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Saturday, May 22, 2004

JAPAN LITE

Sacred flames and burning Tahiti dreams


On our sail through the Seto Inland Sea, whenever we pull into a harbor for the night, we never know what to expect. At Shiraishi Island, we found people wearing deer skins, blowing though bull horns and shooting arrows into the air. What's this?

The islanders were having a festival to honor Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. At the temple where the ceremony took place, we were welcomed with "tsukemono" and a drink of "amazake." Invited to observe, we took a place with the locals standing around a heap of green tree branches that would soon be lit into a blazing bonfire. Around this circle was passed a long "juzu" rope with wooden beads the size of tennis balls, and each person passed the beads from hand to hand to the rhythm of three priests chanting sutras.

As a torch lit the greens, smoke furled from the heap, and one man wearing a deerskin flicked a bundle of wooden sticks into the fire one by one with his left hand while holding a large knife in his right hand. Each piece was inscribed with a message of hope from one of the worshippers. Around and around the circle the juzu beads traveled as more and more sticks were tossed into the fire, and the flames grew so hot that people turned their faces away from the heat. Last into the fire were old scrolls, masks and other traditional household decorations, no longer wanted but still too sacred to throw in the trash. I wondered how many of Japan's antiques had gone up in flames in ceremonies such as this.

In contrast, our welcome into the port at Okinojima was quite different. The harbor master ran out waving his hands: "Stay?"

"Yes," we said, and he directed us to an open berth. The price, he said, was 100 yen per foot (30 cm). We had a 40-foot boat, so this would not be a cheap stay. We hedged.

"What kind of facilities do you have?" I asked.

"Toilets, coin laundry, and showers are 100 yen per two minutes."

It was getting more expensive.

The harbor master noticed our worried faces. "I can make it cheaper, but you cannot stay for free," he said firmly. I translated this to the crew members.

"Are there any sightseeing spots on the island?" I asked. There were none.

"I can make it cheaper, but you cannot stay for free," he repeated. Our crew exchanged glances.

"We'll leave at 8 a.m.," I promised. "How much cheaper can you make it?"

Suddenly, as if having kept a secret for a very long time, he burst out, "Please, stay for free!" his smile nearly jumping off his round face. A few moments later, he reappeared with beers. "Tonight, come to my house and drink 'shochu,' " he said, leaving a six-pack with us. I suspected he had another secret, but wasn't sure what it was.

When we dropped in at his house that night, he brought out a large bottle of shochu and filled our glasses repeatedly. After we were completely sauced, had revealed our ages, and the harbor master was comfortable with us, he prefaced his secret with, "I have a question." His question was directed at the older, more experienced crew members who were nearer his age.

"I want to sail through the South Pacific Islands some day." He took a deep breath then burst out with, "Tell me where the beautiful girls are!"

The two male crew members said, "Moving east through the South Pacific, the girls get more beautiful. Tahiti has the most beautiful women."

"I think 60 percent Japanese women beautiful," the harbor master said in broken English. "What percent Tahiti women?"

One crew member said 80 percent, but the other disagreed entirely: 90 percent!

"I go Tahiti!" exclaimed the harbor master with joy, his smile nearly jumping off his round face.

With that, he shook our hands and thanked us for visiting.

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