On the trail of semi and shochu

Street stalls and a roadside 'miracle' add to Fukuoka buzz


I don’t drink sake any more. It’s just about the only alcoholic drink that gives me hangovers. Horrible ones. However, shochu I love, and where better to drink it than at a yatai in Fukuoka?

Yatai are brightly lit, friendly roadside stalls that open in the evening and go on serving until late into the night. Fukuoka’s most popular ones are along the Naka River at Nakasu. You can meet all kinds of people there, and they serve a huge variety of tidbits and drinking munchies, from ramen (that’s a slurpy rather than a munchy, of course) to grilled fish and yakitori.

I was there most recently at the end of July, making a television documentary. One of the subjects of the documentary was semi (cicadas). These insects lay their eggs in the stems or branches of trees. When the nymph emerges, it drops to the ground and burrows in to live a subterranean existence for months or years, depending on the species. During this time it feeds on plant roots. As it grows, it molts several times before eventually digging its way to the surface and climbing onto the branch of a tree or shrub. Then it dries to a pupa, splits along the back and emerges in the winged, adult stage.

Satoshi Kamitani of Kyushu University, who was filming with us, told me that the semi began to emerge two weeks earlier than usual this year — which worried the TV director because a main plank of his program was to be me watching one emerge at night in a noisy, busy city thoroughfare. The good professor brought a gang of students to search the shrubs and trees beside the street and along the divider in the middle of the road, dodging traffic and police in the hope of finding a semi just breaking out of its pupal case.

In the meantime, after doing the usual walkabout and talkabout expected of a TV presenter, I headed for the nearest yatai while the eager lads and lassies did their bit.

The particular semi we were looking for is called kuma zemi, which translates as “bear cicada,” though I’m sorry to say I can’t find its actual English name. As the adjective suggests, though, it is a large, chunky insect — at up to 5 cm long, it’s the biggest semi in Japan — and it makes a loud, nonstop din that’s almost deafening, even above traffic. This one stays for seven years underground. The female adult lives for about 10 days after emerging, laying around 200 eggs a day. The adult male, which is also brown with clear wings, lasts only for a week.

There is another semi in the city of Fukuoka, called abura zemi (lit. oil cicada), that is a favorite snack of crows. Kamitani figures this is because the abura zemi, which grows to about 4 cm and has a black body and brown wings, sings individually. A soloist, if you like, which makes it easier for the crows to pick one out, as kuma zemi sing in a rousing though monotonous chorus and the all-around noise confuses the birds.

While at the stall I was happy to meet the owner of a Nagano City bookshop, a fellow who very kindly stocks my books. Then two very pretty young ladies, secretaries on holiday from Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, came to join us. Another fellow drinker was a talkative middle-aged man from Yokohama, with his wife. Then we were joined by a young chef who had studied in Italy and who had come home to Fukuoka to set up an Italian restaurant. Conversation flowed as easily as the beer and my shochu on the rocks, until a student came to tell me they had found an emerging semi, and I should go and see it.

The semi was hanging from a branch on a shrub in the divider of the road. We watched and filmed as the old shell split and the pale white adult emerged; slowly, slowly changing color. While watching this miracle, I wondered how many semi tried to burrow to the surface only to encounter concrete — or did they know how to find the small areas of earth around trees and so forth in the city?

After the filming, I led the good professor and his students off to another yatai and treated them to all the beer, shochu and snacks they could manage. A squad of Guardian Angels marched by while we were drinking, tearing down sex-for-sale fliers and looking rather impressive in their black uniforms and red berets. I was getting merry enough to invite them all for a beer, but the stall was too full by then and I was getting stuck into another round of yakitori.

Until I spent my first summer in Japan, in 1963, I didn’t really know what a semi was. I knew the word in its English form — cicada — from novels and such, but had never encountered the creature. The first time I saw one was in woodland on the outskirts of Tokyo, near where I lived. A 10-year-old boy caught one and showed it to me, then he and his friends described the life cycle. I was most impressed.

Another memorable cicada was one I found in the mist, way up at about 3,000 meters in the mountains of Ethiopia. The rangers answered my questions about the noise in the giant heather, saying it came from “some kind of bird.” I wasn’t fooled, so I searched until I actually found the source of the din — a small cicada, colored dark brown, with a wet-looking sheen and blotched with pale, yellow-green markings. Its wings were semitransparent, and the whole color and design was that of wet tree-heather bark and lichens.

Before I found it, I had been staring in the direction of the sound, directly at the tree on which it rested, for more than two minutes before my brain registered what my eyes saw. Had it not been for my refusal to leave unidentified the source of the incredible noise coming from right in front of my nose, I might have missed it. It sounded like a high-powered electrical tool. All around, thousands of them were buzzing steadily, but that was the only one I found.

Our woodsman here in Kurohime says semi are quite good to eat, lightly fried. I think I’ll just take his word for it though.