Tuesday, April 29, 2014

17. 霜止出苗: "The End Of The Frost"

(BGM: "Clear Horizon" by Basia)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
晩春 Banshun: "Late Spring"
Season No. 6: 穀雨, Koku: 
"Grain Rain" 

Climate No. 17. 霜止出苗
Shimo Yande Nae Izuru:
"The End Of The Frost"
(April 25 -April 29)

The warmth of the sun has reached even the northern climes, reassuring farmers and gardeners everywhere that it's now safe to think about putting those seed starts into the soil. "The end of the frost" refers to the current conditions in the deep folds of Japan's mountain country, which covers three-quarters of the entire archipelago. Even in the farthest reaches of Japan's remotest communities, the land heaves a sigh of relief. Warm days are here to stay.

Though Japan's "hiking season" officially opens in July, this is our favorite time of year to hit the mountain trails weeks before the snakes, hornets and relentless heat become an issue. Whenever there's a break in the rain just long enough for the trails to dry out, you can find us every weekend on some random mountaintop enjoying the country from a different perspective.

There's something lifechanging about conquering a mountain trail by your own physical power. The climb can be gruelling, with slippery mud, loose rocks and missteps that could end in tragedy. But the process of overcoming your own sense of fear and self-doubt can truly be a growing experience. Not to mention the empowering, healing effect it has on a sedentary body!

 Here are a couple of my favorite hikes savored during the "end of the frost:"

Shou-un Waterfall near Buttsuji Temple (Mihara, Hiroshima)

Dizzying view of the Seto Ohashi Bridge at dusk from Mt. Washu (Kurashiki, Okayama).

"Fresh spring!
   The world is only
    Nine days old!
     These fields and mountains." 
                           -Matsuo Basho
A fiery sunset rewards our descent from Kannonzaki Trail (Okamura Island, Ehime Prefecture)

Jo-o Waterfall (Mihara, Hiroshima)

Critter Of The Season: 山蟹, Yamagani, Mountain Crabs

A kurobenkeigani (Chiromantes dehaani) hiding from my camera in a ditch in Obama, Fukui.
There's an old Japanese Aesop's fable about a mother crab who starved to death from the antics of a cruel snow monkey. Her orphaned crablets later avenged their mother's death by killing the monkey some years later. The whole story, called "The Battle Between the Crab And Monkey" (Saru Kani Ni Gassen) is delightfully rediculous, with animated chestnuts and dung getting in on the kung-fu action. But what intrigued me the most was the concept of crabs hanging around a forest alongside snow monkeys. (Which didn't make any sense, because Japanese mukashibanashi, like Dena'ina Alaskan folktales, often get their inspiration from actual animal behavior. Crabs were strictly sea creatures, according to my understanding).

I brushed the whole idea off as a flight of fancy until I came across one while plodding around the gardens of Ishiyama Temple in Otsu, Shiga. I looked down into a ditch and noticed this black crab, looking very out of place. Did someone just finish a seafood meal at the temple and chuck this for the koi?

The remains of an adult sawagani crab (Geothelphusa dehaani, a type of marsh crab that also lives in the mountains of central Japan).
A decade later, in a mountain stream near Hyakusaiji Temple (in northeast Shiga) I came across the same kind of crab, only this time, quite large and very much alive! It was true! There really are crabs in the mountains of Japan!

A larger sawagani crab (Geothelphusa dehaani), browsing among stones by a stream.
 But is this a true yamagani?

Apparently, the sawagani crab is water-dependent, never straying too far from its aquatic environment. More often than not, they're seen partially submerged, unable to survive for long without a water source. Though they live in the mountains, they're not the true yamagani of legendary fame.

The average Japanese layman will probably call any mountain-dwelling crab a yamagani, though the term specifically refers to the red-clawed genus of the Sesarmidae family, known as akategani in Japanese (赤手蟹, Chiromantes haematocheir). This particular species of crab is often confused with its cousin, the less colorful and more macho kurobenkeigani (黒弁慶蟹, Chiromantes dehaani). Both of these species are true land crabs, however.

Hundreds of kilometers away from any ocean, these fascinating crustaceans make their homes in holes and crevaces along the banks of quiet mountain streams, scuttling out when the air is warm and humid to feed carefully in the fuzzy green mosses. Especially common in Kansai and the Chugoku regions, they also dwell quite close to humans in drainage ditches, gutters and around seawalls, often living for months without being submerged.

A true yamagani (Chiromantes haematocheir) in my drainage ditch. Note the bright orange-red claws.
I was blessed to find a whole community of these charming creatures in the gutter that runs just outside my front porch. This week when the temperature suddenly spiked to 27C, they made their first appearance of the year, much to my delight.

A juvenile akategani (Chiromantes haematocheir) giving me a manicure.
I personally adore these little guys. Though the odd one will go into attack formation by expanding their forearms and opening their claws, they will more than likely retreat into the shadows at the first sign of danger. During a heavy downpour, they will often evacuate their burrows in search for higher ground to keep from drowning (as they are land crabs). The one on my fingers here strolled all the way into my office and was chilling behind my chair when I found him. My hangnails seemed to provide him some nutrition and he resisted my attempt to relocate him back outside. (Ah, parting is such sweet sorrow. :-)

As the summer moves on, they become bolder eventually figure out that traversing smooth, paved highways is much easier than trudging through scrubby brush -hence the occasional, heart-wrenching crunch when one meets a nasty end under rolling tires. Like the kind folk on Christmas Island who protect their Red Crab population at all costs, I made it my own personal mission to keep these endearing critters out of danger as much as possible.

A pair of kurobenkeigani feeding peacefully in a ditch (Obama, Fukui Prefecture). Note the curled, leaf-like foreclaws.
One of the joys of being a naturalist in a foreign country is that you can sometimes relate to the lifeforms you encounter, even when they're brand-spanking new to your personal universe. The yamagani of Japan and I have much in common: both far away from our ancestral home, yet we feel we have enough roots and an affinity for the land to belong here. Just as some people feel surprised to see me, a gaijin (foreigner), in their isolated towns and villages, no doubt other creatures don't expect to see crabs high up in the mountains. Yet here we are, and here we'll stay. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!  :-)

(Warning: As fun as it is to catch and handle land crabs, their pincers can draw blood and they often harbor toxic parasites and bacteria. It's best to leave them in peace. If one ever strays into your office and needs relocating, however, it's wise to disinfect before and after handling with an alcohol-based gel or hand spray. And for all that's good and holy, please don't try to eat them raw!)

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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