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Saturday, Aug. 21, 2004


Beat the heat -- get out to the islands

It has been one of the hottest years on record in Japan, especially in Tokyo. Something about too much pavement and too many high-rise buildings blocking the breeze. It makes you wonder, why don't those people in the high-rises just open their windows to let the breeze through?

Yet I have not turned on my air conditioning once this year. Something about the sea breeze flowing through my second-floor windows and the mountain forest in the back of the house shading it from the sun. I'm not bragging. I'm just thinking that long ago in Japan, people wore kimonos in the summertime and used hand-held fans. Geisha were able to cake on all that makeup without having it slide off their faces into the laps of their patrons. Then somehow, our lives became more complicated and now we need air conditioning.

But this year I decided to stop avoiding the great outdoors by escaping to air-conditioned malls or ducking into grocery store frozen food isles. And, more truthfully, what started out as an attempt to keep down my summer electric bill turned into a pleasant discovery of the powers of natural air movement, shade cloth, water pistols and cold beer. It has been the coolest summer on record for me.

The summer has been too hot for jogging, however. But last night, as the sun was setting, I decided to go for a jog anyway. That's when I realized exactly what it is I like so much about jogging. It's not the jogging itself, but taking in the sea air, the sights and the rhythms of a small island in the Seto Inland Sea. And the realization that some of life's most precious moments happen at sunset.

I start my jog around the port, where I pass the one-armed old man who sits outside on a dilapidated chair and who always gives me a hearty wave with his one arm as I pass. One kilometer later, I come around a corner past the restaurant with the beach in full sight. Almost exactly a year ago when I came around this corner, the restaurant owner's son -- 20 years old and just returned from Tokyo -- was running out to the water's edge to take a photo of the sunset. Who would have known that would be the last photo he would ever take? And that later that evening he would be lying on the bottom of the sea after a boat accident?

On Sundays, live music emanates through the open windows of the restaurant as I jog past. It's not a live band, as such, but locals who come around and play just for the fun of it. The hidden talents of the drunks, the derelicts, those who cheat on their wives, those who cheat on their husbands, the ones who have abused life and those whom life has abused -- they all produce a sound so sweet that even they forget their troubles as the sun sets on another day on the island. On top of the piano sit photos of smiling customers who passed away earlier than the rest. This is a place where people stick together their whole lives, and deaths.

Farther down the beach, an old man and woman, both in their 80s, are sitting around an old wire cable spool, using it as a table while chatting into the sunset. Surely they are talking about old times, a kiss behind the school, who they should have married, the biggest fish they ever caught. The ferry drivers and stonemasons are gathered in front of a house drinking beer. They always call to me as I pass, inviting me to stop for a beer. One time I accepted, and we've been "best friends" ever since. This time I wave and continue jogging all the way down past the beach, up the hill until, at the very top, the entire Seto Inland Sea spreads out before me.

I stop to rest. The view is so breathtaking, I momentarily forget that I'm so hot, I'm about to pass out. Then suddenly I am cooled by a heavenly breeze. From the top of the hill, I watch as the sun sets on another day of island life. Not a high-rise building in sight.

Get Amy's "Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won't tell you" at the Dollar Book Store, www.mooooshop.com/MooooBooks/order

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