Nature in Tokyo: the long and Short of it

Kevin Short’s latest book, “Nature in Tokyo,” which came out in December from Kodansha International, is a 335-page guide to animals and plants in Tokyo and the surrounding area. Through this book, readers will become much more aware of the origins of Tokyo and realize that it’s not all flat nor totally denuded of wildlife and green open spaces.

Short helps readers become aware that Tokyo is not just all concrete.

Short has a Ph.D in anthropology from Stanford University, and his description in the book’s introduction of the origins of human habitation on the Kanto Plain is fascinating. Humans first arrived in the area 20,000-30,000 years ago, and the plain has been inhabited ever since, through the Jomon, feudal and Edo periods right up until the modern age.

The book’s three main sections cover animals, plants and nature sites in Tokyo. Readers’ attention is drawn to how modern urban planners have failed to preserve pockets of nature amid urban sprawl.

Japan has a good collection of snakes, but there is little information about them available in English. Short’s credentials here are good. The first time I met him, he took me to a sato-yama woodland and rice field (tanbo) close to the town of Inzai, northern Chiba Prefecture. In that small area, he had counted seven different species of snake and had managed to photograph them all, too! Here he divides snakes into nonpoisonous and poisonous, with good, clear and easy-to-understand descriptions.

Short is similarly thorough with amphibians. He describes the Japanese tree frog (ama-gaeru), Schlegel’s green tree frog (Shuregeru ao-gaeru or mori ao-gaeru), Japanese brown frog (Nihon aka-gaeru), Montane brown frog (yama aka-gaeru), bullfrogs (ushi-gaeru), Tokyo daruma pond frog (daruma-gaeru) and the Japanese toad (azuma hiki-gaeru).

After my encounter with some paper wasps (ashinaga-bachi) last year, I read the segment on wasps with interest. While diligently cutting back kudzu vine (Pueraria lobata) which was strangling young trees in some woodland, I came too close to a wasps’ small nest, which was on the underside of a leaf on a young kusu-no-ki tree (Cinnamomum camphora). As Short warns and as I can testify, they will defend their nest with ferocity; they stung me on the wrist and about the ear. Short recommends immediate medical attention if stung by paper wasps or hornets. Unfortunately I was too far away from a chemist and, boy, was it painful!

Don’t miss the part on caterpillars. Some of these little wigglers are masters of chemical warfare and other ingenious defense mechanisms.

No matter where we go we will see spiders. Short describes seven different spiders found in Tokyo. The most common is the orb-web spider, or kogane-gumo, which looks dangerous but is in fact harmless — as are all spiders in Japan. Its yellow-and-black body stripes make it easy to spot.

There are some pages dedicated to wildlife in the remaining tidal flats around Tokyo Bay. Short points out how much of the coastal wildlife was destroyed by careless land reclamation after World War II, all in the name of development. “Mu kara yu (making something out of nothing)” was the guiding philosophy after the war, and though the importance of coastal habitats is increasingly recognized, land reclamation is still taking place all over the country.

The second section is devoted to plants, beginning with broad-leaved evergreens. In the once-widespread natural climax or laurel forest, chinkapin (sudajii) and evergreen oaks such as shira-kashi formed a dense canopy of lush green. He describes these and the understory trees, then goes on to introduce the types of deciduous trees growing in Tokyo today. Wildflowers are covered in detail.

The drawings that accompany his descriptions will enable beginners to identify a plant’s genus with ease. Within the genus there are many species, and these are not so easy to tell apart.

The third section details 67 nature sites around Tokyo, giving maps and access directions. The Yamanote and Musahino uplands, the Shitamachi lowlands and the Tokyo waterfront are all covered.

Short has visited all the nature sites that are mentioned in the book and has walked much of the city searching for the remaining natural contours and the almost forgotten rivers. The book’s detailed drawings and maps accompany the well-researched explanations, and with the exception of the cover and one or two other photographs, all the 550 photos and hand drawings are by the author.

Short’s explanations are enthralling, and his humorous style of writing really holds the attention. The book’s glossary lists names of featured animals and plants by their Japanese, scientific and English names. From now on, whenever I go for a walk in the capital, I’ll carry “Nature in Tokyo.”

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