The creatures of Japan hide from the tourists.
Forests thick with pine and insects cling to the mountains, people cling to the cities, but everywhere seems void of the beasties in between.
For weeks, I stared into the woods, quietly peeked around abandoned temples, and scanned the sides of the highways, hoping to glimpse a beast of Japan. Anything would do, a monkey, a fox, a black bear crashing through the clouds that rest between the mountains, but they all alluded me. Over time a few animals appeared: angry swallows that furiously destroyed the beginning of a nest above our door when we returned from Kyoto; big mean crows that caw for the end times from the power lines, but nothing else.
But Japan changed my expectations, or it tried to anyway. I was lying in bed with my wife. “Do you hear that?” she whispered.
I strained my ears over the chirping crickets and croaking frogs. There was something else. It reminded me of the night I’d spent camping at The Grand Canyon, where elk bellowed louder than RV generators. It was their cousin, the sika, Japanese deer. I listened to these creatures crying to each other from the forest until my house trembled from the gentle aftershock of a faraway earthquake, perhaps a tectonic plate tucking its neighbor into bed, and I fell asleep.
I awoke to a different Japan. The deer told me that Japan’s not a land of the beast. Japan is the land of the insect. The deer knew this, and by staying hidden forced me to accept that I’d have to look for animals in a lot smaller places. I didn’t have to look hard.
A few nights later, moths started to invade the school I teach at. First one was at the window, then two, six, twelve, finally fourteen huge white and grey moths beat their wings at the screen to get to the light that stirs something inside of them. My students screamed in fear. They pantomimed scratching their skin to the bone. These moths are poisonous. I left after dark to find hundreds of white moths assaulting the lights in the parking lot. They swarmed the light on the front of my bicycle as I pedaled home. These moths travel around Japan, a perpetual plague of locusts that grow thicker and thicker until their population density is so high a virus burns through them and they die off until their eggs hatch the next year. This is their second season in Takayama, and no one wants a third. The next night our coworker enlisted our support in battling the moths and we left the office smashing the lighter colored females that invaded our building, trying to prevent eggs that would lie dormant for a year before they spilled open, like containers of radioactive waste. The idea of Mothra terrorizing the island makes more sense.
But I expected more than bugs. Japanese fiction is larger than life. Godzilla destroys cities while giant mechanized Gundams defend the planet. Power Rangers still defend against monsters that that threaten to crush Tokyo every Saturday morning. Japan is a culture so obsessed with the huge and surrounded by the tiny. There’s just not enough room for anything big here. Supposedly there’s monkeys and bears, but not like in the west, the most underpopulated of continents. There’s no steel dumpsters here, no fear of raccoons knocking over garbage cans.
People bring what little wild there is into civilization. Children ogle beetles that cost 3,000 yen in the grocery stores and the bold ones venture into the woods equipped with nets and plastic cages. We visited a chipmunk park, a giant cage filled with the adorable rodents. Locals keep it secret from the tourists, and gladly pay the entrance fee to spend a few minutes with the closest thing I've seen to a wild animal. I went to a BBQ the other day, and our soul entertainment besides the delicious Romanian food, was the variety of creatures the six year old boy captured for our amusement and the terror of his mother. He found grasshoppers bigger than my thumb, praying mantises, singing crickets, tiny frogs, and a beetle he feared to touch but wouldn’t leave alone until I shot a video for him.
The Japanese obsession with the tiny pushes its way into the foreigner’s psyche. We went to a friend’s art exhibit, a Hungarian who’s lived in Japan for twenty five years. Brightly colored paintings of insects painted into enormous monsters greeted us from his canvas. There was a wasp larger than my arm and butterflies that threatened to blow away ancient pagodas. “The people scare them from the temples. I painted these to give places back to the insects.”
The obsession with the tiny affected me as well, for the other night I ventured out to bring home a singing cricket. There’s supposed to be good luck, and I miss having am extra heartbeat in our home. I followed the crickets’ song until I came to a patch of high grass. I turned on my light and searched for the source of the melody. The crickets saw me coming and hopped away. I tried to stand but something stopped me. I bent back down, went back to my task, but again, the crickets easily evaded capture. I stood and again bumped my head. It was a spider web. The monster living in the middle looked bigger than any creature I’d ever seen in the states from behind the safety of a pane of glass. The arachnid wasn’t intimidated by me crashing into its home. It busily wrapped a mouse in silken netting, and dared me to touch its sticky web a third time. I scurried home, afraid of a tiny creature that’s trap could catch something as big as me.
I set out the next day, protected by sunlight, in search of a pet. Each time I pushed aside a handful of grass still wet from the rains of tsunami, dozens of creatures crawl away: Godzilla, Mothra, the monsters Rita Repulsa sends to attack the Power Rangers. I saw their true forms, geckos, caterpillars, frogs so small I was afraid to break them.
I caught the cricket I was hoping would lull me to sleep. He sang too loudly all night about beasts living deep in the mountain forests, and monsters rising from the ocean to wipe humans from this island, and give it back to the insects. Mammals are never so rude. I threw him from my window and he hit the roof with a thunk, saying nothing is larger than me. I hope a swallow eats him.
Next week I plan to climb Mount Norikura, a nearby mountain that promises an easy assent. I should settle for poisonous moths and beetles large as my hand, but I still long to stare down a bear crossing the path, or be robbed by a snow monkey. I harbor dreams from a place too large, where deer run through suburbs and concerned citizens donate money for the wolves to return.
The sika convinced me of nothing. They told me of the insects, of the tiny, but I wasn’t listening to their words, only their voices. I’ll find them yet, and no cricket song will help me rest until I do.