Damien Enright: Hopping along through memories of toads in Japan

There are probably more toads surviving in Tokyo, a city of 14m people, than in all our green and often-sodden land
Damien Enright: Hopping along through memories of toads in Japan

Ireland has 4,000 natterjacks. Picture: Valerie O'Sullivan

I WONDERED how our only native toads, the rare and vulnerable natterjacks, were managing in their Castlemaine Harbour, Kerry, habitats in last week’s scorching weather. The adults were, perhaps, burying themselves deep in the sand.

In July last year, 1,000 toadlets were captured and reared in ponds in Dingle Aquarium and Fota when their natal pools threatened to dry up. I was unable to reach anybody at South Western Region National Parks and Wildlife Service to ask if such measures were again necessary this July. Perhaps all staff were out on the dunes rescuing half-inch-long toadlets from desiccation.

Ireland has 4,000 natterjacks. The common British toad, Buffo bufo, has established a small colony in Donegal. There are probably more toads surviving in Tokyo, a city of 14m people, than in all our green and often-sodden land.

When living in Nakano, in central Tokyo, we found that legions of toads appeared in June, when the tail-end of the monsoon sweeps up from South East Asia and delivers 50 days of
almost nonstop heavy rain. They were a regular feature in the street outside our home, trundling about, solitary, in the crepuscular dark, or hopping along — a hop, then a rest, then another hop — with none of the agility of frogs. Most were about the size of an eating apple, dark brown and glossy. Coming back from work one evening, seeing a specimen sitting fat and happy in the middle of the street, I was bending down to remove it when our Japanese neighbour, smartly-dressed, businesslike Kumiko, happened along.

“What are you doing with that creature, Damien?” she asked, turning her nose up.

Damien Enright: A friend sent me a photo of a grass snake ingesting a toad in Wales. The toad seems the embodiment of Zen as it was gradually swallowed. Snakes can swallow prey bigger than their own heads, helped by their flexible jaws and ribs. Picture: Jim Graham.
Damien Enright: A friend sent me a photo of a grass snake ingesting a toad in Wales. The toad seems the embodiment of Zen as it was gradually swallowed. Snakes can swallow prey bigger than their own heads, helped by their flexible jaws and ribs. Picture: Jim Graham.

“I am moving it out of harm’s way, “ I said, explaining that although very few cars passed our home, Seiwaso, if a car ran over it, it would be unpleasant for pedestrians and even more so for the toad. Kumiko agreed and, as I lifted it and put it under a bush, asked me if I knew that there were three-legged toads that lived on the moon. With a straight face and a matter-of-fact voice, she elaborated on this arcane gem of Japanese mythology. I had to admit ignorance and earnestly pretend to believe her. At last, we both laughed, sharing her harmless Japanese joke.

Perhaps in the dry winter, the toads retired to our apartment-house garden. When my wife and I first saw the wooden house, clapboard and clinker built, we though it looked like an ancient junk washed up on the street corner. How it had survived the firestorms that immolated 600,000 Tokyo houses in 1923, and the American firebombing in 1945, was a miracle. The garden, part jungle, part white-goods dump, kept us connected with nature. Birds passed through and sometimes sang. Creatures came in: Bats, tailless Japanese cats, crickets and, once, a toad big enough to fill a one litre saucepan. We found it sitting, blinking companionably, on our makeshift table when we came home one night.

In Japanese folklore, it would seem the moon is a haven for wildlife. Years later, Japanese students attending my wife’s English language school in West Cork told me that rabbits lived there, too. They were surprised/appalled when, one night as I was driving a gaggle (actually, more of a “giggle”) of Japanese students, all girls, back to their various home-stay accommodations in the Irish countryside after a céilí music session, I came upon a rabbit roadkill and hopped out of the car to check if it had sustained no more than a knock on the head and would make a fine stew. My view was that I should seize the bounty before a fox did.

I reversed the car and the girls watched me examine the carcass in the headlights. It was in perfect condition and still warm, so I claimed the prize and toted it back by the hind legs, laying it on a rubber mat in the back compartment, an open space directly behind them. As I climbed back in, the four pairs of eyes stared at me as if they were shocked rigid. Rabbits are creatures of the moon, one of them said in a serious, hushed voice. “Oh...” I said, concerned. Had I committed a Japanese sacrilege? Silence fell. Then, I heard suppressed giggles. In the rearview mirror, I saw that all three had their hands over their mouths, suppressing their hilarity. They had, of course, been having me on.

Last week, a friend sent me a photo of a grass snake ingesting a very fat and, seemingly, very resigned, toad in Wales. It is extraordinary the gape of a grass snake. They’re non-venomous and common in Britain.

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