“Are there always this many mosquitoes?” says a tourist, slapping his bare legs with his hands as he comes down the stone staircase from the Shinto shrine behind my house. This ancient staircase that goes up the mountain and into the forest is a magnet for tourists. It’s so mysterious, you just have to follow it to see where it takes you. The mosquitoes have learned to hang out at the bottom of these steps, where the human food flows toward them.
After 14 years of living on this island, I am intimate with mosquitoes. I know their habits and movements. I understand the sounds they make.
“We don’t usually have quite so many,” I answer while acknowledging a mosquito circling overhead, preparing for landing.
Due to Japan’s spectacular rainy season this year, the mosquito population has exploded here on Shiraishi Island. In these prime breeding conditions females are faced with millions of eggs to nurture. So for fertile mothers-to-be, baby showers are de rigueur, featuring elaborate celebrations and free-flowing human blood. Your body provides the perfect vessel: a mosquito’s punchbowl.
“Meet at Amy’s body at 7 o’clock tonight,” I can hear them buzzing to each other on their internal mobile phones. “She’ll be having a beer on the porch at that time.” They know my movements by now. I try to vary my activities and add variety to my routine, but somehow I can’t change the 7 o’clock beer on the porch.
Every evening I dread their appearance yet I somehow acquiesce, lulled by the colors of the sun setting over the Seto Inland Sea and the longing to stay where I am just a few minutes longer. The mosquitoes commence their wing dance around my legs, floating effortlessly up and down my limbs: winged fairies fluttering around the punch bowl. Oh, but this beer tastes so good! Against a setting sun, and the beat of the mosquito tom-tom drums, I, the human sacrifice, am slowly sucked dry. The last words I hear before losing consciousness are: “Pass me that straw!”
No wonder the human population is declining so rapidly on our island. And fewer people means less blood to go around. The mosquito pension system is not as secure as it appears.
The other day I noticed a bunch of mosquitoes hanging out at the ferry port, waiting for the next boatload of tourists. I know I should report such suspicious activity, but I see it so often, I’ve become inured. “Plump, juicy newbies!” I heard one say when I hacked into the mosquito’s receptors. When the passengers alighted the ferry, I turned away in disgust as I heard the mosquitoes’ high-pitched voices let out a collective “Itadakimasu!“
But our island isn’t as bad as some others. On Awashima Island in Kagawa Prefecture, the mosquitoes are so bad the proprietors of the sole umi no ie (beach house) give you an electric fan to aim at yourself for protection from the airborne flotillas. These electric typhoon winds blow the mosquitoes off course.
In the old days, Japanese used mosquito nets called kaya. “Ka” is the word for “mosquito” in Japanese. Unlike mosquito nets that just cover your bed, however, these were big enough to line entire rooms. They were hung on the walls like drapes and prevented the mosquitoes from coming into the house through doors, windows and cracks in the walls. And the nets were in beautifully dyed shades such as yellows and blues. But these days with air conditioning and electric fans, the use of the kaya has disappeared, even though the mosquitoes haven’t.
You’re probably thinking I’m one of those people whom mosquitoes are especially attracted to. No more so than anyone else. But it’s true that some people have it much worse. I’ve seen tourists leave the island wearing hundreds of red mosquito bites. It’s embarrassing to have such greedy mosquitoes. There’s just no wa in the ka.
And this year there is slew of new, vibrant insects waiting to go out and discover their new life! I can hear them already, buzzing with excitement alongside their mothers on their orientation tours of the stairways, ferry port and other possible weak points on the island. Not to mention, if you remember, the cesspool.
In the mountains here, there is a complex of abandoned wells where houses once stood. In these decrepit concrete wells, the mosquitoes hide out. Not even the island residents suspect these jungle camps are quite so close. From their mountain base, they fly into town every day and refuel before heading back.
Of course, island residents are well-armed with mosquito coils and insect spray to protect ourselves. It’s just a way of life here. And after a while, you don’t even notice all the mosquito activity happening around you.
Recently, I noticed some suspicious men hanging out near the bottom of the stone staircase that goes to the Shinto shrine behind my house. They were wearing army boots and fatigues. Mounted on their backs were what looked like spray tanks. One of them came to my door and knocked. “We’re spraying for pine bark beetles this morning,” he told me. Be careful not to go up into the mountain for the next 12 hours and be sure to keep your pets inside.”
With that, he turned around and joined the others as they went up the stairs into the mountain. But I know what their mission really is.
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