The Insect Seller's Emporium and the Moths of Kobe (2010.2.1[Mon.])


    To celebrate turning 50, I was hospitalized. My liver had started grumbling about the cumulative effect of many sedentary years and the weight I gained when I quit smoking. So this wasn't just any stay, I was there to have my liver biopsied and given an inspection. For the examination, they had to embed the sample in paraffin, which takes a bit of time and effort. So now I can honestly say that I have looked at my own HE-stained tissue, without needing to die first. What a rare treat for an embryologist!

    My doctor used scare tactics, saying, "You're going to need to be lucky. If you don't exercise, I'd give you 10 more years at most." That was enough to make me start walking every day, and it seems to have had some effect, as several of my test levels have dropped to unprecedented, almost physiological, levels, and I've lost quite a bit of weight. I'm embarrassed to say that it has taken me this long before I ever gave a thought to putting some effort into actively maintaining my body in good health. My peritoneal cavity also enjoyed, through a 5 mm hole, its first connection with the outside world. I spent my one-week in bed with the Color Atlas of Moths by my pillow, idling away the last days of summer thinking about moths I'd collected in the past. And, come to think of it, I believe I saw some brooding amaryllis by the roadside on the way to the hospital...

    I haven't gone out bug collecting recently; I've been doing more photography instead. When you're under the spell of the beauty of insects, you eventually run up against the limitations of preserved specimens and find yourself wanting to capture them in their living glory. Someone once noted that the collected insects are fortunate - for this preserves their beauty forever. I think his is all the truer for photographed ones. And the popularity of digital photography has seen an accompanying shift from capturing specimens in nets to capturing them on film. For me, I still harbor some doubts about the photos, and keep a net with me, just in case. I may be getting older, but I still have a boy's eye and skills for hunting bugs.

    For fledgling insect photographers like me, the hawkmoths (Sphingidae) are a blessing. They sit quietly on walls, wings outspread, and don't startle easily. And even when they do, it takes some time to get their engines started. They only starts idling when you first frighten them, which gives me the chance to hold one in my hand or snap away from different angles. I really owe them a debt of gratitude as they sit there, blinded by the strobe, allowing me to take such wonderful shots. One of my most beloved sphingids is Callambulyx tatarinovii gabyae, known in Japan as the unmon suzume, which charms with both its looks and its personality (Fig.). They're quite common, so no one really values them, but if they were rarer I am sure they would be highly prized. That said, they are moths nonetheless. Moth fans are harder to find than their butterfly counterparts, and sadly it is an uncommon individual who notices the beauty of the unmon suzume. But nearly everyone who sees a photo of one will agree that it is beautiful, which proves the adage that while people may look, but they fail to see.

    Kobe has many other big and beautiful moths, including Theretra nessus, Clanis bilineata tsingtauica, Psilogramma incretum, and even Japan's largest, Langia zenzeroides nawai can be caught right here within the city limits. The death's head moths Acherontia styx medusa and A. lachesis, with their eponymous markings, deserve special mention for although the latter was in danger of being placed on the threatened species list, it seems to be staging a comeback of late. Some have even taken up residence right here in town. I don't know if this is due to climate change or the recent popularity of home gardens (their caterpillars are often found of plants of the eggplant family), but a few years ago I heard of a number of sightings. How wonderful! I'm happy just thinking I live in the same city with them. Looking like the Devil's own familiars flitting about at twilight with their portentous, gothic designs, or draped on café walls lit by street lamps, there's something inimitable about their style. A moth perfectly suited to the Kobe I wrote of previously. I've heard that before the war, you could find saturnids that had been imported from Asia for their silk clinging to cafEwindows in Paris, which became something of a feature of the city at the time, but recently we don't see many silkmoth seven in Japan. I think this may be due to the overuse of pesticides on urban trees. If so, it's a shame. What use is a sense of cleanliness and hygiene if it isn't informed by feeling?

    Among other moth species, no one disputes that the Brahmin moths are the loveliest of them all - even the Japanese oak silkmoths (yamamayu) fail to rival them. At least, that's what those who share my opinion think. And these beauties only show their faces once a year from late April through May. Langia zenzeroides nawai and Oglia japonica are similarly shy. It seems the more beautiful a moth is, the fewer chances you have to encounter it. And indeed these creatures are sometimes referred to as spring ephemerals, a name that wouldn't be out of place for a dryad.

    Kobe has many Brahmins. I won't reveal their hiding place, but I visit the same spot every year. If I'm lucky, I'll come across one perched on a wall, its eyespots staring off in all directions. Some time ago, I encountered a flawless giant fully 12 cm across, and literally lost my breath. It was as large as its Indian sister species, but the shape of the wings and its painterly coloring were unmistakably Japanese. It was beautiful beyond description. Whenever I capture such a lovely moth, I pin its wings and preserve it, then take my prize to the "Insectarium." I've been friends with the proprietor, whom I'll call Mr. O, for several years now. Displaying an insect in one of his original wooden cases, it immediately starts to radiate Kitano's eerie energy wherever its origins may be. I call it the 'Kobe Brand', which I think O is not unhappy about at all.

    And, in fact, it is unquestionably Kobe, even if it is a Morpho or birdwing that peers out from the case. It is precisely the sense of Kobe that Inagaki Tarupho imagined with his black-caped figures stalking the night. O has even painted a few moths silver, creating something like precision-crafted tin figures that I am sure Tarupho would have thought highly of. It is the kind of moth that might have lifted the young Tarupho to the stars as he raced down Tor Road toward the harbor. And for exactly that reason, I cannot imagine it ever finding its way to Tokyo and a future as a mass-produced product. O's tin moth sits quietly in its teak case, tucked away beneath a lamp in the corner of the room. My giant Brahmin also scents the Kobe air in one of O's cases, enlivening or dining table (Fig.). People often ask how can I keep my appetite looking at insects, but it doesn't bother me in the least, for my head is already filled with the moths of Kobe, lurking in their deep and secret abodes.