Thursday, July 27, 2017

Knowing Tranquility VIII (Awashima, Manabejima, Kitagijima)

The first thing I saw in the morning was a samurai riding on a stone turtle.  Well, maybe not the first thing, as I'd been awake for a few hours, though secluded in my drab room by the station.  And maybe not a real samurai or turtle, but stone emeulations of both.  Still, it was an image that lasts.

It isn't long before I find out their identity.  Urashima Tarō, of course.  It is a story that everyone in Japan knows, about the boy who spends three days in the underwater palace of the Dragon God, and upon his return finds that he'd been away 300 years.  Donald Richie mentions that Kinoe, a town a few islands over, claims Tarō as their own, but apparently the body of the turtle that bore him to the palace washed up near the whirlpool on Awashima's western shore.  

I'm puzzling over a sign telling me this last point, when a man rides up on his motorscooter, to fill in the blanks.  We both bow before the little roadside shrine honoring the turtle, then begin to ride back to the main port, where I'd rented my bicycle, as they'd been out of turtles.  The man holds pace with me, telling me about the island and some of the history.  He is friendly and quite easy going, in keeping with the island's languid pace, and it isn't difficult to imagine centuries disappearing as one dozed away out here. 

Awashima had hosted a number of installations for the Triennale, but the spirit had caught on, with dozens of smaller homegrown projects sprouting across the island.  I'm not surprised by the rustic island bar, probably run by a real character, a common feature of laid back islands the world over.  But I am taken aback at the sight of a macrobiotic cafe, the only eatery I notice on the island.  Obviously, there are interesting folks about; those I see are sitting about, chatting away the heat of the morning.  There is none of the frantic pace of Ibukijima.  Once again I chastise myself for not staying the night here.

While the locals have all the time in the world, I don' t so have rented the bike in order to see as much of this island as possible.  Two hours proves enough, to bike to all the villages and beaches on the island, surprised somewhat by the hills.  At the far west end, a small hamlet fades back into forest, including the former residents' graves.  In a decade or so, it will seem as if no one ever lived here at all.  There are a few day trippers over on Nishihama beach on the island's back side, but not even their jet skis frightens a massive cloud of sardines, numbering the thousands, who may have fled the fishing fleet of the day before.  

I don't have time to climb the 200 meter mountain at the island's center (and what are islands anyway but underwater mountains?), which is fine in this heat.  I did want to visit Kubota Saya's art installation, the Missing Post Office, but it won't open until afternoon. This gives me more time to wander the grounds of the old Naval college, Japan's first.  It too is housed in an old wooden school, filled now with hundreds of photographs of students former traveling and working around the world. The movement of weather and tides dictated their movements, as now it did mine.  My boat would be leaving soon.  

As I sit waiting for a bus back to the station, I get into conversation with a mother-daughter team that I had briefly glimpsed in the Naval museum.  The girl had caught my attention, as does any mixed-race woman, for in their features I try to find a clue into how my daughter will eventually look.  She's an art student living in Milan, and with her mother had spent a few days on the island.  We share a long conversation comparing life in Japan versus Europe, mainly on art and politics, as our bucolic transport brings us north to Tadotsu, where we exchange cards and I disembark. 

It is the full heat of day, and I'm still sweat-soaked from my bicycle ride up and over the hills.  But the ferry port isn't too far so I decide to walk.  The town has a quainter look than had Sakaide, filled with old shops and narrow roads.  Along the way, I oame across an old building that is being used as a Shorinji Kempo school.  On a hill above, just out of sight, stands a towering pagoda with a Chinese look, a replica of the actual Shaolin Temple in Henan province.  This is the headquarters of Shorinji,  and I've twice visited; the first being on a relaxed tour with my former teacher; the second for a black belt test, about which I barely remember due to the nerves and intensity of the process.

I remember too there is a really good chicken restaurant somewhere in the area, but I don't really have the time to go searching, so instead get a cold drink and go to the pier to await my boat.  This single transport is the most important link of this particular stretch, for it is the only boat that covers a certain section, and only does so once a week.  (I was puzzled about the irregularity of scheduling, until I was reminded that I would be crossing the prefectural line.)  So I sit waiting for the crew to let us board.  This is a risky endeavor, as I am nearly brained by an old woman who loses control of her cane, and am nearly run down by a smartly dressed man driving a flash car with Tokyo plates.  His companion has an Asahi tallboy in his hand, and over the next two hours it will stay there, though I am not sure if it is the same can. 

I watch these two during the course of my voyage, for once not the one who most stands out.  As I do, I imagine a story for them, why they are bringing the car on this little ship to a little island; whether they are gangsters or merely a couple.  There is a closeness there the I can't quite define.  When I grow bored with this I go stand at the ship's side, away from the smokers in the stern, but catching the full brunt of the wind.  This is the first of four ships that will take me along the island chain that stretches from Tadotsu to Kasaoka, and I feel like I am finally traveling the way Richie did, the way that people traveled before the bridges were built.  Other smaller islands recede with our wake.  Now and again I look down upon a jellyfish just below the waterline, like a discarded prophylactic.  

 I change to a smaller boat at Sanagi, which speeds me across to Manabe.  I only have twenty minutes until my next boat, but the island is small, little more than a single village.  I head immediately for the old school, for I have come to find that those are the most beautiful, wooden structures from before the war.  This one doesn't disappoint, curling like a horseshoe around the athletic grounds.  I am curious whether it is still active, and the dozens of faces smiling at me from a recent newsletter show that it has. 

There were more children here thirty years ago when Shinoda Masahiro filmed MacArthur's Children, which was detailed life here in the Inland Sea, and was nominated for an Academy Award.  I do come across a number of kids chopping wood and preparing for some kind of event, but I of course have no way of knowing whether they actually live hereProbably not, as their numbers seem high considering there are only about 200 people on the island.  What there are lots of are cats, and the island has become better know for that, partly due to a French comic by Florent Chavouet, whose photo hangs prominently in the ferry terminal.  

But on such a hot day, not even the cats were in evidence, though they could be spotted sleeping in various patches of shade, dreaming perhaps of chasing cicada once night fell.  Or perhaps they dream of taking over.  As Japan's population continues to fall, the cats have already begun to outnumber residents on many of these islands, and it won't be long before they are the only things left.

My next boat whisked me quickly over to Kitagijima.  I had two choices of boats, each departing an hour after the other.  There didn;t appear to be much happening in the island's main village, so I thought I might try to explore further afield.  I asked the man in the ferry terminal if they rented bikes, and after a few preliminary questions to led me to a beat-up model out behind the building which I assumed was his own.  Rewarding his entrepreneurship with 300 yen, I bicycled off to the island's far end.  

It was a bigger place than I'd thought, but luckily it was flat, so I kept up a steady pace along the shoreline, wondering after a while if there was anything here but concrete factories. It truly was an ugly island, with lots of quarries and stone slabs strewn about.  I find ironic delight in the island's name, "Tree of the North," for it is only on the north shore that any can be found, the rest having been carved up so badly. 

Richie spent an inordinate amount of time hunting down a stone cat, one of the more comedic parts of his book.  In the end he finds the cat to merely be a pile of stones stacked in a far corner. But I spotted it quite quickly, and was surprised that Richie, who is incredibly observant missed the connection with the industry here, choosing instead to fall back on Heike legend.  

The road runs out eventually, so I wheel back, passing again a fisherman multitasking with his four lines extending into the sea.  Passing through a small village, I again experience a bizarre aural illusion.  I hear what I think at first is an hourly chime, but it is a quarter past four.  Then I see the inbound ferry and assume it must be letting the residents known it is coming in.  Only then do i notice the man selling bread out of his truck, beneath a speaker affixed to its roof.    

Before I leave the island, the ears will be called into play yet again.  Riding back toward the terminal, I see a handful of people sitting in front of a beach house.  A handmade sign advertises curry, so I assume they have beer.  As I wash the dust of dozens of concrete factories out of my throat, a man and a woman begin to play music through amplifiers, so I sit and listen awhile,  As they go into "Stand by Me," I wander over and join in the chorus.Music truly is the best means of international communication.   I only have a half an hour until my boat, but I join in on a few numbers as the day begins to cool.   They have taken to drunkenly calling me Mike, after the microphone I suppose, but it has been a fun encounter, one of those delights of being a expat in Japan, where your foreignness helps initiate an immediate relationship.  It won't hold up a boat however, so I turn and move in that direction.

On the turntable: dZihan & Kamien, "Freaks & Icons"

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