Sunday, May 15, 2011

Life as an ambassador on Shiraishi Island

By Amy Chavez

"An American yacht has come into the port. They don't speak any Japanese. Come help."

Ah, the first call of spring! As the resident foreigner on our island, I was appointed ambassador 14 years ago to represent the citizens of Yachtland, a kingdom ruled by King Neptune. Situated mainly in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but with a border so liquid it encompasses most of the world's large bodies of water, Yachtland is proud to be the only country with a current.

Although Yachtland doesn't have a huge population, it is known worldwide for its natural features: the Gulf Stream, the doldrums, and the Marianna Trench, to name just a few. Visitors flock to Yachtland to go fishing, boating, swimming and snorkeling. They dive the Great Barrier Reef and numerous shipwrecks. Some come in search of more elusive places too, such as the Lost City of Atlantis.

Yachtland has abundant wildlife: the albatross, sea gulls and pelicans. In our waters are whales, sharks, dolphins and even the giant squid.

Yachtland has dangerous areas such as the Bermuda Triangle and Cape Horn. The Titanic and the Yamato have met their fates there. We have homegrown terrorism in the form of hurricanes and typhoons. No place is perfect.

As Yachtland ambassador on Shiraishi Island in the Seto Inland Sea, my job is to welcome foreign guests and direct them to the guest berth. I live in the Yachtland embassy, situated on the port. Some people think this ambassadorship is about as exciting as being stationed in Antarctica. But I have found that this lifestyle suits me just fine. Things happen here that would never happen on mainland Japan.

Like when I answered the call about the two Americans who had just sailed in on a 34-foot yacht. When I arrived on my bicycle to relieve the man who called me, to my surprise there was another Japanese man there who had also come on a yacht. His 36-foot Beneteau was tied up on the opposite side of the dock. He introduced me to the two Americans, but as he didn't speak English and they didn't speak Japanese, he couldn't tell me very much about them. "Ask them where they have come from," he said, anxiously.

After a short conversation with the Americans I found out they were a father and his 23-year-old son who had just sailed over from New Zealand. The son left the United States five years ago to sail around Yachtland and his father joins him on parts of the trip when he has time. "I think it's wonderful that a father and son can enjoy such a trip together," said the Japanese man. "Please translate that."

Suddenly the man turned around and jumped onto his boat. After a few seconds rummaging around his cabin, he surfaced with something in his hand. He tied a white piece of cloth around his head to make a hachimaki and came back over to where we were standing. On the dock, he showed us a simple shaft of bamboo with holes in it. "Shakuhachi!" he exclaimed and started playing it.

The Americans looked at me, but I just smiled. It was the first time I had ever seen someone play a shakuhachi.

The Japanese man, who had straight black hair that hung down to his shoulders, was soon in his own world, jumping from one foot to the other, in a way that told me he must be part leprechaun. The dock was his stage while the mountains and sea formed the quintessential backdrop. His primitive dance matched perfectly the simple sounds of his wind instrument. "This is a song of the sea," he stopped for a moment to explain, and then continued playing.

It was one of those special moments when people stop whatever they are doing, or thinking, to watch a spectacle unlike they have ever seen before. This little man had succeeded in putting his audience of three into a trance, though the man could have been playing to dozens. When he was finished with the song of the sea, we all clapped enthusiastically.

He insisted the American men attempt his instrument, but neither could make the piece of bamboo make a single sound. "Oh, your heart is not good," laughed the man. "You must have a good heart to make a shakuhachi sing."

"Now, a song of the mountains!" he said and turned around to face the mountains. He played to the mountains a very different kind of tune with harsher blows and short sputters, reminiscent of Shinto festival music.

When he finished, he handed the instrument to the son, who tried and tried again, but not a sound came forth.

In the meantime, the father jumped onto his boat. After a few seconds rummaging around his cabin, he surfaced with some cans of beer. The chatter continued, translations each way, and soon everyone was filling each other's cup with beer.

Not long after that, the son finally started to make the shakuhachi sing.

Feeling my mission had been accomplished, I headed back to the embassy to wait for the next call.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Virtue of Silence

Rolling Black-outs: the virtue of silence
The Japan Times, April 23, 3011

Entrance to Flying Dragon Shrine on Shiraishi Island

By Amy Chavez

The rolling blackouts in Tokyo meant interruptions in watching TV, running computers, stereos and electric heaters, not to mention recharging cell phones and electronics.

While some have suggested the rolling blackouts will merely reconfirm the need for nuclear power in this country with so few natural resources, I wonder if the blackouts could create a backlash.

You see, the blackouts have given us the chance to reconsider the role of silence in our lives. In an article by James Fallows on new media in the April issue of The Atlantic, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Fallows, "If young people are awake, they are connected. When they're walking, when they're in a car, if they wake up at night, when they're in class."

I'm glad to know that at 48, I am still considered young. But I wonder if the younger people actively seek quiet moments to keep a work-life balance. This craving for silence is one factor that drives people to go sailing, surfing, hiking, camping, mountain climbing or to do other individual sports. Silence is a tool we use to cope with life.

A competitor is silent at the beginning of a race so she can concentrate. A moment of silence is called for to remember the victims of disasters. We pray to God in silence. And most of us need silence to sleep well.

The silence between songs on a music player provides closure for one song before starting another. Writers and poets insert ratios of silence, called pauses, into their works via commas, dashes, ellipses or full stops. Lots can happen during a pause (consider the pregnant pause).

Silence is one of the lifestyle options I took when I moved to Shiraishi Island (population 631) in Japan's Seto Inland Sea. I wanted to live in a place where I could concentrate for long periods of time but still be connected to everyone and everything. Because of this decision, I've had time to consider the virtue of silence.

When I want an hour devoid of cell phones, e-mail or Internet, I take a walk up to the Flying Dragon Shinto shrine on the island. One who takes a vow of silence can hear many things.

I'm not talking about the sound of your own footsteps or that of the wind in the bamboo — most people can hear those things. Only the perceptive can note how the wind carries the laughter of two women chatting in their veggie gardens, or distinguish that the sound of a water drop is actually a frog surfacing from an abandoned well.

On my way up to the shrine, I walk past the port, where fishing boats are tied up while their captains sleep peacefully in their houses after a full night at sea. White herons stand on one leg in the shallow waters waiting for a meal to swim past, while a hawk is on lookout from the top of the mast of a yacht.

Stray cats stretch out on the sun-soaked road, sleeping with one eye open. Weeds grow freely along the road, knowing no one will cut them down as long as they have blossoms. Gods peek out from stone statues all along the path. Someone has planted ostentatious red tulips in front of their house.

I haven't heard a human-made noise yet.

When you hear a noise on the island, it's because something has happened. Something has been put in motion: Someone starts walking, someone initiates a greeting or someone starts a boat to go out fishing.

This is in contrast to city noises, many of which are ongoing and confirm that everything is still happening: ceaseless neon lights, cars on the road or the background humming of vending machines.

As I get closer to the shrine, I begin to hear some human sounds as the road-turned-walking path wends through the old Japanese country houses. I hear the scraping of a hoe in sandy dirt as an old woman removes weeds from around her walkway. When I pass a garden, a man impatiently pulls out daikon radishes, their roots snapping under the stress. Laundry flaps on a clothes line and dried leaves scoot across the path.

When I reached the Flying Dragon shrine, it was so quiet, I could almost hear the lion statues' silent roars as I passed under the torii gate. In the shrine grounds, the last flecks of pink fluttered down from the cherry trees. With the o-hanami parties finished, no one is around to hear their last petals fall to the ground.

Environment and sensitivity to noise is well documented. Buddhist priests after doing the Gumonji meditation for 100 days are said to have such keen senses that they can hear the sound of burning incense. I believe it. But it is the previous intense environment that allows them to have such perception. Who knows, in another 100 days, they might be able to hear fruit rotting.

Us mortals, however, must strive for something in between. By welcoming the occasional periods of silence that the rolling blackouts offer us, we can heighten our senses enough to be able to hear what our real energy needs are. When you can once again hear your cat purr, you just may decide to keep it that way.

When the loudest thing on my entire walk is bright red tulips, I understand the virtue of silence and I wonder if I need nuclear energy at all.

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