By Laurel Dammann | Feature art by Andrea Deszö
“It came at me.”
“It came at you?”
She mimes a demented wiggle with her chopsticks and I stop chewing.
A fellow English teacher and I are eating gyūdon (a Japanese working man’s dish of simmered beef and onions over rice) in a Tokyo side street, surrounded by men in rumpled navy and black suits scarfing down their lunch. In between bites, she recounts her early encounters with Japan’s least favorite residents.
“Yeah, like, it reared and ran towards me.”
Her chopsticks lunge forward and I drop my bowl. A surprised luncher gags on his udon while I gag on rattled nerves.
“What did you do?”
“Well, I smashed it with my boot, but it wouldn’t die.”
“It wouldn’t die?”
When I moved to Japan three years ago, one of the first things I was made aware of was that Japanese bugs mean business. Gejigeji, suzumebachi, ashidaka-gumo— they look like creatures from a child’s nightmare and many come with vicious attitudes to match. However, nothing clears a room as quickly as the mukade, an aggressive centipede and a symbol of both the samurai and evil incarnate in Japanese folklore. It’s poisonous enough that it can kill small children and the elderly and, no matter your age, it’s recommended you make a swift trip to the hospital if you are bitten.
“A 20 centimeter mukade crawled on my face while I was sleeping. King mukade, I’m telling you. I threw it at the wall, then smashed it with a shoe. Did the trick.”
“If you smash it, the corpse sends off a death call to other mukade. My friend ended up with a mukade infestation.”
“I pick them up with chopsticks and suffocate them in oil. Or light them on fire if my kids are watching.”
“Boil the fuckers. Pour boiling water on them and cook ‘em to death.”
In my early weeks working in rural Japan, co-workers took sick pleasure imparting colloquial wisdom packaged inside personal horror stories. When he thought I looked sufficiently scared, my supervisor gave me a hefty list of bug-killing sprays, powders, and force fields to keep the mukade out.
“They help…maybe,” he laughed.
Equipped with advice, an array of potions, and the beginnings of ill-placed confidence, I settled into Japanese country life with the confidence of a sixteen-year-old who’s never been in an accident and just got their license. With all the talk, “King Mukade” became the stuff of legends.
Sailing backwards in my swivel chair, I frantically scanned underneath the desk.
“What is it?” my friend’s voice broke over Skype.
“Something touched my foot,” I choked.
A cord, nestled among the internet cables, twitched. I gawked as it slowly unfurled into a long, dark, many-legged monster: mukade.
It slithered towards the dark space behind the dresser, its legs gliding across the floor like a twisted rowing team. I angled the computer screen so my friend could catch a glimpse.
“Is that a joke?” she hissed, but before I could answer “not laughing,” it changed directions and rapidly propelled itself towards my chair.
Operating on instinct and adrenaline, my memory of what happened next is fuzzy, but my friend recalls a lot of thumping, some creative word combinations, and what seemed like an eternity of “violent, rhythmically challenged clog dancing.”
“How do I get rid of the body?” I groaned, appearing on screen in a sick shade of gray.
“Is there anything left of a body?” my friend gaped. “What the hell just happened?”
“Please Google ‘mukade.’ That just happened.”
“They come in pairs you know,” my supervisor informed me, having listened to the retelling of my battle with the indulgent smile of someone who knows something you definitely do not. “There’s another…it’s…somewhere.”
With a pleasant little wave goodbye, he trailed off, leaving me to process this new information.
Mukade have mates, the kind that follow them everywhere. My worry was that a mate so devoted was also the kind that took revenge. I saw Mukade Ni (Two) coming, I just wasn’t sure from where. The bed? The shower? After someone told me they climbed, I lived with my eyes on the ceiling.
Two days later, while sorting through dirty clothes, the pointed end of something brushed my front on its journey to the floor. Splayed out in front of me, a 12-centimeter mukade dazedly sensed at the air. I leapt onto the first surface I could: the washing machine. Regaining whatever the centipede equivalent of composure is, the mukade rowed its way forward a couple inches, then stilled.
Trapped, I mentally sifted through everything anyone had ever told me about mukade, settling on “boiling water” because it had come up the most often as a solution. I could see the gleam of the kettle if I craned my neck— it was physically close, but, with Ni in the middle, dangerously far.
To get from the washroom to the kitchen would take tricky maneuvering, but if I could manage to throw myself three feet diagonally I would sail over the mukade completely and have only a few short steps before the safer high-ground of the kitchen counter.
Gathering energy amplified by fear, I launched myself from the washing machine. Feet hit floor for one, two, three long steps before I hoisted myself onto the kitchen counter. Peering into the next room, I saw that Ni had moved, but in the other direction.
With stove and teapot conveniently beside me, I kept obsessive track of the mukade’s movements while listening to tap water turn into raging, centipede-annihilating lava.
At the whistle of the kettle, the mukade jerked a few inches in the direction of the kitchen. Made braver by the steady heat of the teapot under my fingers, I got closer than I ever wanted to Ni. Then I poured.
The mukade’s reaction was instantaneous: it began to tweak, contort, and thrash so hard that it nearly hit my bare foot.
Essentially, it cooked.
Not sure how to get wrestling middle school boys to leave a room, the office aide hovers by the door, shuffling papers and sighing. I watch the PE sensei saunter up behind her, tugging lazily at the waistband of his sweats. He watches her cast a resigned look at the four students— now trying to slap each other’s butts— and snorts.
“Mukade!” he hollers. “Mukade desu!”
Hands posed to grope his friend, one boy freezes. Another screams. They all push and clamor to escape the room, a mess of panicked squeals and thuds as they tumble away.
“Sensei!” the aide admonishes, but she is smiling.
There is no mukade.
- A version of this story first appeared in a 2016 edition of ZenZen, a local zine in Yamaguchi, Japan.