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Saturday, May 29, 2004

JAPAN LITE

Miyajima to Oshima: sailing back in time


"The Inland Sea is a dangerous one unless the ship has a pilot of the greatest skill and one who thoroughly knows the channels," wrote my great-grandfather on his passage through the sea in 1900.

My own experience sailing it, however, is quite different. On a 40-foot (12-meter) sailboat with an auto-helm, depth sounder and a Global Positioning System, we don't have the worries my great-grandfather had. Instead, we have different problems, the main one being garbage. Up until now, we have had to dive into the sea three times to release garbage such as plastic bags that became clogged in the boat's propeller. The Inland Sea offers an amazing variety of garbage parading past the boat as if it were a Thai floating market. Standing on the bow doing plastic bag patrol, I found myself not only warning of plastic, but also yelling: "Get the net out! Oranges on the starboard side, potatoes on the port! Anyone need an extra sandal? Hey, what's that? A brand new mag wheel!"

It was beginning to sound like Christmas.

"Old Japanese boats were constantly coming upon the scene and now and then we passed an ancient temple or shrine in some secluded spot."

Surely my great-grandfather would have passed Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima when it was still a secluded spot, as opposed to one of the "three most beautiful spots in Japan." Indeed, the best way to glimpse the beauty of Miyajima, (birthplace of the rice scoop) with its large "torii" gate in the sea, is by boat. The contrast of the beauty of the torii with the floating garbage accompanied by the stench of raw sewage was, well, overpowering. I prayed I would not have to dive into this water for any plastic bags caught in the propeller.

From a distance the torii is like a tiny replica of itself, with a backdrop of a tall tree-covered Mount Misen. As our boat drew closer, the torii grew bigger and bigger until it engulfed every inch of the view finder in my camera. Through this gate, which stands 200 meters in front of Itsukushima Shrine, is how commoners entered the shrine as far back as the sixth century.

After leaving Miyajima, we sailed to the small island of Oshima, just at the end of the Inland Sea where it opens up into the Pacific Ocean. Oshima, just one big mountain in the middle of the sea, greeted us with an earthy fragrance of its mountain forest as we entered its port. A handful of freshly painted white-and-blue fishing boats, with electric lanterns strung across the deck for nighttime fishing, occupied the port, and just like the fishing boats, Oshima Island was well tended to by its people.

Here I found a pleasant loneliness that to this day I have found only among the islands in the Inland Sea. Oshima's population is just over 300, the number of people outnumbered by feral port cats. The few people who were at the port were busy going about their daily routines, never giving us a second glance, as if giant white people often stopped in on their island. I asked a man the weather forecast, and although he didn't know, he quickly ran off to find out for me. On the opposite side of the island in a small shack, a man stuck plastic pellets into oysters to make cultured pearls while his wife shuffled the oysters back and forth for him. Not a word was spoken, and the man, peering through bifocals, never once glanced up at us.

Even I was beginning to see Japan through my great-grandfather's eyes:

"They are the most genial, best natured people I ever saw. They never quarrel, are polite and honest in their dealings with men, are intelligent, progressive, enterprising and industrious . . . and someday Japan will be one of the leading nations of the world."

Amen.

This is No. 5 in a series on Amy's voyage through the Seto Inland Sea. Have you mooed yet today? www.mooooshop.com


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