Eats Shoots and Leaves

Hi blog.

Spring is in full swing, with the leaves out on virtually every tree.  Unstable weather is with us as storm clouds suddenly appear and disappear.

The first part of this post was seeded several years ago when we visited the wife’s family out in the countryside and her cousins went to harvest some shoots from what looked like a spiky sapling.  I wasn’t able to get a photo at the time and so the idea for the post went into hiatus.

That hiatus thawed when I was riding to work recently and spotted someone harvesting shoots from a spiky plant.  A couple of photos on the way home ensured the seeds of this post germinated.

You wouldn’t guess that this plant is the main star of this post, would you? The taller of the two trees was about 2 metres in height.

The plant in question is the Japanese angelica-tree or Korean angelica-tree (Aralia elata), known in Japan as the taranoki (楤木 of 桵木).   This tree can reach heights of up to 10 metres, but typically grows between two and four metres tall.  It is a slender tree covered with a rough grey coloured bark and spines.  The pinnate leaves grow to between 50 cm and 100 cm, with individual leaflets about 5 cm in diameter.  Each of these leaflets also have spines along the veins.  (This page has lots of close up photos of A. elata, especially of the individual parts)

With so many spikes, it is hard to imagine this plant being any use at all.  However, for a few weeks in spring it produces tender shoots with no spines, which may be harvested and eaten.  In Japan, the most popular way of eating the shoots – called taranome (楤芽) – is as tempura.

A shoot, too small to be harvested.

When harvesting from wild plants, especially those on public land, it is important to leave side shoots, otherwise the tree will die.

Some of the spines covering the trunk.


The second part was inspired by events last year when I helped harvest bamboo shoots.  I didn’t have any chances to take photos that day.  However, I was prepared this time around and managed to sneak in a couple of shots.

A partially dug bamboo shoot.

Bamboo shoots are best harvested just as the tip breaks the surface, but these can be hard to find.  There certainly weren’t as many as last year, and it appears that some wild pig had beaten us to some.  (I didn’t get a photo of the pig’s diggings as it was virtually indistinguishable from where the humans had been digging!)

The harvest wasn’t as good as last year.

Several kinds of giant bamboo are harvested in their shoot form, so I can’t tell you the species.  All I know is that the bamboo rice was pretty good!



Posted in Suburban wildlife | Tagged , | 2 Comments


Hi blog.

The school year is up and running.  The first week of the school year is mostly administration and I don’t have so much to do, but now lessons are underway and I’m busy again.

Thinking back to March when the school year was drawing to a close and how some of the teachers filled in those “dead” lesson periods – assessment was over, there was nothing to be gained from trying to teach the kids anything, but…  Anyway, I noticed that one social studies teacher was showing his kids Princess Mononoke, and I was wondering if he had any questions up his sleeve to get the kids at least thinking.

One element of Princess Mononoke that has always confused me is Ashitaka’s mount.  It is clearly not a deer, nor does it resemble any Japanese mammal that I know of.  Furthermore, the creature is recycled from one of Miyazaki’s earlier works The Journey of Shuna.  Some sources, however suggest that the animal is (loosely) based on the Japanese serow.

Yakkul (spelling?) as he appears in Princess Mononoke. The horns of Japanese serow rarely, if ever, exceed the length of the ears.

The Japanese serow (Capricornis crispus), known locally as kamoshika (usually 氈鹿 or 羚羊 ) but correctly as Nihon kamoshika (日本 氈鹿) to prevent confusion with other ungulates.  An older name was niku (褥), basically meaning “mattress” or “rug”.

Perhaps because “kamoshika” can be loosely translated to mean “antelope”, one can see how a creature most closely resembling an eland of Africa appears in Miyazaki’s medieval Japan setting.

Rather than antelopes, Japanese serow are more closely related to goats.  Their stocky bodies are covered with thick hair which may range from white to black, the area around the neck typically being white.  The coat typically becomes a lighter colour in summer.  Both males and females grow backward curving horns, which continue growing throughout the animal’s life but almost never exceed the length of the ears.

Here you can compare the length of the horns to the ears.  The eyes are very goat-like

Japanese serow live in broad-leaf or conifer forest areas around deep mountains in northern and eastern Honshu, and parts of Shikoku and Kyushu.  They are sometimes spotted on the slopes of Mt. Fuji, although it is safe to say that the average Japanese person is not familiar with them at all – many people think that serow are a kind of deer due to the name.

Serow are foragers, feeding on sasa bamboo and other grasses, bark, nuts and fruit, shoots and leaves.  They live alone or in small family groups rarely exceeding four.  They are also territorial and mark their territory with scent glands.  Japanese serow defecate in set areas, which probably also helps mark territory.

Japanese serow have a long and complicated history with humans.  Their numbers dwindled for the usual reasons – over-hunting and loss of their natural environment, reducing the wild population to less than 3000 individuals by 1955, but they have also been labelled pests by foresters.  The serow has also been used as a symbol of conservation, and the animal now enjoys the status of “National Monument Species.

As it appears in the Wakansansaizue.

The Japanese serow has featured on Japanese postage stamps, once on the 1952 ¥8 stamp and again on the 2015 ¥50 stamp.

The 2015 issue ¥50 stamp featuring the Japanese serow.

Interestingly, in Japan, someone with long, thin legs is described as having “legs like a serow”.  This is another case of misinterpretation – the “serow” in the proverb actually being a an antelope or gazelle, not a Japanese serow!

My only confirmed encounters with Japanese serow have been at zoos (an animal spotted running along a road at night in the mountains of Fukushima may have been a serow, but I was unable to identify it), so I hope to correct this situation one day.

Up close and personal with a Japanese serow, Inokashirakoen Zoo. Que serow, serow ♪

Posted in Suburban wildlife | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Not Just Another Walk in the Park

Hi blog.

April is upon us, which means the beginning of the financial year and academic year, cherry blossom parties, and the end of the end of the extremely short spring holidays.  (I don’t get why the last day of third term and the first day of first term are separated by less than two weeks while first and second terms are six weeks apart)

April 1st was a bit of a joke weather-wise.  The heater didn’t get turned off all day, and rain was persistent.

April 5, however, gave us sun and basically the most glorious day so far this year.  I was to do something with my son, and decided an outing was in order – partially for blog reasons.  My initial suggestion of a walk around Hachikokuyama was rejected immediately, but when I offered Inokashira Park as an option, interest sparked.  A quick internet search of the small zoo within the park sealed the deal.

*Note: The English page for the zoo currently mentions Asiatic elephants.  This is no longer true as Hanako, the oldest elephant in Japan, died in May 2016.  Her enclosure was small and concrete floored, and Hanako had not seen another elephant in decades.

Leaving that sour note behind us, lets take a mostly visual wander around the zoo.  I’ll focus on the native wildlife here, mostly from my son’s attempts at photography…

Before entering the zoo we encountered the “source”…

The spring that feeds the lake and ultimately the river system. There is no longer enough pressure to bring water to the surface and so it is pumped.

The zoo is divided into the main zoo park and the aquatic life park.  My son wanted to visit the latter first.  As we entered the sun was out in all its glory and bush warblers could be heard calling out.  We actually spotted one up a tall tree, but we could make out its movement better than its shape.  Still, I managed to get a recording of its voice.  Turn your sound up for this video.

The outdoor section of the aquatic park houses waterfowl, and the park makes note of is breeding program for Mandarin ducks.

A pair of Mandarin ducks. The bright and gaudy one is the male.

A Japanese crane.

A little egret. I can never get them to hold still for a shot in the wild.

We also spotted people checking fish traps in the lake – I assume they were either surveying the fish population and/or removing alien species.

Checking fish traps. I think this would be a great activity to join.

Most of the shots of the birds are not worth showing, so let’s take a look at the aquarium section.

One of the highlights of the aquarium – a giant salamander. The Japanese giant salamander is the world’s second-largest amphibian.

The head of the giant salamander.

A water spider in a bubble of its own making.

One enclosure was particularly interesting – it contained a pair of little grebes which actively hunted for fish, a large soft-shelled turtle, a Japanese pond turtle and a crested kingfisher.  Only the last one is not normally found within the confines of the larger park area.

A Japanese pond turtle wandering around on dry land.

A soft-shelled turtle. These animals rarely leave the water, making this a rather unusual shot.

High up in a hard-to-see point in the enclosure, a crested kingfisher.

But being able to see those little grebes hunt was something special.

I finally got some pictures of Japanese keelbacks.

A pair of Japanese keelbacks.

A Tokyo salamander. Although they rarely enter the water outside of breeding season, this one was in the water.

Charr and seema. The “kiss marks” on the rocks is where the fish have been feeding on the red algae.

After we had finished in the aquatic park we crossed over to the main zoo.  While this zoo houses a variety of animals from around the world, it boasts a collection of native Japanese mammals and birds.

A Japanese serow. I might get around to writing about these someday…

A Ural owl.

A Tsushima leopard cat.

A pair of Japanese badgers at play.

A copper pheasant. These birds tend to live in the deep mountains.

There is a squirrel enclosure which visitors can enter and experience squirrels running around them.  My memories of Hokkaido include seeing wild squirrels in the large park, but they are a different species.  People around Tokyo rarely, if ever, see wild squirrels.

A Japanese squirrel foraging in the enclosure.

While my son was keen for the civets to wake up, they didn’t.  However, one the Japanese martens became active later in the afternoon.

At just ¥400 for adults and free admission for kids under 12, Inokashira Park Zoo is possibly one of the cheapest and best value days out in Tokyo.  And that doesn’t include the rest of the park!

Posted in Suburban wildlife | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A Walk in the Park

Hi blog.

I’ll spare you the excuses, mostly because I have none.

We are into late March, meaning the end of the academic and financial years, unstable weather – one day’s minimum might be higher than the next day’s maximum, rain one day and dust storms the next – and cherry blossoms and the hype surrounding them.

Feeling somewhat low over the spring equinox long weekend – right after my 45th birthday, no less – I decided to take the plunge and go out in search of something to blog about.

This will be a mostly visual post.  I cycled to Tokorozawa Aviation Memorial Park (it feels so strange to call it that – everyone I know uses “Kokukoen”) in the hope of seeing something worth photographing.  And something I could photograph with my not-so-great smartphone camera.

A Trachycarpus palm, one of the evergreens found in this area.  I should get around to writing about them some day.


Small bracket fungus growing on a tree stump.


Mississippi red-eared sliders vie for the best basking spot on what was the warmest day so far this year.


A yulan magnolia in full bloom. Avid followers might recognise this.


They smell better than those cherry blossoms too.


A mighty Japanese zelkova stands still bare of leaves. This is one of the most ubiquitous trees in suburban Japan.


A pair of brown-eared bulbuls and a pair of white-cheeked starlings acting a little wary of the bloke with the camera.


A brown-eared bulbul plays by the water.


A gorgeous pink camellia. The brown-eared bulbuls sometimes feed on the nectar.


On the way to the park, along the banks of the Azuma river. White, pink and red camellias under a cherry tree and palm.


Rape blossom, cherry and camellias under a street lantern. Comma placement is VERY important!


Sometimes a walk in the park is just what one needs.

Posted in Suburban wildlife | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The monkey killers

Hi blog.

It looked like I wasn’t going to get a post out this month.  I was toying with one about the starlings in the area, but couldn’t get any decent photos – if I was running early for work, there would be no starlings close by; if there were starlings up close, I was running late.

Then a rather unusual article showed up on my newsfeed.

My encounters with Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys (Macaca fuscata), known locally as nihonzaru (日本猿), have almost entirely been limited to zoos, monkey trainers performing in public, or monkey parks.  I did come across a wild mother and baby around Nikko some years back, but that is it.

The killing of 57 macaques due to genetic impurity – hybridization with the superficially similar rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) – has created a minor stir, but I will take a slightly different tack.

Most of the English news contains the same information as the BBC version, so I’ll leave that one here.

Japan zoo kills 57 snow monkeys due to ‘alien genes’

  • 21 February 2017
Japanese macaques, commonly known as snow monkeysImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionJapanese macaques, commonly known as snow monkeys, are a tourist attraction in Japan

A zoo in northern Japan has culled 57 of its snow monkeys by lethal injection after discovering they carried the genes of an “invasive alien species”.

Takagoyama Nature Zoo in Chiba said DNA testing showed the monkeys had been crossbred with the rhesus macaque.

The non-indigenous rhesus macaque is banned under Japanese law.

A local official said they had to be killed to protect the native environment.

The zoo’s operator held a memorial service for the snow monkeys’ souls at a nearby Buddhist temple.

Japanese macaques, commonly known as snow monkeys, are native to Japan and are one of the country’s major tourist attractions.

Japan prohibits the possession and transport of invasive species, including crossbreeds.

An official from the Office for Alien Species Management, part of the country’s environment ministry, told local media that the culling was unavoidable because there were fears they might escape and reproduce in the wild.

Junkichi Mima, a spokesman for conservation group WWF Japan told AFP news agency that invasive species cause problems “because they get mixed in with indigenous animals and threaten the natural environment and ecosystem”.

Article ends.

The Huffington Post UK gave some extra information

The zoo housed 164 primates which they believed were all pure Japanese macaques, AFP reports.

But it was later discovered that about one-third had been crossbred and they were culled. It is not clear when the crossbreeding occurred, or if the zoo is at fault.

And this is what I want to know:  Why did the zoo perform DNA tests?  Is it a standard procedure, or did they suspect something?  

Did the hybridization occur in the wild (cue the Lost in Space robot “Danger, danger!”), or did it happen in (gasp!) captivity?  And if the latter, what does that tell us about the laws regarding the possession of invasive species, or about zoo management?

Were the culled hybrids the first generation, or were they second – or even worse – third generation?  

The articles pose more questions than they answer.

Posted in Suburban wildlife | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Stroke of Genius…?

Hi blog.

Sometimes I say to myself, “Andrew, you’re a genius.”  And very occasionally, I prove it.

I sometimes get requests for information about various topics, or “Can you identify this?”  Well, I recently received an e-mail from all-round good guy Ian G. “Goat” Fraser:

Okay... maybe.

Okay… maybe.

I instantly recognised the large character at the bottom, kai (界), usually meaning “world”.  I wondered if it was some kind of Buddhist term – one would expect such things on a pilgrim route.  Although on a marker like this the smaller characters would be read top-down, right-to-left, I decided to tackle the three on the left first, simply because I recognised them straight away.  Well, recognised them individually, which is of little help when trying to read unusual vocabulary.

Google to the rescue.  I entered the characters individually – actually, the 々 symbol is like a ditto mark, meaning the previous character is repeated.  As it turns out, 久百々 is read “Kumomo” – a phonetic combination that it hardly likely to be a native Japanese speaker’s first choice.  It is the name of a district within the city of Tosashimizu, Kochi Prefecture.

The set on the right turned out to be more challenging.  First, I used a stroke count application to get the reading for the second character, 岐, ki.  The angle of the photo and the particular writing style made it difficult to pick out straight away.  The first character looked like 六, so I tried searching under the reading “Rokki”, but to no avail.   However, when I tried the search term in conjunction with Kumomo, I got links to Oki no hama.  The first character was actually 大, not 六!!  (A Japanese friend said that she agreed with me as to how the character appeared due to the style of the engraving)

“Of course it says 大岐 久百々 界  What did you think it said?”

A search for Oki gave location just south of Kumomo.  That was when inspiration struck – I recalled the word kyokai (境界) meaning “boundary” or “border” – and tried a map and then street view search of the border between Kumomo and Oki.

From Google street view. That bluff looks familiar...

From Google street view.  That bluff looks familiar…



As it turns out, 界 by itself can also mean the same.

So Ian’s mysterious marker was marking the boundary between the old villages of Kumomo and Oki, which were incorporated into the city of Tosashimizu in 1889.

OK, hardly anything to get excited by – not marking a battle or shipwreck, but I’m nevertheless congratulating myself on a job well done.

Posted in Suburban wildlife | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Some good news for Storks

Hi blog.

Some good news for an endangered species, the oriental white stork (Ciconia boyciana).  Known in Japan as konotori (鸛 or 鵠の鳥) and formerly as kui, it became extinct in the wild here before I was born!

Some quick research shows that Toyooka has a shrine dedicated to these birds, the Kukuhi Shrine, which probably explains why the stork breeding program is based there.

From The Japan Times

Japan’s push to reintroduce endangered white storks into the wild pays dividends


 JAN 8, 2017

White storks, a government-designated special natural treasure in Japan, are being released into the wild here in increasing numbers.

Feral white storks are believed to have gone extinct in Japan in 1971. But attempts to breed storks and release them into the wild began in Hyogo Prefecture in 2005.

Similar efforts began in two other areas of Japan in 2015 and the number of wild white storks in the nation is believed to have topped 100 this year.

White storks once inhabited paddies and marshy areas of the country, feeding mainly on loaches and frogs, but the population fell due to postwar overhunting.

The white stork is now designated as an endangered species, with only some 2,000 of them living in the entire Far East.

Hyogo Prefecture’s Park for the Oriental White Stork in Toyooka, a former breeding location, has launched a project to rebuild the population of wild white storks.

The park started a breeding program mainly with pairs of wild white storks provided by Russia. It has released 41 of the birds since 2005.

For outdoor nesting, the park has been installing towers with net plates of iron on top, in and outside of Hyogo Prefecture.

“White storks can now give birth and raise chicks in the wild in Toyooka,” said Yasuo Ezaki, research head of the park. But they “eat about 1 kg of food a day. We need to increase populations of freshwater fish and other living things as feed.”

According to the park, around 90 white storks, including those released from the park and those hatched outside, are living in the wild.

“White storks have been confirmed in 45 prefectures in the country so far,” a park official said.

In 2015, the Fukui Prefectural Government and the city of Noda, Chiba Prefecture, launched similar projects, aiming to use white storks as a symbol of restoring the nature to its former glory.

“We want to leave a rich natural environment for the future,” a Noda official said.

Fukui has released four white storks and Noda five, and a total of eight now live in the wild. Both governments say they plan to continue the projects.

Meanwhile, the Tokushima Prefectural Government aims to attract white storks flying to the prefecture to settle there.

Some 20 white storks have flown to Tokushima in the past few years, with one observed laying eggs in the city of Naruto. Tokushima plans to establish feeding sites by preparing a more eco-friendly environment.

Article ends.

I disagree with the use of the word “feral” in the second paragraph, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it:

…in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication

Apparently, Korea and China have similar breeding programs, but ultimately it will take a concerted effort on environmental protection and restoration to bring these birds and other species back.

Posted in Suburban wildlife | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Hunter and the Triangle

Hi blog.

2017 is here.  Winter is being its typical cold self, and the worst is yet to come.  Did I ever mention that I don’t particularly like winter?

Just recently we visited the Tamarokuto Science Center, home of the world’s 4th largest planetarium and the most advanced projector – said to be able to reproduce the night sky to some 140,000,000 stars.  (I lost count, so I can’t confirm this!)

The planetarium displays change with the seasons, and the focus of this season’s display was Orion.  Most Japanese kids are familiar with Orion, as they do some elementary astronomy at school and often have homework over the holidays to observe the night sky and locate several asterisms, constellations or individual stars or planets.

It seems that Orion, or at least Orion’s belt is one of the oldest known asterisms in the world.  The ancient Chinese, for example, knew of Orion’s belt and named it Shen (參).  Incidentally, 参 is sometimes used to mean the number three.  In classical Japanese, asterism is known as karasukiboshi (唐鋤星), literally “Tang spade star”.  Modern Japanese uses the name Orion – however, they pronounce it not as /əˈrʌɪən/, but as /ɒrɪɒn/ and write it  as オリオン座 (Orion-za).

Orion and some of the nearby constellations. Image taken from Stellarium (a free virtual planetarium for your PC)

Orion and some of the nearby constellations. Image taken from Stellarium (a free virtual planetarium for your PC)

It is hard not to mention Orion without covering the Winter Triangle, which had a co-starring role (bad pun intended) in the display.  Formed from the three brightest stars in the winter sky, it is sometimes used as a reference point for finding other astral formations.  It is hard to find a Japanese kid who is not familiar with this asterism.

Sirius (the brightest star in the night sky), Betelgeuse (Orion’s armpit), and Procyon (the brighter of the two stars that make up the constellation of Canis Minor) form the three vertices of this approximately equilateral triangle.  It can be seen high in the sky over Japan at this time of year.

The above image with the Winter Triangle drawn in.

The above image with the Winter Triangle drawn in.

My son has expressed an interest in seeing the stars some clear night, so I’ll see what I can do.

Posted in Suburban wildlife | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Season’s Croakings

Hi blog.

Just a quick, mostly visual post this time.

This post involves a mistake I never got around to correcting.  You may possibly remember a post from several years back in which I mentioned obtaining a pair of tadpoles that metamorphosed into what I thought were kajika frogs.

The first one to morph died soon afterward, but the second is still with us.  However, I have consulted several books on the subject and come the the conclusion that it is not a kajika frog but in fact a Japanese brown frog (Rana japonica), or Nihon akagaeru (日本赤蛙) – literally “Japanese red frog” in the local language.

(There is a very slight chance that it the physically similar montane brown frog (Rana ornativentris), but this will require time to get a good look at it – the frog tends to spend a lot of its time hiding.)

You may be wondering why I’m writing about a frog in winter – it should be hibernating, right?

Normally, yes.  But frogs will become active even in mid-winter if the weather is warm enough.  And December 22nd and 23rd brought us that kind of weather.  The forecast for the 22nd – incidentally the last day of term 2 at school – was for temperatures topping out at about 17℃ before moist air brought rain.  The warm temperatures didn’t come although the rain did.  It rained heavily late in the night – trust me, I was walking through it – through to the early hours of the morning.  The 23rd, however, brought that warm change, and the frog became active in the warm (-ish) humid weather.



“Get that camera out of my face!”


You can see some of the stripes on the legs and the yellow on the underbelly.

You can see some of the stripes on the legs and the yellow on the underbelly.


They have beautiful eyes, eh?

They have beautiful eyes, eh?

I might not see this little chap again until spring.

Until next time, stay safe.


Posted in Suburban wildlife | Tagged , | Leave a comment

I won’t let the sun go down on me…

Hi blog.

Just a very quick post as today marks the earliest sunset for the year.  I remember hearing about this last month, and made a mental note to post something on it today.

We still have 10 days until the solstice, and sunrise will occur later.  In fact, sunrise will continue to be increasingly late for the next month or so, even though the total number of daylight hours will slowly increase.

As it is, I will be arriving home in total darkness!  (It is dark outside as I write this; in six months the sun will be up at this time)

Stay safe!

And here you have the stats.

And here you have the stats.

Posted in Suburban wildlife | Leave a comment