~est in Japan

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Hi blog.

Rainy season is upon us, which has necessitated the purchase of a new pair of rubber boots for my work commute, not to mention the usual rigmarole with trying to dry clothes indoors, the need to leave my pack in the entrance overnight (the pack is mostly dry; the straps are soaking wet) and all the other hassles associated with constant rain.

This will be a short post based on another item which found its way onto my news feed.

Normally I wouldn’t have bothered posting this, but I’m in a cynical mood right now and the headline struck home.

You see, the Japanese love superlatives.  There is no shortage of the Japanese trying to find superlatives about themselves or their country, even if it means stretching the qualifications a little.  For example, the Japanese are proud that Tokyo Sky Tree is the tallest tower in the world.  Sure, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is taller, but that is a building, not a tower.  They also love that the Great Seto Bridge is the longest bridge in the world that has both a road and a railway

It isn’t hard to find surveys showing that the Japanese are the smartest people in the world (according to Japanese); that Japanese food is the healthiest in the world; or inferences that when a Japanese person is the oldest living person in the world, it is proof of Japanese superiority.  (Somehow this association is muted when someone of a different nationality is the oldest)

So I wasn’t surprised by the headline at all.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/06/23/national/science-health/world-smallest-dinosaur-egg-japan/

World’s smallest dinosaur egg fossil discovered in Japan

KYODO

A team of researchers said Tuesday it has discovered the world’s smallest dinosaur egg fossil, measuring about 4.5 cm by 2 cm, in western Japan.

The fossil of the egg, estimated to have weighed only about 10 grams more than 100 million years ago, was found in a stratum dating back to the early Cretaceous Period in Tamba, Hyogo Prefecture, according to the team.

The researchers at the University of Tsukuba and the Museum of Nature and Human Activities, Hyogo, among others, who have analyzed the fossil, said it likely belonged to a nonavian small theropod.

Skeletal remains of small dinosaurs are far less common than those of large dinosaurs, such as the Tyrannosaurus, which was also a theropod, and Kohei Tanaka of the University of Tsukuba, a member of the team, said he hopes the discovery will “help shed light on how small dinosaurs reproduced and nested.”

The team surveyed the stratum, which dates back 110 million years, between 2015 and 2019 and found four fossil eggs and over 1,300 scattered eggshell fragments.

It has confirmed the findings, including the newly discovered one, which has been named Himeoolithus murakamii, can be categorized into four different types.

The team said the discovery suggests that various small dinosaurs were nesting together in the area, known as one of the world’s richest Lower Cretaceous fossil egg sites.

Fossilized dinosaur eggs have been found elsewhere, including Spain and Mongolia, but many of them are 5 to 7 cm in length and weigh about 30 grams.

Article ends.

Size doesn’t matter!

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The Poison Stopper

The afternoon was very warm and the humidity was high.  I couldn’t wait to leave work as soon as my contractual finishing time came around.  I had voluntarily stayed back for about half an hour the previous couple of days to help out, but that last half-sized class – we are in the process of taking half the students for the morning and then the other half in the afternoon – had been slow and unresponsive.  I’m sure extracting blood from a stone would have been less demanding.

I was fatigued and annoyed, and really just wanted to vent.  So I left just work just after 4:00 and rode to “the Bat Cave” (a construction depot on a dirt track just off the main road) to wait for Mat.

As I was waiting, I noticed some patches of red in the undergrowth.  False strawberries.  There were also lots of white flowers on plants with heart-shaped leaves.  Dokudami…

A jumping spider rests on the leaf of a Houttuynia cordata plant. Yes, that is a false strawberry on the left.

The moment I realized that I didn’t even know the English name for this ubiquitous plant was the moment I realized I had some blog material.

Houttuynia cordata has a plethora of English names – Wikipedia lists fish mint, fish leaf, rainbow plant, chameleon plant, heart leaf, fish wort, Chinese lizard tail, and bishop’s weed, while one of my guide books also calls it pig thigh.  It also has something in the order of 160 regional names in Japanese, although dokudami (毒痛, 蕺草, or 蕺) is the most common.  An older name, juyaku (十薬) – literally “ten medicines”, probably referring to the number of conditions it could treat – is indicative in its role in folk medicine.  Houttuynia cordata has long had a reputation as a detoxitive agent, and the name dokudami is thought to be a corruption of dokudame, literally “poison stopper”.

The herb is common across northeast and southeast Asia and can be found on all the main islands of Japan.  It appears in this area from May to June, preferring damp soils (it will even grow partially submerged) and at least partial sunlight.  The plant grows between 20 and 50 cm tall and spreads by division.  The white flowers are distinctive.

A four petaled white flower. Very distinctive indeed.

The reproductive parts of the flowers sit high above the petals. The plant doesn’t need the flowers to reproduce, however.

Some flower buds.

The plant has a long culinary association in many parts of Asia; however, in Japan it is not well known as a food plant.  Here it is primarily known for its leaves being dried and drunk as a tea infusion.  It is also used a poultice.

A quick search for dokudami tea on Amazon yielded these results.

The tea is known for having a particular smell, and the English names fish mint and fish wort are said to reflect this.  I am not in a position to comment at this stage.

The popular drink Sokenbicha™ contains Houttuynia cordata along with extracts from sixteen other plants.  This is the only drink containing the plant that I have knowingly consumed.

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Walking on the Roof

Hi blog.

The State of Emergency has officially come to an end, right along with the announcement that after a couple of weeks of zero new known cases, Kitakyushu is experiencing a second wave of infections.

School is set to start on June 1st, but the first couple of weeks will see staggered attendances with only half the students attending for half a day and the other half attending for the other half.  Who says we don’t do things by halves?

This will be another very short post.  This was one of those occasions when nature came to pay me a visit.

The weather on May 28th started out warm and sunny, but suddenly became overcast in the afternoon and quickly turned into heavy rain and a thunderstorm.  Our response was to close the rain shutters (something I’m not adverse to at this time of year, since the sunlight before 5:00 wakes me up).

This all would have been fine except that we were awakened at around 2:00 in the morning by the sounds of something scuttling across the roof.  No doubt it was that civet again.

Opening the shutters is a noisy affair, and the culprit (culprits?) had run off unseen.

That doesn’t mean they left without a trace.  Again, the civet(s) had decided to use our roof as a toilet.  We can tell they have been feasting on some of the local loquats.  They also left some muddy footprints.

Not the clearest set of footprints on the roof, but the set closest to the window and the only ones I could photograph.

It is a bit hard to work out the civet’s route.  Given the amount of mud on the prints in that region, I would say that they climbed up via the neighbour’s tree and made their way around to the front of the house.  There are tracks leading in both directions, so it is hard to say whether they existed via out persimmon tree or simply left by the same tree they entered from.

Here I have marked out the toe prints. As you can see, five on each foot.

That the civets arrived after a thunderstorm and they are probably the true identity of the mythical raiju creature has not been lost on me.

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(Don’t) Climb Every Mountain

Hi blog.

Just another quick post while in quasi-quarantine.

Many areas in Japan are rolling back their state of emergency status.  The country is doing quite well, especially given its late response to the pandemic and fairly weak state of emergency powers.  Almost like the kid who ate junk food and hardly exercised but still remained skinny.

Anyway, something appeared in my newsfeed which I was subconsciously expecting.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/05/18/national/mount-fuji-closed-coronavirus/

Mount Fuji to be closed to climbers this summer due to virus

It is the first time since at least 1960 that all four routes will be closed during the climbing season

Kyodo

Mount Fuji will be closed to climbers this summer in a measure aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus.

Shizuoka Prefecture, which manages three of the four major routes to Japan’s highest peak, announced Monday it will not open any of the paths for the official climbing season this year.

Normally, hordes of climbers make their way to the summit of the mountain between July 10 and Sept. 10 each year and the prefecture judged there would be risks of climbers getting infected on the paths or the cabins where they rest.

Yamanashi Prefecture, which also offers access to the iconic mountain, already made a similar announcement regarding the fourth route to the peak of the 3,776-meter volcano. Its Yoshida track is the most popular, with 60 percent of climbers using it.

It is the first time since at least 1960, when the Shizuoka Prefectural Government began managing the three routes, that all four routes will be closed during the climbing season, according to the prefectures.

Article ends.

My plans to do a base to summit climb of Mt. Fuji have well and truly ground to a halt for at least a year.  Even if the closures were not enforced, the school summer holidays have been slashed from the usual 40-something days to just NINE, vastly reducing the chances of finding a suitable time frame – weather on Mt. Fuji is fickle.  Furthermore, this confinement has led to grossly reduced fitness (I have gained a couple of kilograms over the last two months) which would make any attempt to climb just purely unpleasant if not actually dangerous.

The only silver lining I can see is simply Fuji being spared several hundred thousand pairs of feet going up and down this summer.  Maybe some of the wildlife will return.

September 1999. The climb wasn’t so tough back then…

I’m really hoping there is a next year.

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Screaming Murder

Hi blog.

No, that title doesn’t describe how I feel.  (Well, at least most of the time…)

However, this pandemic is bringing out the worst in some people.  As I said on social media, COVID-19 is particularly dangerous – it causes stupidity in people without even having to infect them!

A case in point:

https://www.bbc.com/news/52533585

‘Murder hornets’ land in the US for the first time

4 May 2020

Even as the US remains under attack from the coronavirus outbreak, a new terror has arrived: “murder hornets”.

The 2-inch (5cm) long Asian giant hornets, Vespa mandarinia, have been found in Washington state.

Multiple stings are deadly to humans and in their “slaughter phase” the hornets destroy honeybees, whose bodies they feed to their young.

Scientists are now on a hunt for the hornets, hoping to eradicate the species before they wipe out US bees.

Although they typically avoid people, in Asia, “murder hornet” stings are thought to cause as many as 50 human fatalities a year, according to the New York Times.

The hornets made their first North American appearance in August 2019, in British Columbia, Canada. Months later, in December 2019, the flying insects were reported south of the border in Washington state.

Washington State University (WSU) are unsure how or when the hornet first arrived in North America, but beekeepers in the region have reported gruesome hive deaths in recent months. Scientists are bracing for further emergence of the species, which begins its life cycle in spring.

The hornets are “shockingly large”, said Todd Murray, a WSU scientist and invasive species specialist. “It’s a health hazard, and more importantly, a significant predator of honeybees.”

The insects, roughly the size of a matchbox, have large yellow-orange heads, prominent black eyes, and a black and yellow striped abdomen.

“They’re like something out of a monster cartoon with this huge yellow-orange face,” said Susan Cobey, a bee breeder with WSU entomology department in a press release.

The Asian giant hornet’s life cycle begins in April, when queens come out of hibernation, and begin to feed and seek out subterranean dens to build their nests. Once their habitats are built in the summer and autumn months, worker hornets are sent to find food.

With their sharp, spiked mandibles, the hornets decapitate honeybees, using the bodies to feed their young. The hornets can destroy a honeybee hive in a matter of hours.

Though beehives are their primary target, when threatened the hornets can attack people. Multiple stings can kill humans, even those who are not allergic.

In Japan, where they are most common, murder hornets kill roughly 30 to 40 people each year.

“It was like having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh,” Vancouver Island beekeeper Conrad Bérubé told the New York Times. He was stung through a bee suit and sweatpants underneath.

The WSU scientists will begin trapping queen murder hornets this spring, aiming to detect and eradicate the species.

Populations of honeybees and other pollinators in the US were already under pressure. Between 1947 and 2017, number of honeybee colonies in the US plummeted from 6 million to 2.5 million. And last year, researchers from the University of Maryland reported that 40% of the country’s honeybee colonies died in a single winter, between October 2018 and April 2019 – the largest loss of its kind.

Pollinators, most often honeybees, are responsible for one of every three bites of food taken in the US, and increase the country’s nation crop values every year by more than $15bn (£12bn), according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Article ends.

The BBC article.

So our journalist – I used to say that the only difference between a journalist and a fiction writer is that a fiction writer might actually have to research their topic – has gone out of their way to shoe-horn the expression “murder hornet” over the generally accepted common name, and to get short quotes from people who are not hornet specialists.

Nor were we helped by the “the corona virus is the product of a bio-weapons lab in China and now they’re sending over mutant hornets” crowd.  Only with less accurate spelling.  I wonder how these people manage to remember to breathe.

Minds allowed to wander when it’s past bedtime…

If only people were required to pass an intelligence test in order to access the Internet…

In fact, I was so infuriated by this article I went to find where the journalist picked their language.  A more in-depth article from the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/02/us/asian-giant-hornet-washington.html?utm_source=pocket-newtab) had this to say:

Jun-ichi Takahashi, a researcher at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan, said the species had earned the “murder hornet” nickname there because its aggressive group attacks can expose victims to doses of toxic venom equivalent to that of a venomous snake; a series of stings can be fatal.

The only problem is that Asian giant hornets don’t have the nickname “murder hornet” here.  One TV program fishing for ratings back around 2008 used the term “satsujin suzumebachi” (殺人スズメバチ), which could be translated as “murderous hornets”.  But that was just one TV network plugging a single series.

So, some hyperbolic language by a small group of people in Japan has been reported out of context in the US and made out to be a general term.  But it doesn’t stop there.

Japan Inc.’s image police – and the Government of Japan does in fact spend a considerable amount of money on maintaining a positive image in foreign media sources –  have been made aware that something associated with Japan has an unsavoury image and has been dubbed with an unpleasant name.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/05/08/world/science-health-world/us-murder-hornets-hype/?fbclid=IwAR3_1_CdDL0lFtr5w4fcZrMD9P1zTcE0BjoMhsUFW5TUTKdfQBKISokywhE#.XrYgg0BuJPY

Bug experts dismiss worry about U.S. ‘murder hornets’ as hype

May 8, 2020

Insect experts say people should calm down about the big bug with the nickname “murder hornet” — unless you are a beekeeper or a honeybee.

The Asian giant hornets found in Washington state that grabbed headlines this week aren’t big killers of humans, although it does happen on rare occasions. But the world’s largest hornets do decapitate entire hives of honeybees, and that crucial food pollinator is already in big trouble.

Numerous bug experts told The Associated Press that what they call hornet “hype” reminds them of the 1970s public scare when Africanized honeybees, nicknamed “killer bees,” started moving north from South America. While these more aggressive bees did make it up to Texas and the Southwest, they didn’t live up to the horror-movie moniker. However, they also do kill people in rare situations.

This time it’s hornets with the homicidal nickname, which bug experts want to ditch.
“They are not ‘murder hornets.’ They are just hornets,” said Washington Agriculture Department entomologist Chris Looney, who is working on the state’s search for these large hornets.

The facts are, experts said, two dead hornets were found in Washington last December, a lone Canadian live nest was found and wiped out last September and no live hornets have yet been seen this year.

Looney has a message for Americans: These hornets are not coming to get you. “The number of people who are stung and have to seek medical attention is incredibly small,” he said in an interview.

While its nickname exaggerates the human health threat, experts said this hornet is especially big — two inches long — so it does carry more and stronger toxin.
“It’s a really nasty sting for humans,” said University of Georgia bee expert Keith Delaplane. “It’s like the Africanized bee … A dozen (stings) you are OK; 100 not so much.”
University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum said of the worry: “People are afraid of the wrong thing. The scariest insect out there are mosquitoes. People don’t think twice about them. If anyone’s a murder insect, it would be a mosquito.”

Mosquitoes are responsible for millions of yearly deaths worldwide from malaria, dengue fever and other diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Asian giant hornets at most kill a few dozen people a year and some experts said it’s probably far less.
Hornet, wasp and bee stings kill on average 62 people a year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Japan, Korea and China, “people have co-existed with this hornet for thousands of years,” said Doug Yanega, senior scientist at the University of California Riverside Entomology Research Museum.

Yet bug experts across the country are getting worried calls from people who wrongly think they saw the Asian hornet.

“This is 99 percent media hype and frankly I’m getting tired of it,” said University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy. “Murder hornet? Please.”
Retired University of Montana bee expert Jerry Bromenshenk said in an email, “One nest, one individual hornet, hopefully, does not make an invasion. … Do we want this hornet — surely not. But the media hype is turbo charged.”

For bees and the people who rely on them for a living this could be yet another massive problem, but it is not one yet.

The number of U.S. honeybees has been dropping for years, with the winter of 2018-19 one of the worst on record. That’s because of problems such as mites, diseases, pesticides and loss of food.

The new hornets would be different. If they get into a hive, they tear the heads off worker bees and the hive pretty much dies. Asian honeybees have defenses — they start buzzing, raising the temperature and cook the invading hornet to death — but honeybees in America don’t.

The worry for beekeeping in Washington is based on a worst-case scenario that officials have to take seriously, Looney said.

Yet even for bees, the invasive hornets are far down on the list of real threats, not as big a worry as the parasitic “zombie fly” because more of those have been seen in several states, Berenbaum said.

For people, the hornets are scary because the world is already frightened by coronavirus and our innate fight-or-flight mechanisms are activated, putting people on edge, said risk expert David Ropeik, author of “How Risky Is It, Really?”
“This year is unbelievable in a horrible, horrible way. Why shouldn’t there be murder hornets?” Berenbaum said.

Article ends.

The Japan Times article.

That last throwaway line just undid the rest of the article.  Not to mention the journalist’s throwaway use of “bug experts”.

 

I should also like to remind the Japanese media of the mountain they made out of the fire ant molehill…

 

 

 

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The Lost Castle and the Split Trees

Hi blog.

Finally some good spring weather!

I commented the other day that I thought this April had been particularly wet.  Mat said  he didn’t think so.  A quick check reveals that this has been the wettest April on record (295.6 mm)  Even when we had clear skies, it was often windy – typically cold gusts.

The authorities are encouraging us to stay home over the Golden Week holiday period (April 29th and May 3rd – 5th; since the 3rd falls on a Sunday this year, that gets carried over to the 6th) at home.

Also, my employing city has decided to extend school closures to the end of May.  Working from home does have its drawbacks…

Anyway, I decided to do something with the pleasant weather and do some blog worthy walking.

The first item for this post involves a castle.  Well, probably not so much of a castle as a fortress.

I have mentioned castle (fortress) ruins in Tokorozawa (Taki-no-Jo and Yamaguchi-Jo), but there was a third castle.  Furthermore, the ruins are just a couple of kilometres from my house…

… if one could actually get to them.

What is left of Kita Akitsu Jo (as it is known) is now just a neglected block of land completely surrounded by private property.

 

There are no signs marking the site, and there is no information on the Tokorozawa web site.  Most people in the area are completely oblivious to its existance.

We know that there was a castle or fortified residence at this location, and that is about all we know.  Experts guess that it was originally the propety of the Kume family from nearby Murayama and later passed into the hands of the Hojo.

As close as I could get without trespassing.

Across the road from the castle is a shrine, the Jitsugetsu Shrine.  Again, there is little information about the shrine – it doesn’t appear on the Tokorozawa web site either.

The main entrance to the shrine.

The shrine building.

This is actually a difficult reading. Because the first two characters mean “sun” and “moon”, some people think the shrine may be dedicated to Amaterasu (the sun goddess) and Tsukiyomi (the moon god).

What is of interest is a legend concerning the shrine and a regional lord – maybe the lord of the castle.

Sign with the legend.

This particular lord had a habit of demanding the impossible from his retainers.  One autumn, he brought several of his retainers to the shrine and, noticing the dragonflies flying around, demanded that his retainers catch and bring him the same number of dragonflies as his age.

His retainers caught all the dragonflies, but the number was one short of the lord’s age.  In his fury he shouted to the shrine that he would throw the dragonflies at the sacred tree.  If the god of the shrine had any real power, they would make another tree grow from the zelkova where the dragonflies struck, and the lord would make no more demands.  If that didn’t happen, the lord would tear down the shrine.

The lord crushed the dragonflies into a cluster and threw it at the zelkova tree.  It hit the tree and, as the lord looked on, a Chinese hackberry grew from the zelkova.  As the same time, the lord was struck mute and could no longer make unreasonable demands.

The now dead sacred tree.

It actually looks like a tree is growing out of the trunk of a larger tree.

What makes this story more interesting is that the shrine is in the old town of Akitsu (modern Kita Akitsu is in Tokorozawa and Minami Akitsu is in Higashimurayama).  Akitsu is an old term for dragonfly.

As an added bonus, there is also a power stone at this shrine.

This stone is said to weigh about 131 kg.

According to the plaque, this stone was given to the shrine by a 20 year old by the name of Hinuma. Hinuma is a common name in this area.

 

 

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Warbler in the bush

Hi blog.

This may be the only post I get out this month, and it will be brief.

I am currently in a situation where I have been given the opportunity to work from home – no kids at school kind of makes me surplus to needs, but there is work I can do.

I went for a walk this afternoon.  Lousy weather over the weekend plus being stuck in a small room for seven hours of the day does tend to bring on the cabin fever.

During the walk I heard my first bush warbler for the season, and it sounded very close.  I was actually able to catch a glimpse of it through the bush and got within what would be considered reasonable social distance.

Later, it came out and perched on an overhead power line.  Unfortunately, the late afternoon sun and my phone’s zoom didn’t make for a very good image.  I’ll share it anyway.

 

Anyway, take care of yourself and I hope to catch you on another post in the not too distant future.

 

 

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C. W. Nicol, RIP

Hi blog.

I wish that I had a better topic to interrupt your COVID19 newsfeed with, but environmentalist, writer, karateka and general all-round good guy C.W. Nicol has passed away after a battle with cancer.

https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2020/04/98d966c0d186-welsh-born-author-environmentalist-cw-nicol-dies.html

Welsh-born author, environmentalist C.W. Nicol dies

KYODO NEWS KYODO NEWS – 23 hours ago – 20:25 | All, Lifestyle

Welsh-born author and environmentalist C.W. Nicol, a well-known figure in Japan where he was naturalized, died Friday at a hospital in Nagano after a long battle with rectal cancer. He was 79.

Due to the wishes of his family, a funeral was held privately Saturday, according to a foundation he headed.

(C.W. Nicol pictured in 2003.)

Nicol was known for a range of activities to revive neglected forests and restore their original ecosystem across the nation. He set up the foundation for such activities, The C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust, in 2002 in central Japan’s Nagano Prefecture where he lived since 1980.

His other achievements include assisting an elementary school to be rebuilt in a tsunami-ravaged area in Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan.

Born in Wales in 1940, Nicol moved to Canada at age 17 and engaged in marine mammal research. He also went to the Arctic more than 10 times for exploration.

Nicol first came to Japan in the 1960s for karate training and was captivated by Japanese nature. He obtained Japanese citizenship in 1995.

Among his books was “Hokori takaki Nihonjin de itai” (I want to be a Japanese of great pride), published in 2004.

 

https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/20200405_12/

UK-born conservationist & author C.W. Nicol dies

5 hours ago

Welsh-born author and conservationist C.W. Nicol, who was famous in Japan for working to protect forests and ecosystems died of rectal cancer on Friday. He was 79.

Before moving to Japan, Nicol worked as a marine mammal researcher for the Fisheries Research Board of Canada.

Captivated by Japanese culture and nature, Nicol moved to the Kurohime Highland area in central Japan’s Nagano Prefecture in the 1980s and launched his career as a writer.

Nicol wrote “A Letter from Kurohime,” an essay on the beauty of the relationship between Japan’s rural communities and forests. He also wrote “Harpoon,” a novel about Japan’s traditional whaling culture.

Nicol felt a sense of crisis as Japan’s forests were damaged by logging and became active in preserving and reviving woodlands. He bought a large plot of virgin forest where he could put his resource-management theories into practice.

Nicol used his high profile on TV and other media to spread the word about the importance of protecting nature.

He was committed to helping rebuild areas devastated by the major earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
Nicol helped to build an all-wood elementary school in Miyagi Prefecture. He wanted children to learn from nature and help them heal the psychological scars left by the disaster.

Nicol became a Japanese citizen in 1995 and was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2005.

He had been fighting rectal cancer since 2016. The foundation he headed, the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust, says it hopes to hold a farewell ceremony for him after the coronavirus epidemic is contained.

 

He was one person I truly would have liked to meet.

 

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Amabie Back

Hi blog.

Well, the school term has finished.  This year ended in an anticlimax, with no classes for the last three weeks and the usual festivities cancelled.

We also had the governor of Tokyo warning people that a lockdown may be necessary if the spread of the corona virus isn’t controlled soon.  Japan’s numbers have stayed low, but now is not the time to get cocky.

This post is topical because of the corona virus and how folk beliefs always seem to sit just below the surface in modern Japan.

You may remember a creature I mentioned in passing in my post about Japanese mermaids.  Well, today she gets a post of her own.

From The Mainichi:

https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20200325/p2a/00m/0na/021000c

Plague-predicting Japanese folklore creature resurfaces amid coronavirus chaos

March 25, 2020 (Mainichi Japan)

An information panel on Amabie, a Japanese folklore “yokai” creature, is on display near the entrance of the Mizuki Shigeru Kinenkan museum in the city of Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, on March 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Haruno Kosaka)

TOTTORI — Amid the seemingly never-ending coronavirus crisis, a shining traditional Japanese folklore creature has resurfaced as a symbol of hope for some.

Amabie, a “yokai” character said to predict the coming of plagues, has recently been attracting popularity in Japan. Legend says that the creature — which has a shimmering half-human, half-fish body with a beak — appeared off what is now the coast of Kumamoto Prefecture, southwestern Japan, during the Edo period. It told people to share pictures of itself with others to drive away the plague, before vanishing into the sea.

On March 17, Mizuki Production, handling the works of late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki — considered a master of the yokai genre — posted on Twitter an image of Amabie he had drawn, with the message, “May the modern-day plague go away.”

Following the tweet, several manga artists and illustrators including Chika Umino, Mari Okazaki and Toshinao Aoki posted their own drawings of the creature, praying for the pandemic to end. These posts are now overflowing with comments from fans, with one saying, “I want to use this as my smartphone wallpaper to prevent the spread (of the novel coronavirus),” and another reading, “It looks like it could also get rid of different kinds of viruses.”
A bronze statue of Amabie, a Japanese folklore “yokai” creature, is seen in the town of Okinoshima, Shimane Prefecture, near the city of Sakaiminato, Shimane Prefecture. The statue is based on late manga artist Mizuki Shigeru’s drawing of Amabie. (Photo courtesy of the Okinoshima Municipal Government)

Mizuki Shigeru Kinenkan museum, based in the city of Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, western Japan — the artist’s birthplace — is now constantly receiving inquiries about Amabie. Though an information panel on Amabie had been exhibited before in a section about traditional yokai in Japan, it was moved near the entrance to catch the eyes of visitors.

A 21-year-old third-year university student who visited the museum from the city of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, western Japan, expressed concerns about the impact of the new coronavirus. “I’m worried it will have an effect on my job-hunting activities. I want Amabie to exert its power,” she said.

Yukio Shoji, head of the museum, said, “It’s so surprising that we’re getting feedback from not just young people but also the elderly. It may have to do with its shiny, sparkly looks, which leave an impression.”

(Japanese original by Haruno Kosaka, Tottori Bureau)

Article ends.

Image of the Mainichi article.

Amabie is an enigmatic creature – she (?) is known from the written records of a town official from the mid- 19th century.

Wikipedia has the following to say:

An amabie appeared in Higo Province (Kumamoto Prefecture) according to legend, around the middle of the fourth month, in the year Kōka-3 (mid-May, 1846) in the Edo era. A glowing object had been spotted in the sea, almost on a nightly basis. The town’s official went to the coast to investigate, and witnessed the amabie. According to the sketch made by this official, it had long hair, a mouth like bird’s bill, was covered in scales from the neck down, and three-legged. Addressing the official, it identified itself as an amabie and told him that it lived in the open sea. It went on to deliver a prophecy: “Good harvest will continue for six years from the current year; if disease spreads, show a picture of me to those who fall ill and they will be cured.” Afterward, it returned to the sea. The story was printed in the kawaraban (woodblock-printed bulletins), where its portrait was printed, and this is how the story disseminated in Japan.

All that we “know” about the amabie comes from that single record.

A copy of the 1846 print showing the beaked, three legged amabie.

There are some theories that the amabie is actually a variation of the amabiko.  Some even go as far to claim that the name amabie is actually a misreading or a copying error; they postulate that rendered in katakana, アマビヱ and アマビコ are so similar that such mistakes are quite possible.

A close up of the word in the text.  That is definitelyアマビヱ and not アマビコ. 

Amabie and some versions of the amabiko share similar attributes (including three legs) and there was probably some cross-pollination of ideas in the retellings.  Of particular interest is a story originating in Echigo just two years prior to the record of the amabie.  In this cast, a torso-less creature with three legs predicted the death of about 70% of the Japanese population within a year.  This creature was recorded as being an amabiko (海彦).

The amabie is likely to remain popular on Japanese social media as long as this pandemic lasts.  Let’s hope it is not for much longer.

 

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Stones of Power

Hi blog.

Here we are, just a couple of days ahead of the official end of school term and more than three weeks into the school closures.  Some areas have started school again, but Saitama is not one of them.

The equinox long weekend gave us some glorious weather, with temperatures soaring to over 2o ℃, but that won’t last.

This is going to be a very brief post, inspired partially by the previous one.

I remembered reading a story from the Horikane area about a very large and strong man who visited a shrine in Kawagoe where several young men were lifting large, heavy stones to show off their strength.  He sat down upon a rock to watch, which incurred the wrath of the participants – he was sitting on one of the ceremonial stones.  The man simply lifted the huge rock – said to weigh over 150 kg – and carried it home.  The man went on to become a sumo wrestler in Edo, and the rock remains in Sayama.

I seemed to think that the rock could be seen at the Horikane Shrine, but it turns out that it is on private property, and the city official site gives no physical address.  I then thought I would at least get a location and maybe get permission to see it, so an internet search ensued.  My search came up with no hits for Sayama.

But it wasn’t entirely in vain.

A shrine in Tokorozawa, about half and hour’s bike ride from home, has three strength stones.

The three stones at the Mikajima Hachiman Shrine.

 

Strength stones – chikara ishi (力石) in Japanese – go back into antiquity, where they probably played a part in religious ceremonies as well as martial training.  However, their heyday seems to have been in the late Edo and early Meiji periods.  It is worth remembering that there were very few sporting type of recreation in Edo era Japan and this was not only a sporting event, but also one that commoners – especially labourers – could participate in.

Shows of strength were common during festivals, certain calendar days and ceremonies related to the construction of buildings, roads and fields.  Over 15000 such stones are known to exist throughout the country, and the actual number is probably considerably higher.

With stones weighing upward of 150 kg, I wondered how many of these stones were actually lifted and how many are simply legends handed down over time.  I mean, look at Olympic weight lifting records and remember that a rock has no convenient grip.  However, I found a video of some stone lifting and it involves lifting a rock off the ground – not over the head – with a rope as a handle.

 

Other visual information shows rocks being lifted to the shoulder to a carrying position, as one can imagine a construction worker doing.

It also appears that some stones were to be lifted by pairs or teams of men.

Anyway, I made the trip to see the three strength stones at the Mikajima Hachiman Shrine.  They are recorded as weighing – from heaviest to lightest:

44 kanme (approx. 165 kg)

四拾四貫匁

36 kanme (approx. 136 kg); and

参拾六貫匁

27 kan 200 momme (approx. 102 kg)

貳拾七貫貳百匁

One kan or kanme is approximately 3.75 kg, and one momme is 1/1000 of a kan. (about 3.75 grams).

The accompanying sign states that a number of people are known to have lifted these stones, and that this should be passed on to future generations.  (OK Boomer)

The sign for the stones.

With my hand on the middle stone for a sense of scale.

Unfortunately, the three stones are now cemented into place and so can not be lifted!

 

 

 

 

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