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8 Mummified, Mythical Monsters Found in Remote Japanese Temples

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Zardulu

In remote locations, far from the eyes of foreign tourists, Shinto temples across Japan claim to house the ancient, mummified remains of everything from ogres to mermaids. These artifacts are commonly believed to be elaborate pieces of faux-taxidermy created for entertainment purposes at Edo Period carnivals called Misemonos. The proceeds of these carnivals often benefited local shrines, and the mummies were either presented alongside or later associated with myths that represented local beliefs and practices. Now, hundreds of years later, they stand out as some of the most unusual pieces of cultural history in the world. Here are some examples of mythical mummified creatures—and where they can be found.

1. OGRES (ONI)

Original illustration by Zardulu

Ogres, or oni, are one of the most common figures in Shinto folklore. While most of them live in the netherworld, a few of these brightly colored brutes end up wandering the Earth doing all kinds of terrible things like eating people. One ogre may have bitten off more than he could chew when he visited the town of Naruto—at least that's what we can guess based on the remains at Kikotsuji Temple. Inside is a golden shrine that holds a few thumb-sized ogre molars and a bulbous horn.

Original illustration by Zardulu

The remains of a second ogre can be found in the town of Usa, near the Jyuppouzan Daijyoin temple complex. A set of 108 stairs leads to an entire mummified body, complete with horns and three-fingered hands. No one knows for sure how old the specimen is, but for many generations, it was in the possession of a noble family—until the patriarch fell ill in 1925. Believing himself to be cursed by the ogre heirloom, he handed the mummy over to the local temple, after which he reportedly made a complete recovery.

2. USHI-ONI

Original illustration by Zardulu

Ushi-Oni is a term that's come to encompass any supernatural creature with the head of an ox; the most common depictions feature giant, bipedal flying squirrels. If you've never had the opportunity to see one, look no further than Negoro-ji, a temple near the town of Iwade. Not only is there a statue of a googly-eyed, dancing ushi-oni outside—the inside houses the horns of one that, according to legend, was slain 400 years ago by a famous archer, Yamada Kurando Takakiyois.

Original illustration by Zardulu

The remains of another ushi-oni are housed in the city of Kurume's Ishishikakizan Kannonji temple. This one was vanquished by a priest named Konko Fujinori Konnon using only the power of prayer. According to the temple, the creature’s foot, now mummified, has been in their possession for the nearly 1000 years since its disembodiment.

3. MERMAIDS

Original illustration by Zardulu

Almost everyone is familiar with the Disney cartoon The Little Mermaid, where Ariel gives up her life in the sea to become human. But in the Japanese mermaid tale of happyaku bikuni, things turn out a bit differently, with the mermaid giving up her life to become ... dinner.

The mummified remains of a mermaid that managed to avoid the dinner plate can be found in a little temple outside Hashimoto. The creature—which is said to have been caught a thousand years ago in a local river and brought to the temple—is not likely to get a kiss from a Disney prince: Its grotesque face is captured in the middle of a terrifying scream.

Original illustration by Zardulu

A second mermaid mummy can be found in the Hachinohe City Museum. It has the unique distinction of having not one, but two screaming faces on a single head. The museum also claims to possess the remains of another supernatural creature, the tengu.

4. TENGU

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The tengu varies in appearance but is most famously some combination of a human and a crow. The creatures have a nasty reputation—they’re known for carrying people off into the sky, after which they’ll leave them at the top of mountains or drop them to their doom. The Wakayama Prefectural Museum of History and Folklore has an entire mummified tengu, its withered body propped up by a wooden crutch.

Original illustration by Zardulu

The long-beaked skull of another, larger tengu can be found in the city of Ibaraki at Sōji-ji temple. Even more impressive may be the mummy on display next to the skull—the contorted body of a storm spirit, the Raiju.

5. RAIJU

Original illustration by Zardulu

Raiju are said to be the embodiment of a storm: They strike the earth, tear through trees, and set fields on fire when they're angered. Though descriptions of their appearance vary quite a bit in Shinto folklore, all of the mummified examples appear to be feline. In the town of Nagoka, the treasury of Saishō-ji temple displays the dried up husk of a raiju stretched out among other ancient relics. Another raiju, very similar in appearance, is nestled in an ornate wooden box in Iwate-ji Temple in the town of Hanamaki.

6. KUDAN

Original illustration by Zardulu

The kudan is a creature that has the body of a cow and the face of a human. These creatures (which probably originate from real calves born with genetic defects) live only a few weeks—and, according to legend, they're able to foretell the future. While there are many historical accounts of mummified kudan, the only remaining example is in the private collection of Chan Kihon Kihara, a self-described “mystery collector” who loans it to museums from time to time.

7. DRAGONS

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Like their Chinese counterparts, Japanese dragons are wingless, flying serpents with four clawed feet. The Zuiryūzan Hōun-ji temple, located outside the town of Chichibu, claims to have discovered a dragon's bottom jaw on its grounds several centuries ago.

Original illustration by Zardulu

In Osaka, the mummified remains of an entire dragon can be found at Ruilong Temple. Legend has it that the dragon was purchased by a Japanese general, Akizawa, from a Chinese farmer who witnessed the creature dying, bashed it with a stick, stuffed it in a sack and smuggled it to Japan. This temple also has a mummified mermaid as well as one of the most popular Japanese supernatural creatures, the kappa.

8. KAPPA

Original illustration by Zardulu

Kappa—which are frequently depicted as bipedal turtles from Shinto folklore that drag people into rivers and lakes—are often blamed for drownings. To stay in their good graces, people leave offerings of the creature’s favorite food: cucumbers. One popular place to leave an offering is Sogenji, a kappa-themed temple in the Kappabashi-dori neighborhood of Tokyo. Inside the temple is a large collection of kappa memorabilia, from ancient scrolls to souvenir coffee mugs—and, inside a wooden box, one kappa's mummified hand.

Original illustration by Zardulu

A more complete set of kappa remains is on display in the town of Imari at Matsuuraichi Shuzo Sake Brewery. A carpenter claimed to have found the mummy while doing renovations on the building in the 1960s. The owner, recognizing the mummy’s cultural significance, turned it into a tourist attraction and adopted it as a symbol of his company. Cheers!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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