Tag Archives: folklore

Sweet Dreams and Life Imitates Art

18 Jan

Hi blog.

This winter had been warmer than usual – ski resorts were having to resort to snow machines, ice smelt fishing areas remained closed due to lakes not freezing over, and golf courses unexpectedly found themselves open for business.

Then the cold came, bringing frost on the ground and on leaves, and freezing up my bike’s gear shifter.  Believe me, riding to work stuck in bottom gear is NOT fun.

My brain was equally stuck for ideas for new posts when inspiration struck.  Why not write about animals whose names were inspired by myth?

The two mythical creatures I want to look at both have their origins in China.

The first is the kirin (麒麟), which is the Japanese reading of the Chinese qilin.  Legends concerning this creature go back to antiquity – one was said to have appeared before the mother of Confucius –  and descriptions have changed over time.  They have been said to resemble deer but with a dragon-like head, horse-like hooves and a golden mane.  They have been depicted as either being hornless or having one, two or three horns (more like deer antlers than actual horns), with the single- and double-horned  versions being best-known in Japan.  Other attributes include not treading on living grass or eating anything that lives.

Kirin, from the Wakansansaizue.


Qilin/Kirin are sometimes known as Chinese unicorn, but there are very few similarities between the two animals.

In Japan, images of the kirin tend to be limited to Buddhist art or as carvings on shrine buildings.  In a previous post I mentioned kirin as guardians of the Yasaka Shrine.  

What appears to be a horned kirin at the Yasaka Shrine.

However, the best-known image is commercial – the logo of the Kirin Brewery Company on its fine, fine products.

The official Kirin beer logo kirin.

As a piece of trivia, the name Kirin appears as three katakana symbols hidden within the kirin logo (with the キ and リ in the mane and the ン in the tail) on the beer labels.

Where to find the hidden “kirin” on the label. This is great for showing off at drinking parties.

Before this turns into a beer commercial, let’s look at the real-life animal that takes its name from the mythological one.

In 1419, one Zheng He returned to the Ming court from a voyage to eastern Africa.  and presented the emperor with gifts of live animals including leopards, lions, zebras and giraffes.  The emperor particularly liked the giraffes, which were declared to be qilin.

A Ming attendant with the gift giraffe. This may or may not be the original 15th century artwork. Taken from Wikipedia.

The name filtered through China’s sphere of influence, including the Korean peninsula and Japan, although most modern Japanese use the katakana script when referring to the giraffe.

Curiously, the modern Chinese name for giraffe no longer reflects any connection to the mythological beast.


“Devour, O Baku ! devour the dream !”

Lafcadio Hearn

The second mythological creature also originates in China, but has made firm footing in the Japanese imagination.

Known as baku (獏)  in Japanese (very different from the Chinese “mo”), it has undergone a few transformations.

The animal was described as having the trunk of an elephant, the eyes of a rhinoceros, the body of a bear, the tail of an ox and the legs of a tiger.

Baku from the Wakansansaizue

In China the mo was said to prevent illness, and that a pillow made from the creature’s fur would prevent nightmares.  Following its transition into Japan, the baku became an animal that ate nightmares.  (Some are of the opinion that the baku was confused with a nightmare-devouring Chinese god read as “bakuki” in Japanese).

Baku by Hokusai.

There have been customs since then of placing a picture of a baku under one’s pillow to ensure pleasant dreams, or of having a baku-shaped pillow or having a picture of a baku on one’s pillow.  The treasure boat of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune sometimes has the character for baku written on the sail.

Baku makura, pillows depicting baku. From the Tokyo National Museum.

Carvings of baku can be seen at temples and shrines.  They could be mistaken for elephants with short trucks, except for their clawed feet.  Look for them on the corners of large shrines.

Look at the carving at the top right – notice the trunk and tusks? That is the baku.  At the Mitsumine Shrine.

Now, as for the real animal… it is the tapir!

Many modern Japanese are unaware that there is actually a difference between the mythological baku and the real tapir, and depict the former as the latter.

A bronze statue based on Shigeru Mizuki’s cartoon art. Taken from Wikipedia.

There are theories that Malayan tapirs may have existed in China in early times, along with elephants and Indian rhinoceroses.  One professor claims that a bronze statue of a Malayan tapir has been dug up at a Chinese archaeological site.  

Maybe the real animal is named after a mythological animal which was modelled on the real animal…



22 May

Hi blog.

Looking through my stats, I have found that search terms for snakes top the list of views for this site.

Clearly, it is time for another serpentine-themed post!

Wada Heita Tanenaga killing a giant snake by a waterfall, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c.1834.


I was going to do something about the cryptozoological giant snakes of Japan – I’d even found a folk story which fitted in nicely to my post about sweet flag and mugwort – when I found a site citing an old New York Times article from 1891.

New York Times 13 August 1891

Swallowed by a Snake A Japanese Story of a Woman-Eating Serpent San Francisco Aug 12, 1891 The steamship Oceanic, which arrived last night from Hong kong and Yokohama brings copies of a native Japanese paper called the Kokkai, which publishes a remarkable story of a monster serpent.

It says that on the 17th inst. a man called Neemura Tahichi, twenty-five years of age, went out with his wife Otora, who was forty-eight, to pursue his usual avocation of tree cutting in Koshitamura Province of Lamba. The husband and wife separated at a place called Matsu Yama. Shortly afterward, while engaged felling a tree, Tahichi thought he heard his wife cry out. Running to the place he was horrified to find that a huge snake, described as being three feet in circumference had Otora’s head in its mouth and was engaged in swallowing her despite her struggles. Tahichi ran off to the hamlet and summoned seven or eight of his neighbors, who when they reached the scene of the catastrophe found that the snake had swallowed the woman as far as her feet and was slowly making its way to its home. They were too much terrified to touch it, and it finally effected its escape unmolested.

The Province of Lamba is one of the most desolate in Japan and monster reptiles and wild animals are frequently killed there.

The article as it appeared in the New York Times in 1891.

OK, there is no place called Lamba in Japan… nor could I identify the newspaper Kokkai…  Neemura seems an unlikely surname, unless they meant Niimura… and no luck with Japanese internet searches….

The lack of information was astonishing.  This allegedly took place at a time when collector of Japanese stories Lafcadio Hearn was based in Japan.  Yet none of his writings mention giant snakes.

And then I stumbled upon this one from the Brisbane Courier, dated September 9th, 1891:

The Japan Mail translates the following wonderful snake story from the Kokkai, a Tokio paper:-It says that on the 17th July a man called Nomura Tahichi, 50 years of age, went out with his wife Otora, who was 48, to pursue his usual vocation of tree-cutting in Koshitamura, province of Tamba. The husband and wife separated at a place called Matsu-yama. Shortly afterwards, while engaged in felling a tree, Tahichi thought he heard his wife cry out. Running to the place, he was horrified to find that a huge snake, described as being 3ft. in circumference, had Otora’s head in its mouth, and was engaged swallowing her, despite her struggles. Tahichi ran off to the hamlet and summoned seven or eight of his neighbours, who, when they reached the scene of the catastrophe, found that the snake had swallowed the woman as far as her feet, and was slowly making its way to its hole. They were too much terrified to touch it, and it finally effected its escape unmolested.

As it appeared in the Brisbane Courier.

 At least the age of the husband seemed more in line with that of the wife (50 and 25 aren’t that hard to differentiate, are they?), we have a real province (Tamba), a real surname (Nomura), and a citation of the secondary source.  Not to mention no hyperbole at the end.

A search shows no results for a place called Koshitamura in Tamba, but there was a Kashitamura in the former province.  I still have not been able to find any results in Japanese searches.  My final hope is that the Japan Mail was later absorbed into the Japan Times.  Perhaps this paper has the original locked away somewhere in its archives…

It is also worth noting that the old Tamba province is the setting of old stories about monsters.  There are several legends and folk stories involving giant snakes in Tamba, and it seems likely that the hyperbole at the end of the New York Times article was referring to this.


I will continue my hunt, but the chances of anything turning up seem quite slim.  Whch is a pity – the story is a little hard to swallow.

Things That Make You Go N

22 Dec

Whoops!  It’s been far too long between posts and the winter solstice is upon us yet again.  Japan has a few traditions relating to this date.  Yuzu-yu is one, there are also ideas about eating azukigayu, a kind of red bean and rice gruel, but I also recently stumbled across some information about eating food with a specific phonetic value.

Fresh yuzu. Lovely fragrance, not so lovely taste.

I have mentioned this in passing, usually related to homophones (the kelp kombu sounds similar to yorokobu – to be happy) or shape (soba noodles which are long and therefore associated with long life).  Only this time, the desired phonetic value is an “n”.

Left: The kanji (Chinese character) “mu”. Right: the hiragana “n” which is derived from it.

Let me explain a little about the Japanese language.  It is a syllabic language, and every syllable (or, more correctly, mora) contains a vowel value, either as a stand-alone vowel or consonant-plus-vowel combination  – except the “n” mora.  This odd-man-out is also sometimes represented by an “m” (as in the above-mentioned “kombu”) since it often changes phonetic value when preceding a “b”, “m” or “p”.

Anyway, there is a belief that eating food with the “n” sound will prevent cerebrovascular disease, or at least bring good luck (“n” sounds similar to un, meaning “luck”)

Up close and personal with a raw lotus root from the supermarket. I love these sliced finely and fried into chips!

Examples include carrots (ninjin), giant radish (daikon), lotus root (renkon), udon noodles (which have the added advantage of being long, therefore promoting long life into the bargain) and pumpkin.  (That’s winter squash for those of you from the U.S.A., who think that pumpkins come in orange only.)

Pumpkin is an interesting example because its most common Japanese name (kabocha – said to be derived from the Portuguese name for “Cambodia”, whence Portuguese sailors first brought pumpkin to Japan in the mid-16th century) doesn’t have the “n” sound.

But don’t worry.  As regular readers of this blog know, many things in Japan have more than one name, and the pumpkin is no exception.  One of its other names is nankin uri (南京瓜) – literally “Nangking gourd” – and often simply shortened to nankin (with two of the lucky “n”s!)  Curiously, the afore-mentioned word kabocha is rendered into kanji as 南瓜.

A quarter pumpkin from the supermarket. Believe it or not, they price these things by the one hundred grams.

The most common pumpkin dish is possibly pumpkin simmered in stock.  Personally, I prefer pumpkin tempura, which also has the lucky “n” – although I can’t recall it making me particularly lucky.

With its high sugar content, it is one of the few autumn vegetables that will keep into the winter.  It is also rich in vitamins, particularly vitamin A and beta carotene, and is frequently listed as a food to prevent colds and flu.

While there is a fair chance that I won’t be eating pumpkin this solstice, typing this has given me a craving for pumpkin.  And – who knows –  maybe I might just get lucky.

On my hand for some sense of proportion. You can see the green skin around the edges.


Today’s Wild In Japan was brought to you by vitamin A, β carrotene, and by the mora “n”.

Hihi – No Laughing Matter

16 Oct

Hi blog.

Nature in Japan hasn’t been terribly friendly as of late.  It seems that if the climate isn’t trying to kill you, the geology is.

So, let’s take a break from nature per se and look at some folklore – which is often just a more primal interpretation of nature.

Enter the hihi…

My first encounter with the hihi was during a re-run of an episode of Hissatsu Shigotonin, sometime in late 1989 or early 1990.  What I didn’t know when I reached for my Japanese-English dictionary and found the definition of hihi as “baboon” was that the hihi is also the name of a mythological creature.

It never really entered my mind again until earlier this year when, thanks to the wonders of TV, a cartoon of an old tale also depicted the hihi.

The hihi (狒々, 狒狒 or比々) is of Chinese origin but has firmly taken root in Japanese folklore, where it has fused with legends of the sarugami and yamawaro.  It is depicted as a large to giant-sized ape or macaque.

Some commentators suggest the hihi is inspired by early descriptions of gorillas or orang-utans, while others point of fossils of primates larger than those extant today.

Descriptions vary – the Wakansansaizue describes the hihi as being black, whereas most popular depictions in ukiyoe, drama and TV are of a white-haired beast, although the red face and long, flapping lips are almost universal.  Some say that a snow monkey that reaches an extreme old age transforms into a hihi.

The hihi as depicted in the Wakansansaizue

Living in the deep mountains, they hunt wild boars but will also prey upon humans.  Most descriptions agree that the hihi will laugh before devouring a human – the laugh being the reason behind the name.  Stories of them catching and running off with women are staple fare of folk stories, kagura theatre and ukiyoe.  (Incidentally, the word hihi is also sometimes used as a pejorative for a lecherous old man.)

A hihi by Sekien.

Masasumi’s 1853 painting of a hihi.

The two most famous stories involving the hihi are of the semi-historical Jutaro Iwami (often identified as the real-life Kanesuke Susukita) and Shippeitaro (or Hayataro, as he is also called, depending on the region).

Both these stories are similar in plot.

In the former, the mighty warrior hears of a village that is forced by some mountain god to make a sacrifice of a maiden once every year.  Not believing that a god would be so evil, Jutaro decides to take the place of the maiden and hides in the offering casket.  Night falls and a hihi comes down from the mountains to collect his meal…

A composite of Tsukioka’s 1865 print of Jutaro Iwami about to ambush the hihi and other goblins.

Jutaro Iwami vanquishes the hihi in this 1859 woodblock print by Utagawa.

Iwami’s movie debut. A promotional poster for a 1917 film.

In the latter story, a maiden must be offered to a menacing mountain god.  A wandering priest hears of this and decides to investigate.  Hiding behind the shrine at night, he hears voices calling to each other.

“Is Shippeitaro near?”

“No, we have no need to fear tonight”

The priest goes off in search of Shippeitaro, envisaging him as a mighty warrior.  Imagine his surprise when he finds that Shippeitaro is a dog!

He borrows the dog, who hides in the casket in which the offering is to be made (some versions have a shrine building instead).  Night falls, shadows come down from the mountains and open the box.  (One would think that villians in Japanese folklore would wise up to this trick…)

The next morning the priest finds the bodies of dozens of monkeys and a giant hihi (some versions have three hihi).  The wounded Shippeitaro makes his way back home, but dies from his injuries.

There is a temple in Komagane, Nagano Prefecture, which claims to house the grave of Hayataro (as he is known in that region), and to also be his birthplace.

Curiously, this story was translated into English by one T. H. James in 1888, but she replaced the monkeys and hihi with phantom cats.  (Perhaps she thought that hihi wouldn’t translate well, and replaced them with the dog’s enemy in Western folklore.  In Japanese folklore, dogs and monkeys are antagonistic toward each other, and people who hate each other are said to have a monkey and dog relationship)

Just to tie all the folklore and nature back together again, the Shippeitaro/Hayataro legend claims the dog as being a “yamainu” (山犬).  This is a very vague term, and has been used not only to describe domestic dogs which have gone wild, but also wolves.  Some also suggest that it may be a separate creature altogether, possibly a domestic dog-wolf hybrid.

The wolf cult is a complex and fascinating topic, and I hope to write about it sometime.

Holy cow… err… horse?

23 Aug

Hi blog.

It’s a little late to be talking about O-Bon – it finished on August 15th here – but I managed to get a couple of interesting pictures.

Anyone who spends the summer in suburban Japan will encounter cucumbers and eggplants with four pieces of chopstick pushed into them (to create legs) placed on street corners.  (I admit to being baffled on my first encounter – I thought they were some kid’s handiwork.)

A typical example of the eggplant and cucumber decorations.

These are called shoryouma (精霊馬), in which shoryo refers to the spirit of the dead (typically an ancestor) and uma is a horse.  Curiously, the cucumber represents a horse and the eggplant represents a cow, but there is no customary name for the cow alone.  The pair are known as horses!

It’s a horse. (Often it is made with the curve facing downwards for better effect)

The cow with no name… apparently it is also shoryouma!


The role of the horse and cow are not defined exactly.  Depending on whom you talk to:


The horse is for the spirits to arrive on so they come quickly.  The cow is for the spirits to depart on so that they leave slowly.


The cow is for the spirits to arrive on and the horse is for them to return on.


The horse is for the spirits to ride and the cow is to carry their belongings.


I was pleasantly surprised to discover straw versions too.  The shape is sometimes difficult to tell apart – one website I found during my research suggested only the shape of the tails were different!

The cow is blue and the horse is red.

Note the difference in the tails.


There are other Bon decorations, but these tend to be displayed indoors.  Shoryouma are the only kind of Bon decorations one simply stumbles upon.

Takao – a hill by any other name

22 Apr

Mt. Takao is a popular hiking retreat for urbanites – within one hour of central Tokyo, several routes, including one paved all the way (perfect for those elderly types who buy all the essential hiking gear which never seems to get dirty, much like suburbanite Australians driving big 4WDs to the shopping centre and no further), and two options to bypass the steepest slopes: a funicular and a chairlift.

At just 599m, there is no way Takao deserves a titular “Mt.” (And I have NO qualms about mocking people who list it as a “mountain” they’ve climbed – especially when I suspect they made half the trip by means other than their own two feet.)  On the other hand, it is a good daytrip to get away from the city and actually have the opportunity to encounter something different.

Just to get you in the spirit of things, here’s a little article from The Daily Yomiuri December 27, 2007.  (Sorry, no link as the Yomiuri doesn’t archive articles).  Serious hiker Ian described it as “pure GOLD”

Rescues spike on popular hike / Novice climbers flocking to Michelin Guide 3-starred Mt. Takao

The Yomiuri Shimbun

This year has seen a marked increase in the number of hikers needing to be rescued from the 599-meter high Mt. Takao in Hachioji, Tokyo, with 43 people in 41 incidents having been rescued this year as of Tuesday compared with 26 people rescued in 20 incidents last year.

The rise is being attributed to a spike in the number of beginner hikers attempting to scale the mountain without appropriate gear.

However, others argue the spike in rescues is due to a spike in climbers triggered by the mountain being featured in the most recent Michelin guidebook on Japan, published in April.

The guide gave the mountain three stars as a tourist spot.

Mt. Takao is located about an hour from central Tokyo by train and has many easy routes for beginners.

A recent boom in mountaineering helped push the number of visitors to the mountain to about 2.5 million people last year.

Michelin published in French “Voyager Pratique Japon” in April, which features 820 sightseeing spots across Japan.

Noting that Mt. Takao is “located close to a big city, but is richly endowed with nature,” the guidebook gave the mountain its highest rating of three stars. Mt. Fuji was the only other mountain to garner three stars.

According to the tourism section of the Hachioji municipal government, in November about 250,000 tourists came to view autumn leaves, about 25 percent more visitors compared with the same period last year. The guidebook is believed to have partly contributed to this increase.

English, Chinese and Korean guideposts were set up in September at the start of hiking trails in response to the increase in foreign visitors.

However, the increase of hikers also has increased the number of accidents involving hikers, such as getting lost and falling down slopes.

According to a survey by the Metropolitan Police Department’s antidisaster division, about 15 to 20 incidents a year were reported for the past three years until last year.

However, over 40 incidents have been reported this year. In June, Takao Police Station started a mountain rescue unit.

Many of those who have needed rescuing have been beginners attempting to climb the mountain with little planning, including being dressed in clothing unsuitable for hiking.

In October, a 51-year-old man dressed in a suit and leather shoes asked to be rescued after he began climbing in the afternoon and was unable to follow the trail after it got dark.

In November, a 49-year-old drunk man was injured after falling about three meters.

A 37-year-old man had to be rescued after suffering dehydration after trying to ride up the mountain on a bicycle without drinking water.

Although the peak of the hiking season has already passed, many hikers visit a temple near the top of the mountain during the year-end and New Year’s season and to see the sunrise on Jan. 1.

Kenichiro Maruyama, head of the mountain rescue unit, has a warning for reckless hikers. “If you underestimate Mt. Takao, you may lose your life. You must prepare rain gear, survival food and a flashlight at least,” he said.

(Dec. 27, 2007)

I had the kids in tow, so anything other than the paved No. 1 route was out of the question (but I made the kids climb the whole way, heh, heh.)   One positive thing that can be said about the paved trail is that it discourages hikers from leaving it, and prevents further damage to the local ecosystem.  Plants grow right up to the trail edge, and it was good to see my kids take an interest in their surroundings.


Of particular interest to the kids were bracken ferns with their new spring fronds, the acauba with their large red berries, and the cobra lily urashima, which was a new experience for me too.

Fronds, particularly those from Pteridium aquilinum  – known as warabi (蕨) – and Osmunda japonica – known as zenmai (薇) – are a common food product here, and it is lucky that collecting plants is forbidden on the mountain hill, otherwise these areas would be virtually strip-mined and we’d have hordes of middle-aged to elderly women trampling all over the place.  With fronds like that, who needs enemies?


I can’t identify the type of fern or bracken, but the fronds caught the attention of my kids.

The aucuba (Aucuba japonica) is a plant I only knew by its Japanese name, aoki (青木) learning its English name while researching for this post.  Actually, aucuba is a latinization of aokiba, a regional name for the plant.  It thrives even in the shade of broadleaf canopies, and the large red berries are rather attractive.


The large berries (over 1cm long) of the acauba.

The cobra lily Urashima may be a subspecies of Arisaema thunbergii, or a separate species (Arisaema urashima), depending on who you listen to.  Ah, nomenclature wars.

After spotting this plant (OK, actually the kids spotted it and pointed it out to me, but let’s not get hooked up on details), I dived into my guide book and thought it may have been the crowdipper (Pinellia ternata), although the crowdipper lacks the purple colouring.  Later reading suggested that the crowdipper, which is an early import from China, was very similar in appearance to the cobra lily Urashima.  The latter, a native, has a purple tinge.  Furthermore, this plant was listed on the official Takao website.

The local name is urashimaso (浦島草) – literally “Urashima grass” –  and the most widely accepted reason is the long spadix appendix (try saying that quickly!) which brings to mind the fishing rod and line of the fairy tale character/folk hero Urashima Taro.


The flower and sapix of the cobra lily Urashima. The appendix can reach up to 60 cm in length.

I was hoping to encounter some fauna other than Homo sapiens, but the vast majority of creatures preferred to be heard than to be seen.  Bush warblers made their presence known, and at a spring (where water trickled out of the rock face) we could hear frogs calling.


Takao has a long association with the Shugendo religion, and the Takaosan Yakuonin Temple of one of the Shingon branches is a major drawcard for visitors.

Because it is a sacred mountain hill, small shrines and statues line the trails and temple grounds.  But the most famous icon is the tengu.


“Beware of tengu”

I won’t go too deeply into tengu beyond the two main types, tengu (a red-faced, long-nosed mountain spirit) and the karasu-tengu, which has the face of a crow.


Tengu acting as guardians to the fierce-looking Buddhist diety.

Tengu or Daitengu.

Karasutengu. This and the previous photo were taken within the temple grounds.

Giant tengu mask to the right of the entrance of the main temple building.

And on the left, karasutengu.

A tengu as on of the Nio statues.

A karasutengu as the other Nio statue.


Another element of the supernatural on Mt. Takao is the legend surrounding the Takosugi (“Octopus cryptomeria”).  Apparently, the roots of a large crytomeria tree were blocking the construction of a path for pilgrims.  A couple of variations exist, but the main gist is that the tree wrapped its roots back behind its trunk – in a single night – reminding people of an octopus.  One variation of the story is said to date back 600 years, even though the tree in question is believed to be 450 years old.

A large crytomeria tree, over 30 metres tall. There are lots of these near the temple.


The “Tako Sugi” (蛸杉). See how the roots have turned back around the trunk instead of spreading out. The person in the picture gives you some idea of the size. Unfortunately, the roots have been fenced off to avoid further damage from hikers touching them.


We celebrated our climb to the summit (all 599 metres, he says cynically) with some overpriced ice cream, before deciding which route to take down.  I managed to convince the kids that taking a dirt trail leading to a suspension bridge would be more interesting – which it was.

View from the summit. That’s downtown Tokyo in the background.


We also encountered plenty of gold-banded lilies (Lilium auratum).  These attractive flowers are natives to Japanese mountains and hills, and appropriately have the name yamayuri (山百合), literally “mountain lily”.  Apparently, the bulbs and shoots of these plants were a food source in ancient times, and even today are sold as vegetables in supermarkets.

A cluster of immature gold-banded lilies.


Closer up.


A signpost at a trail junction pointed to the Ja Waterfall.  Even though that path would not lead back to our station, meaning it would be a return trip, my eldest decided she would like to see the waterfall.

The fall itself was not particularly spectacular, but there was a “mizugyo” dojo, for the ascetic practice of sitting or standing under a waterfall while reciting sutras or prayers.  We saw someone, clearly having a connection with the temple, leave the dojo.

The Ja no Taki (“Serpant Waterfall”)

Gateway to the dojo.

Someday I would like to try mizugyo/takigyo/takiuchi – provided it is in summer!


A short rest and then the climb back to where we left our original path.  My youngest decided he was too tired to climb, so I had to carry him part of the way.  We made it back to route number 1, and it was downhill all the way.  And murder on my knees!


Mt. Takao is not a mountain.  But it is a mountain of fun for those around Tokyo who want to get away for a day.

Deck the Halls with Boughs of … False Holly?

18 Dec

Winter is well and truly upon us, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Wild in Japan had hibernated.  Mind you, with fridge-like temperatures  in my room when it’s time to get up, frost on the ground, and the occasional frozen puddle on my way to work, hibernation does not sound such a bad idea.

A neglected persimon tree on a cold morning.

Also, hibernation would mean avoiding the Japanese version of Christmas.

If you’re from the western world, Christmas is probably 90% commercial, with the remaining 10% being a mixture of “goodwill to men”, religious feelings, thoughts going to family and friends, and all that warm and gooey stuff.  Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the Japanese about that 10%…

To make matters worse, the Japanese have lots of misconceptions about the traditions they are trying to imitate.  Many people believe that Christmas is December 24th, and that it is a time for couples to go on romantic dates.  WHAM!’s “Last Christmas” is broadcast as a Christmas song (I don’t even think it should be counted as a song!)  Chicken is considered a traditional Christmas dish, and KFC makes a killing at this time of year.  And the Japanese concept of a Christmas cake is a normal sponge cake, decorated a little differently (and with the price increased accordingly) 

Finger lickin’ Christmas… The “traditional” Christmas dinner in Japan.

So, what better time than now to introduce false holly?


Mention holly, and most people conjure up images of European holly, AKA common holly, English holly, Christ’s thorn or Christmas holly (Ilex aquifolium), which is the type species of the entire genus of hollies (estimated at between 400 and 600 species).  Not all of these have the spiky leaves of European holly or even serrated leaves.  Nor do all of them produce those red berries.  In fact, the genus includes both evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs and climbers, with a range from the tropics to cold temperate climes.

Some hollies, such as Japanese holly or box-leaved holly (Ilex crenata) and the tarajo holly (Ilex latifolia) are indigenous to Japan, but none of them look particularly like European holly.


Enter convergence.


Japan is home to a plant which looks as if someone tried to mimic European holly, but was only as successful as the one who tried to mimic Christmas.  The plant is the false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus).

It looks like holly, doesn’t it? Young false holly leaves.

The false holly is known locally as hiiragi (柊 or less commonly疼木 or 柊木).  The characters used to write the name are interesting as the first and third ones contain the radical “tree” plus “winter”, whereas the second one contains “tree” and “hurt”, no doubt a reference to the spiky leaves.

A close-up of those spiky leaves.

Although the shape of the leaves is similar, probably with the common objective of deterring larger herbivores, false holly leaves are arranged in an opposite pattern, as opposed to the European holly’s alternate pattern.  The fruit is dark purple and appears in summer.


Growing between two and eight metres in height, false holly has found uses as the preferred wood for stone-cutting tools, but more often as a hedge plant.  It grows taller than tea or azalea – the two other major hedge plants – and the spiky leaves act as an extra deterrent to intruders.  I see a number of these on my way to and from work every day.

A hedge in development. Pruning the top branches encourages the growth of spikier leaves.

Another veiw of the same developing hedge. It doesn’t look terribly formidable yet…

A fully-developed hedge. At over 150 cm tall on a raised bank, this hedge would stop all but the most determined intruders.

In addition to the practical use, false holly plays a part in cosmology.  It is said to deter demons from entering a house, especially when planted in the north-east in conjunction with sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica), or nanten (南天), planted in the south-west.

It is also used in Setsubun celebrations (the lunar calendar New Year’s Eve), with leaves nailed to the gate with the head of a sardine head.  This “decoration” is known as hiiragiiwashi (柊鰯), which is simply the names of the plant and the fish put together.  The smell of the sardine head is said to either drive demons away, or attract them to the false holly leaves, which stick in their eyes and  blind them.  This site has a lot of information on the subject (in Japanese)


In the Kojiki, Prince Yamato Takeru is said to have been given a false holly eight-span spear, hiiragi no yatsuhiro hoko (比比羅木之八尋矛).  Some commenters argue that the hiiragi part of the name was a description of the blade’s shape; others claim that the shaft was false holly; and others suggest the name reflects its demon-conquering powers.  Whatever the reason, between the grass-cutting sword and the eight-span spear, Takeru had some nice toys.


The false holly may be a poor substitute for European holly at Christmas, but it is a plant that should be admired in its own right and not be compared to others.

Young false holly plants of the “Goshiki” cultivar on sale at a florist.

The White Hare of Inaba & Crocodiles vs. Sharks

1 Nov

So this Deity Master-of-the-Great-Land had eighty Deities his brethren; but they all left the land to the Deity Master-of-the-Great-Land.  The reason for their leaving it was this: Each of these eighty Deities had in his heart the wish to marry the Princess of Yakami in Inaba, and they went together to Inaba, putting their bag on [the back of] the Deity Great-Name-Possessor, whom they took with them as an attendant.  Hereupon, when they arrived at Cape Keta, [they found] a naked hare lying down.  Then the eighty Deities spoke to the hare, saying: “What thou shouldest do is to bathe in the sea-water here, and lie on the slope of a high mountain exposed to the blowing of the wind.”  So the hare followed the instructions of the eighty Deities, and lay down.  Then, as the sea-water dried, the skin of its body all split with the blowing of the wind, so that it lay weeping with pain.  But the Deity Great-Name-Possessor, who came last of all, saw the hare, and said: “Why liest thou weeping?”  The hare replied, saying: “I was in the Island of Oki, and wished to cross over to this land, but had no means of crossing over.  For this reason I deceived the crocodiles of the sea, saying: ‘Let you and me compete, and compute the numbers of our [respective] tribes.  So do you go and fetch every member of your tribe, and make them all lie in a row across from this island to Cape Keta.  Then I will tread on them, and count them as I run across.  Hereby shall we know whether it or my tribe is the larger.’  Upon my speaking thus, they were deceived and lay down in a row, and I trod on them and counted them as I came across, and was just about to get on land, when I said: ‘You have been deceived by me.’  As soon as I had finished speaking, the crocodile who lay the last of all seized me and stripped off all my clothing.  As I was weeping and lamenting for this reason, the eighty Deities who went by before [thee] commanded and exhorted me, saying: ‘Bathe in the salt water, and lie down exposed to the wind.’  So, on my doing as they had instructed me, my whole body was hurt.”  Thereupon the Deity Great-Name-Possessor instructed the hare, saying: “Go quickly now to the river-mouth, wash thy body with the fresh water, then take the pollen of the sedges [growing] at the river-mouth, spread it about, and roll about upon it, whereupon thy body will certainly be restored to its original state.”  So [the hare] did as it was instructed, and its body became as it had been originally.  This was the White Hare of Inaba.  It is now called the Hare Deity.  So the hare said to the Deity Great-Name-Possessor: “These eighty Deities shall certainly not get the Princess of Yakami.  Though thou bearest the bag, Thine Augustness shall obtain her.”

From the Kojiki, translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain


This myth is the basis for a children’s story The White Hare of Inaba.

The story is a goldfield for mythology and folklore enthusiasts; but since Wild in Japan is primarily a wildlife blog, let’s just stick to the two animals mentioned in the tale.

The hare in question would have to be a Japanese hare (Lepus brachyurus), or Nihon nousagi (日本野兎), one of only two species of leporid – the other being the Amami rabbit – living in Japan.  Japanese hares will grow white fur in winter in snowy climes, but it seems likely that the white in the story is probably symbolic – both the fox messengers of the god Inari and the snake messengers of the Suwa Shrine are also white.

Popular versions of the story hold that the hare was washed from the mainland to the Oki Islands during a storm.  Curiously, there is a sub-species of the Japanese hare found only on the Oki Islands (Lepus brachyurus okiensis), and the islands were also used for exile.  (Does the hare in the tale represent an exile from the mainland?)

More enigmatic is the crocodile mentioned in Chamberlain’s translation.  The Kojiki uses the word “wani”, written as (和邇) for its phonetic value – the ideograms do not actually indicate what it is.  However, the homophone wani (鰐) is also the Japanese generic name for crocodiles and alligators.

Crocodile, as depicted in the Wakansansaizue.

While fossil records show that crocodiles (Toyotamaphimeia and several others) lived in Japan in the distant past and, apparently, vagrant estuarine crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) have been reported as far north as the Sea of Japan, the crocodile seems an unlikely candidate.  The other crocodilian species found in northeast Asia is the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis), but since alligators don’t tolerate salt water well, it is extremely unlikely that any found their way into Japanese seas in numbers sufficient to be included in Japanese folklore.  (Caveat: fossil evidence indicates this species was extant in Japan during the Pliocene)

A late 19th century account of a crocodile being captured in Amami. Apparently it was then eaten.

A more detailed depiction of the crocodile in Amami. Experts believe this to be a vagrant estuarine crocodile. Some claim that there may have even been a tiny population on Iriomote Island, Okinawa. Both illustrations taken from “Nanto Zatsuwa”.

But don’t discount the crocodile completely – Chamberlain himself believed the creature in question to be a kind of dragon, for which “crocodile” was the more accurate rendering.  Other sources claim that the story may have its origins in the Indonesian islands and Malaysian peninsula, featuring a mouse deer or a monkey deceiving  crocodiles.

(How James Bond would have done it)

Others have suggested whales or sea snakes.  I would be so bold as to suggest the possibility of wani being the semi-legendary sage Wani (王仁) and his fellow Confucian scholars, or perhaps the family with the name Wani.  I found one other site which also suggested the latter.

Many versions of The White Hare of Inaba, however, have the hare crossing over on a barrage of sharks.  The Japanese words for shark are same (鮫) as a generic term; and fuka (鱶), which is used in the Kansai for large sharks.  The old word wanizame (鰐鮫) is also used to describe vicious sharks.  Furthermore, in the Izumo area the dialectal word for shark is “wani”.  And if that isn’t enough, I discovered that three species of shark found in or around Japanese waters have “wani” in their name – the smalltooth sand tiger (Odontaspis ferox) or owanizame (大鰐鮫), the sand tiger shark or grey nurse (Carcharias taurus), known locally as shirowani (白鰐), and the crocodile shark (Pseudocarcharias kamoharai), which is known as mizuwani (水鰐).

Shark, as depicted in the Wakansansaizue. Definitely not Jaws…

In this battle between the crocodile and the shark, it looks like the shark is the winner.

Where there’s a well…

20 Oct

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


Sayama has a number of places with the character “mizu” (), meaning “water” in them.  The most notable example is Mizutomi (水富), which used to be a village prior to it merging into the new city of Sayama in 1954.  Mizutomi sits on the western bank of the Iruma River and its tributaries, and also receives plentiful water from the springs in the surrounding hills; this is reflected in its name. 

An aerial photo of the Mizutomi area, with the Iruma River in the eastern section.


Southeast of the Iruma River is the Furo River (不老川), which flows from a small lake in Mizuho, Tokyo to the Shingashi River in Kawagoe.  The Furo was originally known as Kotama River (古多摩川), literally “old Tama River” and also as the Toshitorazu River.  Both Furo and Toshitorazu have the same meaning – “unaging” – and folklore says that the river didn’t age because it dried up before the new year (in older times, ages were counted by the number of new years that one passed through).  Another story says that if a person spent New Year’s Eve under a bridge on the dried-up river, they wouldn’t age.  Interestingly, both “Furo” and “Toshitorazu” were written with identical characters.

The river rarely dries up today because of the amount of run-off that flows into it, but in the past this was poorly monitored and controlled, and lead to the Furo receiving the dubious title of “Japan’s Most Polluted River” for three consecutive years from 1983.  Government and community projects have stopped sewerage from entering the system, and today’s river – albeit with the ubiquitous concrete banks – is home to ducks and fish.

A map sign in front of the Irumano Shrine showing the Kamakura Kaido route from the upper reaches of Saitama to Tokorozawa


Next to the Furo River and the old Kamakura Kaido route is an old well, the Nanamagari-noi- (七曲井).  This is of the maimaizuido design, named after the spirals on a snail shell.  The spirals act as a ramp for people to make their way down to the mouth of the well.  The surrounding area was once known locally as Horikane-no-i, but is now read as Horigatai (堀難井), literally “hard to dig well”.

There are two other wells of this design in the nearby Horikane area, the Horikane-no-i (堀兼之井) and the Hachikenya-no-i (八軒家之井), but the latter is on private land, and neither of them is equal to Nanamagari-no-i in size – 18 metres wide, 26 metres long and 11.5 metres deep.

The Nanamagari-no-i from ground level. Left unattended for any length of time around summer and autumn, it looks messy and unimpressive…

(This aerial photo gives a better indication of its size.  That’s the Furo River immediately south-south east of the well)

It is not known exactly how old Nanamagari-no-i is.  The last major reworking of the well was in the mid-18th century.  14th century poems mentioning Horikane-no-i could easily be referring to this well.  (Apparently, “Horikane-no-i” could also refer to the maimaizu design in general, so it is not certain if these poems were alluding to any specific well)  Folklore says that it was originally dug by the semi(?)-mythological hero Yamato Takeru.  I guess we’ll never know for sure.

A chart showing the design of the well.


Near the Iriso and Horikane areas is Mizuno (水野).  Whereas the afore-mentioned Mizutomi’s name is apt, Mizuno’s is something of an irony.  It was one of the last areas in the old Kawagoe fief to be developed, largely due to its lack of available water.  It is said that farmers had to wipe the day’s filth off with grass and that they bathed in water that had been used to wash rice, so unreliable was their water source.

Within Mizuno, there are two other locations with water in their name.  One of these is Mizuoshi (水押).  Mizuoshi proved to be quite enigmatic while I was researching this.  I couldn’t find any one specific location with that name, just several scattered addresses.  The meaning was also unclear – the word is used to describe the prow in Japanese boat design, which didn’t make sense, given the location.

The other is Nigemizu (逃水), which proved much easier to understand.  Local legend tells of a traveller walking the route from through Mizuno to Tororozawa (modern Tokorozawa) on a hot day.  The traveller wasn’t carrying any water on him and soon felt parched.  On the fields in the distance he saw running water.  He rushed towards the water, but it retreated from him.  Further along he saw another stream of water, but it too disappeared before he could reach it.  This went on until the traveller had run all the way to Tororozawa, light-headed and giddy.

The water, of course, had been a mirage.  Nigemizu literally means “water that runs away” and a variation of it (逃げ水) is used to describe mirages on roads.


Sayama has a rich collection of folklore, and I hope to find out more, plus more about Tokorozawa.


22 Jun

The Japanese news (which is notorious for frequently being bereft of actual news content) has been having a field day with the recent apprehension of Tatsuya Takahashi, the last of a trio of Aum Shinrikyo members wanted for the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks.

On the run for 17 years, Takahashi had a ¥1000000 reward for information leading to his arrest.  I wish I had been able to supply that information… but, wait… an acquaintance, a retired police officer, tells me that such rewards are subject to tax, and the actual post-tax amount would be about half.  There’s simply no money in bounty hunting.


Or is there?  Every few years there is a new reported sighting of the tsuchinoko, with local governments and private businesses offering between ¥1 million and ¥100 million for its capture.  Failing that, a good photo can get up to ¥1000000.


The tsuchinoko (槌の子, usually ツチノコ) is a cryptozoological snake.  It has around 40 regional names, including bachihebi, tatekurikaeshi, tsuchimbo, tsuchihebi, nozuchi and tsuchikorobi.  These last two names are also shared with those of two mythical snake-like spirits.


One of the oldest known deptictions of the nozuchi (tsuchinoko)


Another of the oldest depections of the nozuchi, physically matching the typical description of the tsucinoko – the body being much wider than the head.


A nozuchi as depicted in the Wakansansaizue. It looks like an ordinary snake to me…


Artist Sekien Toriyama’s impression of a nozuchi. This looks like a hairy snake, or a VERY hungry caterpillar.


So, what exactly should I be looking for?  Typical descriptions include:

  • a short (30-80 cm) but very wide body (about beer bottle width), thin tail, and distinct neck.
  • daytime active
  • moving like an inchworm, or holding its tail in its mouth and rolling like the legendary hoopsnake
  • exceptionally fast
  • capable of jumping to heights of five metres and lengths of two metres (claims of 10 metres have been made)
  • vocalising a cry that sounds like “chii”
  • a fondness for sake, and being attracted to the smell of miso, dried squid, or burning hair
  • snoring
  • possibly extremely venomous


Clearly, most of these are nonsense.  Claims of discovery of a dead specimen have often been followed with further claims that the body “just disappeared”, or that a captured creature was released for fear of being cursed.


Actual samples have all turned out to be other creatures, and most sightings can be explained as snakes that have recently swallowed a large prey, or escaped exotic species such as the blue-tongued lizard, sleepy lizard, or death adder.


An immature eastern blue tongued lizard, courtesy of Wikipedia. Note the wide body and short legs.


A related reptile, the sleepy lizard. Again, it has a triangular head, wide body and small legs. Thanks, Wikipedia.


A death adder. This snake is short and quite wide. Its tail is very thin, and it superficially matches the description of the tsuchinoko.
It is also highly venomous.
Photo taken from Wikipedia


Confusing a lizard for a snake may seem a pretty basic mistake, but don’t forget that there are only three species of lizard in Eastern Japan – none of them even approaching the above-mentioned two in size and mass.  Also, even in their native Australia, sleepy lizards and blue-tongues are occasionally mistaken for snakes.  Their limbs are small in relation to their body size, and, typical of skinks, they can move rapidly by pulling their legs in close to their bodies and wriggling in a snake-like manner.

Most people are also unaware that while a snake’s scales are smallest on the back and increase in size towards the belly, a lizard’s scales are uniform in size around the body.


A 2009 photo, purportedly of a tsuchinoko, that appeared in an article in the Sankei earlier this month.
Bad news for anyone that paid for this – look at the scales. They’re uniform in size. Conclusion – it’s a lizard!
Photo from the Sankei Shimbun.


The chances that tsuchinoko exist seem quite slim.  Nevertheless, as a quick web search shows, there are groups and societies dedicated to tsuchinoko, and several towns have annual (cash-cow?) tsuchinoko hunting events.  And it is a convenient fall-back position for the nation’s sports newspapers during slow news weeks.


Still, I keep my eyes open.  I don’t want that ¥100000000 chance to slip through my fingers.

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