Nature in Short / Coming face-to-face with the wilderness

By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News

By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan NewsOne day last week, I got out of an afternoon meeting in Meguro earlier than expected. With a windfall of free daylight to work with, I walked a few blocks east from the station to the National Museum of Nature and Science’s Institute for Nature Study. This small park is loaded with natural goodies, especially in spring, when the woodland wildflowers come into bloom.

In Japan, a wide variety of orchids, lilies, gentians and anemones thrive on the floor of deciduous woodlands. This is a wonderful habitat, open and sunny in spring but cool and shaded in summer. Many of the plants found here would be unable to bloom in deep shade and would also wilt during the summer if left unprotected in direct sunlight. The institute has assembled a great collection of typical southern Kanto species.

One of my favorites is the amana. In the comprehensive “Flora of China,” these small, white six-petaled Lily Family flowers are listed in the genus Tulipa, which would make them wild relatives of the famous tulips. Japanese botanists, however, now place them in a genus of their own, Amana. There are two similar species: amana (A. edulis), with thin, light-green leaves; and hiroha amana (A. erythronioides), with slightly broader, darker green leaves.

The beautiful purple and pink Japanese fawn lilies (Erythronium japonicum) are also in full bloom. Called katakuri, these large blooms are perennial favorites of fans of Japanese woodland wildflowers and always attract a crowd of fervent admirers. As the flower matures, the petals recurve backwards while the six stamens and single pistil thrust out to the front, giving the flower a dynamic appearance, like a colorful shooting star whizzing through space. In the past, the starch called katakuriko was made from the bulbs of these plants.

The local anemones are also just now coming into bloom. Look for the nirinso (Anemone flaccida), with two or more small white flowers per stalk, and ichirinso (A. nikoensis), usually with only one large white flower per stalk. Anemones, classified in the Buttercup Family (kinpoge ka), are familiar wildflowers widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere.

Immersed in crawling around on the ground to study and photograph the wildflowers, I lost track of time and was startled by the 16:30 announcement that the park would be closing soon. I was even more startled when I stood up to leave and found myself looking directly into the soft eyes of a young tanuki.

Tanuki, or racoon dogs, are small, short-legged members of the dog family native to East Asia, usually weighing in at around 10 kilograms. Primarily nocturnal and extremely omnivorous, they seldom hunt large prey, but instead forage on a varied diet that includes earthworms, insects, frogs and crabs, as well as all sorts of fruits, flowers, bulbs and leaves. This adaptability has allowed the tanuki to thrive in the countryside and even urban environments.

The Institute for Nature Study (Shizen Kyoikuen), located just a few minutes’ walk from Meguro Station, is a true urban oasis. Dirt paths wind past ponds and marshes and through dense native woodlands. Admission is ¥310 for adults, but is free for high school students and younger people and those over 65. Open from 9:00 to 16:30, it is closed in April on the 9th, 16th and 23rd. English pamphlet available.

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Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University Information Sciences.Speech

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