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Sunday, June 18, 2000

JAPAN LITE

Three weeks is a lifetime for pet crickets


Welcome to Japan's rainy season, also known as the Insect Season. Although I live in an old Japanese house with generations of insects going back as far as the Heian Period, I also live with the comfort of knowing I'll never starve to death. "Getemono," the Japanese word for "gross things to eat," includes insects, cocoons, lizards, snakes, frogs, pigeons, etc. Not only will I never starve in my house, I surely have enough insects to open a getemonoya restaurant.

This doesn't make it any easier to live among insects though. So I finally decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. When I was at the home center the other day, where they sell everything for the home including crickets, I bought four crickets: Two males and two females. I call them Ned, Ted and the Girls. For 500 yen I got four "suzumushi" (bell crickets) and a plastic cage with some dirt and grass in it.

Before I came to Japan, I didn't know the sound Japanese bell crickets make. On my planet, the United States, the crickets I remember made a different sound. Suzumushi make a rin-rin trilling sound that starts low and ends high. It's like a whole new language, and one that I wouldn't have recognized before. Now, I can speak a little cricket but I can't get the melody part. Those octave languages are so difficult to learn!

Westerners tend to think of the sound of crickets as cacophony, but the Japanese have long revered the sounds of insects. The tradition of listening to Orthopera melodies probably came to Japan from China, where they've been raising crickets for more than 2,000 years. In Japan, people used to go to special places where they could sit and listen to the sound of crickets. Crickets in cages were used as background music at garden parties. There is even a temple in Kyoto, the Suzumushi Temple, with a memorial dedicated to all insects. The temple itself raises 50,000 crickets each year.

Although the sound of suzumushi is usually associated with autumn in Japan, the new cricket eggs start hatching at the end of May and beginning of June. But they don't start those long karaoke sessions until the fall.

Crickets usually live about four months, but I was warned when I bought Ted, Ned and the Girls that they'd live only about three weeks. Crickets bought at the home center have much shorter lives than those sold at real insect stores. Touched by the brevity of their existence, I was determined to make it the best three weeks a cricket could imagine. First, I bought Ned, Ted and the Girls a bamboo cage, one especially made for crickets, with tiny little bars that are placed close enough to keep the insects in.

I served them eggplant, cucumber, melon and strawberries with whipped cream. I played "When you wish upon a star," on the harmonica for them. I introduced them to Miles Davis, Ray Charles and Oasis (they really liked Oasis). I took them on long starlit walks around the island and told them the history of Japan. I put new grass and fresh hibiscus flowers in their cage every day.

Ted, Ned and the Girls lulled me to sleep with their chirruping every night. But one night, I noticed the room had gotten very quiet and the cat was chewing something black. After that there was just Ted, Ned and the Girl.

I discussed death and dying. I told them about the 105 year-old-lady on our island who has already lived 1,785 cricket lives. It was very hard to explain birthdays to them. After all, when you only live three weeks, when is your birthday?

I showed Ted, Ned and the Girl my computer. I let them walk all over it, then told them even they could become Japan's prime minister. We sat outside by the sea and drank coffee while I read the newspaper to them. They met the mailman.

After a couple weeks, the chirruping got weaker and I knew Ted had died. With just Ned and the Girl left, the nights were quieter but Ned did his best to serenade the Girl and I through the last nights. Soon, the chirruping had stopped completely.

I had to decide what to do with their remains. It did occur to me to have a mastication burial, but when I looked into the cage, I realized I was too late. They had already eaten each other.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com


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