Tag Archives: fish

Not Just Another Walk in the Park

7 Apr

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!

Something Fishy…

28 Nov

Hi blog.

I thought I wouldn’t get a second post this month, but Japanese news to the rescue.

The first article was something I saw on the evening news but had trouble tracking down in the English-language press.

Hokkaido cops: 200 hatchery salmon cut open, eggs stolen

Hokkaido cops: 200 hatchery salmon cut open, eggs stolen

Worker found carcasses dumped in nearby river, police say

Some 200 salmon cut open with their eggs stolen were found in a river near a hatchery in Hokkaido (TV Asahi)
Some 200 salmon cut open with their eggs stolen were dumped in a river near a hatchery in Hokkaido (TV Asahi)

HOKKAIDO (TR) – Some 200 salmon cut open with their eggs removed were dumped in a river near a salmon hatchery, police said on Monday, amid rising salmon roe prices due to a poor fishing season.

The slain fish were found by a worker at the Shibetsu River Hatchery on Sunday morning in Shibetsu City, Hokkaido, TV Asahi reports (Nov. 21).

The stomachs of about 200 to 300 female salmon containing a total of some 100 kilograms of eggs were cut out and stolen, hatchery officials said, in what police are investigating as a case of suspected theft.

Police suspect the crime occurred sometime between 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at the hatchery, which raises salmon on fenceless grounds accessible by anyone, NHK reported.

Yoshifumi Shimoshi, vice president of the hatchery, said he was “frustrated because those salmon were being raised for the hatchery business. I hope the culprit is quickly caught.”

“We have to do something so people can’t get in here,” Shimoshi said.

The hatchery was planning to hatch the eggs and raise them before releasing them next year.

Ikura salmon roe prices have been on the rise this fall, stemming from a poor salmon fishing season.

Article ends.

Comment: Fish farming is probably the only sustainable form of fisheries.  My family participated in a project to re-establish salmon populations in a local river by hatching salmon eggs and releasing the fry into the river.

I hope the culprits get caught and get whatever is coming to them…


The second article has been doing the rounds, mostly because it falls into the “crazy Japan” category, something which should always be approached with caution.  (If you have recently read that roadworkers fixed a sinkhole in just two days, you’ve been reading a lie – it took just over a week)

Fukuoka theme park draws ire over 5,000 fish frozen into ice skate rink

Fukuoka theme park draws ire over 5,000 fish frozen into ice skate rink

Billed as ‘not only a Japan-first, but undeniably a world-first’

A theme park in Fukuoka Prefecture is under fire over an ice skating rink featuring 5,000 fish frozen into the ice in a bid to educate visitors about sea life (Space World’s <a href="https://www.facebook.com/sw.spaceworld/?fref=nf">Facebook</a> page)
A theme park in Fukuoka Prefecture is under fire over an ice skating rink featuring 5,000 fish frozen into the ice in a bid to educate visitors about sea life (Space World’s Facebook page)

FUKUOKA (TR) – A theme park in Kitakyushu City is facing a growing tide of criticism over its educational attraction featuring some 5,000 sea creatures frozen into an ice rink in what it boasts to be a world-first — and possibly Japan’s last.

Space World, described as a “theme park all about space” by the Japan National Tourism Organization, launched the “Freezing Port” event for its existing ice rink on November 12 as a limited winter and spring exhibition to educate visitors about marine life.

Park visitors can rent ice skates and glide over a wide variety of fish and shellfish frozen into the ice in different zones, according to the official web site, including a section featuring enlarged photos of bigger creatures such as whale sharks that some mistook to be real.

Many of the fish used for the attractions were unfit for retail sale and sourced from public fish markets, a Space World official said.

‘Attraction both unseen and unheard of’

The theme park promised in October that visitors would have a “chance to enjoy skating under unreal conditions at an attraction both unseen and unheard of” in what is “not only a Japan-first, but undeniably a world-first.”

But an initially cautious reception quickly turned to dismay and anger after the theme park began posting preview photos of the ice rink on its Facebook page on October 26, accompanied by what many criticized as inappropriate captions.

Netizens were particularly vocal about a caption for a “Part.7” November 7 photo showing bodies of fish half-frozen into the ice rink that read “I’m d..d..drowning…It h…h..hurts…,” with one comment saying the park shouldn’t “make life into a toy.”

In another photo post dated November 8, visitors urged others to boycott the park while others condemned the attraction as an “insult to life” and urged the park to “go out of business.”

Official: Live fish not used

Space World continued to preview the attraction despite mounting criticism with a final “Part.11” photo on November 11, which drew over 100 comments expressing varying degrees of shock and shame –– including a claim that the attraction was gaining attention in China as “Japan’s vulgar theme park.”

An official from Space World’s public relations department confirmed to news site Netlabo that the park has “received lots of opinions on sites like Twitter, and some have even contacted us directly.”

The official denied allegations that the park used live fish for the ice rink.

“The real fish we used were provided wholesale from public fish markets, and these fish sellers are all aware of the purpose of this project,” the public relations department official said. “Many of these fish don’t meet standards for selling to customers. And the big fish like whale sharks, sharks, and rays aren’t real, they’re simply photos that were blown up and embedded in the ice.”

When asked to explain what the project is about, Space World said it “wanted people to interact with the creatures of the sea…The attraction is divided into multiple zones, including a ‘deep sea zone,’ with accompanying explanations about the kinds of fish on display.”

The official said reactions from visitors “have been favorable. It seems like children are having a particularly good time.”

Reports of blood in ice

Regarding reports that blood was seeping into the ice and bodies of fish were sticking out, the official said the cause was “probably ice melting when the attraction launched.”

“As for the exposed fish, we believe it’s not a case of ice skate blades scratching and damaging them, they wouldn’t be damaged unless there was intentional digging of the ice or kicking of the fish,” the official said. “But this is the first staging for us as well, so we think there was a lack of experience there.”

Asked if the theme park thought the “drowning” caption had any issues, the official replied: “Another employee wrote that hoping people would find it funny. But I do feel that not enough caution was taken. I apologize.”

There are “no current plans” to shutter the attraction, the official said. “For me personally, I believe people will understand if they come visit, so I would ask them to please visit the link when they have a chance.”

‘Memorial service for the fish’

Regarding the fate of the fish in the ice, the official said the company is “investigating what we’ll do with them afterward. The whole purpose of the project is to have people experience the world of the ocean, including the lives of the fish within, so it’s also been proposed to hold a memorial service for the fish who worked hard for us.”

The official concluded by saying that people would “understand the intention of this project if they actually came to visit. This is a first for us as well so there was some lack of experience in some areas, but if people would have a correct understanding of the purpose of the exhibition…”

A user questioned the official’s remarks in the November 11 photo by saying: “A PR official from Space World said, ‘This project is based on wanting people to interact with the creatures of the sea,’ but just how many people did they expect would say, ‘Wow! I’m right up close with the creatures of the sea!’ when they’re gliding over bodies of frozen fish? I’m having trouble understanding this. All of these comments reflect what society thinks about this event. I would appreciate this message getting across even a little to the organizer.”

Article ends.

Comment: Once we digest (yes, pun intended) the information that the fish were already dead and were unsellable rejects from the market (caveat: Japanese food markets tend to be very particular about appearance, and perfectly edible products are often rejected on grounds of appearance), I’m still baffled.  How does freezing thousands of dead fish in a skating rink educate people about marine life?  There was a VERY good reason this kind of attraction had never been seen before – it was an utterly stupid idea!!

I find the trend of actual aquariums using projection mapping to project images of blossoming cherry trees and fireworks onto aquaria odd (and annoying), but this is simply bizarre.

Typical of officialdom, there is the standard attempt to explain the complaints away as a misunderstanding on behalf of the people who were offended…

As a final thought, the comment that the park was gaining infamy in China (gasp!) was probably the killing blow.

And I wonder if the theme park ever got around to that memorial service…


UPDATE: Space World management has announced that the park will close on the last day of December, 2017.  

The closure is probably unrelated to the fish in the rink.

Radically Fishy – An Adventure in Ideograms

12 Jun

Hi blog.

The rainy season has arrived, so be prepared to put up with me ranting about the locals’ inability to cope with the heat and humidity.

Recent news has been dominated with the story of Yamato Tonooka, whose parents left him in the forest for a few minutes as punishment, only to have him disappear and not be found for nearly a week.  The media have been tripping over themselves to bring us the exclusive reports, which now include close-up shots of the tap he drank from…

This post comes from an idea floating around inside my head for a few years but was crystallised by a school lunch, of all things.

Lunch included Japanese Spanish mackerel (“So is it Japanese or Spanish?  Make up your mind!”), which is known in the vernacular as sawara and written 鰆.  Astute readers might recognise the radical as the character for fish (魚) combined with the character for spring (春).  This fish always seems a little dry, and I quipped that since we are now in summer, it is out of season.

Time to look at some characters with the fish radical.  Let’s keep this simple and go by stroke number.

The modern character for fish.

The first one combines fish with the element for fortune telling (占) to make 鮎.  Avid readers may recognise it as ayu or sweetfish, although it originally referred to the catfish – namazu – now written 鯰.

Next is one you might be able to guess.  If we combine fish with an older version of the character for flat (平) – which I can’t reproduce here due to unicode issues – we get 鮃, read as hirame.  Hmm, a flat fish…  I hope you’re not floundering for an answer.  The answer is, of course, the olive flounder, bastard halibut or Japanese halibut.

The fish with the package (包) is a little confusing.  I’m pretty good with the fish characters – more than a match for a typical Japanese adult – but 鮑 had me stumped.  One reason is because it is not a fish at all – it is abalone!  The locals know it as awabi.

Moving along to another season, let’s look at the fish with winter (冬), read as konoshiro.  Actually, this character – one of several used for the fish – is misleading.  The answer is the dotted gizzard shad, konoshiro gizzard shad, or spotted sardine, which is actually in season in autumn.

The fish with the rock (石) makes sense.  The adults of this family of fish – known locally as kajika (鮖) – apparently lack swim bladders, and so sink when they stop swimming.  It is the sculpin, a large family of fish which inhabit a variety of freshwater and marine environments.  Interestingly enough, another character is also used for this fish.  This character uses fish combined with autumn (秋) to make 鰍, although in the original Chinese it referred to the weather loach.  The weather loach or weatherfish  – dojo in Japanese –  is now typically written as 鰌.

Sometimes the meanings of the parts of the characters is not immediately clear.  The next two are prime examples of this.  The first combines fish with the character for “to be” (有), but in this case it is to represent a fish that swims freely.  The Japanese name for the fish is said to be a corruption of meguro (“black eyes”) and is pronounced maguro (鮪).  The fish in question is the tuna.  Curiously, the Japanese have taken to using the word tsuna (a corruption of the English tuna) to refer to canned tuna…

My other example is fish combined with a character referring to a jade tablet (圭), but taken to mean a triangular shape, or possibly a good shape.  The resulting character is (鮭), referring to salmon.  The Japanese name for the fish is sake, which may have its roots in the Ainu language.  Closely related fish, which may be known as either salmon or trout in English are sold under the name saamon, a corruption of the English salmon.

How about a fish that includes the element for switch, cross over, or interact with (交)?  The resulting character becomes 鮫, and should be somewhat familiar to regular followers.  That’s right, it’s same, meaning shark.  Apparently, the shark’s twisting movements give rise to that character.  The Japanese name same may be of Ainu origin.

Our next fish has the character for village, and also for an old measure of distance (里).  I imagined that the right side referred to the fishes’ length or possibly the distance they swam, but it turns out that it is also a reference to sinews.  The resulting 鯉 is read koi, meaning carp.

We’ve already had one example of the fish radical meaning something other than a fish, so let’s finish off with three more.

The fish radical combined with 京, which typically means capital city but also has the meaning one quintillion or 1×1016 – that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000 – to make the character 鯨.  The ridiculously high number refers to the creature’s size.  That’s right, the character is kujira, and means whale.

Next, let’s combine the fish with a tiger (虎).  This one (鯱) shouldn’t be too hard to guess if I told you to think of a sea creature with the ferocity of a tiger.  The name is shachi, and it refers to the killer whale.  The same characters may also refer to the fanciful creature found on the roofs of castles, often known as shachihoko.

Shachihoko on the roof of Nagoya Castle. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Shachihoko from the Wakansansaizue. Here it is actually written as two separate characters 魚虎 and not the single character 鯱. Interestingly, it is the second-last entry under “scaly marine fish. Mermaid is last!

Our final ideogram for this post is fish with a character meaning to surprise (咢).  In this case, however, the surprise element is similar to the character for chin or jaw.  Again, followers of this blog might recognise the resulting character as 鰐, wani.  Originally meaning certain kinds of sharks, it has been changed to mean reptiles of the order crocodilia.

I hope you enjoyed this post, because there are more interesting fish-based kanji characters out there.

Original bone oracle script.

Bronze script character. You can clearly see the fish here.

Large seal script. It’s beginning to take shape. I can’t see the fish any more.

Small seal script. It only takes a little imagination to understand what character this is, but it looks almost nothing like the original.


20 Jun

Hi, blog.

Earlier this year the Saitama Aquarium was the victim of two large-scale poisonings in its outdoor pools, resulting in a total of over 900 large fish dying.  Toilet facilities were also vandalized in a third incident.

Police have finally arrested a suspect.


Former employee arrested for poisoning Saitama aquarium fish

A former employee of an aquarium in Hanyu, Saitama Prefecture, has been arrested for killing hundreds of fish and damaging property at the aquarium in April.

According to police, Masataka Yagisawa, 24, was arrested and charged with causing damage to private property and killing fish housed at the aquarium, TBS reported Tuesday. Police said that in April, Yagisawa mixed insect repellant chemicals into the water, killing 441 fish including carp. As a result, the aquarium was forced to close during the busy Golden Week period for repairs and clean-up.

In their investigation, police said they traced where the particular type of chemicals had come from, which eventually led them to Yagisawa.

Yagisawa had left his position at the aquarium in February after a dispute with his employer, police said. Yagisawa has denied all involvement in the case.

Police are also questioning Yagisawa about an earlier mass poisoning of fish at the aquarium in which over 500 fish were killed. That took place in February, just after Yagisawa left his job.

The one that didn’t get away.





The Great Gonzui

11 Jan

Hi out there.

The New Year celebrations have come and gone, and things have settled back to their usual routine.

We have passed the solstice, and I notice the days getting longer – it’s not dark at 4:30 any more, but we are still only in the shokan* part of the calendar.  This means that we still haven’t entered daikan*, the coldest period of the year – although we’ve already had days with frozen puddles and ice needs, and one morning when the pipes had frozen enough to cut off water from our kitchen until after 9 o’clock.


I’d like to make this a quick post about a little critter we saw at the Sunshine Aquarium on January 6th.  While this is not exactly suburban wildlife for us in Saitama, it is certainly a realistic possibility for people on the coast.


Today’s guest is the Japanese eel catfish (Plotosus japonicus).

A rather poor shot of the eel catfish (flash photography wasn’t permitted, and they were darting all over the place)

Known mostly by the name gonzui (権瑞), although it has a plethora of regional names including ugu, yurube, urube, gingi, gigime, gugu, gyugyu, and gui.


Growing to around 20 cm long, this fish looks like a smaller but more colourful version of the Amur catfish, but lives in a marine environment.  Another noticeable difference is their schooling behaviour – the fish (particularly juveniles) swim in closely-packed schools, often in a ball-shape.  This is known as “gonzui-dama” (gonzui ball), and is caused by pheromones the fish release.  Adult fish tend to swim alone or in pairs.

Regular readers will remember that, by contrast, the Amur catfish is a solitary animal.


Japanese eel catfish breed in the summer months, laying between 200 and 600 relatively large eggs.  Apparently, the male protects the nest.


Another important point (no pun intended) about the Japanese eel catfish is that it has poisonous spines on both its dorsal and pectoral fins.  While reliable information about this poison is sparse (various internet sites claim potency levels ranging from low to lethal), avoiding getting barbed sounds like good advice.

Actually, a former workmate of mine got barbed on our wharf fishing antics during a staff trip to the Izu Peninsula a few years back.  He reeled in the fish and, not knowing what it was, grabbed it… oops!

Another workmate recognised the fish and had him visit a doctor.  Needless to say he survived and was drinking like a trooper that evening.


Despite being well known to fishermen in the Izu area and even in Tokyo Bay, but has never been considered a table fish.  Some web sites claim that it was virtually unknown to the general Edo populace because it was never sold at fish markets.

While the Japanese eel catfish is eaten in some areas, most fishermen consider it a junk fish.  In fact, there is a tree (Euscaphis japonica) which is also called gonzui – possibly because it too is widely considered worthless.


As for myself, I see them as beautiful fish (in the water, not on the table).


*see my post 24


10 Dec

Winter is upon us, although early winter daytime in this part of the world is usually unpleasantly cold only in the early morning.  Clear skies are the norm, and being out in the sun on a fifteen degree day (while warmly dressed, of course!) can almost make one forget the decay around them.  Add some cloud cover, a northerly wind, and maybe some rain, however, and the countryside transforms into the Land of the Dead.

Just recently, I had the opportunity to take the kids to the Saitama Aquarium.  This is a small and modest affair, dealing mostly with aquatic life (both native and introduced) in Saitama water systems.  It is located in what amounts to the middle of nowhere (somehow, much of Saitama seems to be, err, planned that way), but admission is cheap and it’s easy to spend a few hours in and around the facility for the price of a single ticket.


For the kids, the highlight was probably feeding the large fish in the outdoor enclosures – Nile tilapia, American catfish, sturgeon, grass carp and the massive black carp, the latter two being quite content to stick their heads out of the water and be touched.

My little one was chuffed when he found a Japanese common catfish, which ate the fish pellets he offered it.  I was pretty happy too, as this is one of my favourite freshwater fish, and the star of this post.


Hello! An Amur catfish has come for a feed.

The Amur catfish as depicted in the Wakansansaizue. It is the first fish mentioned in the book. Note that the character 鮎 is used here.

The Japanese common catfish or Amur catfish (Silurus asotus) is a comical-looking fish.  It is found in Asia east of the Amur River down to northern Vietnam.  In Japan, its distribution includes all the main islands except Hokkaido and the Ryukyu islands.  Recent research suggests that the fish’s distribution in Japan was originally limited to the west of modern Shiga prefecture, and only later spread eastwards with human intervention.

The local name for the fish is namazu, believed to derived from nameraka (smooth or slippery).  The original character from China was 鮎, but this is now used to designate the sweetfish or ayu, and the indigenous character 鯰 is now in use.  Around Lake Biwa the regional name hekoki is also used.

The alternate common name is manamazu, used to distinguish it from two other catfish species – the Lake Biwa catfish (Silurus biwaensis) or biwako-onamazu (琵琶湖大鯰) and the rock catfish (Silurus lithophilus) or iwatokonamazu (岩床鯰) – both of which are endemic. 

Amur catfish typically grow up to 60 cm long.  Their dorsal, pectoral and tail fins are atrophied, and they lack scales, giving them an almost tadpole-like appearance.  Adult fish have two pairs of barbels, while larval fish have three (which degenerate as the fish grows).

They live in rivers, lakes, ponds and even wet rice paddies, and have a fondness for muddy substrate.  However, they have a low tolerance for water pollution.

Here you can see the reduced dorsal fin and tadpole-like top profile.


Catfish are carnivorous, feeding on smaller fish, frogs, crustaceans and insects.  Cannibalism is common among larval fish.  (For this reason, aquarists are encouraged to keep catfish in individual enclosures)

These fish are generally nocturnal hunters, preferring to spend the daylight hours hidden in or under plants, driftwood or rocks.  This was one reason I was surprised to see that individual in full sunlight taking commercial fish pellets.

The catfish’s barbels are used to help detect prey in dark conditions.


A catfish monument outside a station in Yoshikawa, Saitama Prefecture. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Amur catfish were once an important food item, especially for farmers, but their significance as a table fish has declined significantly.  While some places are known for their catfish cookery, most people have never eaten catfish.

In fact, owing to the wild fish’s nocturnal habits and the lack of specimens in the supermarket, many people have never seen an actual catfish…


…Which it not to say that they are unfamiliar with them.


Amur catfish depictions – usually comic-art style – are common on signs warning against polluting river systems, but the most common association is with earthquake warnings.  This is a two-fold association.

A Tokyo Metropolitan Police sign playing on the association of catfish with earthquakes. Original photo taken from Wikipedia.


Folklore and mythology hold that earthquakes are caused by a giant catfish O-namazu.  The god Takemikazuchi (also known as Kashimanokami) holds the catfish still, but sometimes he dozes off and the catfish struggles violently, causing the earth to shake.  Depictions of this became very common in the Edo era, especially after a major quake in 1855, and there is a whole class of ukiyoe called namazu-e (“catfish pictures”) devoted to this theme.


Takemikazuchi or Kashima subdues the giant catfish while Daikoku redistributes the wealth.

The god of the Kashima Shrine subdues the pesky cause of earthquakes.  The tools and money probably represent the wealth made by those in the construction industry.  (Nothing much has changed since then)

Another namazu-e showing Takemikazuchi/Kashima subdue the giant catfish.

The other association is a theory that catfish are able to sense earthquakes before humans can, and that they may provide a key to early quake detection.

“No earthquakes today”

Eel of Fortune

8 Jul

My hovercraft is full of eels

– Monty Python

The weather has been cooler and drier compared to most years – fewer rainy days and not many actually hot days.  Some nights in June needed blankets, and there were a couple of days when long sleeves were the right choice.

But now July is here and we’ve had our first taste of real sweltering, sticky weather.  Thank goodness the summer holidays (13 years of teaching English in Japan, and I still refuse to use the word “vacation”) are almost upon us, because the kids turn into zombies when the temperatures and humidity rise but the tests have all finished.


One outcome of the hot, sticky weather is a natural decrease in appetite (plus a desire to be thin for the pool/beach look), causing iron deficiencies, which can lead to anaemia – or, so the popular belief goes.

The reality is many people don’t get enough protein and vitamin B1 during this period.  They tend to remain as motionless as possible in air-conditioned rooms, and their appetite decreases.  They avoid eating meat because they’re not hungry and end up feeling listless and too tired to eat.

The Japanese have a word for this – natsubate.


The Japanese also have a favourite booster for their iron, protein and vitamin B intake at this time of year, and that is grilled eel.

My first encounter with eel was during my 12 month stint in Nagoya (1992-3).  Nagoya is famous for its eel cookery, and combines methods from eastern and western Japan.  Every establishment – some of them in business for generations – has its own sauce, and I can understand the passion for the taste of freshly grilled eel, particularly unagikabayaki.


Mmmm… unagikabayaki. Good, but not cheap. And getting even more not cheap.  Photo taken from Wikipedia (Do you think I can afford to eat this?!)

Eels and their distant relatives (morays, congers and lampreys) must be cooked – their blood contains proteins which, in their raw state, are toxic to humans.


Two kinds of freshwater eel are native to Japan, the Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica) and the marbled eel or giant mottled eel (Anguilla marmorata).  The former, known locally as unagi () is found in freshwater all over the country.  Actually, the term unagi applies to any eel in general, so the japonica is occasionally called Nihon unagi to differentiate it from other commercial species.

Japanese freshwater eel. This is how eels spend much of their time – burried in substrate. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

The marmorata’s range is known to be as far north as the Tone River, but it is largely restricted to the sub-tropics, and is very rare north of southern Kyushu.  Known as ounagi (大鰻) – literally “big eel” – it is a protected species in many areas north of the sub-tropics.  Again, the name is generic for all giant eel species.


Giant mottled eel. Younger specimens may lack the skin pattern and be difficult to distinguish from other eels. These eels can grow over 2 metres in length and live for more than 40 years.  Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Japanese eels grow up to 1 metre long, and giant mottled eels more than double that.  Both species are primarily nocturnal, feeding on worms, insects, fish, frogs and crustaceans.  They spend much of their time either burrowed or hidden under wood or rocks.


Freshwater eels have a lifecycle that is almost the opposite of salmon.  Whereas salmon hatch in rivers, live most of their lives at sea and return to the rivers to spawn, eels spawn at sea, live most of their lives in rivers and lakes, and eventually return to the sea to spawn.


Despite their importance as a commercial fish for centuries, it was not known until recent years exactly where they spawned, a point west of the Mariana Islands.


Newly hatched eel larvae (leptocephali) are thin and transparent, and lack red blood cells; it is hard to imagine them as eels.  Through a combination of swimming and ocean currents, they make their way toward land – in the case of the Japanese eel, this trip is up to 3000 km.  During this period, they develop red blood cells and take on a more eel-like appearance.  They are known as glass eels, as their skin is still transparent.  At the glass eel stage they make their way into fresh water, where they continue to grow and skin pigmentation develops and the young are known as elvers.


Glass eels. Note that the internal organs can still be seen. Photo taken from Wikipedia

Eels have been in the news recently because catches are down and (naturally!) the prices have gone up.  Even though most eel consumed in Japan is artificially raised, it still must be caught at the glass eel stage, which depends on wild eels successfully breeding.

Experimental artificial breeding in the laboratory has proven successful (including feeding the larvae on yolks of shark eggs) but is still too expensive to be applied to commercial aquaculture.

Meanwhile, wild eel populations have decreased, possibly in part due to a shift in ocean currents, changes in water temperatures, and effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake, but mostly due to the usual reasons – overfishing and loss of habitat.


I have written quite a lot here about the eel’s status as a food source – it is almost a national cult – but there are a few surprising exceptions.

Several towns hold the eel to be a messenger of the gods.  Hino in Tokyo has a legend that eels plugged a hole in a dyke when the Tama river flooded, saving the town.  Yotsuya in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, has the same legend.  The Minamimura area of Gujo in Gifu Prefecture holds that a millennia ago eels drove away demons.  Older families in these areas often don’t eat eel, and some towns may not have any eel restaurants at all.  Eel fishing may even be prohibited by local ordinance.


I actually have a pet eel (by pet, I mean that it is NOT going to end up on the table), and I’m pleased to have found that other people also keep eels in the aquarium.  The more people who see aquatic wildlife as something other than a dish, the better.

Kabachan, my pet eel. “What’s that I can smell?”

“Aha! Lunch!” Kabachan about to munch on a worm.

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