Skip to main content

A temporal thing called a cicada

I've written about Japan's cicadas (, semi) before, but my blog is getting so many Google search hits for "Japan cicada" that I've updated a story I did last summer with new information.

I'll start with a recent photo of a cicada's utsusemi (空蝉) or exoskeleton, in other words, the empty skin after they molt for the last time and finally reach maturity. Cicadas live underground as nymphs for most of their existence. Their adult life, when they sing with such abandon, is very short. Incidentally, utsusemi is a homonym for "mortal man" or "temporal thing", written with the kanji 現人. Very appropriate, don't you think?

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

I found this utsusemi purely by chance at a small temple in my neighbourhood. I grimaced when I saw it stuck on a fox statue's face, because it looked a bit creepy: was the fox having the cicada for lunch, or was the mini-monster attacking the fox?

A second utsusemi was attached to the fox's red bib:

If you want to know what they look like alive, I'm afraid I only have a very bad photo that was taken with my smartphone during another walk. As you've probably figured out by now, I'm forever walking. Summer heat? Piffle. What summer heat?

I also have a video of their song, which I'll add at the end of the post. Let me explain this video. While I was walking in Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, I discovered a small Inari shrine in the forest towards the back of the park, near the old Medical School building. It was small and unkempt, and it was nestled in a small ravine lined with lopsided fox statues called kitsune () in Japanese.

Now you should know me by now: show me a fox, and my hunting instinct takes over. I decided that I would take a video while I walked through the torii towards the back of the ravine, where smaller torii where stacked haphazardly under a bank of ferns. First I almost stumbled into the pond in front of the shrine, and then I walked into …

Eeek! &%$! Jou bliksem!

(Translation will be supplied upon request. Send me a private email and a KitKat as deposit.)

I'd walked into a thick spider web that was spun across the entire torii entrance. It made me bounce back as if I were a tennis ball on Roger Federer's racket.

I retreated to safety and contemplated my options. Eventually I decided to leave the foxes in peace, mostly because vampire mosquitoes were draining me, and partly because I reasoned if the kami didn't want me in their ravine, I wasn't going to "up yours" them. It was only when I got home that I realized the video wasn't entirely in vain: you can hear cicadas in the background. 

One of the foxes at the Inari shrine. I was worried that this would be
my fate if I ignored the gods' "do not enter" sign.

Wikipedia says an adult male cicada can produce sounds up to 120 dB, "which is technically loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss in humans, should the cicada sing just outside the listener's ear". To compare sound levels: a motorbike is 100, a plane on a runway is 120, a jet engine going full blast is 140.

You can hear many different songs as you walk through Tokyo. Different species sing at different times of the day, and also in different periods throughout summer. The most common one is probably the minminzemi. According to Japanese folklore, the minminzemi chants like a Buddhist priest reciting "nam myōhō renge kyō", one of the central mantras in Nichiren Buddhism. You can hear its song here.

I also like the higurashi, but the champion singer is the tsuku-tsuku-boshi, which can be heard towards the end of summer. You can listen to its bravura performance here and here
(Edit added 6 August 2013: Here's another great site where you can easily listen to their different songs. Just hover your cursor over their photos. Thanks to David at Ogijima for this refererence.)

The word semi also serves as kigo (季語) for summer. Kigo are words associated with a particular season, used in haiku as well as longer poetry forms.

I recommend the websites kimoto and hitohaku for more information about Japan's cicadas; and cicadamania for general information about all species. I end this cicada post with a beautiful haiku by Bashō. You can read more about it here.
閑かさや shizukasa ya        
岩にしみ入る iwa ni shimi iru
蝉の声 semi no koe

In the stillness, the cicada's cry penetrates the stone.

The pond in front of the Inari shrine. Below are two foxes at the shrine's entrance.

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Happy birthday, Mum!

Here's an August flower for you.  Not your beloved cherry blossoms, but your favourite colour. I miss you.

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Ja, ja, I'll do this New Year's post just now

Yelp! I'm doing a "Japanese New Year's customs" post on Africa time, six days ex post facto, but I plead your indulgence: New Year's decorations are traditionally removed on the first Saturday of the new year, in other words, I haven't caused deadline mayhem yet.
"Just now", by the way, is a South African expression that means shortly, later, eventually, in a minute, tomorrow, next year, maybe never, probably never, ha ha never, shut up I'm busy. It can also mean a minute ago, a while ago, two hours ago, in my previous life. You can also say "now now", which means as soon as possible, shortly, later, eventually, etc etc etc.

Japanese New Year’s decorations are called o-shogatsu kazari (お正月飾り). It’s usually made of natural materials such as straw ropes, pine branches, bamboo and paper. 
They should be put up by December the 28th, since December the 29th includes the number 9 (九 ku), which is regarded as a bad luck number becaus…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

Hiking along the old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …

over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!

Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone. I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.

It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. My main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't do the full course. I started at Hakoneen along the shore of Lake Ashi and then walked through Moto-Hakone to Hatajuku, halfway along the old Tōkaidō, and returned along…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

How to control a killer flood on the Sumida River

This is epic! It started with mild curiosity. Why doesn't Tokyo do more with its rivers? Instead of entombing them in concrete, why not more parks and boats and bridle paths?
Then it escalated. Where does the Sumida River start? Why is the Arakawa in Tokyo such a straight line? Surely that's not natural? Iwabuchi sluice. What's that? Great Kanto Flood 1910. Cripes, look!, Sensō-ji was under water. Why is there so little information in English? Wait, hang on, Wikipedia is wrong!
Thus idle speculation unleashed a growing fascination with Tokyo's flood control techniques: a complex system of rivers, canals, sluices, locks, controlled water levels, super levees, evacuation areas and a massive underground discharge channel in Saitama. Research proved interesting but frustrating, so I rejected academia in favor of empirical evidence: I walked along Tokyo's most important waterway, the Sumida, from its origin in Kita-ku to Tokyo Bay. I covered 25 km and passed over/under…