Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Dumb American's Guide to Living on Okinawa Part 3: Everything Will Kill You

DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert by any means, so for actual concrete information about not getting yourself killed, refer to people who actually have letters behind their name and know what they're talking about. I'm speaking only from my experience, hearsay, and what I've read since I've lived here.

As you're exploring Okinawa, you will encounter a lot of things you've never encountered in America. Things like giant bats, large tombs, and politeness. You may not know how to react to things like that, and that's why I'm here to help you out. Basically, as you run into unfamiliar things on Okinawa, there's one rule to keep in mind:

It can probably kill you.

An expanded version of that rule:

If it's alive, it can probably kill you.
If it's man-made, it's either sacred or it can kill you.
Just assume it has the capability and
quite possibly the desire to
shove you off this mortal coil.

So, I'm going to show you a few things that may or may not kill you, and give you some tips on how to avoid them or -- if you're anything like me -- find them.


THING: Unexploded Ordnance. I don't have any pictures, because thankfully I've never encountered any of these. In short, they are bombs that were dropped during World War II, but never went off. This doesn't mean they're duds, though, and people have been injured/killed over the years when UEO has gone off.

HOW TO AVOID: Don't go wandering off the beaten path into the bushes. If you see metallic objects that look like they might be shells, don't play with them, and do report them. Even I'm not dumb enough to screw around with UEO, and I'm the kind of person who'd poke a Habu with a stick.

THING: Shrines & Tombs
Above - Tomb
Below - Shrines
Obviously shrines and tombs won't kill you. Duh. However, they are everywhere. Any time you go hiking, or even wander through a park, I promise you will find tombs and shrines. The reason I'm pointing them out here is not that they are dangerous, but they are something to be aware of and avoided out of cultural courtesy. They can be photographed, but do not mess with them. Americans are forbidden from going into cemeteries without an invitation from a local national who has family buried there. If someone is praying at either a tomb or shrine, don't disturb them. If money has been left on a shrine, leave it alone. If you do mess with it, I hope someone comes along and kicks your ass.

HOW TO AVOID: Don't be a dumb American. Be respectful, keep your distance, and don't disturb shrines or tombs. Also, Habu sometimes hang out in tombs, so if being respectful isn't enough of a deterrent to keep you out of tombs, then just remember there might be poisonous snakes lying in wait.

THING: Wild boars
(Actual sign on the side of the expressway)

I really don't know if the wild boars are dangerous or not, as I've never actually seen one, but swine can be rather foul-tempered, so...

HOW TO AVOID: If you see a wild boar, leave it alone. And don't run them over. That's just mean.

THING: Hermit Crabs -- These are obviously not dangerous, but they are everywhere. And they're kinda fun to play with.
Really, the only reasons you need to be aware of hermit crabs are:

1. So you're careful to watch your step on the beach and not squish them.
2. So you're careful to check every shell you bring home, lest you wind up with a stowaway. Think I'm kidding? This little guy went home with us a few months ago (the lens cap is about 2" in diameter):
(He was taken back to a beach and released)

They're not dangerous, but they can sometimes have a bit of an attitude...
HOW TO AVOID: Just don't step on them and try not to bring them home.

THING: Staring birds -- Again, not dangerous. You'll see them everywhere, though. They might give you the evil eye, but they won't hurt you.
HOW TO AVOID: Look, if you're trying to stay away from a little blue bird, you're going to be a quivering mess of terror after a week here.

THING: Cone Snails -- Okay, these? Highly dangerous. These can kill you.
(picture from Wikipedia, since I can't seem to find any on my hard drive)

Wait, seriously? It's a snail. Why the hell do I need to avoid a snail?

Cone snails are extremely poisonous. They really can kill you.

HOW TO AVOID: When walking in water, always wear scuba booties. Always. If you're like me and can't resist picking up potentially dangerous animals while you're snorkeling, wear gloves. Even I'm not dumb enough to pick up one of these suckers with my bare hands. That's not to say I'm not dumb enough to pick them up in the first place, but I do wear gloves. I have standards, people.

THING - Sea Mangoes -- Yes, sea mangoes. Not necessarily going to kill you, but I'm told eating them will make you wish you were dead.
HOW TO AVOID: Don't pick fruit and eat it. Really. Just don't. You can buy mangoes at the commissary and farmer's markets.

THING: Box Jellyfish -- Also something that can kill you.
This is the closest I have to a picture of a box jellyfish. Hey, I'm stupid, but I don't have a death wish. I'm not getting in the water with a freaking box jellyfish.

HOW TO AVOID: Don't swim, snorkel, or dive where jellyfish warnings are posted. Check websites for warnings about jellyfish swarms. If you see one while you're swimming, get out of the water. Don't be stupid.

THING: Sugarcane Trucks -- They won't necessarily kill you, but notice how they don't quite fit on or share the road:
HOW TO AVOID: Don't drive like an idiot on narrow, winding roads. When driving on narrow, winding roads, be mindful of these:
When you see those mirrors on a curve or corner, USE THEM.

THING: Sea Snakes -- These will kill you.
They're pretty much impossible to miss: The black and white pattern is striking, and...well...a 3-foot striped snake is not difficult to see. We've seen them in as little as 3 feet of water, and the last one we saw was in amongst the tall sea grass. So pay attention. You should always be aware of your surroundings when in the water anyway, but if avoiding a sea snake isn't motivation to maintain situational awareness, I don't know what is.

HOW TO AVOID THEM: They're actually pretty easy to avoid most of the time: Just leave them alone. Sea snakes are generally not aggressive, but they are curious. It's not unusual for them to draft in your fins while you're swimming, but they'll usually swim away if you face them. Basically, don't fuck with them, and they won't bite you.

THING: Habu -- Okay, these will definitely kill you.
The Habu is a nocturnal snake living on Okinawa, and they are as plentiful as they are dangerous. They're quite aggressive and highly poisonous. There are actually four varieties of snakes living on Okinawa (not counting sea snakes), and three of those are Habu. If you see a snake on land, assume it's a Habu. Learn that face, my loyal blog minions:
HOW TO AVOID: Stay on the beaten path. If you see signs warning of snakes, they're not screwing around.
I understand Habu tend to hang out in tombs, caves, under rocks, etc., in order to stay cool during the day. (Funny, I always thought of snakes as trying to stay warm, but since it's usually hot here even at night, it does make sense) Also keep an eye on low tree branches when hiking through thick vegetation, as they like to hang out in the trees. Basically...don't be stupid.

While we're on the subject of wiggly serpenty things...

THING: Moray eels -- These are pretty shy and not outwardly aggressive unless you approach them.
To get this picture, I dove down about 8 feet, several times, with the camera in hand. The eel was less than impressed, and snapped at me several times. His head, which contains that gaping mouth full of sharp pointy teeth, was about as big around as my fist, if that gives you an idea of his size.

So, if you want to avoid being bitten by one, don't be like me.

HOW TO AVOID: Don't approach them. Don't poke at them. Don't harass them. Don't insult their mothers. Don't call them names. Don't taunt them to see if they'll bite your glove. Don't put your fingers in their mouths. Leave them alone.

THING: Cicadas -- They won't kill you, but if you've never heard a swarm of cicadas,'re lucky. When they swarm in the spring, the novelty wears off after about the third day of not being able to carry on a conversation outdoors.
Also, if a bunch of them suddenly take off, they tend to pee all over anyone standing below them. I speak from experience.

HOW TO AVOID: Good luck with that.

THING: BANANA SPIDERS -- These suckers are freaking huge...
...however, they will not kill you. I mean, with everything on this island that's foul-tempered, venomous, and carnivorous, it blows my mind that the spiders are not dangerous. Yet, they aren't.

HOW TO AVOID: Look, if you can't avoid a 3-inch spider in a web...

THING: Fruit Bats -- They will kill you with their cuteness.
Seriously. How cute is that? A little fox with wings! That's like lethal on the squee scale.

HOW TO AVOID: Don't walk in the middle of the road at high noon while wearing a beanie and eating an ice cream cone.

THING: Lionfish -- At best, they'll ruin your day. At worst, yep, they'll kill you.
(The lionfish is the big brown blob on the right, as opposed to the big brown blob on the left) These are so freaking cool to watch. They're absolutely beautiful, and they're not aggressive at all. know...don't get stung.

HOW TO AVOID: They're usually found in deeper water (I've seen them in as shallow as 8-10 feet), and I've only seen them close to rocks, pylons, etc. They're pretty hard to miss, so just keep your damned eyes open and you won't get stung.

THING: Butterflies -- These will RIP YOUR FACE OFF AND KILL YOU.
Seriously. Look at that thing. Tell me it's not planning to kill someone.

HOW TO AVOID:'s a butterfly.

THING: Sea Urchins -- They won't kill you, but they can definitely ruin your day. You'll basically see two varieties of sea urchins in the waters around Okinawa. These relatively benign little pincushions...
...and these malevolently spiny creatures of prickly doom:
To give you an idea, those spines are about 8-10 inches long. And I speak from experience, my loyal blog minions: getting stung sucks. They're not dangerous per se, but unless you want to itch like you've never itched before...

HOW TO AVOID THEM: Scuba booties. Gloves. Freaking pay attention to where you're swimming!

THING: Gravity + Cliffs -- The cliffs of Okinawa have a long and tragic history, and you don't want to be a part of that.
HOW TO AVOID: Duh. Stay away from the edge. When you see signs warning against getting close to the edge, heed them.

Moving right along...

THING: The sun -- You're in the tropics now, folks. The sun is not something to screw around with.
Still, in order to understand just what we're dealing with, every last one of us seems to require a proverbial baptism by fire:
HOW TO AVOID: Well, assuming you actually want to get outside and enjoy the island, which is why you're reading this, staying indoors out of the sun isn't an option. So...common sense. Don't stay out in it too long, cover your skin when you can, etc. Sunscreen is your friend (Tip: Buy sunscreen on's horrendously expensive off base).

THING: Puffer Fish -- I'm told they can sting you and really ruin your day. However...
...if you manage to get stung by a puffer fish, I'd be willing to bet money you probably deserved it. They're extremely skittish, and will swim away from even the slightest movement. Getting them to puff even a little is quite difficult, never mind getting them to blow up all the way and get close enough to sting you.

HOW TO AVOID THEM: know...leave them alone.

THING: Sharks, Barracuda, Stonefish, & Blue-ringed Octopus -- All of these things can kill you. In fact, if you really have some bad karma coming your way, they could probably gang up on you and make sure you have an horrific bitey-stingy-eaty death at sea. And you don't want that.

HOW TO AVOID THEM: Shiny things attract barracuda. Blood attracts sharks. Stonefish hide on the bottom of the ocean and can sting if you're not wearing scuba booties. A Blue-ringed Octopus is extremely shy and probably wouldn't have stung you if you hadn't cornered it in a rocky crevice and kept molesting it even after it let you know it wasn't happy.

In other words...don't be an idiot, don't get killed.

In closing, Okinawa is teeming with things that either want you dead or will inadvertently cause you to be that way. So...just be careful. All you have to do is pay attention and don't do dumb things like poke animals with sticks like Eddie and I do...and even we've managed to stay alive.


  1. Okay, if I ever have the pleasure of going to Okinawa, I am never leaving my apartment, my groceries will be delivered and I will remain cowering in the dark corner for my alloted time. Ack! Ack! Sounds ummm, lovely? (I'm a wimp, especially when it comes to snakes, spiders and anything without fur. I think I'd be okay with wild boars.)


    2. We must have lived on two VERY different islands, then, because I LOVED Okinawa! I can't wait to go back and visit. It's quite possibly changed a lot since the 1970s, but it's beautiful now, and loads of fun to explore.

    3. We just moved here and are in love with this place! I am sorry your experience was so bad.

  2. I wish this had been around when I got stationed there in 1993. I only had the pleasure of actually seeing the spiders and bats. And the bats are HUGE. We did have to watch a video our very first night there about the dangerous creatures of the island and I remember the Habu snake, but I never saw one. Maybe I didn't get out enough....?? Love this blog.

  3. Recluse Spider bite = possible death. Remember, once bitten and you start convulsing, foaming at the mouth, your tissue starts dying, and your in the worst pain you've ever experienced - catch the spider and bring it to the hospital with you for ID.

  4. I stayed in oki for a few years and was able to see most of the dangers of the island first hand, still remember not heeding the advice of the locals and taking the hour hike up to hiji falls extra early. Which is not advised unless you want to be chased down by every species of snake on the island lol. I really enjoyed the blog. Keep up the good work :)

  5. oh my gosh we are getting ready to move to Oki. I am very excited but at the same time, after reading this it freaks me out a bit. My daughter is 4 and doesn't understand that bugs... snakes.. we don't touch them. So I can only hope that I can show her pictures and scare her half to death so she doesn't get eaten. :( Thanks for the 411 very helpful.

  6. Hey Bud...thanks for the info...I am here on Okinawa with my USMC son who lives in Ginowan is a pic of our 'garden spider' who lives in the dont know what kind it is but tis cool...thanks for sharing, Nana
    oops wont let me paste the pic...too bad ....pretty cool spidy

  7. I have been going to Okinawa for 25 years, teaching kindergarten and preschool at Okinawa Christian School. Mothers, the children do thrive in Okinawa and the animals are more scared of you than you are of them, so you may never even see the dangerous critters. Leave the animals in peace if you see them, and you will be left in peace. Do heed the warnings. Take care when hiking or in the water. Wear sunglasses, sunscreen, hat, long sleeves and long pants when hiking (provides sun protection, too), and water shoes in the ocean. Enjoy this paradise wear you can play in a waterfall and enjoy the mountains and the ocean (best diving in the world). Did I mention that Japan, including Okinawa, is actually one of the safest places you will ever live? Okinawa is one of the areas of the world where people live the longest, because of the culture of community and the healthy lifestyle.

  8. I am under the impression that the banana spiders are very poisonous, possibly the world's most poisonous depending who you ask.

  9. I was looking for a picture of the large snail to show someone and landed on this. I hated to but I laughed out loud. It is so true. And though I love all the precautions, we had a good time in Okinawa. Last tour before retiring. I screamed the firs time I saw the fruit bats flying in a group, worried about Habu and my cats, but those snails. Whew!!! That was great.

  10. Lived on Okinawa from 1959 to 1963 and encountered all these creatures.I did not realize how dangerous they were except for the Krait which is aggressive and lives on land and of course sharks and Habus.I was always cautious though and an adventurous teenager I loved Okinawa

  11. I lived on Oki for 4 years and saw ALL of the things mentioned - fortunately avoided their sting/bite completely but know others who did not. Like he says be smart when snorkeling, diving or hiking. Those ordinances are no joke either. Knew a kid that lost an arm because he thought he was macho man!

  12. was there for three years....expolored every inch of the island and some neighboring islands as well. Dont go into the east china sea or sea of japan at night. We did as a group (on a stupid dare) and the fear that went through me as i was pushed nearly three feet to my left by an unknown source (it was big......really big) still haunts me to this day. Okinawa has one of the highest populations of tiger sharks in the galaxy and they feed at night. if you would like to see them safely i recommend goin to the expo park up north. they have an excellent under water aqaurium and you wont get dead.

  13. I spent about a year on Okinawa: Hospital Corpsman, 3 Bat 9. Worked for a wile in an entomology lab traveling around the island checking for mosquito larvae, etc. Also explored a number of natural limestone caves. Never came across a Habu in the caves, though huge centipedes crawled across my face from time to time! Did see the Habu but mostly dead ones. Visited an Okinawan that had been bitten in the face. He didn't die, but it was a long time before the swelling went down and he could open his eyes/ Great place, Okinawa. Would like to go back.

  14. My wife and I did 3 years on Okinawa starting in 2008, PCS'd to Lakenheath and am back for another 4. Loved it the first time, loving it even more this time... though we did have a sea snake swim at us today at Mida Point lol.

  15. Lived there from 64 - 68 as a kid. Loved the place; nothing more fun than climbing a banyan tree!
    You forgot centipedes...1' long, bite like a sonofa...nasty looking creatures.