Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ibara Rotary Club

Yesterday I gave a speech to the Ibara Rotary Club about Shiraishi Island, the Shiraishi International Villa, and the future of tourism on Shiraishi. When we arrived at the venue, I was suprised to see that it was all Japanese style! While I usually give speeches in auditoriums where you stand at the front and face a large group of people, this is the first speech I have ever given on my knees! Praise the Lord...!

Thank you Miyabe-san, Sakamoto-san and the Ibara Rotary Club for asking me to speak.

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.

Friday, May 22, 2009

umibiraki No. 1

Kagami mochi on the beach, with the sea in the background

Shiraishi Island has already had umibiraki, the opening of the sea ceremony. Read about The Sea Whisperer in this week's Japan Lite at the Japan Times Online.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Japan Lite: Bridge to Nowhere

I admit I like taking a boat to work. I used to sail to the mainland when I was working at the university but nowadays I'm too busy for the two-hour sail to the mainland. These days when I go off the island, I take the 40-minute ferry.
Ms. Amano, whose family runs the ferry port (but not the ferry service), apologizes as she tells me the ferry tickets have gone up in price by ¥80. On an island of 670 people, the ferry prices steadily increase as the population decreases to cover the costs of running the ferry. But thanks in part to a small tourist trade on our island in the summers, the ferry has been able to stay in business, running eight trips per day.
I ask her if she thinks this recent price hike is going to hurt the summer business. After all, we're in a recession. She lowers her voice to a whisper. "Looks like it could go bankrupt, eh? But that's OK, I'm tired of working. I want to retire!" She chuckles to show she's joking. Her sons work at the ferry port too.
As I boarded the ferry, I noticed the inspection certificate on the boat was good through Heisei 22. Whew. At least we're likely to have a ferry service for another year.
I get on the ferry and sit in the back with the derelicts — the smokers, the drinkers, the guys with missing teeth. Once in the back of the bus, always in the back of the bus I suppose. A guy with nine fingers uses a towel to dry off a seat for me. On days such as today when the sea is rough, the waves occasionally spray inside. But those of us in the back of the ferry don't mind.
The ferry is a great place to meet other islanders who live on the same island chain as I do. It's one of those shared experiences of island life that brings people together and gives them a reason to talk to each other, exchange pleasantries. And sometimes I even meet my own islanders on the ferry. One time one of the cargo ship captains was coming home from a softball game and had a cooler of beer with him. He sat in the back of the ferry, offered me a beer from his cooler, and we've been drinking buddies ever since.
Today, the mountains surrounding the Inland Sea are gray and the surf splashes white onto uninhabited islands along the way. They're not really uninhabited islands though. The Japanese word for such islands is mujinto, or "no people island," which is more accurate than the English "uninhabited" because it doesn't preclude the presence of wildlife. Uji Island, for example, is a mujinto inhabited by peacocks and deer, which tend to stroll out onto the beach in the early morning.
Other islands are inhabited by only gods or goddesses. Their residences are marked by a shrine, a red torii gate and steps that reach down to the sea. To visit these deities, you must enter from the sea and go back to the sea. You have to marvel at a public gate that has no security check these days.
Japan's Seto Inland Sea, historically inhabited by Japanese seafarers and Shinto gods, is a picturesque sea just waiting to be discovered — an eco-tourist's dream. It is also an untouched part of Japanese culture that may well fade into oblivion.
Although each island offers a unique opportunity for tourism, the government is only interested in promoting islands by constructing costly bridges to them. But the islanders don't want a bridge. They like the ferry.
Yesterday, while sitting on the beach with the cargo ship captain, he commented on how few tourists the island had this year compared to last year's Golden Week.
The local business owners blame the discount expressway charges, part of the government's "stimulus" plan, for luring away their customers, testimony to the fact that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
"You know," said the cargo ship captain, "Maybe we do need a bridge to Shiraishi Island after all." He chuckles to show he's joking.
We both stare out into the sea, a sea of uncertainty.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Otafuku Ryokan

Otafuku Ryokan on the beach.

View from the rooms at Otafuku Ryokan

Otafuku Koykan has renovated and is open again for business this summer. This traditional style Japanese inn located on the beach has 15 rooms, all facing the sea. Otafuku also has a iwaburo stone bath (only used in the high season, ie July and August) and they serve up a very traditional complete Japanese dinner with fresh fish, miso soup, rice, vegetables, etc. They will not cook special menus (ie vegetarian, etc) but they feel there is enough food to choose from in one sitting that even those on strict diets will surely find enough to eat.

The view from the dining room includes an old bonsai tree
with the sea as a backdrop

Otafuku is a welcome addition in accommodation for those seeking a western toilet! All rooms have a Japanese style toilet attached and new Western style toilets with all the fancy accessories (heated toilet seats, bum washers, etc) down the hallway.

The western toilet bekons...

At 10,500 yen per person per night (includes breakfast and dinner), this ryokan is a little more expensive than other minshukus on the island but it's well worth it if you want to pamper yourself. Good food, spacious rooms and a nice bath are all in one place here. Stroll down the beach in your yukata in the evening--you can't get a more Japanese experience than this!

Notes: 1. Otafuku also accepts pets.
2. Otafuku will also do Bed and Breakfast but we are still waiting on rates from them.

To reserve, contact shiraishireservations at

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Japan Lite: A nation of outstanding debts

Japan is a nation of favors. Thus the custom that when you see someone, you thank them for the last nice thing they did for you. "Thanks for taking me to the bank yesterday," or "Thanks for dinner the other night."

Such things are covered in the very vague, but appropriate phrase: "Senjitsu osewa ni narimashita" (literally, "the other day I was taken care of by you.") This handy phrase can even double as a greeting.

Since all favors should be repaid in Japanese society, consider your mere arrival in the country as significant enough to plunge you into eternal debt. People will do a myriad of favors for you and if you're like most people, you'll be left wondering which people you can just say "Thank you" to and which people you also owe a return favor to. And how much.

Acknowledging favors is key to Japanese culture and is often the catalyst for another cultural anomaly — gift-giving. This is when a special electronic calculator for foreigners would be handy — one that already has in it the values for every activity, task and gesture of kindness known to man as well as an appropriate suggestion on how the favor should be repaid.

So widespread is the custom of doing favors and repaying them that I believe that part of the elementary-school curriculum is a type of mathematics, such as geometry, but called "Gifts and Favors," where students count favors and put values on them according to the "Gifts and Favors Value Sheet."

Among good friends, the custom is to take someone out to dinner or lunch in return for a favor. They will not necessarily say that's why they are taking you out, it's just understood. If it's a smaller favor, such as if your next-door neighbor helped you move a heavy piece of furniture in your house, just a beer or a can of soft drink will do. Small acknowledgments of kindness go far in Japan.

All favors should be returned as soon as possible, if not right on the spot. If you promise to do something in return, such as give them tickets to Disneyland, follow up immediately. Next week will definitely be too late. Not only that, but being a foreigner, you'll probably have forgotten all about it by then — a horror too cruel to imagine.

For the small favors that do slip through the time gap for whatever reason, don't expect to be absolved from returning them. Many a time I walk into a bar or restaurant and see someone I know only to have them buy me a beer while saying "Thanks for that time you gave me a ride on your boat." Huh? That was two years ago!

On occasion, people will return a favor before you've even done it. I call this "reverse favoring." For example, if a university professor needs an English abstract proofread, he might bring you a gift before asking the favor. Cakes, jellies or a piece of pottery are common gifts.

Bigger favors deserve bigger rewards. Very seldom is a monetary reward necessary but the exception is when you ask people to go out of their way for you because you need something or are in a tight spot.

I heard some Japanese friends talking the other day about such a situation. One of their friends became ill and went into the hospital. After a few weeks, his health became worse and he was transferred to a hospital 10 hours away so he could be closer to his parents in his hometown. His wife stayed behind to take care of things and planned to join him in Nagoya the next week.

My Japanese friends volunteered to drive her and her belongings to Nagoya in their car. They had surmised that, after consulting the Gifts and Favors Value Sheet, that they would receive approximately ¥100,000 (approx. $1,036.00) for their troubles.

A few hours into the trip to Nagoya, however, the woman suddenly exclaimed "Oh no, I forgot my wallet in the apartment!" Imagine how the drivers felt as they realized she no longer had a wallet to give them any money in return for their great favor.

The two drove back from Nagoya the next day and drank great quantities of sake to drown their sorrows. Of course protocol would demand that she still repay them, somehow.

There are times when much bigger monetary payments are required in exchange for huge favors, but such cases are commonly known as pork-barreling.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Moooo! Shop Sunday

We were busy today at the Moooo! Bar and Calfe despite the cloudy weather. It was great to catch up with some old friends and also to welcome others who are just getting out to the island for the holiday renkyu (successive days off). As the Moooo! Shop was flooded with customers all afternoon, I didn't get a chance to take photos. Once the evening came upon us, we thought that there would surely be no sunset as it was so cloudy, but just at the last minute the sky opened up and the sun peaked through for just five minutes before sinking behind the mountain. I was lucky to get this photo. It was a real treat!

The evening ended with some barbecues on the beach and another bonfire. I'm sure everyone slept well last night!

Have a mooey Monday and enjoy your holidays. I hope I get to moo with you someday at the Moooo! Bar....Mooooooooooooooo.....(lowing softly).
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