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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.


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