The Only Gaijin in the Village: Exterminator!

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Photo by Justine Wong

Chapter 6: Exterminator!

My mother is reluctant to come and visit us. She’s been to Japan once and had a great time. We took her to the usual places, she stocked up on the usual souvenirs, turned down the usual dishes (curried horse meat donuts, what’s not to like?) and survived the epic flights and transfers that indirectly connects small town Japan with small town Scotland. As I say, she had a grand old time, yet she’s reluctant to return. Her hesitation stems from a couple of posts I made on Facebook not long after moving to the countryside.

The unwillingness began with the knowledge that there are cockroaches. It grew when she heard about the snake I crossed shovels with in Chapter 3. It became inflamed following a description of a centipede I encountered lurking under a rock while I was building my fire pit. It became an inferno of disinclination when I mentioned the bee. Not just any bee: a huge bee, a massive bee, a behemoth bee. Bee-zilla.

My mother is not a fan of insects, of things that creep and things that crawl, things that buzz and things that bug. I can’t say I blame her.

The centipedes, in particular, give me both the heebies and the jeebies. Scotland isn’t overly-endowed in the myriapod department. We are lacking dangerous creatures in general. It’s too cold and wet for most, and those that did enjoy the climate — bears, wolves, Jacobites — have all been hunted to extinction.

Take the common U.K. centipede. It grows to a maximum of three centimeters in length and can, if heavily provoked, give a sting that’s comparable to a pin prick. I left Scotland when I was 25 and can honestly say that in that quarter century, I can’t recall ever seeing a single one.

In Japan, in my garden, in the last twelve months, I’ve engaged in mortal combat with dozens. So far I remain undefeated. So far.

The Japanese centipede is a vicious bastard. It grows up to 20-centimeters long and is highly aggressive. If one stings you, it hurts. Not just a little — a lot. It’s excruciating. There’s very little you can do but ride it out. A couple of paracetamol won’t cut it. These things ache.

In the ensuing chaos, we caught it in a net and splatted it with a shoe — but not before smashing two light bulbs, a wine glass and a vase.

Preparedness is the key. Like the undead and the Smashing Pumpkins circa 1995, they only come out at night. During the day they sleep under rocks and are dozy when roused. They like the heat, the damp and have a fondness for coming into houses and hiding out in clothes and bedding. All over the home and garden, I keep long, metal barbecue tongs and cans of centipede spray, a chemical concoction that freezes them in a thoroughly convenient and satisfying way, giving you time to grab it, separate it into sections (you’ll want straight-edged tongs for this) and crush it. In summer — when they are most active — never walk around the house at night without turning the lights on. Give everything a quick shake — away from you — before putting it on or climbing into it. If you’re doing any kind of gardening, roll things over before lifting them. Wear thick leather gloves, the kind hawkers use. Knights’ gauntlets work, too. Shake your shoes before putting them on. Surround the house with a noxious powder that disappears the first time it rains. Live on the edge. Never relax. Never surrender. Here, there is but one commandment: Thou shalt not suffer a centipede to live. In my garden, you do unto them what Edward 1 did unto William Wallace.

It doesn’t help if you have an active imagination and used to read William Burroughs.

Japan does an interesting line in bees, too. One abomination is the suzumebachi, aka the giant sparrow bee or Asian killer hornet. A body length of about 45 millimeters and a predilection for the color black (a huge problem in a country where the natural hair color is firmly fixed at that end of the spectrum), its sting can — and does — kill. Around 30 to 40 people die every year. Last year, 115 runners were stung when a marathon in Gifu passed underneath a hornet nest. Eight of them were hospitalized.

So here’s the thing. They like the color black, as I said. As a result, they have a frankly inconsiderate habit of climbing inside black clothing if it’s hanging out to dry in the late afternoon or early evening. We’re usually incredibly vigilant about taking the washing in long before the gloaming but last week, we were both held up at work and didn’t get home until late. I took the washing inside, shaking it first but apparently not strongly enough. In the living room, as I folded a T-shirt, the sound of a dentist’s drill erupted from somewhere in the laundry pile.

In the ensuing chaos, we caught it in a net and splatted it with a shoe — but not before smashing two light bulbs, a wine glass and a vase. God help the dentist next time I need a filling.

And so, my mother is hesitant about visiting. To an extent, I understand, but humans can get used to anything. The first centipede I saw caused nausea and a very real shiver down my spine, an instinctive reaction from somewhere deep in our genetic memory. The last time I tutted and reached for the tongs. Fear of things that can and will hurt you is perfectly rational — that’s why there’s no scientific term ending in “-phobia” for the fear of serial killers. It’s also why the thoroughly irrational fear of beards is designated “pogonophobia.” My garden is a bit bitey, but it could be worse. So far there haven’t been any wild boar or bears. Barbecue tongs only work on wild boar that’s been pre-butchered.


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 some of the locals. Or, if you’ve already been introduced, you might be interested in the previous article in the series.

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Gifu-based Scottish novelist, poet, journalist and editor.

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