the page here)

Just out of interest, I looked for any recent news items for Amami rabbits and found some from earlier this month.

This article links to video from Kagoshima TV

The Yahoo News item.

This is from the national broadcaster, NHK.

The NHK page.

No articles in English were available at this time; however, the news is positive.

The previous survey on the population of Amami rabbits conducted in 2003 suggested a number between around just 800 and 8000 individuals. The most recent survey from last year, using 60 cameras set up on Amami Oshima and Tokunoshima, plus measurements of the volume of rabbit droppings, suggest a current population of between 15000 and 34000 rabbits.

Experts from the Ministry of the Environment say that the main reasons for the increase are the removal of introduced mongooses and better control of cats on the islands.

The Ministry has also produced a manual on dealing with the expected increases of rabbits being killed on roads as well as damage to farms and market gardens caused by the rabbits.

I hope that numbers continue to recover to their natural level.

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Feeling Board…

Hi blog.

We are into December and winter. I only mention the winter part because with the suddenness and ferocity with which it arrived. November 30th was unnaturally warm, and the ride home was pleasant. I almost didn’t need gloves. December 1st topped out at just 12℃, with a morning just above fridge temperature. Things got rougher the following week, with the 5th and 6th topping out in single digits – I was glad that I had checked my deep winter clothing over the weekend and stocked up on new thermal underwear.

In addition to the repressive cold, I got #Whamageddoned on December 2nd, as well as having to put up with the media circus that follows a Japanese victory in a major sporting event. Meanwhile at work I found myself having to administer some speaking tests for a prefecture-wide test of English ability (although these tests are a logistical nightmare to fit in, and are more of a test of how well the students have been prepped to perform in this particular test with its very specific questions and scoring criteria…)

Needless to say, between the psychological damage the above caused, along with the increasingly early darkness, encounters with anything blog-worthy seemed unlikely.

Then a headline (amazing what the Japanese media is “forced” to print once their team is knocked out of the world cup…) jumped out at me.

Archaeologists unearth largest wooden ‘haniwa’ statue ever found in Japan

  • Jiji
  • Dec 9, 2022

Osaka – The remains of a 3.5-meter-tall wooden haniwa statue were found Thursday at one of the ancient kofun burial mounds making up the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Habikino, in Osaka Prefecture.

With the parts also measuring 75 centimeters wide and around 8 cm thick, the statue is believed to be one of the biggest wooden haniwa found in Japan so far.

According to the education board of the city of Habikino, the haniwa was unearthed during an excavation of a moat surrounding the 96-meter-long Minegazuka Kofun, which is believed to have been built at the end of the fifth century.

The statue is an Iwami-style haniwa, which “has only been found at 15 kofun tumuli in Japan so far,” according to an official of the education board.

“The haniwa is a very rare artifact as it is made of kōyamaki (Japanese umbrella pine), which was a type of wood favored by people in power at the time,” the official said.

Remaining parts of a 3.5-meter-tall wooden haniwa statue unearthed from the Minegazuka Kofun in Habikino, Osaka Prefecture | HABIKINO BOARD OF EDUCATION / VIA KYODO
Remaining parts of a 3.5-meter-tall wooden haniwa statue unearthed from the Minegazuka Kofun in Habikino, Osaka Prefecture | HABIKINO BOARD OF EDUCATION / VIA KYODO

The haniwa is the tallest ever found, exceeding the 2.6-meter-tall Iwami-style specimen excavated from the Ohakayama Kofun in the city of Tenri in neighboring Nara Prefecture, according to the Habikino education board.

“Wooden haniwa made out of kōyamaki, which can be logged in only a few areas in Japan, have only been found from kofun tumuli in the Kinki region and are extremely few in number,” said Hiroaki Suzuki of the Nara Prefectural Government’s cultural property preservation division, who is familiar with wooden haniwa.

“It’s possible that a figure then at the center of power was buried (at the Minegazuka Kofun),” Suzuki added.

Article ends.

I was intregued by the idea of a wooden haniwa – the very definition of haniwa is a terracotta figure made by the coil method – and shocked to see that the “statue” was little more than a rotten plank of wood.

A quick web search suggested that wooden items could be classified as haniwa (but were not always), and that a significant number of such items were ceremonial weapons or shields, umbrella-shaped objects, and a small assortment of other shapes. I was unable to find any “statues”.

Some of the wooden items found in a tumulus in Kashihara, Nara. Photo taken from the Kashihara Museum website This museum doesn’t classify the wooden items as haniwa.
A wooden “umbrella” and shield excavated in Tawaramoto, Nara. Picture taken from the Tawaramoto Museum website. This museum classifies these objects as haniwa.

My personal suspicion is the translators decided that “haniwa” referred specifically to statues while the archaeologists were using it in a much broader term.

Anyway, I am curious to find out the exact nature of the haniwa if it ever comes to light.

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Do you feel lucky, pork? Well, do ya?

Hi blog.

This is less of a nature post and more of one of those “crazy stuff that happens only in Japan” stories.

The evening news earlier this week had a story about wild boars encroaching into residential areas of Nagoya, with footage of some wild boars near shops. The first thing that popped into my head was, “This little piggy went to market”. OK, I’ll stop now.

But this story has entertainment value.

‘I’ll shoot!’: Nagoya police officer draws gun, defends people from charging wild boar

November 21, 2022 (Mainichi Japan)

Japanese version

A wild boar (Mainichi/Osamu Sukagawa)

NAGOYA — A police officer pointed his gun and shouted, “I’ll shoot!” at a wild boar in this central Japan city on Nov. 20, successfully driving it away from the area without any shots fired.


Aichi Prefectural Police’s Moriyama Station received a report of two wild boars on the loose at around 2:40 p.m. Four officers were dispatched to a riverside area in Nagoya’s Moriyama Ward, where they warned people and searched for the boars. At around 4:40 p.m., an approximately 1-meter-long boar charged toward around 10 people who were in the area. A 36-year-old sergeant made a split-second decision to intervene, believing the boar to be a mortal threat. The officer got in front of the boar, drew his gun and shouted that he would fire his weapon. The boar promptly fled into a grassy area.

The station’s deputy chief, Junichi Sakomura, said of the officer’s actions, “At present, I think this was an appropriate time for the officer to deploy his gun.”

(Japanese original by Motoyori Arakawa, Nagoya News Center)

Article ends.

TV news viewers were treated to footage of the officer drawing is service revolver and shouting that he would shoot.

“Stop, or I’ll shoot!” I hope the pig understands Japanese…

I feel the need to add that Japanese police are rarely filmed with drawn firearms. In fact, even in cases of extremely violent crimes involving knives or other potentially lethal weapons, the police are more likely to be seen deploying batons, riot shields or sasumata instead of the 5-round .38 revolver every officer carries.

I feel that the officer knew that he needed to make noise to scare the boar off, so shouting as he was trained to do was the natural course of action. I just wonder if he would have actually shot at the boar or merely used the gun for the noise effect. He probably didn’t need the media there to cloud his decision.

These are wild animals and pigs do pose a very real threat to humans. A man in Nagoya was knocked down by a wild boar. He suffered only grazing, but an older person could have been injured much more seriously.

The TV news also reported that a golf course had been damaged by wild boars digging for worms. You can probably imagine my position on that…

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Nitta and the Rat Yakushi

Hi, blog

November has arrived and although the mornings are often quite chilly and in the upper single digit temperature range, afternoons may top 20℃.

Recently we received the monthly city newspaper and something caught my eye. It was a picture of a card depicting a large and very old ginkgo tree at a temple in Tokorozawa. The caption suggested that it was where Nitta Yoshimune, the third son of Nitta Yoshisada, had died in Tokorozawa.

This card is from a series of Tokorozawa karuta card and is the card for “ya”

The next page included the local legend of Yoshimune.

Historians generally agree that Nitta Yoshimune died in battle in 1368. However, local legend says that he merely had rumor of his death spread while he hid in the Yakuo Temple in Tokorozawa, awaiting his chance to regroup his forces.

That chance never came, and Yoshimune lived out the remainder of his days as a monk.

He carved a statue of the Yakushi Buddha, filled with his thoughts of all his family and soldiers who had been killed in battle with the Ashikaga clan.

He is said to have died in 1413.

Many years later, there was a plague of rats (or maybe mice). Rumor spread that they were the souls of the Nitta clan and their retainers, and people went to Yakuo Temple to pray to Yoshimune’s Yakushi. Those who did so suffered no further damage from the rat plague.

The Yakushi became known as Nezumi Yakushi (“Rat Yakushi”)

I took advantage of a warm and mostly sunny afternoon on October 30th to visit the temple and see what would be worth photographing.

A Google map photo of the temple grounds. As you can see, most of the area is occupied by a cemetery.
The two ginkgo trees are visible either side of the white van near the Google logo.

The temple belongs to the Sodo Zen sect, and much of the temple grounds are filled with graves. The temple buildings are modern concrete affairs and I didn’t consider them worth photographing.

The temple gate at the far south of the grounds. It is also a modern construction.
The wider of the two ginkgo trees. This one’s trunk is wrapped in chicken wire.
The taller but thinner of the two trees. This one has a sign designating it as a tree of significance within the city, but no estimate of its age is given. The car, although a small, thin model, helps give some sense of scale.
An information sign. The first part of this is about a sutra scroll in the temple’s possession, with the latter part describing the legend of the Rat Yakushi and how Nitta’s descendants errected a memorial stone in the temple grounds in 1897.
The memorial to Nitta Yoshimune, erected by his descendants in 1897.

I found a grave belonging to a Nitta family, but I had no way of telling if it was the Nitta family. (Also, 新田 can be read in no fewer than six different ways, so I can’t even be sure if it was a Nitta family grave.) Needless to say, I didn’t photograph it.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed – no way of seeing the Yakushi that Yoshimune carved, and not even a photo of it, no actual Yoshimune grave (although the Unkoku Temple in Gunma claims to have his actual grave)

However, I did come across one interesting piece of information while researching this post, which ties up the Nittas and rats. In the Edo period, when silkworm farming was an important supplemental source of income, rats and mice represented a huge problem as they would feed on the silkworms and their precious cocoons. Cats at this time were expensive luxuries that most families couldn’t afford – some sources say they sold for five times the price of a horse!

What a number of families did was to buy pictures of cats painted by four generations of Iwamatsu, who claimed descent from the Nitta family and whose pictures were known as “Nitta cats”.

A “Nitta cat” painted by Michizumi. From the Takasaki Museum.

The parallels between Yoshimune’s Yakushi and the Nitta cats are uncanny.

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Rabbit Island – It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

Hi, blog.

It has been too long between posts again, but it is October (and a particularly cloudy and wet one), which means tests and the H word. I’ve also been suffering from a stiff neck and a sporadic pain that runs down my shoulder all the way to the fingers on my left hand.

I’m only writing this post because the teacher who inspired a previous post got me to check her English but was unsure if the subjects of the topic were rabbits or hares, leading me to do some quick research.

The upshot of her talk for the students was that the number of rabbits (yes, they are in fact rabbits, i.e. an introduced species) on “Rabbit Island” had decreased from nearly 1000 individuals to around 400 during the pandemic due to fewer tourists feeding them.

Followers of this blog may remember that rabbits are not native to mainland Japan, and that the only rabbit species found in the entire archipelago – the endangered Amami rabbit – is very far removed from the bunnies which you are probably familiar with.

For those of you not familiar with the notion of rabbits being a biological terror, it is said that the mortality rates for rabbits in Australia – where they do untold damage to the natural environment – is over 99%. If a mere 2% of rabbits reach breeding age, a plague ensues.

Okunoshima, unlike Australia, is a tiny island of just 0.7 km2.

Why are there rabbits on an uninhabited island? And a rabbit population plummeting? I suspected there was more to this than meets the eye.

While I was unable to find any English language news matching my teacher’s story, I was able to find some relevant, if slightly dated, media coverage.

Rabbit Island residents face threat from natural enemies

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Wild rabbits are seen on Okunoshima island in Takehara, Hiroshima Prefecture, on April 12.

By Hitoshi Ishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

14:35 JST, May 4, 2022

TAKEHARA, Hiroshima — A battle is brewing on so-called Rabbit Island.

Crows, rats and other natural enemies of the furry feral denizens that give the island its nickname are increasing as a result of overfeeding by tourists. These enemies have grown in number as they feast on food uneaten by the rabbits.

The island in the Seto Inland Sea is properly known as Okunoshima and is part of the city of Takehara, Hiroshima Prefecture. The reason there are hundreds of wild rabbits on the island has been blamed on the release in the 1970s of a few rabbits raised at an elementary school off the island.

When Okunoshima was developed by the central government as a recreational site, the rabbits gained fame as a symbol of the island. Thanks to successful promotional activities by the municipal government, the island became a major tourist destination.

As tourists posted about the island on social media using the moniker in Japanese for “Rabbit Island,” the number of visitors swelled from about 125,000 in 2013 to 289,000 in 2019.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Through World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army had a poison gas factory on the island. Even now, war-related remnants are seen in various parts of the island. But the adorable image of Rabbit Island has taken hold.

Rabbit food is not sold on the island, so visitors bring vegetables and other food. True, this feeding has probably been what keep the rabbits alive. Some tourists, however, give pastries and other snacks people usually eat that are not good for the rabbits’ health.

There is often too much food for the rabbits to gobble up, leading to the leftovers being eaten by crows, rats and even wild boars.

This has affected the rabbits’ habitat. Witnesses have seen crows poking rabbits in the eyes when stealing the food given to them and preying on weakened rabbits.

An information center on the island under the jurisdiction of the Environment Ministry has made leaflets asking visitors not to leave food behind. Regarding how to feed rabbits, the center recommends giving them a little at a time and watching over them until they finish eating.

“Leaving food behind means telling the crows where rabbits are,” reads a flyer on the island. “When you are gone, the crows will prey on weakened rabbits.”

It has been difficult, however, to disseminate these feeding habits to all visitors. In response, the ministry’s local bureau and other local entities have decided to deploy “supporters,” special staff who will be responsible for educating tourists. More than 50 people applied to be a supporter and training of applicants is planned before the start of activities in summer.

Article ends.

I had a chuckle at the headline for this since there are no “natural” predators for introduced species. Also, the information is inconsistent with news presented just six months later.

A more recent article from a Canadian source, had a different take.

Japan’s Cuddly Rabbit Island Has A Dark Past

Aug 25, 2022 | 5:59 AM

Featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Around the world are countless animal sanctuaries where species can live in harmony. Off the coast of Japan exists a unique sanctuary: an island full of rabbits! The simply named Rabbit Island might seem like a cuddlesome paradise, but the island’s past and present have dark secrets that threaten the existence of its cute inhabitants.

Where is Rabbit Island?

Rabbit Island is located on the small island Ōkunoshima in the Seto Inland Sea in eastern Hiroshima. Instead of Ōkunoshima, the island is often called Usagi Shima (Rabbit Island in English). The island is home to over 1,000 wild rabbits, who have plenty of fields and forests to explore.

Dark and Historical Origins

But how do that many rabbits end up in one place? There are many rumors about how these cuddly creatures arrived, some more morbid than others.

The first rumor ties back to WWII when Ōkunoshima was previously used as a chemical munitions plant to manufacture tear and mustard gas. Despite the Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical weapons in 1925, a loophole existed where these vile weapons could still be created and stored away. The rabbits were unfortunate test subjects for these experiments, brought to the island to determine the effectiveness of the weapons. The remaining rabbits got released by the workers following WWII’s end, left to survive in the wild.

Chemical storage area, Okunoshima, Japan. Via Wikimedia Commons.

However, Ellis Krauss, a Japanese politics professor at the University of California San Diego, disputed this rumor. In an interview with Krauss, he revealed that the Americans who liberated the island euthanized all the rabbits used for experiments.

So if those rabbits were gone, how did all of those bunnies end up on the island? Another rumor points to the antics of school children, who set free eight rabbits onto the island during a field trip. With no predators or hunters to disrupt them, the rabbits multiplied into the large population the island is known for today.

Can I Visit the Rabbits?

Not only can you visit the rabbits, but you can also make an entire vacation out of it! Visitors can either take a boat in from the mainland for a day visit or stay at the National Park Resort Hotel, a vacation spot on the island. Visitors can interact with rabbits, bike around the island, sit in simmering hot springs, and even visit the chemical plants used during WWII, now converted into the Ōkunoshima Poison Gas Museum. It sounds like the perfect location for any couple’s bunnymoon.

The island has strict guidelines for the safety of its furry folk. Rabbit Island forbids tourists from chasing, holding, or taking a wild rabbit home. Tourists also cannot release their pet rabbits on the island, as the local rabbits are territorial and will not accept an outsider as one of their own. Rabbit Island also requests that guests refill water buckets around the island (more on that soon) and watch out for rabbits while biking or driving.

The Rabbits’ Dark Secret

At a glance, Rabbit Island seems like a paradise with a dark and historic past, but it also has a very present threat: the tourists themselves.

Due to the island not having enough vegetation to support its large population, rabbits rely on the tourists to feed them, resulting in inconsistent feeding times and bad diets. Rabbits are overfed on crowded tourism days and barely eat on bad weather days with little foot traffic.

Typically, a wild rabbit’s diet consists of leaves, plants, and seeds. However, tourists often bring carrots and cabbage to feed their new long-eared friends. Cabbage is deficient for rabbits since they have difficulty digesting it, and the food is too low in fiber for their dietary needs.

Food isn’t the only issue for the rabbits. Due to toxins from Japan’s experiments during WWII, the island’s groundwater got contaminated. This is why the island asks tourists to refill water buckets for the rabbits. All these factors culminate in a high turnover rate for the rabbits, only having a two-year lifespan.

Luck Be a Rabbit

Despite the dark secrets of Rabbit Island, the animals are very significant to Japan. In Japanese culture, rabbits symbolize luck, whereas the Japanese kanji for rabbit is similar to the kanji meaning “get rid of” or “vanish.” Hence, rabbits will make your bad luck go away!

Rabbits are also associated with fertility and rebirth due to their high reproductive rates. Rabbit Island supports this notion by encouraging those trying to start a family to visit the island to receive good fortune from its prosperous whiskered winners.

If you find yourself hoping over to Rabbit Island, remember to reflect on its hairy past and take steps to create a positive environment for the island’s rabbits and all of rabbit kind.

Article ends.

While the level of journalism in this article is barely above the level of, say, this blog, I’m glad that it covered some of the darker history and even went as far as to mention some of the urban legends before debunking them. Another urban legend suggests that during the war years, rabbits on the island were eaten, a theory which could still be true. And as for a population descended from eight rabbits, well, it only took a few dozen rabbits released into the Australian wild in the 1850s for them to colonize an entire continent!

However, the assertion that rabbits are associated with luck in Japan is incorrect – that honor goes to hares. Then again, most of the Japanese people I have spoken to are actually unaware that rabbits are not native to these lands.

I guess the kanji 免 (to avoid, to be spared from, etc.) and the (old) one for hare 兔 do look similar.

Some researchers have suggested that 300 rabbits is the maximum number the island can naturally support.

Of course, if seeing large numbers of animals that you can see at any petting zoo running wild in an exotic environment is your thing but you don’t want to visit Australia during a rabbit plague, you could always put Okunoshima on your bucket list…

A sign at Takanoumi Station, Takehara City, the municipality to which Okunoshima is part of. The rabbits have become a city symbol.

The irony that an island populated mostly by introduced rabbits is administered as a national park under the Environment Ministry is not lost on me.

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The Tomato Eater

Hi blog.

We emerged unscathed from the typhoon that passed through. We are in an area that was affected by moderately heavy rain, not strong winds.

I was doing a quick inspection around the house when I noticed some exceptionally large caterpillar droppings around my tomato plant. Caterpillar droppings are typically disproportionally large compared to the caterpillar that produces them…

The woodlice should give you some idea of how large these droppings are.

What I wasn’t expecting was a caterpillar so large…

With my hand for scale.

The caterpillar in question was actually quite easy to identify with a quick web search and my larva field guide. I guessed correctly from the outset that it was a hawk moth, and just used Japanese search terms “smooth skinned caterpillar”, “yellow green” and “tomato”.

The result pointed to the larva of Acherontia lachesis, the greater death’s head hawkmoth. Its common name here is kuromengatasuzume, (黒面形天蛾).

The question mark-shaped cercus is a distinguishing feature of this species.

My field guide (admittedly written for kids) suggests a typical size of up to 90 mm. This example, however, measured at over 120 mm.

The caterpillars feed on members of the nightshade family (including tomato and eggplant), as well as a variety of other plants until they reach the final instar of the larval stage, and then burrow into the ground to pupate.

Moths may have a wingspan of up to 13 cm.

It’s amazing what might appear in your own back yard.

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The Crimson Peril

Hi blog.

Sorry about the huge gap between posts. I have been quite busy at work, the sun is setting earlier and earlier, and I just haven’t had any real encounters with wildlife, or at least nothing I could photograph.

This post is coming to you now mostly because of a strange chain of events.

Several weeks ago, I received a news update that a certain poisonous fungus had been found in a number of parks in Saitama.

Great! (No, not the deadly fungus being found in parks, the blog-worthy event.)

Except that there was no real English-language new about it.

I did find an article dating back to August 1st in Japan Today, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to take that particular media outlet seriously.

Wow, isn’t that JAPANESE design just SO clever? (Rolls eyes)

Nor was I especially impressed with the headline for the article about the outbreak of the fungus…

The brain-shrinking part is probably the least of your worries.

However, things came to a head when one of the English teachers at my school, who is trying to talk about current events to the students in simple English, came to me to check her language. I knew then that this was something worth blogging about, even in the absence of good media coverage.

So, I shall give you the Japan Today article followed by my take.

Deadly brain-shrinking fungus popping up in parks, several prefectures throughout Japan

Aug. 1 03:30 pm JST By grape Japan TOKYO

Sightings of the deadly poison fire coral fungus increased in Japan in the month of July, with reports coming from the prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Fukui.

The world’s second-deadliest fungal species after the so-called Destroying Angel (amanita virosa), Podostroma cornu-damae, otherwise known as the poison fire coral in English and kaentake (literally “fire mushroom”) in Japanese, is native to Japan and Korea but has also been found in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and some parts of Australia. With its fiery red color and unusual coral-like shape, it stands out from the dark brown and green shades of dirt, moss, fallen leaves, and other vegetation at the foot of trees where it thrives.

However, you would be ill-advised to eat it. Containing several trichothecene mycotoxins, its fruiting bodies are lethal to humans. Several poisonings have been reported, most recently in 1999 when a man in Niigata died after eating one or two grams soaked in sake and in 2000 when a man in Gunma died after eating the mushroom fried.

Should you be unfortunate to consume it, your symptoms will range from not only stomach aches and vomiting but possibly peeling skin, hair loss, decreases in white blood cells and platelets, organ failure and even a decrease in motor functions, speech, and perception due to shrinking of the cerebellum. Yes, you read that right. This fungus actually shrinks your brain.

And if that weren’t bad enough, the poison fire coral is one of the rare fungi believed to cause rashes, swelling, and irritation of the skin by merely touching it.

An increase in sightings in Japan

According to TV Asahi, several specimens of poison fire coral were discovered in a park in the 座間谷戸山公園 Zama Yatoyama Park in Zama City, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Park Director Masashi Sugawara explained that staff happened to find the mushroom at the foot of trees in several locations, both in areas inaccessible to the public and in a public area next to a log cabin. They promptly removed the mushrooms with a shovel, including the soil around them, to make sure no mycelia were left behind.

Although the poison fire coral is most common in fall, it can in fact thrive between June and December. As long as there is plenty of humidity, it is impervious to changes in temperature. Since there have been many rainy days and a series of localized heavy rains in July, conditions were ripe for an outbreak.

In addition to Zama City, where the park is located, sightings have also been reported in Yokohama City, Kawasaki City, and Atsugi City in Kanagawa Prefecture, as well as Chiba and Fukui prefectures.

According to Tokyo University of Agriculture Professor Kimiko Hashimoto, poison fire coral thrives on a pathogenic fungus growing in Japanese oak trees affected by Japanese Oak Wilt disease, which is in turn spread by the oak ambrosia beetle.

Damage from the disease has been confirmed in 42 prefectures so far, with Kanagawa Prefecture in particular seeing a fifteen-fold increase in just the last three years. Therefore, it is likely that poison fire coral will continue to thrive.

If you’re visiting parks or hiking in the forest in Japan, it’s wise to avoid eating, let alone touching any mushrooms you find in the wild unless you are knowledgeable in mushrooms or have a knowledgeable guide with you. There are plenty of delicious edible mushrooms such as shiitake, maitake, eringi, enoki and, if you can afford it, even matsutake, for you to enjoy if you buy them in supermarkets or find them on the menu at restaurants.

Article ends.

A paragraph about the wonders of Japanese edible mushrooms longer than almost every other paragraph in the article? Let me check that I haven’t pasted a gourmet article here by mistake.

I love the comment on the page:

This may prove a cheaper, less time-wasting and energy-saving alternative to watching Japanese TV.

The poison flame coral (formerly Hypocrea cornu-damae, but currently Podostroma cornu-damae or Trichoderma cornu-damae, depending on who you listen to) is known as kaendake (usually rendered in katakana but sometimes 火炎茸 or 火焔茸) in Japanese, literally meaning “flame mushroom”.

It was first described in China in 1895, with its range including parts of that country, the Korean Peninsula and Japan. It has also been reported in parts of Java, and as of 2019, parts of tropical Australia. While current theory holds that the fungus is either native to Indonesia and Australia, or spread naturally via windborne spores, I would not rule out the possibility of accidental introduction.

(I can hear someone scribbling down notes for their book Things in Australia That Can Kill You, Volume 26)

There is no doubt that this is a potentially deadly fungus. However, there are some caveats.

Common belief is that the fungus causes rashes merely by being touched. Then why did the people who picked, prepared, and ate the fungus not develop rashes? (Developing a rash would most likely negate any desire to eat the fungus)

More likely, the fungus has the potential to cause a rash if touched, particularly in children.

I can easily imagine small children being drawn to the fungus with its bright red colouration but was wondering about adults. I know that there are some perfectly safe fungi in Japan whose shape alone would lead me to doubt their edibility, but the poison fire coral, in addition to having an unappetizing shape, has a colour that simply screams, “DON’T TOUCH ME” in large, unfriendly letters.

However, there are a few mushrooms that, while also being bright red, are considered excellent eating. A simple example of such a mushroom is Amanita caesareoides.

Amanita caesareoides. Remnants of the white “shell” that encases the young mushroom are still visible here.

I stumbled upon this one on my way home from work AFTER I had started writing this post. Typical.

Curiously, while I was taking photos, a group of high school boys rode past and started mocking me, calling out the name of a mushroom in a fake accent. Well, kids, you got the name wrong.

The Japanese name for this member of the genus Amanita (which contains some of the deadliest mushrooms in the fungi kingdom as well as some very edible ones) is tamagodake (卵茸) – literally “egg mushroom” – for the white egg-shaped volva that encases the immature mushroom.

Although these are mushrooms are supposed to the excellent eating, they are fragile and easily damaged, so are rarely sold commercially.

To confuse matters more, there is also a reddish coloured (although closer to orange) fungus with a similar shape, Clavulinopsis miyabeana, which is, although not considered good eating, edible.

Clavulinopsis miyabeana. Photo taken from Wikipedia. Although it is safe to eat, my brain screams, “Why would you even think of putting that into your mouth?”

As we return to the featured fungus of this post, I realise that I have never seen one and do not have a photo. However, some have been found Chikozan Park in Sayama, the city I work in. Furthermore, oak dieback is on the increase in the Totoro forests around Tokorozawa. It’s probably just a matter of time before I stumble upon one. (And you can bet that when I do, I will photograph it and not touch it…)

From the Sayama City website. The page requests that people contact the park management if they find any and warns them that the fungus is also a risk to pets.

I shall be on the lookout for this fungus.

Stay safe!

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So Close (But So Far)

Hi blog.

We are into the final third of the August and I haven’t had anything to blog about.

I guess work, then time off work and not wanting to do anything, the oppressive heat (the Tokyo region has had a record number of days exceeding 35℃) and a general lack of running into wildlife hasn’t helped.

Yesterday I decided that being stuck indoors was doing my head in, so I went out for a walk, hoping to encounter some stag beetles, rhinoceros beetles, or maybe a snake.

Spoiler alert: Nope.

Although the telegraph pole near my house did provide a resting place for a cicada.

Not a great shot – trying a macro lens shot with a subject that won’t hold still isn’t easy

This one I was able to recognise by its songMeimuna opalifera. This small cicada lacks an English common name but goes by the name tsukutsuboshi in Japanese (typically written in katakana but sometimes rendered as つくつく法師 or 寒蟬.) These cicadas are usually heard from late July through September, although they are more noticeable in the later part of the season due to the number of other cicadas reducing as the summer draws to a close.

I also decided to make my way down to the river to see the soft-shell turtles, as I hadn’t sighted them for several weeks. I saw one of them.

While I was down at the river, I tried to photograph what I think is the coolest damselfly in Japan.

This picture doesn’t do justice to the subject. I need a proper camera…

“Try” being the operative word here…

Calopteryx atrata or Atrocalopteryx atrata, depending on who you listen to, is a fairly common damselfly found in much of Japan as well as nearby parts of Russia, China and the Korean peninsula.

It also lacks an English common name but is known locally as hagurotombo (usually written in katakana but sometimes rendered as 羽黒蜻蛉.)

Measuring up to 67mm in length with a wingspan of up to 44mm, this is quite a large damselfly. Females tend to be slightly larger than males, but the size difference is not obvious.

The clear difference between the sexes, however, is that females have a dull green-brown body and brownish wings while the males have a vibrant green body and black wings. While my photo doesn’t do it justice, you can see that it is a male.

Unlike most dragonfly and damselfly species, this variety doesn’t hover in a helicopter manner. Instead, these damselflies flutter much like butterflies, and it is possible to hear their wings in flight… assuming you can get close enough.

I was unable to get closer than about a metre and a half or so away, and full zoom on a phone camera doesn’t cut it for small subjects.

One day…

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