Kame Or Turtle

Some interesting facts about turtles in Japan

By Elena Lisina    - 3 min read

One of the things that I always admire in Japan are my unexpected meetings with a turtle in the city. The first time it happened I was walking along the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace in the centre of Tokyo. I first saw swans floating there and then, to my surprise, spotted few turtles. I’d never seen water turtles before, to say nothing of seeing them in the centre of Tokyo!

During subsequent trips I came across turtles, or ‘kame’ in Japanese, quite often in the waters of parks and gardens. For tourists who like to watch wild animals I recommend visiting Nara Park, Naritazan temple, Enoshima, the garden of Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka or just looking attentively near water in any other Japanese garden as turtles are often found there. Kame living in a shrine's garden are sacred ones.

Kame in Enoshima Shrine
Kame in Enoshima Shrine

This kind of a turtle lives only in fresh water, not in salty sea water. Kame are rather small, about 20-25cm in length. Huge kame about 1 metre long or more can only be seen in aquariums of which there are plenty all over the country. In Japan, I only ever saw these ‘land’ kame in aquariums.

'Land' kame, or tortoise, at an aquarium
'Land' kame, or tortoise, at an aquarium

Images of kame are quite popular. In Japanese and Chinese mythology kame is a symbol of power and immortality. Kame supports the World Mountain, a refuge of the immortals. One such image is found in the monument to Tokugawa Ieyasu in Ryogoku, Tokyo. Kame have often been pictured by Japanese artists, including one of the most famous artists of Edo era, Hokusai Katsushika.

Kame by Hokusai
Kame by Hokusai

One of the most popular Japanese folktales, ‘Urashima Taro’ is connected with kame. A man named Urashima Taro rescued kame and was taken to anunderwater castle where the kame turned into the princess Otohime. She danced and gave him a treasure box and forbade him to open it. After few days in the castle, Urashima Taro returned home only to discover that 100 years had passed. In spite of the prohibition, he opened the treasure box whereupon he immediately turned into an old man. This tale from the 8th century has many versions but the context is identical.

Cute images of kame are also popular in Japan, such as kame-shaped tayaki in Kawagoe, a sculpture made from flowers in Hamamatsu Flower Park or the beautiful kame brooches made from pearl shells.

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Elena Lisina

Elena Lisina @shiroi.tenshi

I love Japan very much! I like small towns of Japan where I can watch people doing their business and talk to them carefully. They're always friendly. I like Japanese gardens where I can just sit or walk and take my time. Also I like Shinto Jinja as being there I feel in peace. I like to watch sunsets and then to dine in some small local places. I like to soak into onsen after a long day of wandering. I like Japanese crafts very much as all items are made with great taste and skill. Nihon wo daisuki desuyo! My photos from Japan I also place here: https://gurushots.com/f10384/photos Matane!

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Kim B a month ago
I never knew about the interesting history and connections that turtles have with Japanese culture!
Kim B a month ago
Yes! I think it's one of the reasons I enjoy visiting new places. Always new things to learn :)
Elizabeth S a month ago
How many times I've rescued turtles that plodded into the street. They're funny creatures, slow but smart. They don't mind me helping them to safety.
Elena Lisina Author a month ago
It's nice, Elizabeth! And none of them turned into a princess? )))
We don't have turtles here, s they're exotic for me.