you should not sleep naked in Japan.
A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a dusty bed-and-breakfast
on the forgotten island of Omishima in Japan’s inland sea.
The grandmother who ran the place was deaf as a Buddha statue. The
terrace lights were greasy bulbs, the walls were peeling pink and
the futon rattled with dried-out bugs.
She was 77, she told me. Her husband was a fisherman, dead these
last ten years. He’d lost his middle finger in an accident
while working on his boat engine. Stripped the flesh right off the
bone. He’d asked the doctors to clean the bones and wire them
back onto his hand but they’d obviously had no sense of humor
and only grudgingly gave him his finger back at all. He kept it
in a jar in the kitchen, insisting that it accompany him into the
next life. Eventually his wife made him put it in a closet because
it was bad for business.
That night I shook the insect carcasses out of my bedding, tried
in vain to find an unstained corner of my pillow, and lay me down
to sleep. Somewhere in the deepest, darkest well of dreamtime I
felt a prick on my inner thigh, as though I’d just rolled
over onto a cactus spine. I reached down to sweep it away. A second
prick, this time like a thumbtack pushed in flush to its head. I
sat bolt upright but the third jab came almost instantly –
this time a one-inch, red-hot nail. I threw off the covers. Even
in the darkness I could see an enormous centipede, as thick as my
finger and long as a ballpoint pen. Its fangs were firmly anchored
in my thigh and it was corkscrewing itself into writhing knots as
it tried to bore in deeper. I backhanded it – twice –
before it skittered across the covers and flowed smoothly away under
I padded downstairs. Grandmother was asleep beside her blaring
television set. I called out to her, gradually raising my voice
as my leg began to throb and then turn numb. She finally woke up.
I realized, belatedly, that I didn’t know the Japanese word
for "centipede". I drew one on the back of my hand. "Ah,"
she says, "mukade" and handed me a can of insecticide.
I mentioned, casually, that it had bitten me. Three times. She rummaged
around some more and came up with a small round bottle. Antivenin?
No, just iodine. That was reassuring. I spread the stuff on the
stings, two inches below my panty line, wondered briefly which direction
the centipede was coming from when it decided to dig in, and padded
I shook out the bedding and sprayed the beast. It took him half
an hour to die, twisting himself into half a dozen sailor’s
knots while gradually working his way closer to the futon, where
I would flip him back against the wall with the corner of a magazine
I was reading. Those flexing, half-inch spiky jaws triggered an
unwanted memory – a nature documentary I once saw of just
such a creature attacking a newly-molted tarantula. The centipede
fell upon the hapless spider. It frantically pumped venom through
hollow, needle-sharp fangs. Venom that would eventually turn the
spider’s flesh and bones into a pre-digested soup. I imagined
three large liquid ulcers forming inside my leg as the fat and muscle
gradually dissolved. I stood up and stomped the centipede.
I shook out the bedding a second time, this time painfully aware
of the meaning of those dried-out insect wings and feet. I watched
TV for an hour until the pain in my leg began to subside. Faced
with another four hours of darkness, I took the coward’s way
out. I went to sleep.
Excerpted from Japanland © 2005 Rodale Press. To purchase, please visit japanlandonline.com