Sing one’s supper

25 Aug

Hi blog.

The worst of the heat has passed, and in fact we’ve had some rather cool nights recently.

Signs of the approaching end of summer are around us – the days are noticebly shorter than they were just three weeks ago, the air has a different smell, I no longer hear the bush warblers, and different cicadas are singing.

Ah, cicadas – city folk complain just how noisy these insects get (an attitude I find a bit rich coming from a nation that pipes music onto beaches and into mountains!), but I would suggest very few notice the changes in the songs as summer progresses and different cicadas become more active.

This post is another stumbled-upon event, in this case a wasp dragging the carcass of a cicada.

“Can’t talk… eating…” The wasp was blissfully ignorant of the phone camera lens just centimetres from its face.

At first I suspected the wasp was a hornet, but it would appear to be a kind of paper wasp – in this case Polistes jokahamae (sorry, I couldn’t find an English common name) – which is known locally as seguroashinagabachi (背黒脚長蜂), literally “black-backed long-legged wasp”.

Distantly related to the Japanese giant hornet, this wasp is also equipped with a potentially lethal sting – it’s venom can trigger anaphylaxis – but is not particularly aggressive.  This wasp is omnivorous, so I imagine that it was trying to tear the carapace of the cicada apart to get to the juicy bits.

As for the cicada, it was fairly easy to identify with a guidebook.  The transparent wings and blue tinged body readily identify as Hyalessa maculaticollis (again, I am unable to find a common English name), which is known as minminzemi (ミンミン蝉) in Japanese, a reference to its particular song.  These cicadas don’t tolerate the heat as well as some other species, so their songs become more predominant during the later part of summer.

Getting these pictures was pretty much a fluke – actually stumbling across this particular scene, the fact that the wasp didn’t seem to mind me sticking my phone in its face, and that my phone battery lasted long enough to get a decent shot – it died seconds after turning on the camera!

 

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water…

7 Aug

Hi blog.

Luckily for me, weather and 70th anniversary of the atomic bo “don’t mention the war!” are not the only things in the news. Sharks are a bit of a rarity around Japanese beaches, so when fairly large sharks not normally found in Kanto waters come close to popular beaches in Kanto waters, that IS news. Of course, for every action, there is an equal and opposite over-reaction, and the authorities have responded by doing what the seaside town in the original Jaws could have saved itself a lot of trouble by doing. From the Japan Times http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/08/06/national/ibaraki-beaches-ban-swimming-sharks-spotted/#.VcQDE_nLJgI

Shark sighting in Ibaraki prompts swimming ban at beaches

Kyodo

Two sharks have been spotted off the coast of Hokota in Ibaraki Prefecture, prompting authorities in the city and in three municipalities nearby to prohibit swimming in the sea on Wednesday. According to the Ibaraki Prefectural Government, the city of Hokota received the reports from residents starting Tuesday night and the Ibaraki Coast Guard Office on Wednesday spotted two sharks, one about 4 meters long. They’re believed to be sand sharks. The prefectural officials warn that the sharks could attack humans if provoked and are urging people not to go near them. It is rare for sharks to be seen close to the shore off Ibaraki, they said. Swimming was prohibited at beaches in the cities of Hokota, Kashima, Kamisu and the town of Oarai on Wednesday. Hokota, Kashima and Oarai plan to continue the ban on Thursday.

And from the Irish Times, of all places http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/asia-pacific/shark-sightings-force-closure-of-japanese-beaches-1.2308639

Shark sightings force closure of Japanese beaches

Aug 6, 2015 Nine beaches are closed north of Tokyo after two sharks are spotted in the area. http://bcove.me/vm301x63 Video: Ibaraki Prefecture Police/Reuters
Nine beaches were closed along the coast of Ibaraki prefecture in Japan on Thursday (August 6) after two sharks appeared near a spot favoured by surfers, local media said.Located about 130 kilometres north of Tokyo, police helicopters spotted on Wednesday (August 5) what they said were possibly two sandbar sharks swimming near surfers off Hokota beach.On Thursday (August 6), the beaches were closed at 8am (2300GMT August 5) with local authorities warning people not to approach the shores. An official at local Ibaraki aquarium, Aqua World, said sandbar sharks are considered harmless but could mistake humans for food as they chase fish shoals. Police said the two sharks were believed to be four metres long as they appeared 65 feet away from the shore. Ibaraki prefecture officials said so far no injuries had been reported due to the sharks but that beaches would remain closed for the moment. Aquarium officials said sandbar sharks are not native to these waters but commons in the warmer southern seas near Okinawa.  

Regarding the sharks in question, the Japanese sources place them as being relatives of the sandbar shark  (Carcharhinus plumbeus), although I’m not sure how helpful that is – sandbar sharks have a lot of relatives!  Incidently, the Japanese name is mejirozame (目白鮫), literally “white eye shark”. I hope the sharks move on before our upcoming trip to Chiba.  I’m not too concerned about the risk of shark attack, I’m more worried about what to do with the kids if the beaches are closed! 

How hot?

6 Aug

Hi blog.

The weather continues to make the news here (often sports and weather are deemed more newsworthy than actual news…) as the hot weather continues.

From the Asahi Shimbun:

http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201508040052

Tokyo marks record 5th straight day of heat wave with mercury topping 35 degrees

August 04, 2015

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

The mercury in Tokyo climbed to a sweltering 35.1 degrees just after noon on Aug. 4, a record fifth consecutive day of a heat wave in which temperatures reached 35 or higher.

It marked the longest period of temperatures that high in central Tokyo since official records were first kept in 1875.

According to Fire and Disaster Management Agency preliminary figures, 11,672 people have been taken to hospitals after complaining of heatstroke between July 27 and Aug. 2 nationwide, of which 25 died.

 

OK folks, that is a wee bit hot.  But I’m an Adelaide boy,  so just for a bit of perspective let us consult Dr. Wikipedia:

Between 3 March and 17 March 2008 Adelaide recorded 15 consecutive days of 35 °C (95 °F) or above, and 13 consecutive days of 37.8 °C (100.0 °F) or above…

and

The heatwave commenced in Adelaide on 26 January 2009 (Australia Day), with a temperature of 36.6 °C (98 °F). From 27 January the temperature soared above 40 °C (104 °F) degrees for 6 consecutive days, until 2 February where the temperature dropped to 38.8 °C (102 °F). This is the longest straight run of 40C temperatures in Adelaide. On 28 January, the third day into the heatwave, the temperature reached 45.7 °C (114 °F), making it the 3rd hottest day on record in Adelaide. On that same night, the temperature only dipped to 33.9 °C (93 °F), making it the highest minimum temperature on record in South Australia. The maximum temperatures stayed higher than 30C for another six days, including two more 40C plus days (6 and 7 February)…

Remember, the Tokyo area has never had an official temperature above 40°C.

Harden up, Japanese people!

Bipalium between the rains

16 Jul

Hi blog.

July started as a major disappointment – it rained every day for the first eight days of the month.  Our grand total of sunshine during that period was 24 minutes!  Temperatures dropped to the low twenties, and people were catching colds.

Then on July ninth, the rain stopped.  And we had no rain for almost a week.  Temperatures rose to the low to mid 30’s, and I laughed as the local population were struggling to cope.  (Someone even ventured that the Tokyo area must me the hottest metropolitan area in the world – I resisted the temptation to tell him of a week in Adelaide when the minimum temperature was above 30°C, or of an exercise I did with the army where it got up to 47°C!)

Problem: “It’s so hot!”

Solution: “Harden up!”

 

Anyway, it was on the morning of the 9th that I spotted this particular beastie.  I’ve written about its close relatives in a previous post, but I thought I’d better get a shot of this one just to give you some idea of the size.  (Note: this is not the biggest one I’ve seen – that particular individual would have been close to 60 cm!)

You could walk right past this and never notice it – and most people do exactly that.

No, I didn’t nearly put my foot in it – that’s for scale. My shoe is about 30 cm long, making that planaria about 40 cm.

Bipalium nobile (sorry, there doesn’t appear to be a common name in English) is known locally as omisujikogaibiru (大三筋笄蛭), and is an invasive species.

The business end of the planaria. You can see why they are sometimes known as arrow-head worms. You can also make out the three lines with give rise the the Japanese name for this species.

Being fairly aware of the problems invasive species can cause, as well as practical, I photographed it and then put in my eel tank.  Saving the environment AND reducing the costs of feeding my eel.  Practical indeed.

As I write this, typhoon number 11 is making its way towards eastern Japan, dumping an entire Adelaide annual rainfall in just a few hours, and we can expect more heavy rain during the next 48 hours or so.

Maybe I should build an ark, just in case…

 

Tiny Dinosaur Eggs Unearthed in Hyogo

4 Jul

Hi blog.

Just a quick find from the English language press, this time about the smallest known dinosaur egg ever discovered.  I need to visit the dinosaur museum in Fukui someday…

Article from the Asahi Shimbun http://ajw.asahi.com/article/sci_tech/science/AJ201506300041

New type of tiny dinosaur egg unearthed in Hyogo

By TAKESHI ITO/ Staff Writer

SANDA, Hyogo Prefecture–Fossilized fragments of very small dinosaur eggs dating back about 110 million years have been discovered.

The pieces are from a new, unknown type of dinosaur egg and were extracted from a strata in Tanba, Hyogo Prefecture, that dates to the early Cretaceous Period, the Museum of Nature and Human Activities announced on June 29.

“The finding shows various dinosaurs, including both small and large ones, inhabited areas around there,” said Kohei Tanaka, 29, a graduate student of the University of Calgary in Canada.

The scientists estimate the weight of each egg would have been 100 grams, slightly heavier than that of a hen’s. They said the size of the eggs is among the smallest compared with that of other dinosaur eggs.

The unearthed eggshells are double-layered and measure 0.44 millimeter thick. Based on a unique tree branch-like pattern on the surface, the prefecture-run museum concluded they are a new type of dinosaur egg.

The discovered egg was named Nipponoolithus ramosus oogen. et oosp. nov., which basically means branched Japan egg stone in Greek and other languages.

Although it is impossible to identify which species the dinosaur that laid the eggs belong to just from examining fossilized eggshells, the researchers said the fossils resemble eggs of a small bipedal theropod found in Asia and North America that weighs 15 kilograms.

Ninety fragments of fossilized eggshells were found in a four-year excavation that researchers at the museum in Sanda began in 2007. After an analysis of 70 of the 90 pieces, it was found that eight are of the new type of egg.

They were found within a short distance from the site where bones of Tambatitanis amicitiae, one of the largest herbivores found in Japan, were unearthed in 2006.

The other fragments are thought to be eggshells of three other theropods and an ornithopod, according to the scientists.

The findings have been published in the online edition of the earth science journal Cretaceous Research. The eggshells are to go on display at the museum from July 21.

Fossilized fragments of a new type of dinosaur egg have been found in Tanba, Hyogo Prefecture. The egg is characterized by a unique branch-like pattern on the surface. The scale is graduated in millimeters. (Takeshi Ito)

Fossilized fragments of a new type of dinosaur egg have been found in Tanba, Hyogo Prefecture. The egg is characterized by a unique branch-like pattern on the surface. The scale is graduated in millimeters. (Takeshi Ito)

Fossilized fragments of a new type of dinosaur egg have been found in Tanba, Hyogo Prefecture. The egg is characterized by a unique branch-like pattern on the surface. The scale is graduated in millimeters. (Takeshi Ito)

An artist’s rendition of a fully-grown dinosaur that would have laid eggs unearthed in Tanba, Hyogo Prefecture ((c) Masato Hattori)

Thunderbirds Are Go!

1 Jul

Hi blog. Another news article, and it’s good news again.  Or, at least, some attempt to correct problems brought on by the usual reasons*. I’ve been at least vaguely aware of the rock ptarmigan for years, mostly thanks to an interest in climbing.  Not to mention a Japanese name -raicho (雷鳥) – which literally translates as “thunder bird”.  It also features heavily in souvenir cookies from Nagano, which I would occasionally receive. Anyway, read the article from the Asahi Shimbun. http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201506280029

Ptarmigan chick hatched successfully at Toyama zoo from egg collected in wild

June 28, 2015

By YU KOTSUBO/ Staff Writer

A ptarmigan chick was hatched artificially at Toyama Municipal Family Park Zoo on June 27, part of an effort to boost the numbers of the protected game bird in Japan, the Environment Ministry announced. The ptarmigan is a “special natural monument” classified on the Environment Ministry’s “Red List” as a species increasingly at risk of extinction. The chick is about 5 to 6 centimeters in length. Zoo officials will carefully observe the chick in raising it because the first two weeks after birth are a period when the birds, a type of grouse, tend to easily fall ill. Earlier in June, 10 eggs were collected from nests on Mount Norikuradake, which straddles Gifu and Nagano prefectures, and where the birds normally live. Five eggs each were delivered to Toyama Municipal Family Park Zoo and Ueno Zoo in Tokyo and placed in incubators. According to an Environment Ministry official, confirmation was made by 5 p.m. on June 27 that all five eggs at Ueno Zoo showed signs of the chicks tapping on the shell to break it open. It usually takes about an entire day for a chick to be hatched after it begins tapping on the egg.

A ptarmigan chick born at the Toyama Municipal Family Park Zoo (Provided by the Toyama Municipal Family Park Zoo)

A ptarmigan chick born at the Toyama Municipal Family Park Zoo (Provided by the Toyama Municipal Family Park Zoo)

Article Ends.

Good luck to the zoos with raising the chicks. *The usual reasons: Unsustainable exploitation and / or habitat destruction.  Also read as “human stupidity”.

Roadkill and Roadsigns

27 Jun

Hi blog.

The rainy season is well and truly upon us, with some frightful downpours scattered across the Kanto region.

 

Just recently, the Sayama zoo had its annual firefly event – the park breeds fireflies in a special enclosure and opens it to the public once a year.  Just ¥500 to get my family that and the night zoo option is pretty good value.

Unfortunately, the delicate nature of fireflies negates any possibility of photography – as do the rules – so you’ll have to take my word for it.

A rare photograph of the event, courtesy of the Sayama City Office Facebook page.

 

When it’s not raining I still try to commute to work by bike.  Firstly, I’m pretty tight.  Every day I ride, I save myself ¥400.  Secondly, I need the exercise, especially now that my budo activities have been put on hold.  Thirdly, encounters are better made on bike than on a train.

 

I had yet another encounter with a Japanese rat snake, and decided to get some simple video footage.  You’ll have to excuse the fact that it looks tiny through the phone lens – this particular individual would have been about 120 cm long.

Not all my encounters are in such good condition.  Earlier that same morning I spotted the carcass of an Asian palm civet – probably hit by a vehicle.  And the day before, I stumbled across a mole – an animal rarely seen – in much the same condition.

Warning: some readers my find the following photograph disturbing.

Probably the endemic small Japanese mole.

 

An idea that came to me during my last post was some of the road signs warning drivers to beware of animals on the road.  There are four main signs, with a few variations…plus a number of regional signs.

Sika deer

Japanese macaque / snow monkey. They’ll steal your car if you’re not careful!

A rather comical (drunk?) raccoon dog.

Hare. “What’s up, doc?”

…plus a number of regional signs.

The Okinawan rail. Okinwawa also has signs warning drivers to look out for the Iriomote cat, newts, turtles and toads. This and the four preceeding signs courtesy of Wikipedia.

These signs have been documented by numerous bloggers in Japaneses (here, here and here, for example) and are worth looking at even if you can’t read the language.

I’ve saved one of my more interesting finds for last.  A page from the Hiroshima City Office notes a sign on route 191 warning drivers to look out for otters – an animal not seen since the early 1970’s and declared extinct in 2012!

From the Hiroshima City Office page. I would be much happier if this sign was actually necessary!

 

Oh, deer

14 Jun

Hi blog.

The Bureau of Meteorology has just announced the official start of rainy season in the Kanto area.  ‘Tis the season for washing not to dry.

The loquats at work have started to ripen, and I’ve managed to help myself to half a dozen.

 

On the geological front, Kuchierabujima in Kagoshima has been evacuated due to volcanic activity, and the some of the popular tourist hiking areas around Mt. Hakone have been closed for the same reason.  Plus, we’ve have a couple of quite noticeable tremors.  (Yes, the earth did move for me)

 

Not much else has happened on the wildlife front for a while, although there was an incident involving a male deer that had strayed into the area around the local railway line and airbase on a Friday morning.  It wandered onto the railway line and forced a train driver to make an emergency stop.

Efforts to capture the deer were unsucessful, and it was last seen on that day running into a wooded area.

Photo of the deer near Iruma Airbase, supplied by the city council, published in the Tokyo Shimbun.

The sika deer (Cervus nippon) is one of the few deer species that retain its spots through maturity, although the spots may be indistinguishable on some individuals, or depending on the season.  Despite its scientific name and local name – nihonjika (日本鹿), literally “Japan deer” – it is not endemic to Japan.  Its natural range extends up the Korean peninsula, China, parts of Russia, northern Vietnam, and Taiwan.

It is worth noting that the English name “sika” is a corruption of the Japanese “shika”, a generic term for deer.

Other names include simply ka, kanoshishi, or shishi.  The last one originally meant simply “beast” or “animal for hunting” and still exists in the names of the shrine deer dances (shishimai) and in the shishi-odoshi in Japanese gardens.

 

Reaching a length of 170 cm or so, the sika deer is one of the largest animals in mainland Japan, although the seven subspecies show a huge range in size.  Bergmann’s rule applies to the sika deer.  The subspecies in Hokkaido reaches weights of up to 140 kg, whereas the Ryukyu sika deer grows to just 40 kg.

Diorama at an Ainu centre near Lake Shikaribetsu, Hokkaido, 1989.

They feed on grass (especially sasa bamboo), fruit and bark.  They mate in autumn, and fawns are born between May and July.  With the extinction of the Japanese wolf, they have few natural enemies.

Their relationship with humans is a mixed bag.  Deer were long considered agricultural pests, but also held status as messengers of the gods, leading to various temples and shrines acting as sanctuaries.  Whilst deer have been hunted since ancient times, venison is now an unusual dish.

I remember a news story from a few years back in which members of the Japanese Self-Defence Force assisted hunters in culling deer in Hokkaido.  (Apparently they used their vehicles to drive the deer to where the hunters were, they didn’t actually shoot the deer themselves)

Deer leather was an important material for samurai armour in old times and is still used in kendo armour today.

 

Deer are typically forest animals, but most people’s contact with deer is at temple or shrine parks.  Most school trips in eastern Japan include Nara, and the (essentially domesticated) deer around the Todaiji Temple feature largely in schoolkids’ minds.  Deer also wander the streets on Miyajima.

 

“Domesticated in Japan”, anyone?

 

I admit that one of my first experiences of (live) sika deer was in the parks of Nara – complete with the buying of shika-senbei (“deer crackers”) to feed them with –  but I have also seen them – wild, I should add – on my hikes in the Chichibu-Okutama area.

A deer in Nara, October 1989.

 

Unfortunately, the deer I mentioned at the beginning of this post was hit by a train the following Sunday…

Swallowed

22 May

Hi blog.

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

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

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

 

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

New York Times 13 August 1891

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As it appeared in the Brisbane Courier.

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

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

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

 

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

Heard But Not Seen and Victory Is Mine

9 May

Hi blog. 

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

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

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

It even snowed on April 8th!!

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

 

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

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

“One day, bush warblers.  One day.”

 

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

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

 

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

Leaves bundled for the bath.

 

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

Close-up of the mugwort leaves.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Bingo!

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

 

Shobu-yu – bath of champions!

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