Chapter 3: A Farewell to Arms
Japan is safe. This is the mantra repeated in the news, during welcome ceremonies for overseas workers and any time the government tentatively floats the idea of opening the door to immigrants from a crack to wide open. Japan is safe.
If we’re talking about crime, fair enough. In comparison with many other countries, Japan has low crime rates. I once drunkenly left my cell phone on top of an ATM and found it waiting for me the next morning. You can generally walk home late at night without fear of mugging, molestation or anything more sinister than a drunk salaryman hoping for a free English lesson.
Japan is safe. If you don’t count earthquakes, tsunamis, active volcanoes, typhoons and the associated frequent landslides, Japan is safe. If you ignore the shaky logic of building forty-three nuclear reactors in the most seismically active country on the planet, Japan is safe. If you turn a blind eye to employment practices that result in karoshi — death from overwork — and high suicide rates; if you sweep the problem of yakuza and other gangs under the tatami; if you don’t ask why the hills are alive with the sound of those annoying bells hikers hang from their packs, making summer in Kamikochi ring like Santa’s sleigh, Japan is safe.
If you don’t look under the rocks in my garden, Japan is safe.
Moving into the countryside and becoming an amateur farmer introduced me to a new and unfamiliar concept: I found myself thinking “I know just how Samuel L. Jackson feels.”
Snakes. Not on a plane, but hiding in the woodpile between rocks, and once — in the well.
If you don’t look under the rocks in my garden, Japan is safe.
Japan isn’t safe. Scotland is safe. Seismically, Scotland is as active as a teenager at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning. Despite a dirty, great fault line running through the country like a samurai’s death slash, its geology snoozes deeper than if it had a chemistry test at nine in the morning and had been up until three Snapchatting. There are no bears, no wild boar and the only venomous snake is the adder — a serpent so unthreatening it was named after a condescending term for a mathematician.
Japan — and my garden in particular — has the mamushi, the brown and beige pit viper with a diamond-shaped head. There are other, more dangerous snakes such as the habu, but Chubu is too cold for them. They, like the U.S. armed forces, prefer the warmth of Okinawa. For this, I give thanks. I would far rather be St. Patrick, patron over a land free of snakes, than Samuel L. Jackson, battling them.
But like Jackson’s character, peacefully enjoying his in-flight movie and complimentary nuts, battle sought me out.
Where my land ends and Maeda-san’s begins, there are a number of what can only be described as massive boulders. They were placed there by the previous owner’s grandfather in a pique of Zen decorating or feng shui rearranging, and very nice they are, too. Japanese gardening uses the theory of borrowed landscape, where the garden design incorporates aspects beyond the boundaries to create depth. In this instance, the boulders form a symbiotic relationship with Mount Ontake in the distance. They also harbor mamushi.
I am a peaceful man and usually find myself disagreeing with Paul McCartney’s injunction to “Live and Let Die,” preferring the alliterative and far more pacifist formulation. When I first noticed the coil of muscle and the diamond head, I made a deal with it, much as I had with my former students: let’s just leave each other in relative peace.
However, the mamushi is dangerous, particularly to children, and the Maeda family have three of them (children, not snakes). So, I decided something had to be done (about the snake, not the children). I tried to capture it with the aim of relocating it far from harm, but the snake didn’t seem keen on that. It had found a nice spot to rest and considered me something of an unwelcome bailiff. And so it was that, much like a Sean Spicer press conference, things quickly took a turn for the worse. Battle commenced.
Nothing in my Scottish upbringing had prepared me for this moment. The closest I’d come to a head-on confrontation with nature was frantically sweeping a mouse out of the kitchen of an Edinburgh flat like a crazed Olympic curler. I donned my armor — wellies and oven gloves — and selected a weapon. In the janken of life, it turns out shovel beats snake. I felt horrible, but I’d have felt worse if one of the children had died of a snakebite.
In the janken of life, it turns out shovel beats snake.
In the bonfire, I gave it a funeral fit for a Viking chief. Then I texted my wife.
Me: I just killed a mamushi.
Her: What did you do with it?
Me: I cremated it.
Her: Idiot. My dad’s going to be so angry.
What? Had I committed some enormous faux pas? Was there some Shinto cleansing ritual that needed to be performed? Some Buddhist rite that would make amends for the murder I had committed? My father-in-law never struck me as a particularly religious or spiritual man but maybe I had underestimated him. Wracked with guilt and more than a little put out that my bravery in selflessly putting myself between harm and the Maeda younglings had gone unremarked, I stoked the fire — being far more careful when grabbing wood off the pile than I hitherto had been — and waited to get told off.
Sure enough, the text wasn’t long in coming.
Him: You killed a mamushi? Do you still have the body?
Me: No. I burned it.
Him: Next time, call me.
Him: What you do is, you skin it then cook it over the fire. It’s delicious, particularly the tail. It goes really well with some sake.
I should’ve known. Food. Snacks. Otsumami. My father-in-law is an expert on things that go well with Japanese rice wine. After surviving the Battle of the Boulders, the last thing I wanted to do was skin, cook and eat the vanquished. It seemed disrespectful. It seemed barbaric. It seemed gross. I decided then and there to forswear the role of snake-battler and devote my shovel to peace. I invested in nets and grappling poles to humanely — or herpanely — catch and relocate any legless intruders. Never again shall blood be spilt on my soil and no snake shall suffer the indignity of going well with my father-in-law’s libation. My garden from that moment on became a place of peace and coexistence.
Well, apart from the centipedes. Those monsters will rue the day.
This story isn’t all about monkey-fighting snakes. If this is your first time reading “The Only Gaijin in the Village,” you may like to start from the beginning and meet Iain and his wife, as well as Maeda-san and his family. Or, if you’ve already been introduced, you might be interested in the previous article in the series — it’s entirely snake free.