Owls and Okayama

A little purple owl toy that is mostly round and sits nicely in the palm of your hand. Its bulk is made in a plain lilac purple, with a section of fabric formed into a triangular point that makes the owls face and feet. Little Owls belly is marked by another piece of fabric that has a slightly darker background, and is covered in silver swirls and pink and white and red cherry blossoms. The owl's face is finished with fabric that has been glued on rather than sewn on. Its eyes are made from concentric circles of brown, with small, lighter pieces off centre for the larger circles. The smaller dark pieces give the eyes a new moon sort of look. The pupils are black matte plastic and look straight ahead. The beak is marked by a piece of orange yellow fabric. It is held in the left hand of a white woman. The background is a white and blue plaid fleece blanket.

Owls have been my favourite bird as long as I can remember. I’m not sure what the root of this affinity is. It might be that I was drawn to its association with wisdom and the goddess Athena. Or perhaps it’s because their feathers allow them to fly silently, unseen until they wish to be seen. It could be their shared resemblance with cats, who are also favourite creatures of mine, or it could be that their facial discs resemble the glasses I’ve worn pretty much constantly since I was in grade two.

It’s probably no surprise two of my favourite TV shows when I was a child featured owl characters. Mr Rogers had X the Owl, a blue bird who lived in a tree in the Land of Make Believe. Mr Dressup had an owl painting on the wall of his living room, to which he’d say “too whit too whoo!” And once the painting woke up, Mr Dressup would ask it a question.

In Canada’s Brownies program, the leaders are known as owls: Brown Owl, Tawny owl, etc. There’s a ceremony that takes place at every meeting involving the owl and a toadstool. To this day, I still have my owl toy from the Guide Store and the owl badge I got from the tuckshop at Camp Kiowa.

Although I’ve seen captive owls at various bird sanctuaries and zoos, I’ve only seen one in the wild. It was a sunny autumn afternoon in the forest near Cave Springs when my eye was distracted by movement in my peripheral vision. To my surprise, a great horned owl swooped through the trees before disappearing from sight. It was an all too brief but enchanting moment. Despite the dearth of in-person encounters to date, owIs remain some of my favourite creatures, and I’ve discovered that I share this love with friends from all walks of life.

It’s no surprise, then, that a little owl was the first souvenir I bought during my stay in Japan. I was in the city of Okayama at first, and so I made a point of visiting Okayama Castle and the Kōraku-en gardens next door as my first tourist outing. Although the castle’s a post-world war reconstruction, it hosts an excellent museum. Kōraku-en was damaged during the war, but it remains famous as one of the Nihon Sanmeien or “Three Great Gardens of Japan”. It’s a wondrous place, with a bamboo glade and tea and rice fields along with the sculptured gardens you tend to associate with Japanese gardens. I made a point of visiting it several times when I was there.

One thing I learned very quickly at Kōraku-en was that it’s very easy to get traditional Japanese items as souvenirs, and not have to pay a fortune. You simply don’t have the same experience in Canada. I’m sure volume has something to do with it, given that as many people live in Canada as in Tokyo alone. The annual tourist numbers at a major Japanese tourist site would no doubt make Parks Canada weep, Niagara Falls notwithstanding. Back to the point though. In 2003, I probably paid less than $10 for Little Owl, a handmade toy. In Niagara Falls, that would get you chintz or candy.

The other thing I learned was how popular animal motifs are in Japan. Universally so. The use of kawaii in marketing plays a part, but it’s also rooted in the traditional motifs and the beliefs around kami. Owls in Japan are associated with good luck and protection from suffering. The Western view of owls and wisdom has trickled in as well, but not too widely. It’s no coincidence that Totoro, the imaginary creature of anime fame, has some very owlish characteristics. In short, the Japanese love their fukurō as much as I do, and are inclined to put them on everything.

Little Owl is a little bit larger than a golf ball and fits nicely and lightly in the palm of your hand. He is made of several pieces of chirimen, a Japanese type of crêpe that has wavy crimps woven into it, giving it a dynamic look and texture. His beak is marked by an orange-yellow piece, the tip of which has pulled away from the fabric a little, making him seem as if he’s in mid-hoot. In terms of function, Little Owl is an otedama or bean bag toy. If you toss him up in the air and catch him in your hand, you’ll hear and feel a gentle “thwack” as he makes contact. But I don’t toss him around too much. He’s too unique. And I can’t juggle very well.

Little Owl sat in my room in Okayama, and then in my house in Marugame. He didn’t travel with me much, but he certainly seemed to keep me safe. I was never seriously lost or sick or in trouble the entire time I was there. That’s probably a coincidence of course, but it’s nice to think he was looking out for me.

Little Owl wasn’t the only owl-themed souvenir I picked up during my stay. In fact, I had to quickly adopt the philosophy that I can’t own every owl. This is served me well in the past few years since owl motifs have become almost as pervasive in North America as in Japan.

Other Japanese owl-related souvenirs that I picked up that year included:

  • A tiny glass owl from Nagasaki smaller than my thumb
  • A tissue holder, made out of appliqued cotton.
  • A mass produced handkerchief, probably made from a polyester
  • A pair carved from wood, about the size of gumballs, sitting on a car blog.
  • An asymmetrical china tea cup
  • An apron

One of my students even gave me a pin of a cotton owl perched on a twig. It has googly eyes, which can give it a bit of a wild appearance at times, but I’m quite fond of it too.

Still, none quite compares to Little Owl, who bravely faces the world, and still brings me luck to this day.

This September marks fifteen years since I left for Japan, something that’s been on my mind lately. Memories of Okayama have been especially strong in the wake of the terrible events that have plagued Japan this summer. The prefecture was inundated by torrential floods, killing more than 40 people in Kurashiki alone. Rescue and recovery efforts have been hampered by an unbearable heatwave and the effects of a typhoon this past weekend. It breaks my heart to think of the suffering that’s going on in places I’ve known and loved, and know that there’s very little I can do about it.

I guess my wish for the people of Okayama and other affected areas is that they are able to rebuild their lives and their homes as best they can. And that they’ll be able to recapture or find comfort in the old joys, owls included. Maybe they’ll find their luck again someday.

Copyright Jessica Allyson 2018

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Author: JAllyson

Jessica Allyson is a pen name derived from a fictitious twin (the doctors were mistaken). During the day, I work for a national members association, at night, I unleash my trivia-loving choir-singing fangirl self. I live in Ottawa, with my husband and our cat, who is our most vocal critic.

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