Coming from a small town in the mountains of Colorado, I am no stranger to encountering wildlife on a regular basis. I am familiar with the faces, behavior, and vehicular dangers of deer, elk, mountain goats, big horn sheep, and even moose. I have heard the calls of red-tailed hawks, coyotes, owls, and cougars. Bald eagles nest in trees by my parents' house, while a fox family lives in the nearby hill. I've even seen a mother black bear and her cubs from the comfortable safety of my vehicle parked at a distance. Despite all this interaction with the wild, the animal life in Akita was a completely new experience to me. While I didn't wake up to herd of dear on the front lawn, I felt more surrounded by wildlife than I had in a long while. (Perhaps I've grown soft in my years of living in Boulder.) Sometimes this closeness was nice and refreshing; other times, it left my skin crawling. Sometimes, I didn't even see the animals, and yet they were a strong presence in my life nonetheless.
The difference between the nature of Colorado and that of Akita is based on the humidity. Akita is so much wetter than Colorado, so the plants and flowers thrive in a way they never could in Colorado—and so do the bugs.
Oh my gosh, the bugs. Colorado does not have bugs; not compared to Akita. The sheer number of them left me speechless and hallucinating crawling sensations on my skin while I tried to sleep. The spiders were the worst. During the day they'd go off to hide in some cool hidden nooks, thankfully out of my sight, but at night they came home like commuters rushing from cubicle jobs. They hung over every single entry way, dangling lightly, making most doors impassable. I had to rush under them, squealing like a child, for fear of them dropping onto my hair. When I was walking through the streets at night, or through the forest during the day (I didn't go at night), I would find the webs of the rumored giant spiders that I, thankfully, never actually encountered. I am so grateful, because those webs were huge. Giant. Enormous. They spanned at least three feet wide, often more. I cannot even imagine a spider big enough to make them.
And it wasn't just the spiders that were big. There were beetles as long as fingers and twice as thick. The dragonflies, fed fat on the numerous mosquitoes, sounded like lawnmowers when they flew by my ears. Justin (my boyfriend) even saw a caterpillar a foot long and almost two inches thick, scooting along the sidewalk. Can you imagine the size of the butterfly or moth THAT thing became?
There was a stairwell near my dorm that once served me as a convenient quick route back to my room, instead of going all the way around. That convenience ended around July, when the bugs deemed that staircase the perfect place to go when their lives were ending. So many dead beetles found those stairs as their final resting place. I once stepped on one by mistake on my way to class. It made a large crunch, and when I looked, I expected to see the bug in shatters. Instead, its exterior skeleton sprung back into place, and it looked almost alive. Gross.
It wasn't all disgusting, however. The dragonflies in Akita are beautiful, brilliant colors. From a safe distance, even the spiders are kind of cool. Check out the picture below of a spider I found with a leaf for a house.
During the height of the summer, the cicadas invaded the lands, filling the air with their constant buzz. I never could find one in the trees to take a picture of, in spite of their incomprehensible numbers. At night, when they stopped humming, the world seemed eerily silent, like an empty apartment after a night standing next to the speakers at a loud party. The spiders had the added bonus of providing me with entertainment while I ate lunch. Looking out the cafeteria windows, I could see them in the corners of the window panes outside, and so could the birds. It was fascinating watching the sparrows dart in and out, expertly taking away an tasty arachnid in their beaks.
Akita also had frogs, whose songs replaced that of the cicadas at night. Justin and I heard their calls everywhere when we walked through the forest near campus, and yet we could never find them. The only one I managed to actually see was one sitting on a leaf near a Buddhist shrine, silent and motionless like a monk himself. When I showed the picture I took to my roommate, she made a disgusted face; I was disappointed. Apparently people in Japan don't find frogs as cute as people in the States. (He was adorable.)
The most constant animal figure during my stay was the local bear. Every week there was a new bear warning, usually saying that the bear had been seen near the convenience store down the block. There were even signs around that said “Caution Bears.” This made the native English speakers laugh, (since it should have said “Caution, Bears”) and we imagined the bear wearing a bright orange vest while warning passers-by of the various dangers of AIU. The bear was supposedly an Asian Black-Bear which I have heard are more aggressive than Grizzlies and frequently attack humans. Still, there were no attacks that semester, and so the bear remained merely a scary rumor in our daily lives, and a reason to be noisy when walking in the forest—so as not to sneak up on it by mistake.
(Picture from wikipedia. So cute and yet so scary.)
Another friendlier, more welcome animal presence in Akita were the numerous cats. There are a huge number of stray cats in Japan, perhaps because of all the seafood. They tend to gather in large groups wherever there are enough people to pamper them, and the AIU campus was one such hotspot. Each cat we encountered was sweet and docile, accepting our coddling with almost princely satisfaction. I often passed laundry hours by spoiling the nearby cats, or watching them have small territorial disputes. On paper, AIU had to periodically get rid of the cats—in the worst sense of the phrase—but the lady in charge of the distasteful duty always made as much noise as possible when she was supposed to round them up. With such ample notice, the cats usually made an easy get away, going on to live another day fed by bleeding heart students who left out cans of food bought from the convenience store.
My trip was filled with cameos of other animals in addition to the usual cast. Koi fish often followed my feet as I walked, begging for crumbs. I watched seabirds and hawks dance on the wind at Cape Nyudo on the Oga Peninsula. Every once in a while I'd spot a rabbit flitting across the grass at AIU. In many ways the change in animal life made me yearn for the familiar blue spruce pines of the Colorado woods; and yet many of the creatures I encountered made my visit to Japan especially satisfying because I had anticipated seeing them. Almost every anime I have watched includes a summer scene filled with the buzzing of cicadas. Koi fish are as iconic of Japan as girls in kimono or cherry blossoms. Even the stray cats are a famous characteristic of the island nation, appearing in such beloved pieces as the movie The Cat Returns, and the darling show Azumanga Daioh. Although I can't say I miss the abundance of bug life, the wildlife reminded me of how lush the nature of Akita is, and how lucky I was to experience its beauty.
(This cat was not so happy to see us. In fact, it was really pissed that we interrupted its nap.)
(A hunting hawk at Cape Nyudo. This picture doesn't communicate how big and beautiful and close they were, but it's the best picture I managed to capture!)
(A short video to let you hear the hum of the cicadas. Now imagine this from 10am until 6pm, constantly. You might have to turn up your volume, a bit.)