Spring is finally here, the ume and peach blossoms are out, albeit late, and the last of the wintersweet blooms are hanging on weeks after they would normally have all gone. The daily cherry blossom reports are on the evening news and soon every park with a cherry tree will be crowded with merry-makers.
Having lived on an orchard for more than a decade, I’m a little cynical about the fuss made over the cherry blossom. Almond, peach, plum, apricot, plumcot, nectarine, peacherine, and especially prune, we grew them all, and the cherry does not stand out – in my opinion at least – from any of the others. (Then again, millions of Japanese people haven’t asked my opinion…)
The end of the academic year is upon us, and the new school year starts in early April. In my darker moments, I swear that graduation and entrance ceremonies are timed so close together – about only three weeks apart – to coincide with the appearance of the cherry blossom.
Another dark reminder of the arrival of spring is the number of Japanese toads I see splattered on the roads after spring rain. As an aficionado of reptiles and amphibians, I wish they were more road-safety savvy, or that at least boy-band idol groups would get run over with equal disregard.
The Japanese toad (Bufo japonicus) is one of the most familiar frogs to Japanese people. It is commonly known as Nihon hikigaeru (日本蟇蛙), but has other names such as hiki, hikki, ibogaeru, gotobiki, gorota, gama and gamagaeru. These last two are retained in the name “gama no abura” (ガマの油), which is said to be essential oils extracted from the toad’s poison glands. In the Edo era, these were pedalled in much the same way as snake oil in the American West.
The Japanese toad is the largest frog in Japan – 18cm is a widely quoted figure and some sources claim lengths of 20cm (with which I’m not inclined to disagree). Adults don’t need to stay near water, getting the moisture they need from leaf litter or damp soil, coming out in the night rain. They only need a sizable water source during the breeding season. Ponds, lakes, wet rice paddies, irrigation channels and even swimming pools become breeding grounds. I can personally attest to the last one – one school I worked at was surrounded by farmland, and the pool was literally swimming with toads by the beginning of summer.
The “warts” on the toads include the poison glands which are supposed to deter predators. The tiger keelback (see “Union of the Snake” for more details), however, is not only capable of ingesting this poison, it also then uses it for its own defence.
Japanese toads feed mainly on worms, slaters, insects and spiders, but large individuals may prey on mice and smaller frogs.
One reason for their high mortality rate when crossing roads is that they tend to be sluggish in cooler weather (such as rain), and they don’t hop. Japanese toads crawl.
I had never seen one of these animals alive up close until very recently. We went on a drip to Ome in rural Tokyo, and were strolling along a path paralleling the Tama River. I was explaining to my mum that later in the year we might have been able to see river crabs or salamanders, when we came across this individual. I would estimate its size as around 20 cm.
Many thanks to my daughter for taking the photos.