Cold hearted snake: Okinawa’s habu

Whew–you’re still with me. I wasn’t sure after that heavy post on whales last week. This week, we move through the animal kingdom to those slithery creatures you know and love:

Whoops, not that guy! What is his deal? I still haven’t figured it out, but he nevertheless gives me the giggles!

The most famous/notorious snakes on islands are the habu, and there are several different kinds on island!

habu pit 2

Whatever the opposite of a “cutegasm” is, I just had one. I think I’m going to call it a “fear shiver.”

Since I’m scared of snakes (as much as the average person), I don’t go around learning all I can about ’em–just the basics for survival, folks.

Habu you heard this one before?

First, the really venemous habu are slender, have brown and olive coloring sometimes with yellow splotches, and large triangular shaped heads.

Habu Viper

Habu snakes have heat sensors on either side of their heads to detect and chase their prey. They’re also nocturnal, and huntin’ and movin’ time is anywhere between early evening and dawn–so beware early risers! Just another benefit of sleeping in. . .


It’s dangerous out there, kitty. Stay inside and snuggle with me.

The habu can be found in the island’s forests (and hanging out in trees, man!), fields, rocky places like caves and tombs, and areas close to water sources. They hunt for rodents, frogs, and vertebrates, and according to this photo, have eaten other habu, cats, and snakes:

habu cat

I don’t usually drink cats, but when I do, I swallow ’em whole.

Another detail to add to your (okay, my) nightmares: The habu have a 360 degree striking radius, and can coil up and strike 2/3 its length:

habu 360

And you thought the cobra was scary. You have much to learn.

They will also try to enter homes in search of rats and mice (yikes!), which is why I’m a little crazy when it comes to making sure all the sliding doors in our Japanese house are closed.

WAAA! I'm crying on the inside.

WAAA! I’m crying on the inside.

Contrary to my fear and hatred-fueled beliefs about them, these (and most) snakes aren’t out to get me or any other humans–they’re actually scared of humans and would rather they were just left alone–but will strike if they feel threatened. They’re ultimately shy loners. You know the type.

Mongooses or mongeese?

The Indian mongoose was introduced to the island in an effort to curb the out of control habu population. There’s just one problem: mongoose aren’t nocturnal. They are pretty cute, though.

They're like squirrels.

They’re like squirrels. Or possums.

When they’re not out killing habu in cold blood, that is.

photo 3

Vicious, vicious possums.

Okinawans also use to have habu vs. mongoose fights for entertainment, but here’s some shocking news: some people considered it inhumane and it eventually became outlawed. Unless you catch them in the wild (and aren’t running for your life), this is more of the habu and mongoose interaction you typically see:

Mortal enemies? But they look so cute together!

Mortal enemies? But they look so cute together!

You drink a cat?  I drink a habu!

Okinawans “collect” the venemous habu–know why? In general, it’s not to take to the local taxidermist to stuff and display on their mantel, or to keep in lovely pickling jars in a display case:

jars of habu

Someday, honey, when we have our dream home. . .

But rather they insert habu snakes into this frightful drink:

  habu sake2

This is habu sake, a rice liquor (it’s technically awamori, but “sake” rolls off the tongue better). It’s distinct to Okinawa.

Fangs for the drink!

Fangs for the drink!

Okinawans swear it makes them strong, virile, and live as long as they do (which is usually over 100 years). And if you don’t believe me, consult the photo–it’s printed and illustrated in an educational material, so it must be true:

Forget the Wheaties.

Forget the Wheaties. All habu sake. All the time.

Herbs and honey are added to the liquor, and when the snake is added, the alcohol kills off any remaining venom that would make you tingly or paralyzed. Still, whether or not it’s the fountain of youth, I just can’t get over the meaty taste, though it doesn’t have as much bite (pun intended) as, say, cheap tequila or whiskey. Definitely something that needs a mixer. It’s actually pretty good (as in undetectable) in Red Bull and ice, but it’s not my drink of choice.

This season, habu are all the rage on the runways

When we checked out Ryukyu Mura a couple weeks back, we came across a snake/habu gift shop just before entering the habu show. I knew animal prints were stylish, but I didn’t realize that there was a market for actual snake skin belts, purses, jewelry, and even iPhone cases:

snake belt

Well, I guess snakes and belts are both long, so it kind of makes sense. . .

snake bracelets

Those beads have snake skin in them, don’t you know. Why you would want real snake skin in your bracelet is beyond me–are they like crystals? Is it supposed to give you energy? Hmm. . . .

photo 4

Well, I guess the iPhone 5 and snakes are both long, so that kind of makes sense, too. . .

We’re all stars now, in the snake show

And now, the snake video to shock and awe. This is the habu and mongoose show at Ryukyu Mura, an outdoor park showcasing Ryukyu kingdom culture. Though the presentation’s in Japanese, the video is enough to get a taste of the “rough temper” of this snake, which I think is a habu (but again it was all in Japanese so who knows), plus lots of other crazy stunts (and confusion over whether the presenter really has control over the situation!) that you’d only see in Japan.

I’d like to also point out that the only thing separating the audience from the snake is a tiny fiberglass wall. This is typical–the same foot or so of fiberglass wall is all that separates the handler and snakes on stage from the audience at Okinawa World (actually it’s shorter in Okinawa World), and no doubt other snake shows on island as well. You can see at the end of the video that the caged habu has no problem climbing the fiberglass cage, so this is pretty crazy to me. We intentionally didn’t sit in the front row, and yet I’m still “sweating” from nervousness in the video. The shaky camera, though, is just from my poor camera handing skills.

I’ve never seen a habu outside of Okinawa’s zoos and parks (and don’t go looking for them, either). And for that, I count my blessings.

What are your feelings about snakes? Do you think there’s any truth to the belief that habu sake makes you strong and live longer?