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Saturday, May 15, 2004

JAPAN LITE

Cow Island and a naked bath in the sky


Perhaps the best part about sailing through the Seto Inland Sea is stopping along the way at the islands. The Inland Sea has over 150 islands, and each one has a different atmosphere. After passing under the Seto Ohashi Bridge, we stopped at a small island called Ushi Shima. The name of the island (Cow Island), as well as its population of just 19 people, had long intrigued me.

No one is sure where the island got its name, but if you spend an afternoon drinking the local sake, then look at the island, it vaguely resembles a cow standing halfway in the water. Since this is the deepest part of the Inland Sea, that would have to be a cow with 70-meter legs, but after having been on a sailboat for a week already, taking a walk around the island was enough to convince me we were walking on the back of a cow -- the island took on the same motion as the sea.

There are no other cows on Ushi Shima, but there is a goat and a "gaijin." Yes, a gaijin! Kurt VanVolkenburgh and Keiko Yokoyama live off the land and welcome strangers such as myself into their house for lunch. They own a guest house called Island Girl, where people can safely enjoy the rugged island life as a weekend-only thing. Their own house Kurt built himself, and for their yard, I am quite sure they scraped off a patch of the English countryside and sent it here by container ship.

When I stepped onto Cow Island, I was overwhelmed with the silence. There are no cars or machinery. A small community of people lives to the rhythm of bird songs and the tranquillity of the sea. It was a moment I had never before experienced on land in Japan.

Next we stopped at neighboring Honjima, a good jumping-off point for a day trip to the "Konpira Shrine" (Kotohira-gu Shrine), the highest temple in Shikoku -- 1,368 stone stairs if you go all the way to the top -- and where the guardian god of the sea, Konpira-san, resides. Seafarers come here to pray for a safe journey. This was an obvious stop on our itinerary, as we'd certainly need help on our monthlong journey through the Seto Inland Sea. Konpira-san's effigy, usually in the form of a wooden sculpture, is a jolly well-bellied bald man. Perhaps his hair was blown off in a gale.

How I went from praying at a temple to sitting in a bath with five naked men is not so clear. The town of Kotohira, where Konpira-san is located, has several "onsen." I was quite surprised to head to the outdoor "rotenburo" bath only to find naked men sitting around the top of it. I had heard of the Japanese custom of communal bathing, but who would guess it would take place on a hotel roof in full view of the surrounding buildings? The sales of binoculars must be exceptionally high in this town.

The site of a naked foreign woman was enough to scare a couple of the men out of the bath, but I did have a very nice chat with a stark-naked electrical engineer while another man wandered off in a towel to smoke a cigarette and another cowered in the corner of the tub. Every time I'd look over, he'd quickly divert his gaze. It did cross my mind that a communal bath might encourage a lot of perverts -- clean ones.

When two large, pot-bellied male gaijin came into the bath, I knew the Japanese bathers were truly getting entertained. Our crew was complete now, naked and formidable, ready to take on even unchartered onsen waters.

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