Skip to main content

And thus it begins ... the story of a fennec in Japan

Prescript: I wrote this story for a Google+ contact, Hirai Mamoru, who used some of my South African flower photos as a backdrop for manga characters he's created. I scribbled it between classes over the weekend, and I'm breaking every self-imposed rule by publishing it. It hasn't been rewritten, it hasn't been edited by an experienced third party, the storyline and personalities haven't been thought through properly. It's merely a vehicle that might inspire Hirai to draw more pictures, because he's really, really, really good. My story is aimed at children, not adults, because maturity is vastly overrated. Says I. Here we go:

Baha meets a teru teru bōzu

Baha sneezed and shook his ears. Rain made him grumpy because it made his ears droopy, and if there's one thing a fennec just shouldn't have, it's droopy ears. Fennec ears should be chirpy, perky and happy; but that's easier said than done in rainy season.

Three days. The rain had continued for three days and Baha was homesick for the warm desert where he was born, but his friends-in-this-life, Haru and Natsu, were tired of being indoors. So there they were: running around a small neighbourhood park in the middle of Japan's rainy season.

"The sky is crying," Baha thought, and remembered warm golden dunes glowing in sunlight, ripples in sand and time, a journey across many miles, friends in many …

"Why are you hiding under a plant, Baha?" He jumped when he heard Haru's voice behind him. See? That was why he hated rain. A fennec has perfect ears that can hear an ant walking in the sand or a voice calling from another world … if  said ears are dry and warm and fluffy. When they're dripping wet, they don't function, and that's no good.

"No good, very bad and very sad," Baha thought, and sniffed. "I'm not going to talk to them. It's their fault that my ears are floppy."

"Why are you looking so bedraggled and disgruntled, Baha?" Haru laughed.

"Be-what and dis-who?" Baha asked, forgetting to sulk.

Haru was a very clever young man who knew many big words. Baha and Natsu often had to ask for explanations, and then Haru explained – elucidated, he called it – in even bigger words.

"You look like a vexed tatterdemalion," Haru said.

"Haru, don't be silly," Natsu said. She said that a lot.

"You look very wet and very unhappy," Haru said.

"I am very wet and very unhappy! I don't like rain!" shouted Baha and shook his ears again.

"Baha, don't be silly," Natsu laughed. "Rain is fun, especially when you count the drops. Three million four hundred and forty-seven thousand one hundred and twelve, three million four hundred and forty-seven thousand one hundred and thirteen, three million four hundred and forty-seven thousand one hundred and fourteen, three million …" and she skipped off, counting raindrops.

Natsu didn't know many big words, but she could count better than anybody Baha had ever met in his ten lives. Although, he pondered, ʾAbū l-Walīd Muammad bin ʾAhmad bin Rušd had been pretty good, too.
Natsu, however, was the only one who understood why a fennec who was a ten-tailed fox had, in reality, only one tail.

Haru didn't, and he was always teasing Baha. As a matter of fact, he was teasing Baha again. While it was raining. That wasn't fair. "Natsu is counting raindrops because she can't count your tails! You've got only one tail!"

"Don't be silly!" Baha said, stealing Natsu's favourite phrase.

"You're a jyūbi no kitsune, a ten-tailed fox who's lived one hundred years times ten," laughed Haru. "You should have one tail for each one hundred years, but you don't! You've got only one tail!"

"That's because 10 is 1 + 0 and that's 1!" snapped Baha.

"That's wrong! 10 is 1 + 1 + 1 + … " Haru frowned in a befuddled way. Numbers confused him. He called Natsu, who stopped counting raindrops and listened as Haru tried to explain why it was impossible for a ten-tailed fox to have only one tail.

"Oh, Haru, don't worry. Baha can't have ten tails if he's already got two ears bigger than ten tails," giggled Natsu.

Haru frowned, and started arguing, but got muddled again and decided to tickle Baha's ears instead.

"Baha, don't be sad," said Haru. He was a very kind boy, really, though he sometimes got so lost in the stories in his head that he didn't notice that Baha was getting hungry or that Natsu could count all the stars in the sky. "This leaf is big enough to protect all three of us. Sit next to me and I'll tell you a story."

"What kind of story?"

"Do you want to listen to a funny story?"

"No. Rain isn't funny."

"Do you want to listen to a scary story?"

"No. Scary stories are for night-time."

"Do you want to listen to an adventure?"

"No! I don't want an adventure! I want a nice, dry, warm bed!" Baha was feeling very huffy indeed. He missed his nice, dry, warm desert.

"You don’t like rain, do you?" asked Haru, looking almost as sad as Baha's ears.

"No," Baha answered crossly.

"Rain is important, Baha," Haru said. "If we didn't have rain, we wouldn't have rice, and then you'd be hungry all the time instead of most of the time."

"You like rain?"


"Then you're the only person who does!"

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are."


"Yes, you are! Who else likes rain?"

"Natsu. She likes counting raindrops."

"She likes counting rays of sunshine even more."

"You can't count sunshine."




"BAHA! Don't be so stroppy!"

"I'm not stroppy. I'm floppy. It's the rain's fault!"

"If I introduce you to someone else who loves rain, will you desist?"

"Will I what?"

"Desist. Stop complaining."

"Will you give me tofu, too?"

"Yes, Baha, I'll give you tofu afterwards."

"OK," said Baha. He wasn't sure that this was a good idea, but tofu meant a nice warm shop or a nice warm house or a nice warm restaurant.

"Come, we're going to meet a friend," Haru shouted, and started running across the park. He stopped in a narrow street next to the park, where several small houses were lined up behind hydrangea bushes.

He pointed towards a window with cheerful curtains and … a strange white apparition that was hanging outside the window.

"Is that a ghost?" Natsu asked, sounding alarmed.

"No, that's a teru teru bōzu. Let's talk to him!"

They ran up the gutter next to the window and sat down on the windowsill next to the strange white apparition. Baha felt sorry for him, because he looked even sadder than Baha.

"This is Ikkyū," said Haru. "He's a teru teru bōzu."

"Hello," said Ikkyū gravely.

"Hello," said Baha and Natsu curiously. "What's a teru teru bōzu?"

"I'm a very special doll. The children in this house made me, because I have magical powers that make rain go away."

"That would be safiya dafiya!" said Baha.

"What does that mean?" asked Ikkyū.

"That would be sunny and warm. That would be great!" explained Baha. His first language was Arabic, the language of the warm desert where he was born, and he often used it. Haru remembered all Baha's Arabic words, but Natsu forgot them. She said Arabic numerals were more important than Arabic words.

"No, no, no!" Ikkyū cried. "I can't use my magical powers! If it stops raining, the children will take me down and throw me away! If the rain disappears, I disappear!"

"Oh," said Baha. That was rather alarming. "You mean … you mean … your life depends on rain?"

"Everybody's life on this planet depends on rain!" hollered Ikkyū, looking cross. "I don't know why everybody complains about rain. We need rain! We. Need. Rain. "

Baha thought about his nice, dry, warm desert. His nice, dry, warm desert did get rain … sometimes … and everybody, including fennecs, needed water. Baha could live without water for a long time, but even he needed to drink dew to stay alive.

"Oh," he said again. He could feel his ears drooping. Funny, that: he was standing on a dry windowsill, out of the rain, so why were his ears drooping again? He wiped raindrops off his face. Oh. Wait. He wasn't standing in the rain. It was a bit of a puzzle. "Maybe," he said to Ikkyū, "maybe they will keep you until next year, when we get another rainy season."

"They won't keep me," shouted Ikkyū, looking hot and bothered. "They'll turn me into a cleaning rag and throw me away. I'll be … gone. I'll be a zero, a past tense, a faint recollection of a vague memory."

"Ha," thought Baha, "it's no wonder Haru and Ikkyū are friends. Nobody else knows what they're talking about."

Ikkyū was hanging in a window somewhere in this little street, in my imagination.

He turned to Natsu, who'd been listening quietly. She was like that: usually very quiet, but she always knew the right answers to difficult questions.

"Ikkyū can't be a zero. You can count. Count him back!" Baha ordered.

"Zero is zero," said Natsu, "but that doesn't matter. There's a place in Japan where it's always raining. Yakushima. Fifty, one hundred, one hundred and fifty, two hundred, two hundred and fifty. Yakushima gets 250 mm of rain every month. Even a teru teru bōzu couldn't stop the rain, and anyway, you shouldn't, because the trees need the rain."

"I wish I could live there," said Ikkyū. "I wouldn't try to stop the rain. I'll just hang in a window and talk to the trees."

"The trees love the rain," repeated Natsu. "I think the god of rain lives there, in the Jōmon Sugi."

"The what?"

"The Jōmon Sugi. It's one of the oldest trees in the world. He's one thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand years old!"

"He's older than I am! He's all grown-up!" said Baha, impressed. Although Baha was a ten-tailed fox who was a thousand years old and could travel through time to different worlds, he was still a very young fox. The real fox wizards were ten thousand times ten years old. That's very old.

"I want to meet the Jōmon Sugi! Let's go to Yakushima!" said Baha.

And that is why Baha the ten-tailed fox whisked his friends-in-this-life Haru and Natsu and Ikkyū through the time-space continuum to the island of Yakushima, met the rain god, and hitched a ride on the back of a mannengame, a turtle that's ten thousand years old, but that … that is another story for another day.


Hirai's main character is Haru, but Baha became the centre of my focus. It's an African thing ...

Baha is named after a fennec in the book Mischief in Fez by Eleanor Hoffmann. His character is based on a kyūbi no kitsune, a nine-tailed fox in Japanese mythology. I decided to give him ten tails, so that he can travel through time and space.

I imagined that Haru is a storyteller (and thus by default the real hero!) and Natsu is a scientist or mathematician. Baha will eventually be a very wise wizard, but right now he's still very young, so he's a bit ... not stupid ... just innocent. I'm hopelessly in love with Baha. Full confession.

Ikkyū is named after an iconoclastic Zen monk and poet (link).

Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…

The Tenen Hiking Trail in Kamakura

"I can't do this anymore," my colleague said. The bell for the next lesson had just rung, but he was still sitting in his chair, looking like Marvin the Paranoid Android.
He's an eikaiwa veteran who's had a stint as a school manager, and he's a genuinely good teacher, but he's reached that saturation level that hits any eikaiwa teacher with half a brain and a smidgen of goodwill.
Eikaiwa teaching is a thoroughly unnatural job: you're supposed to make entertaining small talk with strangers you may never see again, and you're supposed to do this for eight hours. If it's an interesting person, great, but sometimes you're stuck with Kenji whose hobby is sleeping or Mariko whose hobby is to go to shopping.
I grimaced in sympathy. Only two things keep me going right now: knowing that university classes will resume shortly, and hiking. As I observed my colleague, I made an instant decision: Kamakura. Friday, my day off, Tenen Hiking Trail.


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.

Happy birthday, Mum!

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

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…

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…

Hiking in Nikko to Takinoo Jinja

Polish your boots, get your backpack and grab your camera. We're going hiking again, and this time we'll follow in the footsteps of a holy man.
Shōdō Shōnin (勝道上人) was one of the great monks of the Heian era. Not only the first person to explore the mountains of  Nikko, he also founded several temples in this area, including Shiunryū-ji (present-day Rinnō-ji) and Chūzen-ji.

It is said that when he wanted to cross the Daiya River, a flood cut off his access to the mountains beyond. A deity appeared on the opposite bank and threw two snakes across the raging river. The snakes turned into a bridge, and Shōdō could cross safely.
After his death in March 817 he was buried in Nikko. His statue stands at the entrance to the Nikko World Heritage Site in honour of his contribution to Buddhism in Japan.

You can still walk along one of his routes, a meandering trail¹ that takes you behind the famous Tōshō-gū, across the hills, past a famous waterfall and into a quiet gorge – no tourists! –…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …