An Ode to the Crows of Japan
One time while living in Kyoto… “I went for a midnight stroll around Mt Inari, the red gates picked out against the snow, and with the sounds of the city muffled to nothingness, the night deathly quiet and utterly still save for the flakes tumbling silently down, I was in my own little magical winter wonderland. There were no footprints other than those I made as I went, and though I knew where I was going it truly had a dream-like quality; I was half-expecting to turn along an unfamiliar footpath and find myself in Narnia, or perhaps a Murakami novel… and then, lo and behold, I saw a footpath I couldn’t recall having seen before, leading back into shadow. The only thing morning had in store for me was work, so I figured I wouldn’t mind vanishing off into some spirit world and so down that mysterious path I went. The main trail is well-lit at night, but not this little corner I was now treading softly into; the only sound was the snow crunching underfoot. My eyes adjusted to the small amount of ambient light, aided by the reflective snow, and then I saw it, a strange dark figure looming before me, a statue, but looking somehow almost demonic; for some reason I was reminded of the opening scene of The Exorcist. I swear, I could actually feel it looking at me, fancied I momentarily saw a flicker of light reflected in a pair of eyes regarding me coldly from that darkened visage…
I don’t believe in ghosts, in angels and demons, but I have to admit it, I was spooked; what was this creepy statue standing silently here in the snow, seemingly almost alive, watching me, somehow calling me forward? I edged towards it, aware of my heart beating a little too fast… and then, with a piercing shriek, the statue suddenly sprang to life, lunging straight at my head! I raised my arms in defence and let out a shriek of my own…
A crow! A fucking crow had been perched there on top of a Buddha statue, and had indeed been watching me approach; it took flight and flapped straight past my head, and I absolutely shat my pants and screamed like a little girl. It was just a crow! Haha… I let rip with a torrent of expletives I’m glad no-one was around to hear (though the statues may have blushed), and with my peaceful walk through the enchanted forest thus thoroughly shattered I made my way home.” (from my Fushimi Inari post)
That was yours truly getting the shit scared out of me at Kyoto’s mysterious Fushimi Inari shrine in the small hours of a snowy night a few years ago. Little bastard! Well, not so little actually…
They’re a common sight there, regarding you with beady eyes from their perches atop the shrine’s red torii gates (torii literally means ‘bird perch’) or wheeling around in the air currents above you; on one occasion I witnessed a murder of hundreds, if not thousands, circling the skies over the shrine, making such a cacophony as you’ve never heard as though they knew something we didn’t about the imminent end of days.
Called karasu in Japanese, they’re remarkable creatures really. Survivors. In fact not just merely surviving in the urban environment of Japan’s sprawling concrete jungles, but thriving; roaming bands marauding their ways through the city streets, calling to each other from rooftop to rooftop, here! an uncovered garbage bag! and they descend, their enormous beaks tearing through the thin skin of plastic to get at the goodies inside, the shiny bits of plastic that catch their eye so, the scraps of food they partially live off… and all the bag’s other contents dispersed all across the street, strips of packaging and shreds of tissue strewn across the narrow road like someone set off a trash bomb.
And thus they earn their bad reputation as early morning noise polluters and rubbish bandits, despised as pests by most of the human population they share their territory with. But even though I’d curse them when their caaaawing woke me at 5am (making me want to apply the alternate meaning to murder of crows), I can’t help but admire them. Their intelligence, their boldness, their zero fucks given attitude.
Just north of Ikebukuro Station there’s a grimy pedestrian overpass over Tokyo’s iconic circular Yamanote Line, the green paint flaking and peeling away, the rust bleeding into the concrete from decades of rain, a revolving selection of mould-ridden discarded furniture pieces lining the way, one of those surprisingly gritty corners of that great city where the multi-levelled urban environment completely surrounds you as though all the world must be so; the trains thundering beneath your feet, the elevated highway rumbling overhead, the horizon defined by skyscrapers, the rows of apartment blocks hemming it all in from the sides. I used to cross it when walking from my apartment to the shining neon pastures of Ikebukuro, and it was such a striking spot; yet I never paused there to muse or ponder, as it was a favourite haunt for the boldest crow in all Tokyo. Those brave or foolish enough to cross (rather than taking the long route around on the other side of the intersection) did so with a wary eye on the infrastructure above, searching for that ominous black form perched on a lofty fire escape or road sign. And when it was there, you could only hope it allowed you to pass – the greatest danger was when it watched you from on high but you didn’t see it there, as it seemed to know when it had the element of surprise and usually took full advantage.
Those still unawares of the guardian of this decaying bridge are the main victims, and so it was with me the first time. There I was, crossing the bridge to Ikebukuro, my trademark beanie protecting my shaved head against the winter chill, slowing down to ponder the outstanding urban detail around me, when a sudden rush of air fractionally presaged a raking of talons across the top of my head – my beanie protected my bonce from a lot more than just the cold that day! Thankfully it dropped my hat almost immediately, which thankfully fell on the right side of the railing where I could pick it back up rather than seeing it fall 20m onto the railway tracks.
That was the second time a crow scared the crap out of me in Japan, coming a few years after the shrine in Kyoto. As I reached the end of the bridge, I passed someone coming the other way.
“Watch out,” I told him in Japanese, “there’s a big bad crow up there.”
But he totally ignored me in the usual Tokyo fashion, perhaps with a hint of a sidelong glance at this stranger breaking his bubble – and so I chuckled as I looked back to see the crow let him go by, before divebombing him and clawing at his unprotected head. This was something I witnessed on several more occasions, though it never got me again – I was always careful after that to watch above and watch my 6, and whenever I saw it we kept our beady eyes on each other the whole way across. What a performance – but yet, again, I couldn’t help but admire it. Oh, you humans built all this? That doesn’t make you the boss. Or so it seemed to say.
Another place where the crows have particularly stuck out in my memory was spooky Osorezan, a volcano at the end of the Shimokita Peninsula up in the Tohoku region. Osorezan translates as Mt Fear or Mt Dread, and in Japanese tradition the Sanzu River (which drains the lake in the volcano’s crater) is the gateway to the spirit world; it’s a desolate and otherworldly spot, with volcanic gases venting from the ground and the poisons in the water giving the lake a luminous quality, jizo statues everywhere to mark the souls of departed children, a lone temple standing guard on the lakeshore, and everywhere these huge black crows calling to each other across the sands. It really is a cool spot, and the crows play their part.
So here’s to the crows of Japan, terrorising the cities, kicking up a racket and waking everyone up at 5am, ripping open garbage bags and spreading trash all over the streets, and divebombing passers-by on footbridges; what absolute characters they are. They may be right troublesome little bastards, but they’re actually pretty awesome in my opinion; really smart and full of character, and while certainly not cute they make up for it in attitude. And I definitely like it that one of them once scared the crap out of me in the snow at Fushimi Inari!