Thursday, September 21, 2006


Lonesomely clings the Dragonfly
to the
underside of the leaf
Ah! The Autumn rain.

September in Japan brings the rice harvest, tsukimi (moon viewing), typhoons and dragonflies (not necessarily in that order).

The rice harvest is self-explanatory, I blogged about tsukimi last year, and have already bitched about the typhoons, so let me write about dragonflies.

There are dragonflies in Japan. (No way! Way!) They start appearing here and there in summer but there's just clouds of them in the early fall. Around this time of year, lots come to hang out in my yard. The like the sunny spots on my garden wall and like perching on the points of my gate. They're not afraid of anything, so I can get up close to take (out-of-focus) pictures.

Dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, derived from a Greek word, odon, meaning " tooth," possibly referring to the teeth on the mandibles or tusk-like shape of the insect's abdomen. There are In Japan, there are 214 species and subspecies of dragonflies.

Dragonflies can't sting, but bigger ones can bite. The bite doesn't hurt, but it's disconcerting to have a large dragonfly stuck to you. Don't expect your husband to come to your aid, either. He'll just run into the house, leaving you to pry off the bug yourself.

Here in Japan, Dragonflies are called Tombo as well as Katsumushi (victory insect).The word katsumushi is written with two kanji characters. The first character has the meaning of "victory" and the second character has the meaning of "insect." Tombo is what I hear all the time, I think Katsumushi is archaic. In looking up the definition of Tombo in Japanese dictionary, I discovered one of the meanings of the word is "to suddenly change direction". If you've ever tried to chase a dragonfly as it zooms along, you can appreciate how fitting that definition is!

Dragonflies are fast! The fasted fliers have been clocked at 36 miles per hour. Aeronautic companies have studied the insect, in order to improve airplane designs. They're cool bugs.

In Japan, tombo are revered and respected, being symbolic of happiness, strength, courage and success. They are a common decorative motif. During the 11th century noble Japanese families used the dragonfly as ornamentation on everything from furnishings to textiles. The dragonfly was chosen as a part of a Samurai family crest as well.

The Tombo was believed to be the spirit of the rice plant and a harbinger of rich harvests. Makes sense, since they appear around the time the rice is ready.

Interestingly enough, in Japan, the dragonfly also functions as a pyschopomp, as the mythical creature Shoryo Tombo (Dragonfly of the Dead), which is associated with the Japanese festival Bon. During this Buddhist festival, people honor their ancestors. The spirits of the dead, carried by Shoryo Tombo, return home to be reunited with their families.

A Japanese folktale has it that an Emperor was bitten by a horsefly which, in turn, was eaten by a dragonfly. The Emperor honored the dragonfly by naming what is now Japan Akitsushima which, during that time, translated to “Isle of the Dragonfly”.

My Japanese friend, Kei Mahoney, told me about her father's secret technique to catch dragonflies. You hypnotize them! Get up close to the dragonfly (not too hard, they're not generally afraid of you), then using your index finger, point at the dragonfly. Make an uzumaki (spiral) in the air with your finger, sort of going around the dragonfly's head. The dragonfly will be fascinated by this and you can cup it up in your hand if you are fast enough. Works really well, too! My Japanese neighbors find it hysterical to watch me do this, because I get all excited if I catch one. If I miss, the dragonfly will get royally pissed off and dive-bomb me, sending me running for cover. Either result provides much autumnal entertainment for the neighbors.

There's also another capture method, called Buri, which utilizes the tendency of the dragonfly to attack its prey in mid-air.

In buri, a thin silk thread is weighted at both ends and tossed up. The dragonfly attacks it, and is pulled down by the weight, where it can be captured. The earliest known record of buri was documented in 1831 by this illustration, from Kodera.

I've never seen buri done.


stephanie / quitenot said...


wow, you must think i have been ignoring you. i sent you an e-mail after i got the second, surprise package with pickles and kinako pocky (mmm!).

i also responded to your very recent e-mail. i suppose hotmail is not that reliable.

i feel like a schmuck!

anyhoo - how are things in japan? things are lovely here, but dull. a cold and wet fall is beginning.

i still have an extra bottle of bootstrap molasses for you, and i can send you anything else. i had intended to send you some yarn as a thank you for the pickles... but i am a little slow, and by the time i was going to you began your 'destash' mission - and no way in heck am i going to derail your mission... i'm trying to destash myself... i am making some mittens and hats for a craft fair in november, so hopefully that will work.

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