Sunday, January 21, 2018

An (Unusual) True-Crime Story From Japan

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Crime exists in every place on earth - a fact we at MIE know well. While crime rates in Japan are lower than those in many (if not most) other places, the island nation is not without its problems.

A fact I learned quite personally while traveling in Japan last autumn.

The event in question took place in November, in Kamakura--a beautiful city about 30 miles south of Tokyo that served as the seat of the shogunate during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries (an era now known as the Kamakura Period).

I spent two days in the city, doing research for my upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery, Trial on Mount Kōya. Although the city itself doesn't feature in the novel, Kamakura is home to a number of  Buddhist temples that held art and artifacts useful to my research.

The entrance to Ennoji, a Shingon temple

Since Kamakura is also home to one of the world's largest bronze Buddhas, I also took a morning hike along the 6km daibutsu trail--a beautiful journey that ended with a visit to Kotoku-in and the famous Buddha.

A snippet of the lovely trail.

The Great Buddha of Kamakura

After my hike, I returned to the station along the streets, stopping in temples along the way. A short distance from the station, I passed a tiny bakery selling the most adorable doughnuts I have ever seen.

The cutest donut in the world.

Since it's impolite to photograph items in Japanese shops, I did what any reasonable person would do . . . I stopped and bought the doughnut. I could tell you I did it for the selfless reason that I wanted to share it with the world, but the truth is, I barely restrained myself long enough to take that photo.

It was delicious.

I continued up the road, reveling in the taste of this light, not-overly sweetened cake doughnut topped with a sugar glaze. I ate slowly, enjoying the afternoon sunlight and anticipating stops at two more temples before I called it a day.

Suddenly, something struck my face--not once, but several times. I felt a weight in my hands, and a tugging--and my beloved doughnut (the half that was left) was gone.

I stood on the sidewalk, shocked. I had been mugged.

A man approached, pointed up and said "Karasu!" (Crow!)

My unrepentant avian mugger.

I followed his gaze to see an enormous Japanese crow staring at me from atop the lamp post as it finished the last of my kitten doughnut.

Corvus macrorhynchos, the large-billed crow, is one of the world's largest corvids, often twice the size of its American brethren. It's also highly intelligent, fond of snacks, and far less afraid of humans than other wild birds I've known.

After twenty-three days of solo traveling through literally dozens of towns and cities, my first (and only--before or since) experience with crime in Japan came at the wings of a crow. The attack happened so fast, and with such precision, that I suspected this was not the offender's first doughnut-related mugging.

Frustrated by the loss of my treat, I returned to the doughnut shop for a replacement. I'd bought the last kitten, so I opted for a bear, which tasted just as good.

Beary tasty, I assure you.

The doughnut shop owner looked surprised to see me back until I said "karasu" - at which point he began to apologize. My guess was correct - that particular crow apparently has a habit of stalking pedestrians and mugging the ones with pastries (not just doughnuts) that strike his fancy.

Holding my doughnut more carefully, with my hands providing a protective cage, I returned to the lamp post, stood beneath it, and ate the doughnut in full view of my avian mugger. The crow watched the entire time, but didn't attempt a second assault--most likely because he knew I was ready for it.

I'd like to tell you I felt childish for doing it, but that too would be a lie. The second doughnut avenged the first, and--in true Japanese fashion--afterward, I'd like to think the crow and I both put the incident behind us. I know I did, and my love (and respect) for Japanese crows (and doughnuts) remains as strong as ever.

Not my mugger, but a better view of another crow in Kamakura.

Confess: would you have avenged your doughnut or just gone on your way?


  1. Great story, Susan. When Michael and I and friends used to go game watching in Zimbabwe, we would occasionally stay at a hotel just outside the Hwange National Park. The hotel boasted a wonderful outdoor buffet lunch. For those in the know, the entertainment was provided by a yellow-billed kite that circled eagerly above waiting for an unknowing tourists to carried their overflowing plates back to their tables. Down the kite would swoop, picking whatever morsel it wanted off the plate. The usual outcome was a shriek of fear as the two-metre wingspan bird appeared out of nowhere. And, of course, the tourist inevitably dropped the plate. Great fun - to watch.

    I think this also answers your question!

    1. I would love to see that, Stan. In fact, that's the kind of thing that makes me choose a hotel - that kind of interaction with the "locals" (even though arguably troublesome in some ecosystem-related ways) is priceless.

  2. What a great story, Susan. If it had happened to me, I probably would have said “Buon Appetito, you crafty SOB,” to the crow and gone on my way. I like your response better. You made him watch you enjoy the one he couldn’t get. I wish I had been there to take pictures.

    1. I was tempted to leave him to enjoy his victory (especially since I do like Japanese crows a great deal, and have a special relationship with them) but I'm a bit too vengeful for that.

      As for the photos . . . dare I say . . . you will be there THIS YEAR!

  3. The crow was more polite than a Japanese macaque would have been. Think I would have walked away.

    1. The macaque definitely would have been worse. :)

  4. The perfect story to tell during the week of Tippi Hedren’s 86th Birthday. As for what I’d have done, I think your subtle crowing before the crow was just right.

    1. Is it really her birthday week? Fantastic! (And serendipitous, indeed, because I agree it's the perfect story - but since it wasn't intentional, I won't crow about it too loudly.)

  5. That is a fun story! Clever thief! I like the crows, too,

  6. I love the way 'scene' where you and the crow are watching each other :-)