Tag Archives: animals

Daddy’s takin’ us to the zoo

20 Nov

We’re goin’ to the zoo, zoo, zoo

How about you, you, you?

You can come too, too, too

We’re goin’ to the zoo, zoo, zoo.

“Going to the Zoo” Peter, Paul & Mary

 

November 14th is Saitama Prefecture Citizens Day, making it a day off for me.  (Well, a day when there are no classes, but I have to take a paid holiday if I don’t want to go to work…)

The weather was fine and I decided to take the kids to Ueno Zoo.   At only ¥600 for me and no admission fee for the kids, it was a relatively cheap day out.

 

I have mixed feelings about zoos.  I would rather see animals in their natural environments, but that just isn’t possible.  Modern zoos are improving their enclosures and keeping methods, and often play an important part of animal research and conservation.  Would we know, or care, about the conservation status of pandas if we couldn’t see them in zoos?

 

Ueno houses the only pandas in Tokyo (I believe they are on lease from China), and that keeps visitors coming.  Luckily there was little in the way of queues that day, despite the thousands of people there.  I had ideas other than pandas, however…

 

…but no good photos to show for it.  (The window style enclosures affect our camera’s ability to focus, plus I would be in real trouble if there were photos of animals and not kids)

No, this is not one of the kids.

 

I almost had my first encounter with a Japanese badger.  I say almost because the critter was asleep in its shelter, only a patch of fur being visible.  Also disappointing was the lack of marten and weasel displays.  We were, however, able to see most of the other important Japanese mammals – the Hokkaido brown bear was particularly impressive, and was the favourite of a certain little boy.

 

We also had our first view of the masked palm civet, albeit from a distance – it was up a tree!  Enclosures which display the animal in a close reproduction of its natural environment are most welcome.  Some of the Japanese bird enclosures were also excellent, as was the squirrel cage.  I just wish I could say the same for the larger birds of prey.  (Admittedly, each one would need an enclosure roughly the size of the entire zoo to fully appreciate them, but they seemed so cramped)

My first encounter with a masked palm civet.

 

The zoo had a special display (actually, a reboot of one they did a few years ago) on defences used by reptiles and amphibians.  This one actually has some English explanations, but the zoo could do with a better proof-reader – “…these animals defense themselves…”

My special interest is local wildlife, so it was refreshing to see more Japanese reptiles and amphibians on display.  A certain little boy was excited to see fire bellied newts just like the pair he has at home, while my interest was in the giant salamander and Japanese keelback snake.

 

The day was a little too short – I would have liked to arrive earlier, seen some of the other parts of Ueno Park, and stayed at the zoo longer.  Still, given that my daughter said she would like to go again with her friends, that day may not be so far off.

Mujina and Mami – the Myth and the Mammals

28 Nov

On the Akasaka Road, in Tokyo, there is a slope called Kii-no-kuni-zaka,—which means the Slope of the Province of Kii. I do not know why it is called the Slope of the Province of Kii. On one side of this slope you see an ancient moat, deep and very wide, with high green banks rising up to some place of gardens;—and on the other side of the road extend the long and lofty walls of an imperial palace. Before the era of street-lamps and jinrikishas, this neighborhood was very lonesome after dark; and belated pedestrians would go miles out of their way rather than mount the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, alone, after sunset.

All because of a Mujina that used to walk there.

 

The last man who saw the Mujina was an old merchant of the Kyobashi quarter, who died about thirty years ago. This is the story, as he told it:—

One night, at a late hour, he was hurrying up the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, when he perceived a woman crouching by the moat, all alone, and weeping bitterly. Fearing that she intended to drown herself, he stopped to offer her any assistance or consolation in his power. She appeared to be a slight and graceful person, handsomely dressed; and her hair was arranged like that of a young girl of good family. “O-jochu,” [1] he exclaimed, approaching her,—”O-jochu, do not cry like that!… Tell me what the trouble is; and if there be any way to help you, I shall be glad to help you.” (He really meant what he said; for he was a very kind man.) But she continued to weep,—hiding her face from him with one of her long sleeves. “O-jochu,” he said again, as gently as he could,—”please, please listen to me!… This is no place for a young lady at night! Do not cry, I implore you!—only tell me how I may be of some help to you!” Slowly she rose up, but turned her back to him, and continued to moan and sob behind her sleeve. He laid his hand lightly upon her shoulder, and pleaded:—”O-jochu!—O-jochu!—O-jochu!… Listen to me, just for one little moment!… O-jochu!—O-jochu!”… Then that O-jochu turned around, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand;—and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth,—and he screamed and ran away.

Up Kii-no-kuni-zaka he ran and ran; and all was black and empty before him. On and on he ran, never daring to look back; and at last he saw a lantern, so far away that it looked like the gleam of a firefly; and he made for it. It proved to be only the lantern of an itinerant soba-seller, [2] who had set down his stand by the road-side; but any light and any human companionship was good after that experience; and he flung himself down at the feet of the soba-seller, crying out, “Ah!—aa!!—aa!!!”…

“Kore! kore!” roughly exclaimed the soba-man. “Here! what is the matter with you? Anybody hurt you?”

“No—nobody hurt me,” panted the other,—”only… Ah!—aa!”

“—Only scared you?” queried the peddler, unsympathetically. “Robbers?”

“Not robbers,—not robbers,” gasped the terrified man… “I saw… I saw a woman—by the moat;—and she showed me… Ah! I cannot tell you what she showed me!”…

“He!  Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face—which therewith became like unto an Egg… And, simultaneously, the light went out.

 

 

 [1] O-jochu (“honorable damsel”), a polite form of address used in speaking to a young lady whom one does not know.

 [2] Soba is a preparation of buckwheat, somewhat resembling vermicelli.

 

“Mujina” from Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn

(footnotes are Hearn’s originals)

 

Kwaidan was published in 1904, shortly before Hearn died.  It seems strange that his footnotes do not include a definition for “mujina” – the uninformed reader is likely to conclude that it is the faceless apparition, not some mischievous shape-shifting critter.

In another of his stories – “Common Sense” from Kotto, in which a priest is tricked with a vision of the Fugen Bosatsu and saved by a hunter – Hearn specifically states that the goblinry was the work of a badger.

 

In Japanese folklore, shape shifting is attributed to three animals – foxes, cats (under certain conditions) and raccoon dogs.  Hearn’s “mujina” and “badger” undoubtably refer to the raccoon dog.

 

A shape-shifting mujina by Toriyama Sekien. I personally think it looks more like a cat…

I had originally intended this to be a post about the raccoon dog, or tanuki, but while doing some background research I realized that simply clearing up the name would be a post in itself.

 

Previously I mentioned overlapping and crossover between dialectal names of raccoon dogs and badgers.  Here is probably a good point for clear definition.

 

Racoon dog or tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus) – a member of the family that includes dogs, wolves and foxes.  The raccoon dog has five digits on its front paws and four on its rear paws.  It is not, despite its English name, related to raccoons.  The modern Japanese name is hondo tanuki.

 

Badger (Meles meles anakuma) – a member of the weasel family.  It has five digits on both its front and rear paws.  Its modern Japanese name is Nihon anaguma.

 

Both animals are of similar size and build, both live in holes (the badger preferring to burrow, while the raccoon dog prefers rock crags, hollow logs or burrows dug by other animals), and both hibernate in winter (the raccoon dog being the only member of the dog family to do so).  They share similar dietary habits, although the raccoon dog is less picky.  They also both have dark patches forming a “mask” around their eyes – the badger’s “mask” consists of two vertical stripes, while the raccoon dog’s being more of a “Zorro mask” – and both are primarily nocturnal.  It is not hard to see how the two could be confused.

 

Depending on the region, mujina ( or the older ) could be used to describe either animal, or loosely, both!

A mujina according to the Wakansansaizue

I found a story of a 1924 court case involving the illegal hunting of raccoon dogs.  The defendant was declared not guilty because his understanding was that it was illegal to hunt mujina after March 1st, but not illegal to hunt raccoon dogs.

Even today in parts of Tochigi, the raccoon dog is known as mujina and the badger is known as tanuki.  And in other regions, the term is used to refer to the civet.

 

The masked palm civet (Paguma larvata) is something of an enigma itself.  It appears to be an introduced species, but some scholars believe it to be native.  Its local name is hakubishin (白鼻芯).  It has a slighter build than either the raccoon dog or badger, and is more cat-like in appearance, but still bears some resemblance.

 

Further confusing the issue (as if it isn’t already confusing enough) is another old term, mami ().  Mami can refer to mujina, meaning that it could be either a raccoon dog or a badger; however, it has also been used in reference to Japan’s two varieties of flying squirrel!

 

A mami according to the Wakansansaizue. It looks like a mujina to me…

A mami from the Kyokahyakumonogatari. I find this deptiction to most closely resemble the raccoon dog.

“Will the REAL mami please stand up?” The raccoon dog, badger, giant Japanese flying squirrel and masked palm civet have all been known as “mujina” or “mami”.

Furthermore, the ideograms for writing these names may have obscure older or secondary meanings.  The character for raccoon dog () traces its roots to China and refers to a wild cat.  (Is this the reason for shape-shifting to be attributed to cats in a more urbanized 17th century?)

The character for mami () can also mean a kind of wild boar.  It also turns up in the names of several supernatural beings.

 

A mami attacking travellers at dusk. This version seems to resemble a civet.

Hearn produced several chapters on singing insects, dragonflies, butterflies, frogs, folklore and mythology.  I’m sure that the subject of raccoon dogs, badgers, mujina and mami could have provided him with more than enough material for a small volume.

All images are public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Union of the Snake

11 Oct

 

Japan is home to several types of venomous snakes.  Most of these – sea snakes (umihebi) and coral snakes, both of which belong to the same family as cobras – are restricted to the sub-tropical Ryukyu island system and other southern islands.  Most of the family of vipers are also restricted to these areas, with the most infamous being the “habu” (Trimeresurus flavoviridis). The snakes have a reputation for being aggressive, and such is the local fear of this snake, mongooses were introduced to Okinawa from India as a control method.  This proved to be a complete failure – day-active mongooses rarely encounter the night-active habu, instead preferring to prey upon Okinawa’s bird life.

Until a few years ago, one of the drawcards of Okinawa’s tourist industry was habu-mongoose fighting – pit vipers were pitted against mongooses in actual death matches.  This practice is now illegal (and not just to prevent my punning about it!) but there is said to be at least one place that now pits snakes against mongooses in a swimming competition!!

In addition to the habu (波布 or 飯匙倩), there are several snakes containing habu as part of their names – himehabu (姫波布), sakishimahabu (先島波布) and tokarahabu (吐噶喇波布) – and they are all of the genus Trimeresurus.

Apparently, there is a bounty on these snakes in Amamioshima.

Returning to mainland Japan, we find two relatives of the habu – the Tsushima mamushi , or Tsushima island pit viper (Gloydius
tsushimaensis) and the Nihon mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii), popularly known as the Japanese mamushi or Japanese copperhead.
As its name suggests, the Tsushima mamushi (対馬蝮) is found only on Tsushima Island.  The Nihon mamushi (日本蝮) is found all over mainland Japan and its range also extends into Korea and China.

Along with the habu, mamushi are sometimes caught and pickled in shochu or awamori and the concoction drunk as tonic.  I’ve also talked to people who claim that the mamushi is excellent eating.  “Do you want fries with that?”

Although highly venomous and potentially deadly, the mamushi is feared much more than should be reasonably justified.   Says fellow blogger and occasional hiking partner Ian “Goat” on his blog:

              They’re rarely lethal — Australia has earthworms more dangerous — but this venomous pit-viper looms large in the urban-Japanese fear of nature. You hear about them all the time, though I’ve never met anyone who’s seen one

Which brings us to the last of the venomous snakes of Japan.  This one is special to me because it is the only venomous snake I’ve personally encountered in the wild.

Yamakagashi spotted on the road near Mr. Mitsumine, 2007

The tiger keelback (Rhabdophis tigrinus) or yamakagashi (山楝蛇) was until fairly recently not known to be venomous.  Its fangs are located in the back of its mouth, making it difficult to inject its venom into a human.  Another recent discovery was that the yamakagashi also has a gland on the back of its neck which secretes a toxic irritant in the manner of toads – no doubt a defense against the crows, hawks, tanuki and four-striped snakes that prey upon it.

http://youtu.be/Yy5Hjd-qgU0

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