We’ll be visiting Tokyo (Tsukiji Market! The Ghibli Museum!), Ayako’s home town of Kobe (beef!), the ancient capital of Nara (deer! giant Buddhas!), Fukushima (…?!), and the old resort town of Aizu (castles! hot springs! economic decline!).
I’m always happy to be back in Japan. It’s my second home. I love it. But every time I go back, I’m afraid. It’s not an outright fear. It’s more like a creeping dread, a shadow in the back of my mind that grows longer and darker with each passing day. Every time I open a door, every time I turn on the light… it’s there.
You see, as much as I love Japan, the thing that scares most in this world lives there. The thing that gives me nightmares like no other, a thing that’s very name sends shivers up my spine and makes me want to curl up into a little ball and whimper.
It is called the Huntsman Spider. And it is horrifying.
I did not know the Huntsman existed until after I arrived in Japan. New JET Program participants and MEXT Scholarship recipients often ask me what I wish I’d known before I moved to Japan and my answer is always the same: there are giant, hairy spiders. They deserve to know. They shouldn’t have to I discover them the way I did: the hard way.
One humid September evening on Tsushima, I was washing my dishes in my sink. They’d piled up over the course of the week and needed to be done. I had a large skillet that was overturned and resting at the bottom of the sink. As I was rinsing out a glass, I noticed something moving beneath the skillet. I bent down and looked closer. What looked like four long black fingers curled out of the skillet. And then the spider and I made eye contact 16-times over.
I screamed. I screamed like a little girl. I backed against the opposite wall, still shrieking. The spider, which resembled in size and hair less any spider I’d ever seen than an 8-legged Ewok, clambered atop the sink. I grabbed a nearby broom and began bashing the sink from as far away as I could. I killed the spider… and broke every dish and glass in the sink.
The next day, I regaled my Japanese co-workers with my harrowing tale. I expected to be find sympathy, understanding, maybe even tips on how to kill the beasties. But instead, they were just confused. Why would I be scared by a spider? Especially a Huntsman? Huntsman, they said, are good. One co-worker compared them favorably with cats. Cats with eight legs and eight eyes. This actually makes sense, since Huntsman are 1.) about the same size as cats, 2.) are equally hairy, and 3.) eat pests.
Spiders have a very positive image in Japan. Eight is the luckiest number there and spiders happen to have eight eyes and eight legs, making them doubly lucky. They eat harmful bugs and insects that could hurt people or destroy entire rice crops. There are also no dangerous spiders in Japan, no black widows or brown recluses, so spiders are seen as good all around.
I get that. I generally like spiders. And before that night, I’d never considered myself arachnophobic. As a kid, I liked collecting and watching the big, colorful garden spiders in our yard. When we moved to Charleston, we often had golden silk spiders hanging by our windows and they were fun to watch. I’ve had tarantulas crawl on me and felt nothing but ticklish. Click on the Kumiko tab above and you’ll see that pro-arachnid thoughts take up a good deal of my mental space.
But Huntsman are different. They are beasts from hell. Massive, hairy, menacing. They are harmless to humans, except to the extent that they induce insomnia. It’s impossible to sleep knowing one is around. Because you might wake up with it sitting on your face. Or worse, as a friend of mine theorized, find it sitting on your chest and then see it moving toward your face (you see, waking up with a Huntsman on your face is as bad as it gets. You’ve hit rock bottom. It can’t get worse. But if you wake up with one on your chest, you know it can’t get much worse, but it’s about to).
I’ve tried to get over my fear of them. Tried looking at pictures online. But I can’t. They scare the bejesus out of me. Thankfully, I live in Chicago, which is too cold for them. I’m safe here.
But I’m going back to Japan soon. It’s summer there. It’s hot and humid. It’s the high tide of Huntsman.
They are there. They are everywhere. And they are waiting.