Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ieshima Shrine (Tenjinsan) and Donald Richie

   The 1st and the 15th of every month, I volunteer along with others to clean up the shoreline and the area around Ieshima Shrine. Most of the volunteers are over 65. we arrive early in the morning and pick up all the trash that has floated and been blown onto the beach. It's a lot. Fishing lures, plastic bags, bottles, caps, boxes, styrofoam, cigarette butts, and all sorts of things. It all winds up here on the beach.

   After we're done cleaning up, we head up the 200 or so steps to the shrine and take part in a Shinto ceremony called "tsuki nami sai" (月並祭). We chant a passage that I think is from the kojiki and then the "priest" purifies us and asks that our health be looked after. When it is done, we each come home with a fruit of some kind, a can of coffee and a little tiny pouch of about a teaspoonful of rice in a shrine pouch that I guess is purified or something. Sometimes I cook it and sometimes I put it in our family "kamidana" or miniature Shinto shrine in our house.

   Tenjinsan (Ieshima shrine) is around 1,400 years old -the area that is, not the actual building. In Shinto, it's the area that counts. It's one of the more important shrines in Kansai and it has a beautiful view of the surrounding seas. after climbing all the way to the top through its uncut and untamed forest, you really feel you are in a special place.

   In "The Inland Sea", Ieshima was the first place that Donald Richie visited though many don't know it because he (mis)spelled the island as "Iejima". It's not really a misspelling exactly because the people here call the island "Ejima" and always have said it that way. Here is how Donald Richie described Ieshima:

   "The port of the main island of Iejima, despite or because f its lack of tourist recommendations, is instantly attractive. Houses tumble down the hillsides, fall over each other, and all but end in the water. Their gray-tile roofs almost touch, and small and narrow alleys swarm in all directions. The mud walls, straw showing through, are so close that it would seem the inhabitants move crab-fashion. The port is filled with fishing boats, strange junk like ships with high sails, and around them, on the docks, are bales and coils and baskets and boxes. On all sides there is the most glorious confusion."

  Richie then goes on to describe the shrine.

   "The shrine lay in the path of the declining sun. The shadows were beginning to lengthen, the light was growing horizontal. The open-mouthed shadow of the stone torii that marked the approach to the shrine stretched into the dark of the trees at the base of the hill. The sand of the beach was still gold, but inside, beyond the gateway, all was a mass of thick black trees and bushes. On the beach, it was still day; inside the grove, it was already night."
   When the ceremony is over, we head home tired but feeling good and somewhat blessed with good luck. If the timing is right, one of those tonbi that constantly soar overhead may just fly over your head as you cross the bright white bridge and face the blue waters glimmering underneath the torii.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Island life

   When I tell Japanese people where I live, they are always shocked. For one thing, Ieshima is an extreme sort of place and completely out of touch with the kind of lifestyle of the mainland. For another thing, the idea of a white guy living on such a strongly Japanese (超日本的やなあ) place is just, well, strange.

   Yes, it can be lonely here a bit. also, there are not a lot of the kinds of things to do that most people associate with having fun. There's no real bars.... people just drink at home or in restaurants on occasions. We DO have some places where you can do karaoke although not the kind of "karaoke rooms" that most people go too. We have some restaurants sort of, where you can get okonomiyaki or tako-yaki. We even have a decent yakiniku-place and Chinese restaurant.

   But let me tell you some of the things I really like about this place. First of all, I like the kind of person you have to be to live here. You see, you run into the same people over and over and over. Not only that, they know your family intimately for 3 generations up or down. They know how often you shop at the only place to buy groceries in the hamlet of Miya. They know whether you have a pet, grow vegetables and what you threw out in your trash. They know if you volunteer for things, they know if you don't. They know if your child is good in school, a brat or bad at fielding pop-ups.

   In an environment like this, your an take this level of closeness either as extremely intrusive or you can allow the pressures to transform you. I know that when I was in America, I would not have been happy living in a place where your front door might slide open at any time and there will be an old lady with a bunch of radishes or spinach from her garden to give you, or an old guy with a bag of fish flopping around or squid shooting ink all over the place. But here, you smile and say "Ooki ni!" ("Thanks!") and make a mental note to pay that person back in kind at some point, somehow. That's the black market economy of the island. It's how people help each other through the days and through the rough patches.

   Time is measured here by the festivals and by the trees and the fish. We just passed setsubun (節分) and had a fun gathering where treats were tossed out from towers built in the shrine courtyard. Soon the fishermen will be hauling in the ikanago, the little white baitfish, that are going to be cooked as "kamaage" (釜揚げ) or as "ikanago no kugini" (イカナゴの釘煮). Soon after that, it will be time for the trees to start blooming and the start of the new school season. Kids will have opening ceremonies, dressed in sharp-looking new school uniforms underneath pink and white cherry trees. By then we should be catching kawahagi and aji. Spring is the best time of the year in Japan because you know you have months of warm weather before the rainy season comes, bringing in the heat of late summer.

   But I still haven't said what I really love about this place, I think. You see, it's an island and islands are different than other places. On an island, you know who is there with you. It's like a boat and no one is coming on board without you knowing. You feel protected, safe. You feel apart from the malls, from the traffic and you feel like you're in it together with your neighbors, whatever "it" is. Years ago, you could jump on your motor scooter and ride, no license, no helmet and not a care in the world. That's changed a bit since we merged with Himeji. Now you have to wear a helmet, but the feeling is still the same. Time flows differently here, slower. 

   But I still don't think I've really explained it. Maybe you just have to live here. Take a 20 minute walk past the fishermen's boats and nets, underneath the screaming "tobi" (they're "kites", birds of prey). You can walk only this way or that way. Right or left, either left and around the inlet to Maura, the busier hamlet, where you can buy some just-caught fish or to the right, to the end of Miya where you can walk past the beach and to the 1,200 year old Ieshima Shrine with its ancient forest. No rush either way. You have no where else to go -it's an island.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A little bit about Ieshima

   I've been living here on Ieshima now for 2 years but I have been coming here just about every year since 1995. I'd like to use this blog to tell more people about Ieshima and life on a Japanese island. A REAL island not like one of those massive things like Awajishima with a bridge connecting it to the mainland.

   Out here, there are no convenient stores, no traffic lights, no Starbucks, McDonalds or shopping malls. What we do have is a real community with real people and a slow-paced life that is probably much more like what Japan was like decades ago than most places you can find these days.

   Ieshima is a 35-minute boat ride from the port of Himeji. Lots of people come here to fish, eat good food or just find a nice relaxing place to get away and gaze at the beautiful natural scenery of the Setonaikai (Inland Sea). When you're high on the mountains in Ieshima, the Inland Sea is spread out in front of you and it looks like a giant stone garden with the 44 islands of Ieshima standing out like beautiful moss-covered stones. When you do that, you can see why the people of Ieshima believe that this is "Onogoroshima", the island of myth that is described in the Kojiki as the first island created when the water droplets fell from Izanagi and Izanami's jeweled spear.

   Ieshima is mostly known now for 2 things; Fish and rocks. The stone of Ieshima has been mined for thousands of years and was used, for example, in Osaka Castle. But long before then, there was an ancient trade route between Ieshima and Takasago whereby Ieshima provided the stones that Takasago craftsmen turned into stone tombs and such. Fossils discovered here actually show that people have been living on Ieshima for thousands if not tens of thousands of years. There is even a nice stone tomb here from 1,100 years ago that you can visit.

   Ieshima is most famous, though, for its delicious fish. If you get used to the fish here, it is hard to eat fish anywhere else. Here you can still have a barbecue on the beach and dive into the water and come back with a fresh abalone, octopus or sazae to throw onto the grill --and it doesn't get much better than that!

   I'll try to post photos and more information about Ieshima as time passes. Please don't hesitate to drop me a line anytime with questions or comments.