29 Nov

Hi blog.

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

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

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

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


In search of the fearsome Onibaba

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

 OCT 21, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article ends.

Toriyama Sekien’s depiction of the Onibaba.

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

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

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

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

Someday I will get around to writing about the yamamaba.


For Duck’s Sake…

13 Nov

Hi blog.

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

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

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

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

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


Duck with dart shot through head rescued in Hyogo Pref.

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

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

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

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

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

and, closer to home:


Duck with arrow in its neck spotted at Saitama park


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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan Today

Article ends.

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


Wolf at the door

3 Nov

Hi blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolf god at the Mitsumine Shrine.

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

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

This could be yours for a mere ¥50000!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yamainu from the Wakansansaizue…

…and wolf, from the next page.

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

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

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

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

From the Mitake Shrine.

And from the Mitsumine Shrine.

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

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

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

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

The wolf on the opposite side.

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

Definitely a wolf.

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

Another guardian wolf.

This wolf was vaguely familiar…


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

Guardian wolves on a wooden luck tablet.

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace, Honshu wolf.

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

The Bear Truth

28 Oct

Hi blog.

Just for a change of pace, something which didn’t make the English language news.

On October 17 and 18, a hiker in the mountains around the border of Fukuoka and Saga reported sighting a “bear-like animal”.

Bears have been extinct on Kyushu for over 50 years, so this caused some excitement.

Police were dispatched to examine the area.  Animal researchers confirmed from faeces samples collected by the police that the animal was… a Japanese badger!

A Japanese black bear. Photo taken from Tokyo Zoo Net.


A Japanese badger. It bears no resemblance to bears, do you not think? Photo also from Tokyo Zoo Net.

I hate to badger on, but how much can one bear?

Mitsumine in the mist

24 Oct

Hi blog.

This is a mostly photographic post that came about in a rather unusual way.

Former workmate, occasional hiking buddy and sometime co-conspirator Ian “Goat” was in my neck of the woods for his last two days in the country, just after completing the massive Shikoku Pilgrimage – in reverse order – and then walking to Hiroshima.

My lesson timetable for his last full day was messed up due to practice for a school singing event, so I threw caution into the wind, took one of the paid holidays I’m entitled to, and invited the man for one last hike up Mt. Mitsumine.  I had wanted to go up there again for some time, one reason being blog related.  That reason will feature in a later blog post.

Chichibu seems so close, but actually getting out there can be a nuisance, so we went in style on the Red Arrow Express as far as Seibu-Chichibu, took the over-priced Chichibu line to Mitsumineguchi and the bus from there to the shrine.  Time was a bit short for hiking.

The bus ride was long, rough and windy, and although it did treat us to some lovely views, almost none of these would ever translate into a photograph.

Passing Lake Chichibu (an artificial lake) over the dam.

By the time we arrived, a mist was setting in, and really added to the atmosphere.


A statue of Yamato Takeru awaits us outside the museum.


The main shrine gate


No shrine is complete without a steep stairway…


The area for ritually purifying one’s hands and mouth. Just a tad gaudy, don’t you think?


A large mock-up of an ema (wooden plaque upon which one writes one’s wish). I photographed it in spite of the manga-esque wolf, only to realise later the rope the wolf is holding forms a heart… excuse me while I vomit.


There are two “power trees” at the Mitsumine shrine. This cryptomeria is estimated to be over 800 years old.


The normally rough bark of the cryptomeria has been worn smooth by the touches of visitors over time.

The autumn colours are nice, don’t you think?


This dragon’s face appeared in a tile about three years ago, apparently.


The Kyokushin Kaikan managed to set up a memorial for their founder, Masutatsu Oyama, near the shrine. Kyokushin tends to attract the extreme nationalists, and none of them will ever thank me for pointing out that Oyama was in fact Korean!


Yet another statue of Yamato Takeru. This prince seemed to have travelled everywhere and founded every major shrine. He also apparently had huge hands, if this statue is any guide!


The path leading to another shrine and the hiking trails.


Been there, done that. I’ve hiked from here, over Mt. Kumotori and down to Okutama three times – in winter. It’s a great hike.


Next time I visit, I hope to make the trip on foot.

The Big Bear

13 Oct

Hi blog.

I first saw this one shared on Facebook, and then something on the evening news.  The brown bear was something I heard a fair bit about when I was in Hokkaido.  I remember going to a BBQ, and hearing a siren blast – apparently to drive away any bears in the area.

I also remember my host family having a book about the bears and their relationships with humans.  One macabre photo showed the contents of a bear’s stomach (one that had been shot after it killed a person).  The contents included a near-intact human foot!

I still longed for the opportunity to spot a bear in the wild (from a distance, and before it spotted me), but that particular wish never came to fruition.

My take on the following news story?  Unfortunate, but probably necessary.  An aging agricultural population and bears taking risks is not a good combination.

From the Japan Times:


Metabolic’ bear shot in Hokkaido tips scales at 400 kg

A brown bear shot dead last month in Monbetsu, Hokkaido, was so big — about 400 kg — that residents are jokingly calling it the “metabolic” bear, it has been learned.

“Even a 300-kg bear would be considered big,” said a 71-year-old man who belongs to a hunting club. “I’ve been a hunter for more than 40 years, but I’ve never seen a bear like this.”

According to city officials in Monbetsu, the footprints of the giant male bear were found near fields and houses in the city, prompting the city and police to increase patrols.

Separately, a corn farmer whose crops had apparently been raided by bears, asked the local hunting club to hunt it down.

After harvesting most of the corn and narrowing down the range of potential hiding places, hunters shot the bear after spotting it running from a field on Sept. 26.

“It is probably one of the biggest bears that has ever been taken down,” said Toshifumi Onishi, an official at the famed Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa. “Farming fields are a paradise for bears. They have a big appetite before they hibernate, which is probably why the bear was so fat.”

Earlier this month, Hokkaido authorities told residents to exercise caution this year because bears might wander into towns and cities or fields in search of food due to a shortage of their favored acorns and beech nuts.

Article ends.

The evening news added that this individual was raiding a corn field and causing major crop damage.  A hostile encounter was probably inevitable.

Underneath the Mistletoe

11 Oct

Hi blog.

No, I have not given up on Wild in Japan, I just haven’t had any noteworthy encounters as of late, I’ve been busy at work, the weather has been erratic (I’ve recently coined the term “roller coaster temperatures”), and laziness.  This will not do as WiJ celebrates its fourth anniversary, so I’m trying to overcome the inertia.

I have spotted a fruiting plant I would really like to blog about in someone’s garden, but that means getting permission to photograph it.  Time will tell

Going through some old photos, I found a couple of slightly grainy shots of mistletoe taken in January 2013 in Inariyama Park.   I remember I was going to blog about mistletoe, but I deemed the shots too grainy (trying to photograph a parasitic plant up a tall tree in strong morning light with only a phone will not get great results) and the material too lacking in interest.

OK, it’s a bit grainy, but you get the idea.

Part of the problem was that practically no-one I spoke to was even aware of mistletoe.  In Japan it simply doesn’t have the weight of collective cultural references behind it – no links to the ancient Greeks, Norse mythology, Celtic druids, witches, Christmas, Asterix comics – none of that.  I found a couple of references to traditional medicine, a some old poems, and little else.

The mistletoe variety seen locally is a subspecies of the common mistletoe (Viscum album subsp. coloratum), and usually goes by the name yadorigi (most commonly 宿木 or 寄生木, but I was able to find no fewer than six other ways of writing it in kanji!), and is also known as hoya or hoyo.

Their berries are loved by waxwings.

A cold winter morning, snow on the ground, blue skies and mistletoe on a branch. Does life get any better?

Mistletoe is, however, not loved by park management, and the offending plants had been removed when I later visited the park.

Now, to convince the local ladies that they’re supposed to kiss me if I’m standing under the mistletoe…

Gosh… goshawk

24 Sep

Hi blog.

Coming off a five-day long weekend (only four for me, thanks to school Sports Day), I stumbled upon a news item on the front page of a newspaper in the staff room and, lo and behold, the same article appeared in the English version of the Yomiuri Shimbun.


Goshawk to be removed from rare species list

Courtesy of Japan Accipiter Working Group

A goshawk, currently designated a rare domestic species

8:44 pm, September 22, 2015

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Environment Ministry will likely remove the goshawk from the rare domestic species list as early as next spring because conservation efforts have successfully restored their population, according to sources.

The ministry concluded that the population of goshawks successfully recovered thanks to protection measures in its habitats and will remove the species from the list under the Law for Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Goshawks are regarded as “symbols of nature conservation” for stopping unrestrained land development. The ministry expects opposition toward its planned move, so sources say it plans to carry out protection measures like population surveys.

The goshawk is a bird of prey that grows as large as about 50 centimeters in length, found in forests from Hokkaido to Kyushu. They feed on pigeons and small mammals from their perch at the top of the ecosystem of satoyama woodlands near populated areas.

Goshawk numbers declined as Japan’s economic growth shot up, at a time when there was rapid housing land development. A 1984 survey by the Wild Bird Society of Japan estimated that the nation’s goshawk population stood at only 300 to 480.

Goshawks were subsequently designated a rare species when the Law for Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora was enforced in 1993.

The planned sites for the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998 and the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi Prefecture were revised when goshawk nesting areas were confirmed in those areas.

Thanks to these conservation efforts, an Environment Ministry survey in 2008 estimated there were up to 8,950 goshawks.

The ministry began considering the removal of goshawks from the rare species list in 2013 and has consulted with the public. The ministry also sent questionnaires to researchers and experts last summer about the status of goshawks, and, according to sources, decided there was “subsequently no drastic decline” in population numbers and deemed the removal was appropriate.

The Law for Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora obliges owners and possessors of land to “give consideration to the conservation” of designated species at risk of extinction, and in principle bans them from being captured or traded.

There are 130 domestic species on the list, including the Japanese crested ibis, and 688 species are designated as internationally endangered species.

Article ends.

I’m interpreting this as largely good news – “up to 8,950 goshawks” still sounds a small-ish number.  I’d be much happier to hear about, say, 8,950 confirmed breeding pairs.  I’m also a tad cynical about various lists in Japan which appear to be little more than exactly that – lists.  (I suppose we should be thankful that hawks aren’t considered part of food culture since “in principle” rarely translates into “in practice”)

In the meantime, go goshawks!

Tropical storms to the left of me, typhoons to the right

14 Sep

Hi blog.

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, or in one of those countries whose news stories are all sports reports, eastern Japan was hit by the worst flooding on record.

We were not affected here.  Sure, Typhoon No. 18 brought the usual wind and rain – not enough to force school closures or anything like that – and the phenomenon that followed was news to me when I got home that night.

Here’s a nice, straightforward analysis from The Japan Times.


How Japan’s devastating rainstorm came about


Torrential rain that caused flooding and the evacuations of tens of thousands of people across the Kanto region on Thursday was the result of a mass of humid air unable to escape the area, a pileup of thunderclouds — and possibly climate change, experts said.

The heavy rainfall in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures was caused by stationary humid air covering a wide swath of sky in the Kanto region, which was unable to move in any direction. It was hemmed in to the west by a chunk of cold air over the Sea of Japan, where Typhoon Etau fizzled out, and a block of humid air to the east over the Pacific Ocean, where Typhoon Kilo was swirling, according to Kunihiro Naito, a forecaster at Weathernews Inc., a Chiba-based weather information company.

“Usually, autumn typhoons pass quickly after making landfall in Japan, and strong rain clouds normally move eastward along with the typhoons,” Naito said. “This time, however, after Typhoon Etau lost its strength and turned into a tropical cyclone in the Sea of Japan, it stayed there, while humid air kept flowing in from the south. This resulted in the formation of a rain zone in Kanto.”

The downpour that afflicted almost half of Kanto had pretty much the same factors behind it as the torrential rain that struck the city of Hiroshima in August 2014, which triggered massive floods and landslides and killed 74 people.

In meteorological terms, what happened to Hiroshima is known as “back building,” whereby thunderclouds typically pile up in a narrow band about 10 km wide, causing intense rainfall in a very small area.

This week’s rainstorm was a larger version of what happened in Hiroshima, in that it involved much larger amounts of thunderclouds creating a thicker, longer band of rain, 100 km in width and 1,000 km in length, Naito said.

While such sudden pileups of thunderclouds are not new, the growing intensity of downpours in recent years might be linked to climate change, Naito said.

“Ocean temperatures around Japan have been rising in recent years, producing vapor and making air conditions unstable. That makes ‘back building’ of sorts easier to happen,” Naito said.

Kei Yoshimura, a hydrologist at the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, said the magnitude of the Kinugawa River flooding on Thursday was “something that takes place only once in 100 years.”

He added that it was too early to conclude the flooding was linked to climate change, saying the heavy rainfall happened to occur along that river.

“It’s my view that the effect of climate change on this particular incident is zero, or unknown at this point,” he said.

Article ends.

There are far too many news articles to put up or even link to here.  I’ll just leave you with an interesting piece of trivia.

The Kinu River (I hate calling it the Kinugawa River) usually is a gentle flowing river, and the word kinu usually means “silk” (絹).  In fact, this was  one of its names in times past.  This river, however, can cause massive damage when it floods, and the modern name uses two characters meaning “demon” (鬼) and “anger” (怒) which can be read together as “kinu”.  

The Kinu River flowing smooth as silk in Joso – the worst-hit area of this year’s flooding.  Compare it to the pictures you see on the news. Photo by Otherde, licensed under GFDL via Wikipedia.

My thoughts are with those affected by the flooding.

English Teachers I Have Known

5 Sep

Hi blog.

The last week of August turned out to be a real anti-climax to the end of summer and the summer holidays (no, more than 16 years of “conditioning” has not made me switch to the word “vacation”), when suddenly temperatures dropped to the low twenties and even high teens.  Long sleeves became the order of the day and we had to dig out blankets for night.

Not to mention the rain.  Not always heavy rain, but at least drizzle EVERY day for nearly three weeks.  Periods when washing wouldn’t dry in 24 hours, our front door wasn’t closing properly because it had swollen with the humidity… and I was forced to commute by train, really limited my contact with wildlife – although being stuck indoors will do that too…

Second term has started, and that means sports day and the overlapping preparation and coaching for the English speech contest, which will keep me extra busy for the next three weeks or so.  Don’t expect much blog action during that time!

Taking a short time-out from wildlife, I have been thinking about some of the characters I’ve worked with over the last 16 years, particularly in my previous job at a so-called “conversation school”, which attracted all sorts.  

So, sit back and enjoy

English Teachers I Have Known

*Note: These are composite characters, based on real people.  It is not my intent to insult any race or nationality, but rather, poke fun at the individuals involved.

Captain America

This one arrives at the workplace, shocked to find that the teaching staff is not comprised solely of Americans.  (“You guys speak English too?”)  His “lessons” (they tend to be lectures) have a very pro-American bent, usually about why America is the greatest nation on earth (“America is much safer than Japan, because I once saw…”), or how the Brits, Aussies and Kiwis speak some strange dialect (“They say ‘cont’ instead of ‘can’t'”).  He also tends to think that students’ knowledge of things American somehow equates to good English.  He can’t wait until his contract finishes and he can go back to America.


The Used Car Salesman

The most nasally accented Australian you will ever actually meet, unless you frequent used car lots.  He doesn’t actually have a university degree, he’s just here on a working holiday visa, and the English school (read “factory”) hired him because they are both grossly understaffed and short on cash – he just doesn’t realize this.  He doesn’t so much speak English as talk English.  Every sentence ends with “Yeah?” or “Ya reckon?”  He does the stupid motorbike joke every time he meets someone named Suzuki.  (“Suzuki, eh?  Brmm brmm”)  He often has questions in the staff room about English use (“It’s ‘could of”, right?”)  He generally has a good time, knowing that with the current exchange rate, he’ll make a killing when his contract is up and he goes back home.


New York, New York

No prizes for guessing where this one hails from.  But she will remind you – frequently – several dozen decibels louder than necessary.  She is actually quite surprised to find that not everyone who teaches English in Japan is from New York, or even from the U.S.A.  She is even more shocked to learn that it is not the dream of everyone in Japan to visit New York. (“Can you believe it?  I asked him if he wanted to visit New York, and he said ‘No’!”)  She is a constant source of embarrassment to the really good guy from New York State.  She gets homesick and quits within a few months.


Old Crusty

Has been here for several years (the average length of stay is just under 12 months), and has seen more employees come and go than he cares to remember.  He’s married to a local girl, has young kids, and is stuck in this job.  Most of the people he originally worked with have left.  He knows the damn stupid textbook backwards, he knows exactly what kind of mistakes the students are going to make, he can guess the student’s ability in under 30 seconds.  He speaks functional Japanese, which adds to his frustration with students.  He has little patience for new employees who think they know it all, and even less for newbies who showing off all their one sentence of Japanese (especially if it’s a pick-up line).


Mr. Cool

Oh, dear.  This one couldn’t teach a cow to ****, but “Hey, it’s OK”.  Flaunts dress code, punctuality rules, and especially rules about socializing with students.  Gives the employer an incorrect contact number.  Doesn’t plan lessons, just goes in and yabbers away about the cool stuff he’s done recently.  Rarely does his paperwork or puts files away.  Is hurt and surprised when his contract isn’t renewed.



She has no idea how to teach.  She has no idea what to teach.  She has no idea at all.  But she is blonde and good-looking, and that makes everything alright.  She’s “so excited to be here in Japan”, which somehow also counts in her favour.  Spends empty periods doing her makeup, mailing her boyfriend and whatever else dumb blondes do when they should be working.  Her popularity allows her to get away with incompetence far more often than is reasonable.  Fortunately, she quits after six months.


Some day I might get around to writing about students I have known…





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