Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Meet the gods on Shiraishi Island

The following article is about the gods who live on Shiraishi Island. Tourists are welcome to participate in these local festivals, but the most interesting is the Autumn Festival, held the first Sunday in October. Come help us pull the mikoshi!

I've always gotten along well with my neighbors on the island. This is especially important because my neighbors are all gods: the Mountain God, Kompira-san, Juichimen Kannon, Senju Kannon and Myoken-sama. I have to put up with a few loud parties every now and then, but overall, we get along extremely well.

And oh, the parties! I seem to be surrounded by party gods. The Mountain God has a party twice a year when the whole neighborhood is invited to come socialize at his shrine in the side of the mountain. Sutras are chanted, hands are clapped, sake bottles are opened.

Kompira-san, god of seafaring and fishing, has a block party that is part of the autumn festival, when he invites the entire island. The road is closed off and we just drink and celebrate. Other gods are invited to that one too, so it's quite an eclectic mix. I've never seen any of the attending gods myself, but I am assured they are present. The other gods are only invited once a year and no one would dare miss a party of Kompira-san's.

The little stone gods Juichimen Kannon and Senju Kannon, who live in the shrine on the pilgrimage route behind my house, are the quietest. They don't hold any parties at all. They do receive individual guests, however, who tend to throw their money around while saying "Om, bazara tarama kiriku!" which roughly translates to, "Om, the lord of delivering the imperishable Dharma and its purity!."

But Myoken-sama has the most exclusive party of them all — black tie and invitation only. No women allowed either; this is secret men's business. The Myoken-sama matsuri takes place every June. It is not on the same day every year but instead is held according to the lunar calendar. Never really knowing when it will be is always part of the mystique of this festival. The only clue I have is that the day before the festival, women arrive with brooms and rakes to clear the path up to Myoken Shrine. There is further activity as banners and other decorations are carried up the mountain and put in place around the shrine.

On the day of the celebration, about 20 guests arrive in cars and park in a long line along the port. All dressed in black suits and freshly polished shoes, the men carry fresh whole fish and kagami mochi on trays up the stone steps that lead to the shrine. These men are anywhere from 40 to 80 years old, some carrying large bottles of sake, because everyone knows that the Shinto gods have alcoholic tendencies. It's comforting to know that you never have to drink alone in Japan. Myoken-sama overlooks the port and protects the boats coming in and out. The shrine was built around the same time the port was finished, about 400 years ago. Myoken-sama also, for some reason, protects us against cholera (hey, why not?).

I wonder how exactly Myoken-sama and the other gods protect us anyway. Has anyone ever thought about this? Can they see cholera in the distance, sprinting to the island? And what kind of divine intervention is used to convince the cholera to stop before it gets here? Is plea bargaining a possibility? Perhaps we all end up with just a bad cold instead.

No one really knows. We just know that they, like all the gods on this island, protect us.

So my next question is: Why are we so sure the gods like us? After all, we pilfer their sea and turn their beaches into concrete walls. Why do we think we are so worthy of protection? I live on a piece of reclaimed land that didn't even exist until someone bulldozed the idea of turning a happy fish paradise into a plot of land for two houses. This land is not a part of the sacred Mother Earth. More like an artificial, test tube baby version.

And Myoken-sama — peace keeper, divine vaccine producer, and lawyer extraordinaire — is supposed to protect us from the wrath of the gods? I am under no false beliefs that my neighbors should hold me in such high esteem.

Just ask Juichimen (11-headed) Kannon and Senju (1,000-armed) Kannon, who live just out my back door. They've been sitting there with their legs crossed for over 400 years, with no apparent leg pain, so I know they really are gods. Who else could do that? I can only guess at how they feel living next to us mortals.

Juichimen: "Ugh, they're hanging out their laundry again — so much for our view!"

Senju: "Look at the holes in those pajamas! Why don't they just throw them away?"

Juichimen: "You can't expect them to be so smart. They only have one head."

But maybe the gods should be thankful that they have us to protect. Some islands in the Seto Inland Sea have lost their populations completely, and consequently have let their shrines become neglected and fall into disrepair. There are some parts of the country like that where the Japanese have abandoned their gods.

So while the benevolent gods continue to protect us, I wonder if it's not us who should be protecting them.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Shiraishi Nature-The blue heron

By Amy Chavez

With the evening breeze,
the water laps against
the heron's legs

Thus goes one translation of this poem by the famous haiku poet, Yosa Buson (1716 - 1783).

Every evening I watch the aosagi (blue or gray herons) gliding in the air around the port. They are beautiful birds, with elegant necks that curve over swan-like, and long, sexy legs (yes, I am looking!). I've always admired their excellent posture. Standing on one foot is possibly the key.

They wade out into the water at low tide, fishing. They stand silently, waiting. Then reach down, put their beak into the water and pull out a very astonished fish. Grasping the struggling fish, they point their beak up toward the sky and let the fish wriggle its way down the tunnel of death. I watch as the lump of fish passes down through the throat and disappears — now that's fresh sashimi!

Observing their hunting methods, I can see why the heron is described as "a symbol of patience," in the "bird tattoo index" on the Internet.

The morning heron in our port, however, is quite different. A departure from the type that inspires haiku, the morning heron is lazy, knowing he can get his breakfast easily by hanging out near the fishing boats. As fishermen sort through their previous night's catch, they occasionally toss the small ones to the herons.

The most strategic place for being the first to spot these freebies is from the top of my boat, which is parked next to the fishing boats. I can understand why the herons like our boat — it has an awning over the back of it, which from the air looks like a giant, purpose-built blue heron landing pad.

Imagine if you were flying around the port and suddenly spotted a large, overstuffed sofa below. This heron platform is coveted by the birds in the same way you covet those few comfortable chairs at Starbucks.

So they land on the awning, stand there for a while, and crap. So much that our boat has become an avian toilet — an avian "Doo-doo Drop In."

The Avian Toilet is much easier to use than an Asian or a Western toilet. No squatting is necessary. And no sitting down on the job either. You just stand there and when it feels good, do it. I wouldn't mind so much if they'd just use the toilet slippers I set out for them.

I wonder if Toto has considered incorporating the convenience of the Avian toilet into new toilet models. It would eliminate the need for heated toilet seats and the toilets would be far more environmentally friendly because when it rains, they become self-flushing.

But, in the meantime, as the stuff piles up on the awning, I might have to start asking the men who come to clean out our pit toilet every month if they'd clean the Avian toilet too. If not, I fear:

With the morning breeze,

the guano laps against

the heron's legs.

But I got to thinking that maybe I could turn this Avian toilet into a money-making business. Perhaps you have heard about an ancient geisha beauty secret that uses nightingale fun. No, nightingale fun is not doing something really exciting with nightingales. "Fun" refers to their droppings, which are used in beauty creams and treatments. Now, I'm sure the nightingales don't mind having a part-time job on the side donating their fun to the beauty industry. But I do wonder why the Japanese haven't tapped the blue heron market. C'mon, these are big birds — They have big fun!

We're talking big splotches of white. That's either big fun or herons are just sloppy painters. But there's enough fun on the top of our boat to make an entire gallery of Rorsplotch paintings.

Unfortunately, nightingale fun is very expensive. This might have to do with the collection method — imagine putting buckets under telephone wires every day hoping to catch a few drops of the stuff. It might be cheaper to lie under the telephone wire with your eyes closed. Who knows, it could be the next eco-tourism thing.

Still, most people would choose to go to a spa to have this treatment done. There is one in particular, Shizuka New York Day Spa, in New York City that offers such Bird Poop Facials for $180 (more than ¥16,000). Such a lofty price reminds me of that John Keats poem, "Owed to a Nightingale."

When I open my spa here on the island, I'll have the advantage of being able to offer affordable bird poop facials because of the sheer volume of heron droppings at my disposal. I'll advertise: Blue Heron Spa: "Look your best, even when you're feeling blue!"

And when I welcome people to my spa, I'll say, "Here, just lie on this awning, and I'll be back in a half-hour." When they leave I'll say, "Thanks for dropping by!"

If my spa fails, I'll have to do something else with the heron droppings. Bird droppings have nitrates which are also used to make gun powder, so I suppose that is another business I should be looking into.

With the morning breeze,
the guano laps against
the powder kegs.


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