I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. Just a few metres from our house, in broad daylight, seemingly without a care in the world was a nest – I would go as far as to say an infestation – of snakes.
Real live snakes. About 30 in all, ranging in size from pencil thin tiddlers, not much bigger than slow worms (the males, apparently), to sizeable, properly snaky-looking fatties (the females). Admittedly, they weren’t poisonous but, still, I felt a kind of almost primeval, churning anxiety in my stomach as I stood and watched them basking in the sun, slithering through the undergrowth and, frankly, engaged in vigorous snake sex.
Part of my anxiety was probably because my children were with me, but I should have known that they would be far less squeamish than me. Asger, my eldest son, was soon wading through the shrubbery, grabbing hold of the largest snake he could see, and lifting it up to see what would happen, then passing it on to his little brother, Emil, to have a go.
Well, I suppose once you’ve eaten snake stew made from deadly poisonous Okinawan habu snakes, a piddly grass snake is hardly going to be a problem.
This happened towards the end of my and my family’s amazing three month journey the length of Japan in 2007, when they accompanied me while I was researching my book, Sushi and Beyond – What the Japanese Know About Food. We went with my fantastic researcher, Emi, to the main food market in Naha, the capital of Okinawa Honto, the main island in the Okinawan archipelago.
The market was astonishing. Quite unlike any of the other markets we had seen in Japan, with completely different produce.
Now, I’ve been to Tsukiji, the world’s largest seafood market, in Tokyo, many times but though it was far smaller and quite a ramshackle affair, there were things in Naha that I had never seen in the context of a food market before: extraordinarily coloured tropical fish, massive dried snakes, huge conches and other weird shellfish (those are fugu, or puffer fish, above on the right, de-skinned).
Emi explained that we could just point at whatever we fancied and it would be sent upstairs to a small food court where they would cook it for us. Rarely does seafood get any fresher than this, and I had to be physically restrained from ordering everything in sight – although not before I had secured us this mighty spread.
Along the way, I decided we really ought to try the local delicacy, Irabu-Jiru – or snake stew, so I ordered us each a bowl.
I have to admit, I was a little taken aback when the stew (above is a jar of awamori, a local spirit in which they sometimes pickle snakes) turned up with large pieces of what was still very clearly identifiable as snake – macabre black skin and all – floating around in it. I don’t know why, but I’d kind of expected them to have made an effort to disguise it – no reason why they should have, of course, except that, ugh, you know, it’s snake. It felt like we were being given bits of handbag to eat.
First to summon the courage was Emil *, our youngest son, who peeled back the snake skin and nibbled tentatively on a small piece of meat.
With no signs of regurgitation or convulsions, the rest of us felt secure enough to try it too. The first thing you notice when you pull the skin back is the huge number of tiny bones, which makes it look a little like oxtail, or a prehistoric fish.
Then you taste it. It’s a strong fishy-meaty taste. Not by any means pleasant, quite bitter in fact, and I think we would all agree, not one we would rush to try again.
But at least we tried it.
I reminded Asger and Emil about the Okinawan snake stew during our grass snake encounter.
‘Hey, I know, why don’t we cook a couple. We can make that stew we had in Japan?’ I said.
‘Yeah, right,’ said Asger, gently placing his snake back in its nest. ‘Why don’t you come and catch a couple dad?’
(* Don't worry, before you report us to social services, we didn't force Emil to eat the snake. We bribed him. There's a subtle difference.)