Sunday, May 15, 2011

Life as an ambassador on Shiraishi Island

By Amy Chavez

"An American yacht has come into the port. They don't speak any Japanese. Come help."

Ah, the first call of spring! As the resident foreigner on our island, I was appointed ambassador 14 years ago to represent the citizens of Yachtland, a kingdom ruled by King Neptune. Situated mainly in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but with a border so liquid it encompasses most of the world's large bodies of water, Yachtland is proud to be the only country with a current.

Although Yachtland doesn't have a huge population, it is known worldwide for its natural features: the Gulf Stream, the doldrums, and the Marianna Trench, to name just a few. Visitors flock to Yachtland to go fishing, boating, swimming and snorkeling. They dive the Great Barrier Reef and numerous shipwrecks. Some come in search of more elusive places too, such as the Lost City of Atlantis.

Yachtland has abundant wildlife: the albatross, sea gulls and pelicans. In our waters are whales, sharks, dolphins and even the giant squid.

Yachtland has dangerous areas such as the Bermuda Triangle and Cape Horn. The Titanic and the Yamato have met their fates there. We have homegrown terrorism in the form of hurricanes and typhoons. No place is perfect.

As Yachtland ambassador on Shiraishi Island in the Seto Inland Sea, my job is to welcome foreign guests and direct them to the guest berth. I live in the Yachtland embassy, situated on the port. Some people think this ambassadorship is about as exciting as being stationed in Antarctica. But I have found that this lifestyle suits me just fine. Things happen here that would never happen on mainland Japan.

Like when I answered the call about the two Americans who had just sailed in on a 34-foot yacht. When I arrived on my bicycle to relieve the man who called me, to my surprise there was another Japanese man there who had also come on a yacht. His 36-foot Beneteau was tied up on the opposite side of the dock. He introduced me to the two Americans, but as he didn't speak English and they didn't speak Japanese, he couldn't tell me very much about them. "Ask them where they have come from," he said, anxiously.

After a short conversation with the Americans I found out they were a father and his 23-year-old son who had just sailed over from New Zealand. The son left the United States five years ago to sail around Yachtland and his father joins him on parts of the trip when he has time. "I think it's wonderful that a father and son can enjoy such a trip together," said the Japanese man. "Please translate that."

Suddenly the man turned around and jumped onto his boat. After a few seconds rummaging around his cabin, he surfaced with something in his hand. He tied a white piece of cloth around his head to make a hachimaki and came back over to where we were standing. On the dock, he showed us a simple shaft of bamboo with holes in it. "Shakuhachi!" he exclaimed and started playing it.

The Americans looked at me, but I just smiled. It was the first time I had ever seen someone play a shakuhachi.

The Japanese man, who had straight black hair that hung down to his shoulders, was soon in his own world, jumping from one foot to the other, in a way that told me he must be part leprechaun. The dock was his stage while the mountains and sea formed the quintessential backdrop. His primitive dance matched perfectly the simple sounds of his wind instrument. "This is a song of the sea," he stopped for a moment to explain, and then continued playing.

It was one of those special moments when people stop whatever they are doing, or thinking, to watch a spectacle unlike they have ever seen before. This little man had succeeded in putting his audience of three into a trance, though the man could have been playing to dozens. When he was finished with the song of the sea, we all clapped enthusiastically.

He insisted the American men attempt his instrument, but neither could make the piece of bamboo make a single sound. "Oh, your heart is not good," laughed the man. "You must have a good heart to make a shakuhachi sing."

"Now, a song of the mountains!" he said and turned around to face the mountains. He played to the mountains a very different kind of tune with harsher blows and short sputters, reminiscent of Shinto festival music.

When he finished, he handed the instrument to the son, who tried and tried again, but not a sound came forth.

In the meantime, the father jumped onto his boat. After a few seconds rummaging around his cabin, he surfaced with some cans of beer. The chatter continued, translations each way, and soon everyone was filling each other's cup with beer.

Not long after that, the son finally started to make the shakuhachi sing.

Feeling my mission had been accomplished, I headed back to the embassy to wait for the next call.

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