Sunday, May 24, 2009

Japan Lite: The Sea Whisperer

"The priest sits in a beach chair that prominently
displays the Coca-Cola logo."

By Amy Chavez

At 8:58 in the morning, I jump into my truck and head toward the beach, hoping I won't be late. On the way, a fisherman hails me. He jumps into the bed of my truck.

We are headed to the beach for the umibiraki (opening of the sea) ceremony. Although the "opening of the sea" may evoke images of Moses parting the Red Sea, this ceremony is not quite what it sounds like. The ceremony is actually to open the beach, not the sea, and to make it safe for us land-dwellers to use.

This is not to say, however, that there isn't a lot of communing with the sea during the ceremony, which makes me think that perhaps the meaning of "opening of the sea" is more figurative; the sea is opening up to us and telling us how it really feels.

This heart-to-heart would come from the sea god, for whom even the fishermen have a ceremony to pray for their safety.

But the fishermen seem to have a year-round pact with the sea god whereas our security is only seasonal. It starts with the ceremony at the beginning of the summer and ends at the end of the summer Obon holiday, after which people no longer swim. At the end of each summer, perhaps the sea god says, "Enough! Every day all summer long I have watched you people swimming and have prevented untold numbers of drownings.

"I am tired of saving you! I'm taking the winter off!"

And thus, at the beginning of each summer, we must coax the sea god back into securing our safety for another season. After all, there are no lifeguards on our beach to do the job for him.

This is just one of two opening of the sea ceremonies on our island. The second one is at the beginning of July. After that ceremony, you're double safe!

But this first one, held in the springtime, is sponsored by the island's tourism association, of which I am a part, because we like to start using the sea earlier than the general public.

I was told it would be a smaller ceremony than the one in July but when the fisherman and I arrive at the beach, it is attended by exactly the same people who always attend the second one. There are 10 beach chairs set out for us, upon which sit the grocer, the ferry port manager, a few fishermen, two Japanese inn owners, the kayak rental guy, and a scuba diving instructor.

Carp fish banners from Golden Week are still flying above on a flagpole, while a sacrificial red snapper is laid out on a Shinto altar on ice. The fish is accompanied by romaine lettuce, bananas, konbu, rice, salt and a large bottle of sake. The centerpiece is the kagami mochi, a traditional ceremonial rice cake, sitting on a pedestal. Its smooth white beauty is stunningly offset by the azure sea.

I take a seat with the others behind the Buddhist priest (who doubles as a Shinto priest), who faces the sea with the altar in front of him. He sits in a beach chair that prominently displays the "Coca-Cola" logo. Then he rubs his string of juzu prayer beads together, jingles his special staff and starts talking to the sea. He chants the hanya shingyo in a low voice before moving on to a few more chants — a well-versed medley of sutras. This is when I realize that the priest is much more than a priest. He is the sea whisperer.

As I sit there with the other islanders, most of them older than I, listening to the priest negotiate our safety with the sea god, it occurs to me that perhaps I should be studying for the priesthood. After all, who's going to be around to negotiate my safety when I get older?

The priest stands up and the ferry port manager rushes to his side to carry a large bottle of sake. They head toward the water's edge. There, the priest faces three different directions, chanting and pouring sake into the sea. The fish whisperer.

While I listen to the waves gently rush up onto the beach, a bush warbler chimes in from the mountain behind us. Springtime at last.

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