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When scanning over the (dreadful and upsetting) news this morning, a wacky and funny story jumped out at me from amidst all of the grim happenings: fruit merchants in Japan auctioned off some grapes for a record high price!  A bunch of approximately 30 “Ruby Roman” grapes sold for 1.1 million yen (which is equal to approximately $11,000.00).  Even considering today’s high food prices and Japan’s astringent import rules (aka crooked tariffs), $365.00 per grape is an appallingly high price!  What is going on? And what are “Ruby Roman” grapes?

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Paying astronomically high prices for high-status foods is sort of a Japanese food tradition—like hotdog contests or giant pumpkin weighing in America. Merchants or wealthy patrons buy up ceremonial first fish or crops in order to gain prestige and whip up public attention (from all the way across the ocean in this case). The buyer of these particular grapes, Takamaru Konishi, plans on showing the expensive fruit in his shop before parceling them out to special customers and patrons.

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Ruby Roman grapes are a special Japanese variety of red grape which each grow to the size of ping pong balls. Viticulturists began developing this new variety of grapes in 1992 by hybridizing and selecting certain strains of Fujiminori grapes.   In 2008 the new giant red grapes hit shops…provided the fruit met the hilariously strict Japanese agricultural guidelines for what constitutes “Ruby Roman.”  To quote Wikipedia:

Every grape is checked strictly to guarantee its quality, with certification seals placed on those thus selected. The Ruby Roman has strict rules for selling; each grape must be over 20g and over 18% sugar. In addition, a special “premium class” exists which requires the grape to be over 30g and where the entire fruit bunch must weigh at least 700g. In 2010, only six grapes qualified for premium status while in 2011, no grapes made the cut.

Wow! Maybe these grapes are worth $365.00 each! Or maybe this is another goofy publicity stunt for lazy reporters.  If so, count me in!

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Hey, did I tell you about Akatsuki?  It was one of the thrilling space exploration stories of 2015—and it is just now becoming germane, but it did not get a lot of press attention in the west because of the holidays and because people were busy thinking about stupid trivia (including me).  Akatsuki is a Japanese spacecraft/space mission designed to research and explore the atmosphere of Venus (its other name is Venus Climate Orbiter).  The mission was launched in May of 2010 and the craft was supposed to go into orbit in December of 2010, but a catastrophic failure of the orbital maneuvering engine caused it to fly off into orbit around the sun (this failure was caused by a tiny salt deposit—which quietly says a great deal about the difficulties and dangers of space travel).

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The Japanese space agency turned the probe to hibernation mode to conserve energy and waited…and waited…and waited.  For five years, the craft flew through interplanetary darkness, quietly orbiting the sun as rocket scientists plotted and made corrections.  Then, in December of 2015 the agency tried again.  The combustion chamber throat and nozzle of the orbital maneuvering engine were horribly damaged (such a problem destroyed NASA’s Mars Observer probe in 1993) so JAXA jettisoned the craft’s oxidizing fuel and attempted to enter a strange elliptical orbit by means of four hydrazine attitude control thrusters. The rendezvous between Akatsuki and Venus occurred on 7 December 2015.  Using four tiny thrusters not rated for orbital maneuvering, the spacecraft made a 20 minute burn and entered Venusian orbit!  I wish I could make this sound more dramatic—it was a stupendously precise and superb piece of jerry-rigged rocket science happening around a different world.  It is a miracle this craft is not a splatter on the baking surface of Venus.  Kudos to JAXA!

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The craft was originally slated to orbit Venus every 30 Earth hours, but its wild and bumpy 5 year journey to our sister planet changed the original plans quite a bit.  In March of 2016, JAXA mission control finalized the craft’s elliptical orbit to take 9 days per orbital revolution.  Planetary observations are slated to start in mid-April—right about now! Akatsuki is the only operational human craft currently at Venus.  Its mission is to investigate Venutian meteorology with an infrared camera (we will be talking more about the insane Venutian atmosphere in a follow-up post) and to determine whether lightning and active volcanoes exist on the hot troubled world.  This information may take a while to collate and access (considering that we are only now figuring out what the results of the last Venus mission, the ESA Venus Express, actually denote.

Anyway, stay tuned for more news from Venus!  Maybe Akatsuki will be broadcasting some surprises about the little known planet next door.

Omura's whale or the dwarf fin whale (Balaenoptera omurai)

Omura’s whale or the dwarf fin whale (Balaenoptera omurai)

At the end of last month (October 2015), marine researchers in the Indian Ocean captured the first ever moving images of Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai) a “dwarf” rorqual about which very little is known.  I put “dwarf” in quotation marks because Omura’s whale is still a rorqual, a family which includes the largest animals to have ever lived. Adult Omura’s whales range in length from 9.6 to 11.5 meters (31.5 to 37.7 feet)—not exactly a miniature animal.

The whale is mysterious because it is rare.  The specimens which were observed (or killed) were thought to be a small subspecies of Bryde’s whale.  Only in 2003 did Japanese cetologists demonstrate incontrovertibly that the whale was a separate species (largely through genetic evidence preserved from specimens taken in infamous hunts/research expeditions).

An Omura's whale underwater lunge feeding (photo by  Cerchio et al. 2015, Royal Society Open Science)

An Omura’s whale underwater lunge feeding (photo by Cerchio et al. 2015, Royal Society Open Science)

Insomuch as we know anything about it, the Omura’s whale (which is named in honor of a famous Japanese whale scientist) is like other rorquals.  It is a huge pelagic filter feeder which captures plankton or small fish and invertebrates in its great baleen mouth and strains the water out.  It superficially resembles Bryde’s whale, however DNA reveals that it is an early offshoot from the rorqual lineage (its skeleton also differs greatly from Bryde’s whale)

We didn’t even know this was a species until 12 years ago—which illustrates how vast and unknown our own oceans still are. The Omura’s whales in the video/film were spotted in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar.  Hopefully they are not as isolated as they seem and the oceans will continue to be graced by this mysterious creature far into the future.

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Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Inaka musume Otsuna (Utagawa Kunisada, 1852, woodblock print)

Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Inaka musume Otsuna (Utagawa Kunisada, 1852, woodblock print)

One of the classics of Japanese folklore is Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari, the tale of a gallant shape-shifting ninja who can become a giant toad or summon a different giant toad to ride.  The work has been adapted into a series of 19th century novels, a kabuki drama, numerous prints and paintings, several films and a manga series—it is clearly a staple of Japanese culture (even if the fundamental conceit sounds a trifle peculiar to western ears).

Tsunade by HaneChan

Tsunade by HaneChan

As awesome as a ninja who becomes a toad or rides a toad sounds, it is not what concerns us here.  Instead this post is dedicated to the wife of the protagonist, the beautiful maiden Tsunade (綱手) who is a master of slug magic!  She was able to summon a giant slug or become a slug.

Slug Princess Tsunade by Orcagirl2001

Slug Princess Tsunade by Orcagirl2001

I wish I could explain this better but I haven’t (yet) read Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari.  Perhaps these woodblock and manga images from various incarnations of the work will speak for themselve. At the top of this entry is a picture of the ninja with toad magic (right) along with his wife the slug magician (left), but the rest of the prints and cartoons are pictures of Tsunade.   Based on the contemporary cartoon here below, and on some of the Edo-era prints, it seems like there may be an erotic component to this tale of heroic magical slugs and toads.

Tsunade from Naruto (?)

Tsunade from Naruto (?)

If western mythmakers and storytellers could think like this, maybe sitcoms would not be so agonizing.  This is some weird and lovely stuff.  We have made next to no headway understanding Japanese culture, but we have certainly looked at some weird slug girl art!

A Bronze Statue of a Baku

A Bronze Statue of a Baku

There are two sorts of dreams. In a figurative sense, your dreams are your aspirations and hopes for the future (for example I dream of getting a paying job, becoming a world famous visual artist, and colonizing our sister-planet Venus). However, in a more literal sense, dreams are a series of unreal adventures which take place inside your head when you are sleeping. Real dreams consist of strange phantasmagoria, troubling psychosexual images, intense emotions and memories as well as and undigested mental odds-and-ends…and horrifying nightmarish fears.

A baku inhaling nightmares

A baku inhaling nightmares

To start off our Halloween week of dreams and nightmares, here is a mythical animal which embodies the tension between both meanings of the word dreams. The Baku is a supernatural entity which devours dreams and nightmares. Apparently stories of the baku originated in ancient China, but these days it is most prevalent in Japan where it plays an ever growing role in folklore and fiction. The baku is a chimera which is said to have an elephant’s trunk, a rhinoceros’ eyes, an ox’s tail, and a tiger’s paws. The creature devours dreams by inhaling them through its sinuous proboscis.

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Not surprisingly, the baku’s moral alignment is highly controversial! In traditional Japanese texts it was a pleasant and helpful spirit which ate nightmares and thus provided afflicted sleepers with peaceful & pleasant (albeit somewhat bland) dreams. However in our fractured modern world, the baku has darkened and now it sometimes eats a person’s figurative dreams (although not having aspirations, ideas, or ambitions presumably makes a person an ideal office worker).

Baku (tattoo art by hiraistrange)

Baku (tattoo art by hiraistrange)

Originally bakus were regarded as completely supernatural, however in recent times they have become conflated with the inoffensive tapirs–which certainly physically resemble the descriptions of the mythical baku. This fact makes the baku even more confusing. It is now both a supernatural dream eating monster dwelling in the ether…and an actual living mammal which can be discovered in the rainforests of Malaysia and South America. I have always liked tapirs a great deal and so I am going to insist they are in no way malevolent. They appear to live exclusively on rainforest vegetation, but even if they did decide to branch out and inhale some human dreams, I am certain they would take our nightmares and not our fondest wishes.

An adorable baby tapir!

An adorable baby tapir!

Catfish Envy (Masami Teraoka, 1993, woodblock & etching with hand-tint)

Catfish Envy (Masami Teraoka, 1993, woodblock & etching with hand-tint)

Masami Teraoka is a Japanese-born artist who addresses contemporary issues and mores with ancient Ukiyo-e artistic style. The results of this fusion are not only visually stunning but frequently droll & ridiculous as well. Here is a mixed woodcut/etching print titled “Catfish Envy” which has been hand-tinted by the artist. A risible middle aged samurai is trying to snorkel his way up to a contemporary international femme fatale who, in turn, is embracing a wily catfish. The young woman seems contemptuous of the old fashioned warrior–who looks quite out of breath and rattled. The catfish is an enigma, but he seems to have shades of the mythical Namazu–the earthquake-causing catfish god who lives beneath Japan (and who sometimes represents wealth caused by corruption). There is something distinctly nouveau riche and jaded about that catfish. The beautiful lady snorkeler has a disdainful and mercenary light in her eyes. Even the tradition-bound samurai seems like he might be a bit lecherous and silly (although we sense that the lecherous, silly, tradition-bound printmaker sympathizes with him). The juxtaposition of the centuries-old technique, the old-school sexual/class moralizing, and the modern sporting equipment earns this print a place of high distinction in the annals of catfish-themed art (even if it might be somewhat lacking in egalitarian humanist values).

Fukurokuju Disguised as Octopus (Kuniyoshi Utagawa,  ca. early 19th century Woodblock Print)

Fukurokuju Disguised as Octopus (Kuniyoshi Utagawa, ca. early 19th century Woodblock Print)

In Japan, the seven propitious gods are deities of luck, happiness, wealth and all good things. They are often depicted traveling on their treasure ship, the Takarabune (which is itself a major cultural symbol in Japan) which will sometimes suddenly moor at a town or province bringing overnight success and riches. Not only do these seven generous deities dispense wealth from their ship, they sometimes travel alone to find mortals to shower with gifts and boons.  In the above woodblock print, Fukurokuju, one of the seven propitious gods has disguised himself as an octopus, much to the raucous delight of two bystanders. The disguise is far from complete (!) which adds greatly to the comic effect.  Fukurokuju was a syncretized Japanese version of the Chinese god of the south polar star.  He was particularly affiliated with longevity and deep wisdom–a fact which makes his ludicrous antics all the more uproarious.  There is an additional pun/joke within the composition: in Japanese, people who are comically and completely bald are known as tako-nyudo (octopus monster).

Dried Shredded Squid

Dried Shredded Squid

So, I grew up in the middle of the United States (and sometimes along the East Coast) and salty snack foods were invariably cheese doodles, chips, or pretzels—or maybe peanuts or corn chips if you were somewhere fancy). This is why it was a huge revelation when my Korean-American friend introduced me to dried shredded squid—a favored bar food in Japan and Korea.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, dried shredded squid consists of squid which has been shredded, dried, and salted (although sometimes the dried cephalopod is actually cuttlefish). The flesh comes away in little strings which one then pops into ones mouth with mayonnaise or hot sauce (particularly at a bar or while drinking pre-dinner drinks like whiskey or beer). None of this sounds especially appealing—and indeed, at first glance, the salted dried squid does not inspire the casual snack enthusiast with much hope. Squid and cuttlefish dry to an unappealing color somewhere between bone, mummy, and woodear, while the aroma bears a faint hint of decaying estuaries (with perhaps a touch of Cthulhu).

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Yet, when one actually eats the dried shredded squid, it goes through a wonderful metamorphosis: it is exactly the right combination of chewy, salty, and umami. In Japan, shredded dried squid is known as “atarime” and is considered a otsumami (a bar food) whereas in Korea it is regarded as a bar food or sometimes a banchan (a small side dish). Whatever the case, it is excellent as a before dinner snack (especially with a beer) and I heartily recommend it to everyone—even if you are a bit wary of eating dessicated sea creatures.  Furthermore, the packaging tends to be very droll with all sorts of cute cartoon squids (as you can sea in some of these photos).

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Miscellaneous Yuru Kyara

Miscellaneous Yuru Kyara

Japan is the land of the mascot (as noted in passing in the first ferrebeekeeper post about mascots). Not only do sports teams and companies and public safety campaigns all have mascots, in recent year the country has been gripped by a mania for Yuru-kyara (AKA yuru characters or “gentle characters”) little animated figures which represent every single city, municipality, prefecture, and village in Japan.  The yuru characters are meant to represent some aspect of the culture of the place which they hail from: so a district famous for manufacturing aviation equipment might have a cute little jet mascot, whereas a farming village might be represented by a happy turnip.  Some of the meanings are rather obscure (like the little berry boy which represents the Japan Self Defense Force Yamanashi Provincial Cooperation Office).

Maybe the Japan Self Defense Force Yamanashi Provincial Cooperation Office just really like berries...

Maybe the Japan Self Defense Force Yamanashi Provincial Cooperation Office just really like berries…

The most famous yuru-kyara become hugely popular and can be quite lucrative—for example Kumamoto, the beloved yuru-kyara of Kumamon brought in hundreds of millions of yen for the prefecture (and sold huge piles of Kumamoto figures and merchandise).  Many of the others labor in obscurity (or are replaced by more likable mascots).  Sometimes two figures will be in conflict: Funabashi City is unofficially represented by Funassyi a frolicsome “pear fairy” however the official Funabashi City yuru-kyara is Funaemon, who looks like an anxious and fussy bureaucrat.

Funassyi, the pear spirit

Funassyi, the pear spirit

Funaemon hopes you have filled out your forms correctly

Funaemon hopes you have filled out your forms correctly

You can check out all sorts of amazing Yuru-kyara on this website (thanks to my roommate Steven Sho Sugita-Becraft for the link!), but, unless you read Japanese, you might be hard pressed to figure out who they are and what they represent.  I wonder if all the money-grubbing attention-hungry municipalities of America will ever adapt a similar scheme of crazy mascots (or are we just stuck with MacGruff and Mr. Yuck)?

I guess they could come over on their pirate ship?

I guess they could come over on their pirate ship?

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