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Saturday, July 18, 2009


Putting the bugs out to sea

Last weekend, we threw all the bad insects off our island in a ceremony called Mushi Okuri (seeing off the insects).

The island people didn't exactly kick the insects off the island, but rather, they asked them to leave. Leave it to the Japanese to be so polite as to assist the insects to the water's edge, put them into a special insect boat, and wave bye-bye.

It's a wonder they didn't send them off with cash envelopes.

This annual sayonara party is a folkloric tradition going back hundreds of years. It starts at 9:30 a.m. at the island temple with much chanting and praying. Then, a small wooden boat is lifted off the altar and the island people march it around the island displaying it among the fields and gardens along the way in the hopes that the insects will jump at the chance for a free boat ride.

This grand sayonara party takes place during the rainy season, when most insects are out strolling in the nice, damp weather. It is an optimal time for advertising a free boat ride.

At the head of this procession is the insect caller, 68-year-old Harada-san, who sings out the names of the insects one by one and tells them to go back to where they came from. This is a special song that the insects find irresistible, and thus are easily duped into believing they should get into the boat.

In the mountains of Japan, I've heard that during the mushi okuri ceremony, they "return" the insects to the next village's field. But not here. Here, it is believed the insects come from Kyoto. Yes, Kyoto!

So they are told to go back to Kyoto.

Now would not be a good time to visit Kyoto. The city must be buzzing with insects from the countryside flying around haphazardly, trying to adjust to the big city.

But apparently, free boat rides to Kyoto are a very effective way of getting rid of insects. If they weren't, I'm sure my neighbors would have given up on them hundreds of years ago. Not all insects are asked to leave, mind you, just the bad ones. The good ones are allowed to stay.

What's the difference between a good insect and a bad insect? Plenty.

Although most people call all bugs insects, in Japan, you have two kinds of bugs: insects and "outsects." The insects are the ones in your in-group and they live inside your house. Like relatives, you may not like them but you must tolerate them. Ants, roaches, and mosquitoes are examples.

Centipedes, geji-geji, and giant hairy spiders are examples. These outsects should never be trusted. However, they sometimes make it into your house and become insects until you exterminate them or throw them back out.

Outsects also include garden pests that ruin crops and termites that eat houses. The outsects are led by the geji-geji, a fearsome, disgusting leader with multiple limbs. If you think centipedes are unpleasant, then geji-geji are totally yucky wucky.

But there is something admirable about the outsects. They are fighters: They bite, they sting, and they jump like ninja. They are instilled with the samurai fighting spirit. Thus, they are feared by humans.

Imagine for a moment what you could do with a geji-geji in your house. They are absolutely disgusting. And they know it. So the next time you have too many houseguests, just call on the geji-geji. They'll clear your house of all humans in a matter of seconds. People will flee for their lives yelling, "Whoa!!"

After the Mushi Okuri festival, and the bad insects had safely set sail for Kyoto, Harada-san came to the Moooo! Bar for a drink. He lamented that he was the only one trained to sing the song to the insects to summons them to the boat. "When I am gone," he said, "there will be nobody to take over the job."

"Ah, don't worry, Harada-san, I'll do it for you," I told him. He was so happy to think the tradition might survive, that he led the entire bar in a spontaneous rehearsal of the song.

After much practice, I think I've finally got it down too. I just hope the bugs don't hear the "Whoa!!" that I put into the refrain.

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