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.

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