Tag Archives: snakes

The Little Prince and the Big Snake

2 Jul

Hi blog.

Snakes top Wild in Japan’s search item hits, so it stands to reason that the more posts about snakes I write, the more hits I get.

However, one does not simply walk into material for writing serpentine-themed posts.  Well, not usually.

I was hit with a question just recently – “What’s the difference between a daija and an uwabami?”

It seems that Madoka was particularly confused as to why the boa constrictor from The Little Prince was rendered uwabami in the Japanese translation she was reading.

Depending on the Japanese edition, this may or may not be an uwabami.

This will take a while to explain, but bear with me.

Daija (大蛇) literally translates as “big snake” and has come to mean large snakes, both in reality – particularly the large pythons and anacondas – and fiction.  This is confused, however, by the word orochi – also written 大蛇 – which specifically refers to the giant snakes from mythology and folklore.

Uwabami (蟒蛇) also has two meanings.  One refers to snakes of the family boidae – the boas, most famously the boa constrictor.  The other is an older word pertaining to those aforementioned mythological giant snakes.

Saint-Exupéry specifically states that his “hat” picture is a boa snake (“serpent boa”).  So it seems that the translator of Madoka’s particular edition of The Little Prince decided to use a more folklore-sounding translation.

The famous boa digesting an elephant picture. Some Japanese versions translate it literally as “big snake”, use the scientific “boa” or opt for uwabami.

I was also asked why uwabami has also come to mean a heavy drinker.  I answered that, as a guess, I imagined it was either because large snakes are (in)famous for swallowing large prey whole, or perhaps because of the ancient association of giant snakes with sake, as in the myth of Susanoo tricking the Yamata no Orochi into drinking eight barrels of sake.

Then Susanoo no Mikoto descended from Heaven and proceeded to the head-waters of the River Hi, in the province of Idzumo. At this time he heard a sound of weeping at the head-waters of the river, and he went in search of the sound. He found there an old man and an old woman. Between them was set a young girl, whom they were caressing and lamenting over. Susanoo no Mikoto asked them, saying:-“Who are ye, and why do ye lament thus?” The answer was:-“I am an Earthly Deity, and my name is Ashi-nadzuchi. My wife’s name is Te-nadzuchi. This girl is our daughter, and her name is Kushi-nada-hime. The reason of our weeping is that formerly we had eight children, daughters. But they have been devoured year after year by an eight-forked serpent and now the time approaches for this girl to be devoured. There is no means of escape for her, and therefore do we grieve.” Sosa no wo no Mikoto said: “If that is so, wilt thou give me thy daughter?” He replied, and said: “I will comply with thy behest and give her to thee.” Therefore Sosa no wo no Mikoto on the spot changed Kushi-nada-hime into a many-toothed close-comb which he stuck in the august knot of his hair. Then he made Ashi-nadzuchi and Te-nadzuchi to brew eight-fold sake, to make eight cupboards, in each of them to set a tub filled with sake, and so to await its coming. When the time came, the serpent actually appeared. It had an eight-forked head and an eight-forked tail; its eyes were red, like the winter-cherry; and on its back firs and cypresses were growing. As it crawled it extended over a space of eight hills and eight valleys. Now when it came and found the sake, each head drank up one tub, and it became drunken and fell asleep. Then Susanoo no Mikoto drew the ten-span sword which he wore, and chopped the serpent into small pieces. When he came to the tail, the edge of his sword was slightly notched, and he therefore split open the tail and examined it. In the inside there was a sword. This is the sword which is called Kusa-nagi no tsurugi.

From the Nihon Shoki, translated by W.G. Aston, 1896

It turns out that both of these are given as probable explanations!

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, 1870s by Toyohara Chikanobu. Here it has been given a more dragon-like appearance.



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.


1 Dec



The weather has been erratic lately – we’ve had glorious days with the maximum in the mid- to high- teens, and cold, wet and miserable days.  The ground is covered with fallen leaves, only a few persimmons remain on my tree, and the days are becoming ridiculously short.

The azure-winged magpies are making their presence known with their calling out to each other and squabbling over fruit, but most other wildlife has switched off.  The only praying mantises I’ve seen recently are dead ones, only a few jorogumo are left alive, and the vines that turn local forests into jungles in summer are rapidly dying and rotting.

I’ve also noticed that the number of visitors to Wild in Japan has petered off a little, but that my posts on raccoon dogs and snakes still seem to be the favourites… time to write about a snake!

 I mentioned the Japanese keelback (Amphiesma vibakari vibakari) in my previous post, and would like to talk more about this fascinating animal.  (I wanted more time to look at the specimen exhibited at the zoo, but got dragged away by the kids)

 The Japanese keelback or Asian keelback is one of Japan’s smallest snakes.  It has a natural range from Hokkaido to Kyushu and the immediately surrounding islands.  A subspecies (Amphiesma vibakari danjoense) is found only on Oshima Island, Nagasaki Prefecture, while a third subspecies (A. v. ruthveni) is found in parts of China, Russia and the Korean Peninsula.

 Growing to a maximum length of between 40 and 65 cm, the Japanese keelback feeds mostly on small fish, tadpoles, small frogs, and worms.  They live in forests, and prefer areas around water – not at all surprising considering its diet.  Japanese keelbacks are crepuscular – active around dawn and dusk –  although they may become active during the daytime following rain.

Part of my interest in this snake was inspired by its local name, hibakari (日計 or sometimes 日量), which could be translated as “the measure of day” or “that day only”.  Just as the tiger keelback was long thought harmless when it in fact possesses some of the most potent venom of any Japanese snake, the Japanese keelback was once believed to be venomous; a bite would cause the victim to die by the end of that day – hence the name.  The Japanese keelback, in fact, does not possess venom.

I hope to get some photos to add to this post some day in the not-too-distant future.

A Japanese keelback checking for movement below the surface.


Hunting for fish. Taken on April 5th 2017 at Inokashira Park Zoo.

Leaping Lizards! (and Springing Snakes)

29 Jun

I decided to take the kids for a walk and a little exploration.  I chose the area near Seibu Dome for its easy access and the Sayama Fudoson and Yamaguchi Senshu Kannon temple complexes – located in the foothills near Lake Sayama and Lake Tama, since these would provide some points of interest and nature, plus make for easy walking.

The weather was, for the most part, excellent – we had about half an hour of rain during lunch – and some wildlife was also taking advantage of conditions.  Most notable were various insects and lizards.  And the kids insisted that I get some photos of these.

A grasshopper on a Bodhisattva. “Yes, Grasshopper…”

Only three lizard species are known in this part of Japan, and one of these – Schlegel’s Japanese gecko (Gekko japonicus) – is thought to be introduced, albeit over a  millennium ago.  They were previously thought to be a native species with a large naturally-occurring range (including China and the Korean peninsula), or possibly native to western Japan but introduced to eastern Japan.  However, researchers cite a lack of genetic difference between individuals in Japan and the Asian mainland and an absence of pre-Heian Era records as evidence.

Schlegel’s Japanese gecko is a night-active hunter that preys largely on moths and cockroaches, so I’m happy to have this invasive species “invade” my home!!

The other two are the Japanese grass lizard (Takydromus tachydromoides) and the Japanese five-lined skink (Plestiodon japonicus), and we saw several of both species.

Japanese grass lizard on a stone lantern. Note the length of the tail.

The Japanese grass lizard is known locally as kanahebi (日本金蛇 or occasionally日本蛇舅母).  Its name in Japanese contains the word for snake, although it is a true lizard and its legs are well-developed and clearly visible.  Furthermore, it runs and crawls in the fashion of a larger lizard, so the naming seems a very poor choice.

A closer photo.

This lizard typically grows to between 16 and 25 cm in length, with nearly two-thirds of that being tail length.  It is also easily recognisable through its matte colouration.

Japanese grass lizards feed mostly on insects, spiders and other arthropods, especially slaters (woodlice, pillbugs, or whatever else they are called in your part of the world)

Their natural enemies are snakes, predatory birds (shrikes are well-known predators) and mammals like foxes, tanuki and weasels.

When threatened, these lizards will typically rush into undergrowth or use their climbing skills to escape.  They also have the ability to drop their tail.

Up close and personal with a Japanese grass lizard.

The Japanese five-lined skink is known locally as Nihon tokage (日本蜥蜴 or日本石竜子).  It is easily distinguished from the Japanese grass lizard by its shiny scales, and the brilliant metallic-blue on the tip of juveniles’ tails.  In addition, these lizards’ legs, eyes and ears are not as well developed, and their preferred method of escape is climbing under rocks or into crevices.  While growing to similar sizes to the former, their tails are proportionally shorter.

They are day-active hunters of worms, spiders, insects and other arthropods, but will also eat fruit.

These skinks also have the ability to drop their tails, and are more likely to do so than the grass lizard.

Japanese five-lined skink. Seconds before I took this shot, it was joined by a juvenile with a bright blue tail tip. You can see the shininess of the scales here.

It was on our return to the stairway at the main gate of Sayama Fudoson that we encountered a snake.

(Going through my blog’s stats, I regularly see snakes as one of the top-hitting tags, along with tanuki and Totoro.  Obviously, the more snake stories I write, the more visitors my blog gets… but enough with the vanity)

“Look kids, a snake!”, I say as soon as I spot it.


But something doesn’t seem quite right.  Maybe it’s the pattern on the scales, maybe it’s the broad shovel-like shape of the head, or maybe it’s the coiling action.  Maybe it’s all three.  I can’t say for sure, but almost immediately I instinctively realise what kind of snake it is.


My first encounter with a wild specimen.

It’s practically harmless… except for its potent venom, effective venom delivery system, and grouchy attitude…

Gloydius blomhoffii is sometimes known in English as the Japanese copperhead, sometimes as the mamushi pit viper, and sometimes just mamushi.  The local name is Nihon mamushi (日本蝮), but this is usually shortened to mamushi.

Growing between 45 and 60 cm long, this hunter feeds on small mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs, and is found in a wide range of habitats.  It is a pit viper, which gives it the ability to hunt in low light and areas of poor visibility.

But more significantly, this is the most dangerous snake in mainland Japan.

I have openly mocked the urbanized Japanese fear of the mamushi on this blog, and still say much of the dangers of this snake are grossly exaggerated.  That said, it is still a venomous animal and needs to be treated with respect and caution.

I made sure the kids didn’t come near as I closed the distance to get a couple of shots.  Wildlife photography with a mobile phone is a particularly tricky task – not getting close enough makes for poor photos; getting too close usually causes the subject to scamper off.

I got my shots and stood up to check what the kids were up to.  That was when I learned something new about the mamushi – they can jump!

I have heard stories of snakes leaping to attack people but had always dismissed them as urban legends.  Well, this one sprang forward at least 30 cm.  Luckily, it was unable to clear the drain channel between me and it, tumbled in, and got no second chance.

Apparently, about 3000 people are bitten by these snakes every year, with five to ten fatalities.  That’s one exclusive group I’m proud not to be a member of.

To get to the other side

20 Jun

You don’t see this every day.


No, that’s not a rope suspended between the wall and the utility pole.


I stumbled upon this on June 13th near the border between Saitama and Tokyo.


The snake in question is almost certainly the Japanese rat snake (Elaphe climacophora), locally known as the aodaisho (青大将) “the green (or blue) general”.


This one is a juvenile and still has stripes.


The largest – growing between 100 and 200 cm – and most commonly seen snake in mainland Japan, the Japanese rat snake tends to follow human populations – or rather, follow the rats which follow human populations.  They also prey upon lizards, small birds and will raid nests.


They are excellent climbers, and had I arrived at that spot a minute later, the snake would probably have been at ground level.

Folklore once held that it was lucky to have a snake living in the roof of one’s house.  This was no doubt true in earlier times when the roof was also used as a food storehouse and rat infestation was a very real problem.


Anyway, as summer progresses – we are still in the rainy season and one day away from the solstice – I have no doubt that I’ll see more of these lovely creatures in my travels.  Although I probably won’t ever get a photo opportunity like this again.

The things you see when you don’t have a camera

21 Jul

Just a brief collection of assorted pics hastily taken with my mobile phone.  These are ones that actually turned out – my attempts to photograph herons, kingfishers, lizards and tree frogs with  my mobile inevitably end up as tiny blurs – assuming I even have time to get the thing out of my pocket and switch to camera mode.

How I wish I could afford to carry a real camera around with me all the time, as there are encounters that happen anywhere.

Like this snake…

A snake just outside my school entrance. It slithered into the bushes before I could get a decent shot or identify it.

And this…

A spider of the genus Argiope. Note the stabilimentum (web decoration). This was taken at an amusement park.

Or this…

An unidentified insect – I guess it’s a bush cricket (katydid). This one was about 3 cm long.

A little closer…

And this…

A snail by the roadside. The shell was about 3 cm across.

A closer look. At least this one didn’t get away!

Saving those yen…


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.

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.


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