A week after arriving in Japan, my husband and I were invited over for supper by some fellow Canadians. During dinner, our host, being seasoned to Japanese life, decided to orient us to the bugs we may see and the dangers associated with the said bugs. He began by describing the “mukade” AKA the Terrifying Centipede. Our host informed us that they can get to be a foot long and that if we get bit, we have to go to the hospital. Addressing my husband, he added, “If you scream like a little girl when you see one, that’s perfectly normal.” His wife, who is Japanese, has no problem with these centipedes and comes to the rescue of her husband with chopsticks in hand. She will use the chopsticks to pick up the centipedes and take them outside. Most Japanese people won’t kill the mukade.
The other Canadian couple at dinner chimed in, “First of all, don’t google pictures of the mukade unless you want to have nightmares.” (We heeded this advice until we got back to Canada.) “One night we were coming home and parked our vehicle. When we turned off the engine, we could hear the slow chomping of a mukade eating a cockroach.” (The cockroaches in Japan are pretty big, so imagine how big that mukade would have been!) “The sound of the chomping was like something straight out of a horror film.”
A few months later, an American told us about having mukade in his house in the spring. Mukade like moisture and are the most plentiful in the rainy season in June. The mukade would come into his house and he would trap them since he had heard that they can only be killed by boiling them or with fire. After trapping them, he would take them far away from his house before releasing them since, “They have great memories and can find their way back.”
He told us of many sleepless nights where he would keep looking around the room seeing if there were more.
We asked him, “Can they jump?”
“No, but they can let go of the wall and fall, which is kind of like jumping.”
He did encourage us that since our house didn’t have much forest close to it, we should be fine.
A second American told us that the mukade are hard to kill because they have a soft exoskeleton. He said, “They can squeeze through tiny cracks around doorways to get in.” He pointed to a tiny crack along one of his doors. “I would be lying on my futon. Everything would be quiet. Then, I’d hear this pattering of a hundred feet coming towards me.” Considering how old our house was and how many cracks there were for bugs, we found this new information less than encouraging. We started to dread the spring.
In the meantime, a Japanese woman informed us that she uses a sharp stick to kill the mukade by cutting it in half. Apparently, we didn’t have to use boiling water or fire to kill them after all.
I made it nine months in Japan before I had my first encounter with a giant centipede- but not a mukade. On a sunny June day, I had gone out to get groceries. I returned home carrying my baskets of groceries. I put them down and saw a four inch centipede with 1 cm long legs. Time was suspended as I stood there staring at it. I was evaluating the situation. I had found smaller centipedes like this one before in the house, but never one this big. I didn’t know if it was already dead, but it wasn’t moving. My options ran through my head: ignore the problem- go upstairs and hope it doesn’t follow you, take a shoe and smash it, or step on it with the shoes I’m wearing. It’s never a good practice to stare at giant bugs, it just ends up freaking you out more. In the end, I summoned my courage and stepped on it. I felt and heard its skeleton crackle. I removed my foot. It was twitching. I stepped on it again. I’m pretty sure none of its guts were left in its body at this point. I removed my shoes and went upstairs to put away the groceries. Now, I knew as much as I would like to leave that dead centipede there, I couldn’t. I had to go downstairs to do the laundry. So once again, I girded my loins, took four pieces of paper towel (I didn’t want to feel any of it when I picked it up), and went down to face my fears. I cleaned it up, wiped the guts off the floor and disposed of the paper towels without looking at the centipede within.
That evening, I was telling a group of our Japanese friends about my centipede encounter. One man, already in his seventies, said the longest centipede he’s ever seen in Japan was about six inches. Why was I so privileged to have such a big one IN my house?
My second centipede encounter was with a real live mukade, but it was my least terrifying experience. I was coming home from a walk and saw it hanging out on the concrete to the left of our door. I watched it for a while. It was lifting half of its body up to look around. It was about 6 inches. Since it was outside my house and not moving quickly, I wasn’t scared. Nonetheless, I decided to err on the side of caution. I went and got the rest of the mukade poison I had bought and put it around the mukade and then reinforced the other poison posts around our door. I still don’t know if the poison helped. The only insect I ever saw eating the poison was slugs. I didn’t even mind the odd slug in the shower with me. I just didn’t want any cockroaches or mukade.
As I wasn’t sure where that mukade ended up, my husband and I did an extra careful bug inspection before turning out the lights that night.
A week passed and I was feeling quite positive about the prospect of not seeing any more mukade before returning to Canada. I was hanging up the laundry with this prospect on my mind as I picked up a sock out of the laundry basket. I jumped back dropping the sock I had just picked up. There, on a sock, was a mukade. Panic seized me, but I knew I had to do something. Thankfully, the mukade wasn’t moving. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if it was still alive since it appeared to have gone through the laundry. Still, I didn’t want it to regain consciousness and crawl away to hide until nighttime when it would strike us unawares. Quickly, I grabbed a towel, wrapped the sock in it and brought it outside. I took a stick and tried to get it off the sock. Its one hundred legs were completely latched on to the sock. I changed from sandals to hikers and came back outside. I trampled that sock with purpose. I stopped for a moment and checked to see if it was working. A few of the latches had loosened. I trampled the sock until I could use my stick to peel off the mukade. Then, I took the stick and cut the centipede in half. I stood up straight in triumph. Amazingly, no guts came out at any point in this process. I brought the sock inside and rewashed it with bleach.
What bothered me most about this last incident was that the mukade was in our home! In our things! I was troubled by the unanswered questions: Was the mukade in our room? Was it in the washing machine? How did it get in? Were there more?
That night, I went to bed as usual. Shortly after falling asleep, I opened my eyes to see a giant mukade on the floor by my futon lifting its head up to look at me. It was black like the others, but this time had a neon green head and feet. I jumped and woke up. The lights were turned on and a thorough bug inspection was done. No bugs were found, nonetheless, I didn’t sleep so well that night.
Returning to Canada was a bit of a relief. It’s too cold for giant bugs to prosper here and I can rest securely without nightly bug inspections.
Now, if you dare, google “mukade.” Just don’t do it if you’re living in Japan.