Whenever I am asked what my greatest phobia is, one of two things will happen: if the person asking looks like he/she is in possession of snakes and a reason to torture me, I’ll answer “bunnies!” or some such nonsense. If the person who asks does not look like he/she has any reasons or means to torture me, however, I will truthfully reply that my one and only fully fletched phobia is ophiophobia – the fear of snakes. I am not happy about flying, but that is a discomfort, not a phobia. I am not thriving in heights, but again, it hasn’t yet caused me to panic in public. Spiders? I don’t love them, but if forced to choose between having tarantulas crawling all over me and touching a snake, I’m seriously considering the former the best alternative.
You might think my fear of snakes irrational, especially considering I live in a country where we barely have any, but I can assure you I have my reasons. I once was very nearly killed by a snake. True story.
It was the first week I lived in Japan, and I was out walking with the other Norwegian student at my university. The campus was located in scenic surroundings (you know, if your idea of “scenic” means rice fields and forests), and there were several short hike routes in the area. We had been walking for maybe half an hour when we came to a small creek. There was a nice, little bridge crossing the creek, and as we crossed it we saw something moving in the water some five meters below. Slowly gliding across the creek was a GIGANTIC, yellow snake. In my mind it was at least 20 meters long, but I have been informed that it most likely was about one and a half meter. Still, BIG snake!
Now, as mentioned the snake was pretty far away and not actually in any position (or inclination, I’ve been told, though I am not entirely convinced of this) to hurt us. However, just seeing that rubbery thing wind its way across that creek made me so terrified I nearly suffered a heart attack. I froze completely, and I had no idea how to move my legs in order to get across the bridge and worse, continue walking in the area I now realized was snake infested. Basically, I was prepared to stay right there forever, regardless if that would mean I would eventually starve to death. This would probably have made me a bit of a local attraction – the Westerner Who Died of Fear would have brought some much needed tourist cash to the prefecture of Akita. The Japanese have a thing for morbid attractions (like The Waterfall Where Most People Kill Themselves Each Year, or the Natural Disasters Amusement Park – yes, I’ve been to both).
But back to the snake. What finally convinced me to move was the logic of my friend who told me that if I remained at that location the snake might come back, and that the quick walk through the forest after all was a small price to pay in order to get back to our guaranteed snake-free dorm, where there was food and beds and where I would not become Japan’s fourth most visited tourist attraction (the third is Disneyland). My friend also told me that the snake was “cute”, “harmless” and probably “minding its own business without even noticing us”. Needless to say, none of these arguments sounded particularly convincing in my ears.
In the end we got back to campus without any further snake encounters. I did hear noises from the grass and bushes as we passed; but this might just have been the wind, or a bird, or a snake thinking we looked too pale for his liking. Either way we were not eaten that day (or any other day, for that matter, even though there were a couple of times I am fairly certain we had a close call).
I wanted to know, though, if I should just be afraid of this snake because it was a snake, or because it was a dangerous snake. Thus I googled “snakes in Japan”. If you live in Norway that can be scary enough, but if you’re a Norwegian exchange student in Japan – googling the snaky scariness that surrounds you is just asking for trouble. I nearly scared myself to death learning of all the long, short, green, orange, poisonous or just plain evil snakes there were in the country I had just travelled to, where I had to stay for at least another four months. I never found the snake we had seen, though. I looked through a number of images to try to identify it (but since I covered my eyes with my hand the most of the time, it isn’t exactly very surprising that I didn’t see any snakes that looked like the one that nearly killed me).
As you can see, my phobia is not irrational at all.