Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hanaguri cow nose ring shrine in Okayama

Hanaguri Cow Shrine (with mound of nose rings in background)

Yesterday I went to the hanaguri (cow nose ring) shrine in Okayama. As a cow lover, I had been wanting to visit this place for a long time. Here, they have collected over 7 million nose rings from cows who have gone to slaughter. It was a bit sad, but a little comforting too to know that the cows had not been forgotten.

Close-up of the pile of nose rings.

Every year on the third Sunday of April, there is a shugendo ceremony to bless the souls of the cows who have given up their lives so humans can have beef, leather, and other bovine fancies.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Daishi-do, Shiraishi Island

The "Daishi-do" or Kobo Daishi Hall, a separate temple on the grounds of Kairyuji Temple on Shiraishi Island. The Daishi-do sits precariously under a large rock...

Today was the Fall masturi for Kobo Daishi.

Also, this week's Japan Lite is up at the Japan Times Online: Japanese--a language of tall tales.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Umi Hotaru: Sea Fireflies

Last night we took a trip to the mainland.

On the way back to Shiraishi Island, at about 11:00 pm, the phosphorescence in the water was very bright. This photo is looking down at the water from the side of the boat. You don't have to be on a boat to see the phosphorescence, however. You can set it off by throwing a stone into the water from the beach or by just walking in the shallow water--anything that causes the water to stir. But nothing compares to the brightness a boat creates as it plows through the water at a good speed.

Some people go night kayaking to see this phenomenon. It is quite beautiful as each time you put your paddle in the water, it is rewarded with a spray of underwater light. On the island, they call this phosphorescence "umi hotaru" or sea fireflies.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

New island bicycle rental for 2010

View of Seto Inland Sea from back side of Shiraishi Island

The Moooo! Bar is happy to announce a tie-up with Chirorin-Mura Bicycle Shop in Kasaoka to provide bicycle rental on Shiraishi Island starting in Spring 2010. There has long been a need for this and we're trying our best to meet it! Take a trip around the perimeter of the island on the 5.3 km road and explore the rest of the island. In particular, the views from the back side of the island are fantastic! The road also takes you through Tori-no-kuchi (Chicken's Mouth!), a small fishing community on the back side.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Western breakfast at Minshuku Harada

Japan Lite reader Diane recognized the "Western breakfast" in my Japan Lite column called Breakfast Deja Vu and was nice enough to send along a photo of the breakfast. Indeed, Diane was the foreign guest who was visiting at that time. She confirmed " breakfast deja vu," saying she was sure the hot dogs were from the BBQ the night before. She also said the the omelet was very tasty. Thanks Diane! (P.S. I see in this photo that the "earthenware" nabe pot didn't make an appearance this time around. Maybe next time...)

Diane also asked what the Japanese people get for breakfast at Minshuku Harada. I'd have to say that the only thing I've seen served is the traditional miso soup & rice plus fish. That seems to be what Japanese people expect at a minshuku. I don't know what they serve when they have both foreign and Japanese guests. A mixture of both perhaps?

Japan Today article about Shiraishi Island

Check out this article about Shiraishi Island in Japan Today

Monday, September 28, 2009

Japan Lite: Defining Island Time

The cover of a Japanese magazine recently showed a photo of Shiraishi Island along with a title that urged people to come and relax in shima no jikan (island time). This, of course, is the image outsiders have of our island.

They come here and see the elderly people ambling along the road, the old wooden fishing boats languishing in their berths, piles of decomposing fishing nets and mountains of rusting anchors. I suppose it's only natural to think that these things are indicative of a similar anchored lifestyle among the people. And yes, 60 percent of the island's population is over 60 years old.

Despite all of Japan being in the same time zone, our island definitely does have its own time.

For example, today was a clean-up-the-pilgrimage-route day. Next Saturday is clean-the-temple-grounds day, and the Saturday after that is clean-the-neighborhood day.

All these events officially start at 7 a.m. Except that once converted into "island time," 7 a.m. is actually 6:30 a.m. This is because the older people get, the earlier everything starts.

And I suspect that this grace period of 30 minutes is getting longer all the time. A few years ago, people would arrive 15 minutes before the scheduled meeting time. Then it slowly crept to 30 minutes. But today, when I had finally caught up with the group that was cleaning, they had nearly finished the two-hour job. They must have arrived at least an hour early!

I can't keep up with these old people. They do absolutely everything at rapid speed. Perhaps they realize they don't have that much longer to live and as a result are trying to fit in everything they possibly can.

When I joined the group, a 79-year-old fisherman was taking up the rear wielding a motorized weed cutter while 80-year-old Rikimatsu-san was perched on a very steep slope raking leaves to one side. And all the rest of the group moved like squirrels as they hopped from place to place cleaning and putting the pilgrimage path in order. Seeing I wasn't needed there, I ran ahead to help the others. But when I got there, someone had just declared the job finished.

Think about it: If all three events this month start one hour early, that means we'll have gained three hours by the end of the month. And if this keeps up over the years, it won't be long until we have a 26-hour day! And those extra two hours will surely be added to the morning so rather than waking up to the 6 o'clock chimes, we'll wake up to 4 o'clock chimes.

Living among people with overactive thyroids, I'm careful not to suggest certain hobbies such as, for example, car racing. Can you imagine the drag races around the island at 4 a.m.?

Or how about speed reading? The old people would soon figure out that by speed reading, they could save money because they'd only have to buy one copy of the newspaper for the entire island. Everyone would get two minutes and ten seconds to read the paper. Heck, after some practice, they'd surely be able to read the newspaper before it was even printed. In this way, if they worked hard enough, they could probably even reverse time. Such is the power of old people.

But seriously, even if speed reading were a success, the old people would then want to learn speed cleaning and speed laundering.

I'm kind of enjoying taking my time getting through life's daily activities. But, I'm a little concerned about the old people. If they continue at this rapid pace like a watch that runs too fast, people are going to actually die sooner because they will have reached the end of their life ten years sooner than they were supposed to.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be utilizing the power of old people. We could put their skills to work where they would make the biggest difference: in Japan's Diet. They'd be rapid decision-makers who would work tirelessly, from 4 a.m. every morning, for change.

They'd find people jobs at an astounding pace and they'd teach debt ridden people money-saving techniques such as speed reading. They'd bring in their rakes and motorized weed cutters and clean up corruption before breakfast. They'd reclaim the Russian-held islands by lunch and they'd meet targeted carbon dioxide emissions by dinner.

Then they'd solve the pension fiasco before retiring for the day. Two hours early.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Nakanishiya on the Beach

For Silver Week, Sept 19-24, Nakanishiya Ryokan (on the beach) is opening its doors to people for "sudomari" (room only, no meals) for 4,500 yen per person. This is a nice option between budget and high end because you get all the benefits of staying in a nice place (nice garden, bath) but without having to pay for the meals. As far as I know, they don't have wireless internet, but you can always set up your laptop at the Moooo! Bar and use our wireless "moooosen" for free.

Sunday looks like it's going to be a beautiful day on the island, so if you have some time, come on out and moo with us! We'll be open Sundays and Wednesdays in September. We end the season on the last Sunday of Sept, the 27th, with the Moooo! Fest.

Also, don't miss this week's Japan Lite: Flying Octopuses of Thanks at the Japan Times Online.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

All booked for Obon

View of the Seto Naikai from "The Cottage" on Shiraishi Island. Book it here.

The weather continues to be sunny on Shiraishi Island and it looks like we're going to have great weather all through Obon. And Obon is right around the corner! Everything is booked for Obon (Aug13-16) and even all of our secret places are spoken for, so the only option left is camping on the beach.

We expect that the Moooo! Bar will be going until the wee hours, so if you do come out and camp on the beach, you might want to set up your tent a bit further down the beach. Unless you can sleep through periodic moos coming from the bar, that is. When people drink, they tend to moo. We are even guilty of conducting group moos. So beware that there will be those who will be partying until the cows come home. Setting up your tent down near the public restrooms would be a good idea.

On another note, bookings are coming in fast for "silver week" which is the long weekend/holiday in September from the 19-23. If you are planning on coming out during this holiday, do put in your bid soon at shiraishireservations at yahoo dot com.

I sampled the new cookies & cream cheesecake at the Moooo! Calfe yesterday and I give it a hooves up! C'mon out and try our Moooo! Cheesecake, made from the happiest cows on the planet.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Japan Lite: Welcome to the Caldron

Fudomyo. (Photo from the Daruma-san blog)

By Amy Chavez

"Atsui desu, ne?" (It's hot, isn't it?) This is the universal summer greeting in Japan. You can be in a crowd of complete strangers when someone will sidle up to you and, as an "ice-breaker," say, "It's hot today, isn't it?" And you agree with, "So desu ne." (Yes, it is).

Since everyone knows the "Atsui desu, ne" greeting anyway, we could make the process a lot simpler by just giving the answer first. Wouldn't it be easier to greet each other with "So desu, ne?"

But there is much more behind "atsui desu, ne" than merely its annoying ubiquity and the fact that "It's scorching hot today, and I feel like I'm going to burst into flames any moment" would be far more accurate.

To the Japanese, it's just a statement of how things are, not necessarily a complaint. And the Japanese, not being the hairy beasts that we Westerners are, are perhaps more comfortable being hot.

Even on the hottest days you can see men walking around in suits and women in long sleeves, gloves and long pants. The Japanese continue to take hot baths even in the summertime. To them, "atsui desu, ne" is merely stating a fact.

Welcome to the caldron.

You see, fire plays an important part in Japanese Buddhist and Shinto rituals. Whereas Westerners might equate fire and heat with hell, in Japan, fire is used for purification.

There are goma fire-burning ceremonies and hiwatari ceremonies where people walk over hot coals. There is the "sacred flame" in Reikado Hall in Miyajima that is said to have been lit by Kobo Daishi 1,200 years ago.

At Obon, ancestors are welcomed with fire (mukaebi) and at the end of Obon are sent off with fire (okuribi).

Kyoto is one of the hottest places in western Japan, and possibly all of Thailand. This must have been a factor when choosing Kyoto to build so many of Japan's famous temples and shrines.

In August, Kyoto celebrates the Daimonji okuribi with five fires on five different mountains to ward off illness.

Since fire is a way of purifying, next time you're all sweaty and about to pass out from the heat, think of yourself instead as merely on your way to reaching purification.

To reach that pure inflamed state we have to raise our body temperature as much as possible. If your skin starts sizzling in the sun, I'm pretty sure you have attained enlightenment.

Indeed, the high temperatures make you seriously consider the meaning of burnables and nonburnables in Japan. With temperatures in the high 30s, sometimes even 40 C, almost anything can self-ignite. You start looking suspiciously at vacant lots — I could swear there was a building there just last week, you think, while looking at a few remaining smoldering embers.

Whenever I travel by train in the summertime, I consciously seek out the fire extinguisher in the train car just in case the guy sitting next to me should suddenly burst into flames. It's a wonder Japan doesn't distribute personal fire extinguishers to people when the temperature gets over 40 degrees.

On these really hot days, keep an eye out for Fudomyo, the Buddhist deity. You can recognize him because he'll be coming at you with a sword in one hand and a rope in the other. Oh, and he'll also be engulfed in flames. Really.

Fudomyo is always depicted with "flames of wisdom" around him. These flames purify you by burning away your material desires.

So there you go, desires are burnable. Fudomyo is nonburnable. Demons are also nonburnable, which is why Fudomyo holds a rope in one hand — to catch the demons with.

Whenever the temperature surpasses 40, you can just feel Fudomyo's presence. He's probably just around the corner.

Concrete, on the other hand, doesn't burn, which is why there is so much of it in Japan. Japan is possibly the world's first nonburnable country. That's why you never hear about out-of-control wildfires in Japan.

So, stop complaining and enjoy the heat! Let it purify you. But if you reach spiritual combustion, then don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Japan Lite: Putting the bugs out to sea

It's pouring down rain, so we haven't opened the Moooo! Bar yet today. If it clears a bit in the afternoon, we'll open. In the meantime, I thought I'd share with you my most recent Japan Lite column from the Japan Times. This one is about our Mushi Okuri festival on the island a couple weeks ago. Enjoy!

The Japan Times, Japan Lite, Saturday, July 18, 2009

Putting the Bugs out to Sea

By Amy Chavez

Last weekend, we threw all the bad insects off our island in a ceremony called Mushi Okuri (seeing off of the insects). The island people didn’t exactly kick the insects off the island, but rather, they asked them to leave. Leave it to the Japanese to be so polite as to assist the insects to the water’s edge, put them into a special insect boat, and wave bye-bye. It’s a wonder they didn’t send them off with cash envelopes.

This annual sayonara party is a folkloric tradition going back hundreds of years. It starts at 9:30 am at the island temple with much chanting and praying. Then, a small wooden boat is lifted off the altar and the island people march it around the island displaying it among the fields and gardens along the way in the hopes that the insects will jump at the chance for a free boat ride.

This grand sayonara party takes place during the rainy season, when most insects are out strolling in the nice, damp weather. It is an optimal time for advertising a free boat ride.

At the head of this procession is the insect caller, 68 year-old Harada-san, who sings out the names of the insects one by one and tells them to go back to where they came from. This is a special song that the insects find irresistible, and thus are easily duped into believing they should get into the boat.

In the mountains of Japan, I’ve heard that during the mushi okuri ceremony, they “return” the insects to the next village’s field. But not here. Here, it is believed the insects come from Kyoto. Yes Kyoto! So they are told to go back there.

Now would not be a good time to visit Kyoto. The city must be buzzing with insects from the countryside flying around haphazardly trying to adjust to the big city.

But apparently, free boat rides to Kyoto are a very effective way of getting rid of insects. If it wasn’t, I’m sure my neighbors would have given up doing this hundreds of years ago. Not all insects are asked to leave, mind you, just the bad ones. The good ones are allowed to stay.

What’s the difference between a good insect and a bad insect? Plenty.

Although most people call all bugs insects, in Japan, you have two kinds of bugs: insects and outsects. The insects are the ones in your in-group and they live inside your house. Like relatives, you may not like them but you must tolerate them. Ants, roaches, and mosquitoes are examples.

The bugs outside of your house are, naturally, not called insects but outsects. The outsects are those in your out-group, and those outside your comfort zone—things that make you go “Whoa!!” Centipedes, geji-geji, and giant hairy spiders are examples. These outsects should never be trusted. However, they sometimes make it into your house and become insects until you exterminate them or throw them back out.

Outsects also include garden pests that ruin crops and termites who eat houses. The outsects are led by the geji-geji, a fearsome, disgusting leader with multiple limbs. If you think centipedes are unpleasant, then geji-geji are totally yucky wucky.

But there is something admirable about the outsects. They are fighters: they bite, they sting, and they jump like ninjas. They are instilled with the samurai fighting spirit. Thus they are feared by humans.

Imagine for a moment, what you could do with a geji-geji in your house. They are absolutely disgusting. And they know it. So the next time you have too many houseguests, just call on the geji-geji. They’ll clear your house of all humans in a matter of seconds. People will flee for their lives yelling, “Whoa!!”

After the Mushi Okuri festival, and the bad insects had safely set sail for Kyoto, Harada-san came to the Moooo! Bar for a drink. He lamented that he was the only one trained to sing the song to the insects to summons them to the boat. “When I am gone,” he said, “there will be nobody to take over the job.”

“Ah, don’t worry, Harada-san, I’ll do it for you,” I told him. He was so happy to think the tradition might survive, that he led the entire bar in a spontaneous rehearsal of the song.

After much practice, I think I’ve finally got it down too. I just hope the bugs don’t hear the “Whoa!!” that I put into the refrain.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Shiraishi Bon Dance July 18

Come dance with the locals at the Shiraishi Odori (dance) this Saturday!

On Saturday, July 18, there is a special performance of the Shiraishi Bon dance. If anyone would like to learn the dance, come on out as the locals will be teaching it to tourists on the beach. It is an evening event. The locals will be dressed in the traditional costumes and there will be the taiko drum master bellowing out the song while the sun sets in the background. It's a great event for photos as the sun sets over the sea while the dance is performed on the beach (see photo above).

The Shiraishi Odori is one of Japan's "Bon" dances and is a designated one of Japan's Important Cultural Treasures. It is danced by the locals at Obon during the Festival of the Dead in August to appease the souls of the fallen Heike warriors of the Genpei War during the sea battle at Dan no Ura as told in the story of The Heike Monogatari. The dance has been performed every year for over 700 years.

The performance this Saturday is a special performance to give people a chance to preview it and try it themselves. About 200 people will attend the event.

Come join us!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Opening of the Sea ceremony

We're gearing up for a great weekend at the Moooo! Bar. This is the official opening weekend of the beach, which is launched with the "Opening of the Sea" ceremony (umibiraki) On Sunday. We'll have over 50 yachts coming for the annual Shiraishi Yacht Race on Sunday as well, so starting Saturnday night, the parties will begin! In addition, on Sunday morning there will be a Shinto-Buddhist ceremony to throw all the bad insects off the island (including the termites!) .

See you all this weekend on the island! Mooooooooooooo!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

August Reservations for International Villa

Shiraishi International Villa sits up on a hill,
affording sweeping views of the Inland Sea.

We are now taking reservations for the Shiraishi International Villa for August. August is filling up fast!

The following days are already fully booked: Aug 1-4, 8-11, 14-15, 22, 28-29. July 11, 18-19, 25 June 5-6, 19, 23, 26-27

If you still want to come out to the island on those dates, let us book you into some of the other accommodations on the beach. Just email us at shiraishireservations at yahoo.com

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 yahoo.com

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.

(C) All rights reserved

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).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Shiraishi Island to Shikoku

Awashima Taro and his wife welcome our crew from Shiraishi to their minshuku on Awashima Island. From Awashima, Shikoku is only a 15-minute ferry ride.

If you're planning to come to Shiraishi Island and then on to Shikoku, you might be interested in our boat service. Although Shiraishi is very close to Shikoku, there is no ferry to Shikoku from here. To avoid having to take the ferry back to Kasaoka and then a 3 hr. train ride to Shikoku, we can take you from here by boat to Awashima (one hour), and from there you can catch a 15 minute ferry ride to Shikoku.

While you're at Awashima, you might want to stop for a night at Awashima Taro, a great little minshuku with a Japanese style irori for cooking and a stone bath for bathing. There is also a Moooo! Bar II on the beach there, which is a great place to watch the sunset.

Read more about Awashima here:

The Awashima Crab Murders

Retirement--Island Style

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Golden Week accommodations update

An update on accommodations for Golden Week, April 29-May 5th. The international villa is fully booked. San-chan's is fully booked for the 4th, and there is just one room left on the 3rd and two rooms left on the 2nd.

See you at the Moooo! Bar for Golden Week!

Monday, April 20, 2009

White Rock Island

One of the many monoliths dotted around the shores of Shiraishi Island.

Shiraishi means "white rock" in Japanese (shiroi+ishi). Shiraishi Island is aptly named as one of the first things you notice upon entrance to the port is the large rocks teetering on the tops of mountains. Rock mining goes back more than 100 years here and Shiraishi rock has been shipped all over Japan in the form of monuments and statues for Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

The above photo was taken on the west side of the island in front of Shiraishi's last surviving stone factory, owned by the Toyoshimas. They are a wonderful family who I have been meaning to write a column about for a long time. They live a perfect Flintstones kind of lifestyle ;)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Japan Lite: Imagine no possessions

Everyone has heard how the Japanese have no furniture in their houses and how they sit on the floor and sleep on futons.

Many people have the image of the Japanese living a minimalist, Zen existence among simplicity and diaphanous shades of light, as portrayed in large coffee-table books on Japan.

Then there are the Japanese houses no one ever tells you about. The ones that are so full of junk they would never fit into even the largest coffee-table book. Those houses have newspapers and magazines stacked up to the ceiling, Hello Kitty paraphernalia hanging from door knobs, odds and ends occupying floor space and boxes of stuff piled high in the corner because there is nowhere else to put them.

The average Japanese house has no closets to hide things in and no cabinets to store things in, but this doesn't stop people from obtaining more stuff.

Stereos and TVs are stuffed into the tokonoma previously reserved for the display of Japanese art objects.

Genkan are lined with layers of shoes. And all around the house things are left out because there is no "in."

Face it, although Japanese people used to own very little, these days they want modern luxuries such as dental floss and nose hair clippers. But the houses have not changed to accommodate.

And this leads to stacking things. Once a pile of stuff gets so high it sways like a high-rise building, that's when the industrious Japanese put up a curtain to hide it. And this, I am sure, is just to make guests feel less like they'll have to make a run for it should the wall come down.

If you're the type who keeps your tools in a heated garage accessorized with an automatic garage door opener, then don't even think of coming to Japan. There's just not enough space here to share with space hogs. You really must use and appreciate every millimeter of space you have here.

John Lennon in his song "Imagine," said, "Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can." Well, I can. I also suspect John was under the influence of Yoko Ono. There are only so many possessions a space-challenged Japanese house can hold.

But the truth is, despite the lack of storage space, there are advantages to living in these small Japanese houses. For example, my Japanese house is so small, I can mentally picture everything in it. I know exactly what I have in my house should I ever have to fill out the details on an insurance claim form. No storage space means no stuff in cardboard boxes hiding their contents from me for years on end. No extra space means no wondering where I put this or that, or whether to keep or to toss. Everything is at hand.

This does not mean, however, that I don't have a lot of stuff. I do. I have boxes of stuff in my native country waiting for me to rejoin them someday. All I can say is: Don't get your hopes up, stuff. I consider my stuff more like possessions dispossessed.

But still.

Most foreigners have stuff in storage somewhere in their native countries on the off-chance that they might need it some day. What if there's a war or a famine and we have to move back home? Our stuff would greet us like a long lost friend. And we'd be very glad to see it too. So we continue to keep things in storage that we'll probably never use. And those things know that if they wait long enough, and with some luck, they may become possessions repossessed. And so it waits patiently in storage.

The definition of storage, for the benefit of our Japanese readers, is a dark place where stuff can hibernate for years on end uninterrupted. There's a reason storage places are dark: You don't want this stuff to wake up.

Every time I go home to my country to visit, I check on my stuff. I slowly open the door to the storage room, careful to only let in a small ray of light. I look, see that my stuff is still there, and quickly close the door. That's my stuff all right. There is something secure about knowing you have stuff just in case you might need it someday. Even though you know you won't.

Someday I'll get rid of all that stuff. I'll give it to somebody else. Somebody who doesn't have enough stuff. Someone who no longer wants to live a minimalist, Zen existence among simplicity and diaphanous shades of light.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ferry prices, etc.

A cat models a Moooo! Shop necklace

The weather is beautiful on Shiraishi Island and Golden Week is just around the corner. We're starting to clean up the beach and get everything in shape! We've already had a steady stream of people coming out to the island already and many people have said they'll be out for Golden Week. It's looking like another great season on the beach! Next week we welcome Japan Lite reader Ruth and her friends who are finally making it out after years of planning. It will be a joy to finally meet them and to share some island experiences.

A couple things you might want to know if you are planning on coming out to the island:

1. The Sanyo Kisen ferry prices have increased. The regular ferry is now 650 yen and the express ferry is 1,130 yen.

2. The Shiraishi Ferry (car ferry) is 520 yen.

3. The International Villa is fully booked for Golden Week (April 29-May 5) but I can book you into one of the minshukus on the beach if you like. Just send me an email at shiraishireservations at yahoo.com
I can also book you into the International Villa for any time other than Golden Week.

I look forward to sharing some moogaritas with you at the Moooo! Bar....!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Now taking Shiraishi Int'l Villa Reservations

Spring "daikon" radishes on Shiraishi Island

We are now taking reservations for the Shiraishi International Villa for April onward. We offer you this free service as a convenience as the Villa reservation system will be making some changes starting April 1, 2009. The main conveniences we bring to you through our reservations service are: communication by email (in English), reservations by email and the ability to reserve rooms last minute, including weekends and holidays. We will also meet you at the port upon your arrival on Shiraishi and show you to your accommodation. We offer you continuing support throughout your stay including language support, updates on weather, ferries, and other useful information. All this we offer for free! So come on out and enjoy the island!

See the Shiraishi International Villa site for availability. They have updated their site so now you can see exactly how many rooms are left as well as which dates are fully booked. After you decide your dates, just email me at shiraishireservations at yahoo.com and we'll take care of the rest.

Also, for a bit of fun with linguistic gymnastics, check out this week's Japan Lite at the Japan Times Online.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Shiraishi Crime Stoppers

These are our new "crime stopper" vans on the island! There are three that I have seen so far. Makes you wonder, on an island that had zero crime last year among its population of 680 people, what prompted this....I mean there is only one road on the island to even patrol.

This is the sign on the side of the vans: "Let's create a safe community. Crime Patrol."

If that hasn't humored you enough, then check out this week's Japan Lite: Embrace the music of Japanese at The Japan Times Online.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Monday, March 02, 2009

New room rates for International Villa

The Shiraishi International Villa is now taking reservations for April and May! Check out their vacancy page.

The new rates starting April 1 are 3,500 yen per person per night based on double occupancy. Extra 500 yen charge per night for single occupancy. If you stay two or more nights, the price is 3,000 yen per night (plus 500 yen single occupancy surcharge if only one person per room). Reservations for the villa at their homepage.

It looks like they are still keeping their annoying rule of only being able to reserve two months in advance, but if you'd like to reserve something for after April, there are plenty of other places to stay on the island, all of them right on the beach (as opposed to the villa which is on top of a hill). For info. on other accommodation, check out www.moooobar.com or email me at shriaishireservations at yahoo.com

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Japan Lite: Driving in Japan not for the gullible

It was Sunday. We were driving. But this was no Sunday drive.

That's because in Japan, unless you're on the highway, you're probably driving on a road that used to be a footpath and even now, after being paved and widened for cars, still looks more like a bicycle path. This is why Japanese cars are so small. And the people too. After all, they have to fit into those cars.

Then there are the Japanese drivers themselves — people who go straight from playing with toy vehicles as kids to the real ones as adults. For the Japanese, there is no in between stage with go-carts, mini bikes, or trail bikes before driving the real thing. No broken bones, hospital visits or head-on collisions for practice. They go straight to "Wee! It's a motor vehicle!" and drive with careless abandon.

But the Japanese are very skilled at driving at high speeds along gullies, ditches, canals and rivers.

I hardly ever meet a first-time tourist to Japan who doesn't bulk at the gaping gullies and dastardly ditches alongside the roads here. "They're so dangerous!" they say. Well, I can assure you, that as long as you don't drive into the gullies, they're not dangerous at all. If you're worried about them, then by gully, don't drive.

Or, as a last-ditch effort, have a friend do your errands for you. Let him drive into the ditch.

The function of these man-made gullies and ditches is to catch and divert gushing rainwater, especially during the rainy season. Without these, every time it poured down rain, it would be like trying to drive through Niagara Falls.

So the gullies are there for a good reason. They are only dangerous to the gullible.

Many of the roads here are only wide enough for one car at a time, which means that every time a car comes from the opposite direction, you both have to slow down to a crawl and inch past one another, possibly opening your window to fold in the outside mirror to gain an extra centimeter.

That's why in Japan you don't really drive, you dart. It's all about accelerating and braking, two opposite functions that too often happen almost simultaneously. You really can't just relax with some jazz music on the CD player. Instead, put on some head-banging music and push the pedal to the heavy metal.

Soon, you'll develop a rhythm with your darting, a back-and-forth movement as you move to the very outside of the lane as the oncoming car approaches and passes, and then swing back into your lane and continue driving. You'll do this move every few hundred meters until soon you'll feel your body start rocking back and forth in anticipation. Turn up the heavy metal music. Who says you can't dance?!

After you've mastered gullies, ditches and narrow roads, you're ready to try the combination, tested by the one-lane roads along canals. Roads through Japanese neighborhoods tend to hug a system of canals built to carry away graywater from houses. Now canals are something to worry about, because if you fall in, you won't come out.

Although canals tend to be on just one side of the road at a time, the narrow roads will test your knowledge of your exact tire width, leaving only millimeters to spare between you and the eerie canal. If you are just learning to drive in Japan, I don't recommend driving these streets in one of those lightweight trucks with no hoods. With nothing but the windshield between you and the edge of the canal, you'll feel like you're riding in the front seat of a roller-coaster, which may prompt you to put your hands up over your head and scream.

Only after you've mastered the canals should you attempt to drive along Japan's many riverbanks. With no guard rails, caution signs or streetlights, it's amazing more people don't drive over the edge and into the river. Then again, for all we know, the river bottoms could be covered with carloads of people who were on their way to the convenience store.

I urge special caution along these riverbanks so you don't inadvertently perform a Thelma and Louise over the edge.

Other than these potentially fatal obstacles encountered in everyday driving in Japan, it's really not that dangerous. It's not exactly a Sunday drive, but hey, there's nothing for the first-time tourist to be too worried about.

As a matter of fact, as someone who hardly ever drives, I don't know what the problem is.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Japan Lite: Float this stimulus package

By Amy Chavez

For years Japan has struggled with the question of how to revive the countryside. With few jobs and an aging population, the countryside isn't much of a draw for anyone under the age of 80.

This goes for the islands in the Seto Inland Sea too, where the last generations of fishermen barely manage to hang on to a folkloric lifestyle. There have been many thoughts on how to revive the islands, but despite the half-hearted promotional efforts by the government, nothing much changes here.

But, I have an idea on how to revive not only the island where I live, but all of the islands in the Seto Inland Sea. My plan would increase the overall island population by 400,000, build a new industry, and create up to a million jobs. This idea would make you, me and Japan very rich.

My economic stimulus package for Japan is this: Japan should lease out the 200 or so inhabited islands in the Inland Sea.

Why? Because we already have a potential buyer. The Maldives. You see, the Maldives (a series of over 1,000 islands, but of which only about 200 are inhabited), have this sinking feeling that they are not going to be around for much longer. The relatively flat islands are disappearing as sea levels rise due to the warming of the planet. The Maldives are already relocating its population to safer ground.

The Maldives government considered the possibility of protecting their islands by building giant sea walls around them, but the idea was deemed impractical and too expensive. Eventually people would be living in holes in the ocean and they'd need repelling gear and possibly miners' hats to get down into the holes to visit their relatives. Centuries later, people would have to drill for their ancestors.

So instead, the country is looking for a new home. The Maldives government is already saving money to buy up land somewhere else. They have reportedly looked into large tracts of land in India, Sri Lanka and Australia.

Hey Japan, these people have cash! Their population needs islands, and our islands need population. And since our islands are basically mountains, should the seas continue to rise, we can always move to higher ground.

But it gets even better. Most of our islands are part of the Seto Inland Sea National Park, which, by the way, could use some animal inhabitants. So, part of the deal would be that the Maldives bring their diverse wildlife with them. This would put the Seto Inland Sea National Park on a par with the great national parks of the world.

Imagine the possibilities these animals would bring to our islands: leopard tourism, loris tourism, and elephant tourism. Japan's TV stations would have plenty of material close at hand for numerous documentaries on the sloth bear, the jackal, and the mongoose. There could be annual water buffalo races, giant squirrel safaris and eco trips for student groups to study the behavior of the hanuman langur.

A whole new meibutsu for the area would develop: sambar cuisine. Move over Hello Kitty — these exotic animals will all be available on key chains and cell-phone straps!

After all, are the Maldives just going to leave all their animals there to drown? If animals can survive in zoos around the world, they can survive here in Japan. If it's a little cold for some of the elephants, just give them kimono.

We wouldn't want the Maldives tourist infrastructure to go to waste, so we could load all the hotels and other structures onto cargo ships and transport the entire country over here. Then all we'd have left to do is divert flights. Anything headed to the Maldives would be redirected, in mid-air, to Japan. Heck, some tourists probably wouldn't even notice.

Bringing the Maldives here will create jobs in our new joint-tourism sector. We'll need to employ rangers, mahouts and bear trackers. We'll need zoologists, veterinarians and keepers. We'll need multilingual guides, hotel staff, cooks and a beefed-up transportation system. And whatever your skill is, we'll surely need you too.

But most importantly, we'll need the mother of all arks to bring the animals over on. I have confidence in the Japanese, because of their long history as shipbuilders, that they will be able to construct a luxurious animal cruise ship to bring these animals safely to Japan.

What happens if the Maldives don't want to lease our islands? Don't despair. The South Pacific islands are sinking too.

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