The Mermaid

When we had got within earshot of the land, and the ship was going at a good rate, the Sirens saw that we were getting in shore and began with their singing.

The Odyssey

The seed of inspiration for this post was planted several years ago, but it remained dormant until now.  The development hell that is my brain just wasn’t ready to write a post about mermaids.  Just what brought it into fruition?  I can’t say.

Practically every sea-going culture has some version of merfolk (after all, some male versions exist) although the female – inspired by the ancient Assyrians and Greeks, refined through Renaissance art and modernised by Hans Christian Andersen and Disney – are the first ones that spring to most people’s minds.

Japan has its own versions of mermaids – and we should not be surprised at this.  The Japanese have long enjoyed stories about the Dragon King’s palace under the sea and all the sea creatures that dwell there, often in human form.  Japan’s particular oceanography also brings brings deep sea life – although usually dead or dying – into contact with humans at a higher frequency than one would normally expect.

Mermaids are mentioned in Japan’s oldest writings – the Nihon Shoki from 619 mentions a child-sized creature caught in a river that was neither fish nor human.

Prince Shotoku was said to have erected the Kannonshoji Temple at the behest of a mermaid (reincarnated as a mermaid on account of evil committed in a former life) and where her mummified remains were housed until they were lost in a fire.

Even today, several temples and shrines house what they claim to be the mummified remains of mermaids.  (And P. T. Barnum must be rolling in his grave…)

If there is a single difference between mermaids from the traditions of Greece, the British Isles, Western Europe etc. and the traditions of Japan, it is this:

Western mermaids are primarily known for their beauty.

Japanese mermaids are primarily known for their edibility.

Yes, you read that correctly.  There are stories of people eating the flesh of a mermaid and living to 800 years old.

From the story of Yaohimesama from Tokoname, modern day Aichi Prefecture. The herione of the story ate the flesh of a mermaid and lived for 800 years, never losing her youth or beauty. The illustration depicts a modern image of mermaids.

The Japanese word for mermaid is ningyo (人魚), although another name, hatsugyo (髪魚) exists.  Originally, the appearance of a mermaid was supposed to be a good omen.  This attribute was retained by a similar mythological creature, the amabie or amabiko.  Curiously, the amabie was said to have a beautiful singing voice, just as Western mermaids took on the vocal attributes of the sirens.

Amabie from the cartoon series Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro. This depiction is essentially a mermaid with a kind of beak.


Later mermaids were said to bring warnings of approaching disaster of misfortune.  It was around this time that the belief of eating the flesh would bring long life and everlasting youth came into being.  Incidentally, the flesh of a mermaid was said to be unappetizing.

Descriptions of mermaids have varied through the ages.  Some were little more than fish with human heads, while others had an ape-like upper body.  Contact with European sailors from the 16th century and later in the 19th century probably also influenced Japanese perceptions of mermaids.

An Edo era picture of a mermaid. Somehow, I just can’t imagine a statue of this in Copenhagen.

Something fishy about this one.

A print from 1801. I’d throw that one back.

Sekien’s depiction of a mermaid. Sekien also uses the word “Teijin” (氐人) here, which is derived from a Chinese type mermaid.

An image of a mermaid by Hokusai.

Mermaid from the Wakansansaizue. This looks more like the mermaids most of us are familiar with.

From the Nagasaki Kenbunroku of 1818. Some commentators suggest that this one was inspired by the oarfish.

I will mention two particular variations on the Japanese mermaid: the Ainusokki (spelling?) and the zan from Amami Oshima and the Ryukyu Islands.

The Ainusokki is an Ainu version of a mermaid.  Like its Japanese counterpart, its flesh will grant long life to whoever eats it.  This is probably a case of cross-pollenisation of cultures.

The mermaid traditions of Amami Oshima and the Ryukyus are somewhat different.  The zan was not eaten – tradition spoke of disaster for those who killed them.  Interestingly, the word zan was and is still used for dugongs in the region.  I find it interesting that the marine mammals that probably inspired the development of the mermaid actually share the same name.

Hokusai’s depiction of a mermaid, 1808.  Experts believe that the creature at the bottom of the picture represents a dugong.


I couldn’t find an original source for this somewhat plump mermaid.

A mermaid from a version of Urashimataro. From the Tatsunomiyagusahachinoki.


As I was looking for information to include in this post I came across an ukiyoe book – essentially a comic book for adults – from 1791, Hakoiremusumemenya Ningyo.  This is a comical story that parodied life in the Edo era.  What is relevant to this post is that the mermaid in question is actually the love child of Urashima Taro and a carp woman!

To cut a long story short:

While living in the Dragon King’s palace, Urashima Taro falls for the charms of a beautiful carp.  Fearing the wrath of the Dragon King, pair decide to abandon the child she bears to the ocean.

The daughter is later caught by a poor fisherman, Heiji.  The mermaid (who has no arms but a beautiful face) demands to become Heiji’s wife.

Heiji meets his wife.

Trying to help her poor husband, the mermaid is recruited into the pleasure quarters.  However, no-one will sleep with her because of her fishy smell.

The mermaid preparing to work in the pleasure quarters.

Heiji hears that licking a mermaid will increase one’s life and begins to charge people to lick his mermaid wife (a nod to the eating of mermaid flesh).

Going into business. Lick the mermaid!

Heiji becomes wealthy.  He then licks his wife but licks too much and becomes a boy of about seven.

Heiji after licking the mermaid too much.

Suddenly Urashima Taro and the carp visit.  Heiji opens Taro’s laquered box and returns to his adult self.  The mermaid’s skin falls off and she becomes a normal woman.  Heiji and his wife sell the mermaid skin for a large amount of money and live happily ever after.

Meet the parents. One does wonder why the carp takes the form of a normal human while her offspring has the body of a fish.

Lastly, I want to return to those mermaid mummies I mentioned earlier.  One very good reason to doubt any authenticity is that in the mid- to late- nineteenth century there was a small trade in manufactured mermaids – typically the torso of a monkey stitched onto the body of a fish.  The afore-mentioned P. T. Barnum’s famous “Feejee mermaid” (Fiji mermaid) was originally bought from Japanese sailors, and it fairly safe to assume that the oddity had been manufactured in Japan – Japan also had a tradition of sideshow/freakshow entertainment and displays of curiosities, and fakes were part of the show.

A Japanese mermaid as reported in Harpers Weekly, February 1860. This was well after Barnum had purchased the Feejee mermaid.

Interestingly, several Japanese sites that I came across while researching this made quite a fuss about how these fakes attested to the quality of Japanese manufacturing…


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I’m Gonna Be (17 Miles)

Hi blog.

You might remember my post about the Kagekashi Jizo and Yoshitaka.  Well, one thing led to another and it came to the attention of the Yoshitaka Club, who were quite grateful for any coverage of Yoshitaka in English.

The group runs a walk every May 4th covering the Shimizu Yoshitaka Shrine and Kagekashi Jizo all the way to Okura in Ranzan, where Yoshitaka’s father was born.  They believe that was where Yoshitaka was heading for before misfortune overtook him.

The walk covered a distance of some 24 km, plus another three to the nearest station to get home.  Over 100 people participated in the walk.

I don’t have much to report and just a handful of photos. 

The official pamphlet for the walk.

The inner shrine of the Shimizu Yoshitaka Shrine.

One point that I overlooked in my post about the Kagekashi Jizo is that the grave for Yoshitaka was for his body.  His head was taken to Kamakura, and it is buried there.  Ohime rests beside her beloved.

Our route took us along the old Kamakura Kaido, and there were quite a few roadside markers..

… as well as Kannon and Jizo statues.

This is a bare dirt strech of the original Kamakura Kaido. It was just wide enough for a pair of horses (Japanese horses – about pony size) to pass each other.

The slight depression is a section of the Kamakura Kaido. Volunteers have cleared away centuries of overgrowth to reveal some of the road.

This marker was on a mound, which I suspect was actually an ancient burial mound.

The marker for Fuefukitoge. This point on the mountain pass also represented our entrance into Ranzan.

The entrance to the grave of Minamoto no Yoshikata, grandfather of Yoshitaka.

The grave is housed in this small shrine.

A memorial stone.

And the actual grave marker. I was disappointed to find it behind locked door.

A stone marker on the other side of the road. It was too far away to read the sign, but the traffic was too heavy to risk hobbling across to read…

At the end of the walk at Okura, we all received on of these.

The reverse side of the certificate.

Luckily, the group I fell in with made it to the station and were on the train about 15 minutes before the weather turned nasty and rain and hail fell.

I developed significant muscle pain during the walk, and expect it will take a few days to go away.  Nevertheless, I actually hope to take part in next year’s walk.


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Fossil Finds in Northern Japan

Hi blog.

Spring is well and truly underway and the cold weather has probably left for good.  I say this because we managed to have a brief hail storm on April 8th and rain, followed by sleet, followed by snow before reverting back to rain on April 10th!

Lessons have finally started, although the usual barrage of administration and tests mean that I still haven’t taught some classes.

This year, MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology – just how many hats can a single ministry wear?) included English in its national abilities test for 3rd year junior high school students.  Apart from the spurious use of a particular word – the Japanese government seems to think that if they insert “mottainai” into enough texts, it will become an English word – there was a speaking section.  Don’t ask me about the speaking section, because it was administered by computer!  This means that one class at a time had use of the computer room, with each student issued a headset with which they listened to and responded to questions.  They could also hear each other…

I was wondering what to blog about this time when my news feed came to the rescue again.

From the Japan Times:

Life-size skeletal replica of Japan’s largest dinosaur restored


APR 17, 2019

The replica of the 8-meter-long and 4-meter-tall plant-eating Hadrosaurid, dubbed “Mukawaryu,” was created with duplicates of the actual fossils unearthed from a 72 million-year-old geological layer. The replica and the fossils will be displayed at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo for three months from July 13.

“A standing Mukawaryu has been resurrected after 72 million years. I hope it will help liven up our town,” Mukawa Mayor Yoshiyuki Takenaka said.

The excavation involving Hokkaido University members began in 2013 after local fossil collector Yoshiyuki Horita found a fossilized tail bone in 2003 in the Hobetsu district of Mukawa. More than 1,000 fossil bones were eventually unearthed, making it the largest complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in the country.

Complete skeletons are generally defined as containing more than 50 percent of the bones, but for the Mukawaryu, over 80 percent were unearthed as fossils.

The work to create the replica of the duck-billed dinosaur began in July 2017 and was completed last month. The replica, unveiled to the media, has a color close to the actual fossils and is positioned as if the reptile is looking into the far distance.

“I hope people will immerse themselves in the fascination of ancient history by imagining Mukawaryu strolling over the vast ground of Hobetsu,” said Horita, 69.

Hadrosaurids were common herbivore dinosaurs during the late Cretaceous Period and thrived on the Eurasian and North and South American continents in addition to Antarctica, according to Hokkaido University.

Article ends.

Worth watching, even if you don’t speak Japanese, is the video clip from Kyodo News.

You can be sure that I will probably pay the National Museum of Nature and Science another visit this year.  (My son wanted to see the special mammal display last month)

From the museum web page. The exhibit was quite interesting – I particularly liked the 2+metre long narwhal tooth.

While I was looking for other new outlets coverage of the mukawaryu, I stumbled upon an even more recent fossil discovery report on NHK:

Student finds fossil of Tyrannosaur family species


A high school student has unearthed the fossil of a tooth probably from a species of a Tyrannosaurus family in northeastern Japan.

The 18-year-old student, Yuuki Kadoguchi, found the 9-millimeter fossil during an excavation workshop last year in Kuji, Iwate Prefecture.

Waseda University Professor Ren Hirayama examined the fossil and concluded that it belonged to a Tyrannosaurus, which is a carnivorous dinosaur. He based his assumption on the fact that a cross-section of the fossil is shaped like the letter ‘D’.

The fossil was found in a 90 million-year-old stratum from the latter half of the Cretaceous period.

Professor Hirayama says the dinosaur is believed to have been about 3 meters tall, judging from the size of the discovered tooth.

He says the edge of the tooth fossil is smooth and that it is rare for a fossil of this shape to be discovered in Japan. He says this may belong to a species of a previously unknown Tyrannosaurus family.

Hirayama said he hopes the fossils of other body parts of the dinosaur will be unearthed, leading to help shed light on the evolution of Tyrannosaurs.

Kadoguchi is enrolled in a correspondence course at Miyako High School in Iwate Prefecture. He says he was very lucky to be able to unearth the fossil during the one-hour excavation.

The fossil will be on display at the Kuji Amber Museum from Sunday to August 19.

Article ends.

The Asahi Shimbun has some photos with its Japanese language article.  This is worth visiting even if you don’t read Japanese.

Fossils – just one more thing to keep my eyes open for.





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No Seal of Approval

Hi blog.

Here we are into April.  Not a lot to report, since my days have been dominated by work and getting certain offspring into high school.  The upper secondary level of education here is somewhat complex, but the vast majority of kids go on to high school, which is either public or private.

Public schools are funded by the prefecture except for a few that are funded by the national government.  These have lower tuition fees and so are popular choices, meaning that competition to get into some of these schools is quite tight.  Also, schools have varying reputations and status, making some harder to get into than others.

Private schools are funded mostly privately – although students may get government assistance to attend – and cover a spectrum ranging from thick-but-rich to ultra-elite.  Some students choose these because they may be easier to gain entry to than public schools, or may offer a less difficult path to university.

On a personal level, I am still nursing an injury – a suspected sprained ankle – gained from being a bit too heroic on a clean-up.  I say suspected sprain because I haven’t bothered going to a doctor about it (my previous experiences have taught me that the doctor will look at it, maybe take an x-ray, and then tell me that there is not a lot that they can do about it, and that I should rest it as much as possible)  Not to mention that going to a doctor a) costs money; and b) increases the probability of someone else finding out.

I have been moved – somewhat reluctantly – to a new school (actually one that I worked at between ten and eight years ago)  We will have to wait and see how everything turns out.

This is a wildlife blog, and I promise to include some wildlife.  An interesting item that filtered through the cesspool that is the local news concerns Steller’s sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) vs. fishermen off Ishikari, Hokkaido.

In brief: a heard of Steller sea lions numbering about 100 individuals has taken up temporary residence on a breakwater off Ishikari bay.  Apart from competing with fishermen for catches – the film goes with an octopus fisherman who manages a catch of just two octopus – the animals also damage nets.  The estimate in damage and loss of catches is estimated at about 1.1 billion yen.

Particularly noteworthy is the Japanese headline which denotes the animals as “Gangsters of the Sea”.

The headline uses the word for “occupy” – with the nuance of illegal or forceful occupation. I think the sea lions were there first…

Local authorities are considering bringing in hunters to “remove” some of the animals.

Steller’s sea lions feed and temporarily reside in but don’t breed in Japanese waters.  Measuring up to more than 3.5 metres long and weighing over a tonne, these are some of the largest pinnipeds in the world.

The Japanese name for Steller’s sea lion is “todo” (胡獱 or 魹), which is derived from an Ainu word for smooth (hairless) leather.  Until fairly modern times, they were not distinguished from other sea lions.

Steller’s sea lions have found themselves in conflict with humans since time immemorial, but it is worth noting that during the 1960s the Japanese government mobilised their military (yes, I’m calling that one out – you can’t just give an armed force a different name to stop it from existing) and used F-86 Sabres, and soldiers armed with M1 rifles and Browning machine guns to “remove” sea lions!

Due to falling populations, Steller’s sea lion was granted a position on the endangered species list  – meaning that a maximum of 100 animals could be culled – in 1998.  A population recovery saw this status change in 2012, when it was downgraded to “vulnerable”.  Now up to 500 animals may be culled annually.

At least the culled animals are put to use rather than just being dumped or processed into fertilizer…

A souvenir from Hokkaido – Steller’s sea lion curry. Bear and deer curry are also produced and sold in a similar fashion.

In defence, I have personally had black bear curry, from a bear that was killed in a village.  While I don’t really agree with a lot of the culling, I prefer use to wastage.

Experts say that the sea lions will make their way back up north for the breeding season.


As a final note, I can’t help but make the observation that whenever catches are down, the Japanese fishing industry and then the media blame the Chinese, the Koreans or marine mammals.  Nothing is ever part of a bigger picture like climate change, predator/prey relationships, or the fact that we are talking about creatures that migrate across hundreds or thousands of kilometres of sea.  It is a complex issue, and I don’t think that there is a simple answer.



NHK has covered the item in its English language news service.

Sea lions damage Hokkaido fishing industry


Fishers in Hokkaido, northern Japan, say they’re worried about losses caused by herds of northern sea lions that eat their catches.

More than 50 Steller sea lions up to three meters long were seen on Thursday lying on a coastal levee or jumping into water about three kilometers from a port in Ishikari Bay, western Hokkaido.

The sea lions are seriously damaging the local fishing industry at the peak of flounder season.

53-year-old Masashi Aki says he had only 20 kilograms of flatfish, or about one twentieth of an average haul, this morning as sea lions tore his nets and ate the fish inside.

Aki says the voracious sea lions eat as much flatfish as they can, and fishermen can’t stop them.

He says he’s lost up to three million yen, or nearly 27,000 dollars, including costs to purchase or repair his nets.

Steller sea lions are called “sea gangsters” in Hokkaido, where damage from the animals totaled (sic) more than 10 million dollars for the year through March 2017.

Fishers are allowed to hunt only a fixed number of the sea lions as they are designated a near-threatened species in the northern Pacific.

Article ends.

Does it count as a catch if the fishermen haven’t caught it yet?




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Charge Up a Mountain

Hi blog.

We are into spring, although some days are struggling to not be cold.  Morning temperatures can still be very low but mid afternoon might be reasonably comfortable.  This might mean needing to rug up for the morning commute to work but strip off for the return trip.  It can also mean riding into strong headwinds both ways.

My hay fever has become quite bad this season.  My eyes are particularly itchy, my nose is perpetually running and I have trouble sleeping well.  Ugh.

I came across this article on my news feed and remembered commenting on it back when Mt. Fuji was registered as World Heritage back in 2013.

Well, it looks like the governments which have been asking for a donation from climbers are going to try that extra step of asking for donations from every visitor to the mountain.

Even Mount Fuji climbers who don’t plan to push for the summit will be asked to pay up

MAR 7, 2019

SHIZUOKA – Even hikers who have no intention of reaching the summit of Mount Fuji will be asked to make a donation of ¥1,000 for stepping foot on the country’s highest mountain from this summer, local prefectures said Thursday.

Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures, which the 3,776-meter-high volcanic mountain straddles, will aim to secure more income to help preserve the environment and fund trail safety measures at the UNESCO World Heritage site.

At present, adult climbers aiming to reach the top of the mountain from the various fifth stations, which are mostly halfway to the summit and are accessible by car, are asked to contribute.

Under the new plan, donation points will be set up on the mountain near the fifth stations. But tourists who just want to enjoy the view and shop and eat at those stages will not be asked for a donation.

The new policy will be finalized at a March 19 meeting including the two prefectures, as well as municipalities and central government agencies concerned.

The two prefectures began collecting the voluntary admission fee in 2014, a year after the mountain was registered on the UNESCO list. In 2018, Shizuoka Prefecture collected about ¥56.55 million from 50 percent of the climbers aiming for the top, while Yamanashi Prefecture took in around ¥87.79 million from some 60 percent, according to the Shizuoka Prefectural Government.

Article ends.

I am curious how the collection process is carried out.  I am also curious how much of that money actually stays on the mountain, and how much is lost in administrative costs, etc.

My own take is that climbers should pay some kind of fee.  Also, many national parks have some kind of entrance fee, so why should Mt. Fuji be any different?  Again, as long as the money is spent on protecting the mountain (i.e. maintaining climbing trails, operating and maintaining environmentally friendly and hygienic toilets, cleaning up litter, etc.) and not going into government coffers.

How one separates climbers from visitors is a different question and if and how much visitors to the 5th station should be charged is a much more complex matter.

I haven’t climbed Mt. Fuji since 2002, and haven’t visited since around 2006.  Maybe a climb is in order to help me make up my mind…


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‘Owls That?

If you took the city of Tokyo and turned it upside down and shook it you would be amazed at the animals that fall out

Yann Martel, Life of Pi


Hi blog.

We can see the end of winter approaching.  The days are becoming longer and sometimes the afternoons are cool instead of cold.  The mume are blossoming in places.  And the early hay fever season has begun.

That does not in any way mean that we are free from General Frost yet.  Although the snow that was predicted in my last post failed to amount to anything in this area – it almost all melted on contact with the ground – we still may have mornings with temperatures hovering just above zero.

This post comes again courtesy of a minor news item on TV.  A horned owl – generically known as mimizuku (木菟 , 木兎, 鵩, 鶹, 鵂, 角鴟, 鴟鵂, 耳木菟 or 耳木兎) in Japanese – was seen in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward.  I find it interesting that Japanese has a separate name for horned owls when the total number of owl species native to Japan is just eleven…

Here is the first item from Asahi TV.

The Asahi article from November 15th.

The basic gist is that since February 1oth, four sightings of “an owl” or “horned owl” had been reported to police in Suginami Ward and the bird had been photographed on the street.  The police were not going to attempt to capture the bird.

After the initial thrill of the thought of a wild owl in the metropolitan area, I wondered why the news had not identified the bird from the photographs.  After all, there are many species of horned owls worldwide, and some of these have found their way into the Japanese exotic pet market.  There are even “owl cafes” in Tokyo, where one can sit surrounded by owls!

The possibility of an escaped pet seemed more likely than a native owl wandering into the city…


Then this follow-up appeared on February 19th

The FNN article from February 19th. The photograph is very clear.

The basic gist is that experts believe the bird to be an Indian eagle owl, certainly an escaped pet.  A pet shop specialising in such animals placed its market value at about half a million yen!

Ah, but wait.  Even an escaped pet that displays wild behaviour (such as catching mice) becomes covered by laws which make it illegal for unauthorised individuals to capture the bird.  Fines of up to one million yen and prison terms for up to a year apply.

Lawyers have stated that the best course of action would be for the owner to come forward so that the authorities can capture the bird.


I remember a friend talking about a rich but not-too-bright associate who purchased an expensive owl, only to have it promptly escape.  Go figure.

I have very mixed feelings about keeping owls, but they lean toward the “only for the very dedicated and able to adequately provide the birds’ needs” zone.  In other words, almost no-one.

That said, I would like for the bird in question to be captured and placed in a zoo or other facility where it will be proper cared for.



NHK has graciously provided an English language article (even if somewhat late and lacking in detail…)

“… no reports of human injuries” Well done, NHK.


UPDATE February 26th

The owl’s owner came forward, but was unable to capture the bird.  It has since been found dead in a park, probably as a result of being hit by a car.

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Dormant Dormice

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

The Dormouse, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carol

Hi blog.

Well, technically, spring is here (February 4th brought double digit temperatures and a maximum more than twice as high as the previous Friday), the cold weather is far from gone.  As I finish typing this post, we are expecting a maximum of 1℃ and possibly 5cm or more of snow!

This blog entry was born from one of those “diamond moments” on TV. (Japanese TV can be like looking for diamonds in a sewer.  There are diamonds to be had, but you have to go through a lot of… well, you get the idea)

Unfortunately, that particular item did not make the English language media.  The news was about a rare Japanese dormouse that was found to have made a nest inside a futon to hibernate in.

From the Nishi Nihon Shimbun:

As the item appeared in the Nishi Nihon Shimbun on January 30th.

In fact, the only news item in English relating to the Japanese dormouse was over a year old!

This Asahi Shimbun article gives you an idea of what the Japanese dormouse looks like as well as its behaviour.

The Japanese dormouse (Glirulus japonicus) is the sole member of its genus found in Japan, where it is also endemic. It’s local name is Yamane (山鼠), although many urban dwellers are largely unaware of its existence.

Measuring around 7 – 8 cm in body length and a tail of 4.5 – 5.5 cm, the most distinguishing feature of this mouse-like rodent is the hair on the tail.

Apparently, if the tail is tightly gripped, the skin and hair may be pulled off, allowing the animal to escape.

Japanese dormice are omnivores, feeding on insects, fruit (typically not eating the skins), seeds and occasionally birds eggs.

Dormice are best known for their hibernation habits.  Japanese dormice typically build nests of moss and bark inside tree hollows, although nests built in rock fissures or abandoned hornet nests have also been observed.  When the maximum temperature drops to below 12℃ or so, the dormice go into hibernation.  In some areas, this may mean remaining largely inactive for six months of the year.  Their body temperature may drop to just a few degrees and their pulse will slow considerably – although a hibernating dormouse’s pulse may be higher than mine as I type this!

Apparently, Japanese dormice were once considered protective forest spirits, and there seems to be no tradition of eating them, unlike in ancient Rome and modern Slovakia.

The species was removed from the IUCN Red List category of Near Threatened in 2007.

The Japanese dormouse is an animal one seems very unlikely to encounter in the wild.  Some zoos have them on display – Ueno Z00 being a prime example – but I will keep my eyes peeled anyway… once the weather has warmed up!

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Do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold?

Khan, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan


Hi blog.

I shall take a break from wildlife for this post and talk about something that has been of interest to me for decades.  I am timing this post to match the historical date for the incident.  The incident in question is the act of vengeance by forty-seven ronin (masterless samurai) against Lord Kira.

A basic synopsis:

On the 14th day of the 3rd month of the 14th year of Genroku (April 21st, 1701), Asano Takumi no Kami, the Daimyo of Ako domain was insulted by Kira Yoshinaka (Yoshihisa), master of protocol, during preparations for the emperor’s visit to Edo Castle and attacked him with his wakizashi.

Drawing a weapon within the castle grounds was itself an offence and Asano was sentenced to seppuku that very day.

Kira was not seriously injured.

Asano’s retainers now found themselves masterless and therefore unemployed.  The chief retainer, one Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, gathered a group together and plotted revenge.

Nearly two years after Asano’s death, Oishi and 46 other former samurai of Ako made an assault on Kira’s mansion in Edo, killed him, took his head to the Sengakuji Temple to place at the grave of their lord.  They then peacefully surrendered to the authorities.

The ronin of Ako were entrusted to four daimyo until a decision could be made regarding what should be done with them.  It is said that they were treated more like guests than criminals.

The eventual decision was seppuku and the sentence was carried on March 20th.  The ronin were buried at the Sengakuji Temple alongside their lord, and the graves are still in place to this day.

A photo of the graves of the forty seven ronin from 1893. Apart from the spelling mistake, it is also noteworthy that the Japanese caption uses the term Chushingishi (忠臣義士).

The incident was first made known in English via the translation of Isaac Titsingh’s works in 1822.

Isaac Titsingh’s account of the affair translated into English in “Illustrations of Japan; consisting of Private Memoirs and Anecdotes of the reigning dynasty of The Djogouns, or Sovereigns of Japan; a description of the Feasts and Ceremonies observed throughout the year at their Court; and of the Ceremonies customary at Marriages and Funerals: to which are subjoined, observations on the legal suicide of the Japanese, remarks on their poetry, an explanation of their mode of reckoning time, particulars respecting the Dosia powder, the preface of a work by Confoutzee on filial piety”

I first learned of this affair back when I was 15 or 16, after reading about it in a martial arts book.  My next encounter was during my first stay in Japan in 1989.  I used to watch period dramas (some were quite good, some were pretty corny, and some were just awful).  It was a night in December when my host family suggested some TV special that night.  The language was mostly too difficult to for me to follow, but at some point during the screening it clicked that this was a story about the 47 ronin!

As it turns out, there are tele-movies produced almost annually to coincide with the date, although they tend to be broadcast on December 14th – the attack took place on the 14th night of the 12th month of the old calendar.  These productions are fleshed-out works with a considerable amount of artistic licence.  Still, this has been going on since the earliest kabuki and bunraku versions of the tale.  Most Japanese are unaware that the name “Chushingura” (忠臣蔵) refers specifically to retellings while historians use the term “Ako Incident” and call the ronin “Ako Roshi” (赤穂浪士) or Shi-ju-shichi-shi (四十七士).

A very readable  – albeit fictional – version of events has been written by John Allyn under the title The 47 Ronin Story. I bought a copy of this back in 1992, and this third encounter with the tale remains a favourite.  Allyn doesn’t claim historical accuracy, but states:

This novel is intended to give an account in English of what might have happened in those colorful days when Japan was secluded from the rest of the world and the old traditions still governed the lives of men.”

The cover from the 1992 edition. The book has been published since 1970. While it is sometimes criticized for lacking character development, the use of Japanese sayings and proverbs rendered into English give a folkish feel to the overall work.

Perhaps the definitive work in English is the version told by A. B. Mitford in Tales of Old Japan, 1871.

                          THE RÔNINS INVITE KÔTSUKÉ NO SUKÉ TO PERFORM HARA-KIRI.                             The opening illustration from Mitford’s book.

The exact cause of strife between Asano and Kira is a subject of debate.  Popular wisdom portrays Kira as greedy and arrogant and Asano as noble, if hot-headed.  I tend to take these depictions with a grain of salt – I can easily imagine both as having a sense of entitlement.

Another point of contention is the mysterious disappearance of one of the Ako ronin.  Only 46 ronin surrendered and were sentenced to death.  The 47th, Terasaka, a foot soldier, disappeared.  He was eventually pardoned by the Bakufu, lived to a ripe old age, and his ashes were interred alongside the 46 others.  A number of theories exist – he was a coward and ran away, he was rejected on account of his rank, or he was sent off on a secret mission to inform Asano’s brother of the mission’s success.  In the popular mind, however, any class or status differences have been erased and he has been elevated to an equal with the other Ako ronin.

Grave marker of the ashigaru Terasaka Kichiemon. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Interestingly, some sources say that seppuku had undergone a change and it was only necessary to touch one’s abdomen with the tip of the sword before being beheaded.  One of the ronin, however, did in fact impale disembowel himself.

In addition to the participants being sentenced to death, any sons over the age of 15 were exiled to Oshima Island, and sons under that age would be exiled upon reaching 15.  Amnesty was granted upon Shogun Tsunayoshi’s death.

I can hardly believe that I still haven’t made the trip into Tokyo to visit the Sengakuji.  I will amend this situation some day.

Sengakuji in 1911. The lower picture uses the term shi-ju-shichi-shi (四十七士) in the caption.


I have heard people claim that Shogun Tsunayoshi’s laws to protect animals and the establishment of official kennels to house thousands of stray dogs in Edo are proof of a long Japanese history of loving animals.  Sorry, I beg to differ.  Tsunayoshi’s enactments were guided by religious beliefs and superstition, and motivated by personal reasons.  His sons both died in childhood, and Tsunayoshi – born in the year of the dog – was advised that either he had been a dog in a former life or that he had done harm to dogs and this was his punishment.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and maybe will be encouraged to read more about the 47 Ronin of Ako.

But DON’T watch this tripe.


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Hi blog.

Here I am again after yet another long absence from the keyboard.

One excuse this time is that my old faithful 2011 model Dynabook suddenly died one morning in late December – I suspect a component on the motherboard.  Toshiba ceased manufacture of that motherboard in 2017, so a repair by the manufacturer is not an option.  I would have to find someone who could find the offending component, remove it and solder a replacement onto the motherboard, and all at a reasonable price.  But even then there would be no guarantees.

As things transpired, I was able to convince someone into letting me buy a new computer, explained why I didn’t want one of those cheap ones with the slow processors on sale, and now am behind the keyboard of a Lifebook sporting an 8th generation core i7 processor and a modest 256 G SSD.

I did have a few topics in hand to write about around the time my computer died, but unfortunately I lost all my files.  (I might be able to recover them at a later date, assuming that the manufacturer didn’t erase the hard disc when I sent the computer in for repair)

There was a jorogumo at school which was still alive on December 20th, long after the others (and my computer) had died.

It wasn’t easy getting a shot of this spider in poor lighing and having to use my phone at maximum zoom.

I won’t discuss the Japanese government’s decision to leave the International Whaling Commission, as that would involve mostly cursing and swearing and dissuading anyone from visiting Japan for the 2020 Olympics.  (But, do the world a favour and don’t come for the Olympics) 

My visit to Tama Zoo was another possibility, although not a lot can be said of zoo visits.  Tama is infinitely better than Ueno Zoo, mostly because of the space available and therefore the animal enclosures provide the animals with a better quality of life.  Not to mention a couple of novel ideas like the mole house, which allows visitors to see moles in action; and the butterfly house, which is also a wonderful retreat if you visit the zoo in winter.


Speaking of winter (have I mentioned how much I dislike winter in this post?), we have had some very cold mornings.  A few times I haven’t been able to open the bathroom window because it has frozen shut!

The only other blog-worthy topic was the partial solar eclipse on January 6th.  Of course, trying to photograph that with a mobile phone and a protective film that is curved and so doesn’t make contact with the lens is a nightmare!

Taken around 9:30, about half an hour before the peak of the eclipse.

This page has some excellent information on the eclipse.

Now that I am able to get behind a keyboard again, I shall try to finish off those editing tasks and rebuild my data for this blog.  Take care.


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The Shogun Cometh

When the Generals talk
You better listen to him
When the Generals talk
You better do what he say

When the Generals Talk, Midnight Oil

Hi blog.

Yes, I know, it’s been over a month since my last post.  Yes, I know, you don’t want to know why.

I will say that right up until last week we had some glorious weather.  Imagine a day in early winter topping the 23℃ mark!  I remember stating “I could get used to winters like this.”

Hokkaido had to wait until late November to receive its first snowfall of the season.  (When I was in Obihiro as an exchange student in 1989, it snowed on November 1st.  And Obihiro doesn’t receive as much snowfall as many other areas of Hokkaido.)

There were news articles about the kogarashi not coming this year.  Kogarashi (usually 木枯らし but sometimes 凩), meaning “tree witherer” is the first winter wind.

The Japan Meteorological Agency define it as a winter wind originating from high pressure cells in the west and low pressure cells in the east, leading to winds blowing from between west-northwest and north at speeds of more than 8 metres per second, in the period from late October to the end of November (for the Tokyo area)

This year it just didn’t occur.

In the first week of December we were hearing that ski fields couldn’t open because there was simply no snow.

But now the Shogun has arrived.

Fuyu Shogun (冬将軍) refers to cold, dry Siberian air masses that extend into Japan, bringing heavy snow to the Japan Sea side and alpine regions of the country and temperatures below 10℃.

Many Japanese are genuinely surprised to hear that the name is actually a translation of the English “General Frost” or “General Winter” and refers to weather that supposedly defeated Napoleon’s invasion of 1812.

The earliest English depiction of General Frost from December 1812. This is the origin of the name Fuyu Shogun.

Fuyu Shogun is often depicted on TV weather broadcasts as a cartoon-esque warring states era warlord.

Lovely weather presenter Yuriko Chikusa facing the Fuyu Shogun last winter. I chose this picture because I actually used to train in karate with Yuriko.

We will have to wait and see how long General Frost will stay.

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