On the 4th of July a normally nocturnal dog-sized Giant Salamander decided to take a walk alongside the Kamogawa River in down-town Kyoto, Japan. People were apparently so shocked by the sight of the rare creature that the police were summoned to the scene.
There are only three species of Giant Salamander in the world: The North American Hellbender (AKA “snot otter”, “devil dog”, “mud-devil”, “grampus”, “Allegheny alligator”, “mud dog”, and “leverian water newt”) which grow to around two feet in length; the Japanese Ōsanshōuo (“giant pepper fish” because of the peppery smell they exude) which can be five feet long; and the Chinese Giant Salamander which can reach six feet in length.
The Ōsanshōuo live in clear rivers and streams, have very poor eyesight and hunt fish, frogs and small mammals using special sensory cells which cover their skin to detect minute vibrations in the water. Once collected for food and now with their habitat under threat, the species is classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
While the residents of Kyoto may have been shocked to see a Giant Salamander out for a stroll (especially since, unlike other salamanders, they can’t actually breathe out of water, so I hope he/she headed back into the river soon after), some 200km (125 miles) East in the Okayama mountains there is an annual festival held in celebration of the creature.
The village of Yubara Onsen has held its Hanzaki Festival for almost fifty years now. Hanzaki is the local name for the Giant Salamander which refers to the ancient belief that if the creature were cut in two, both halves would live and grow into a whole.
A procession takes place through the village every 8th of August. Two floats with gigantic models of Giant Salamanders – a black male and a red/brown female – are followed by singers and dancers.
After a day of festivities the Hanzaki Song is sung “Shiawase wa, hanzaki matsuri dakara…” (“Happiness is the giant salamander festival!”).