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Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005

JAPAN LITE

Plying the sea in the Good Ship Lollypop


From my house on the port on Shiraishi Island, the sea breeze passes through my windows while I sleep. All night long, my sleep is accompanied by the sounds of cargo ships and tugboats plying the waters, up and down the Inland Sea. From my window, I can see the ships pass the lighthouse and hear the rhythmic chug-chug of the motors as the cargo ships near the lighthouse and fade away after they pass. Sometimes a cargo ship returns home to Shiraishi Island, its big chain creaking as it lets down the anchor, and the final thud when the anchor hits the bottom. For years I have been listening and watching these ships pass in front of my house and have wondered where they were going and what they were doing.

News photo
The Kaisei Maru anchored at Shiraishi Island

A casual inquiry among the island residents resulted in an invitation on Ken Harada's ship, the Kaisei Maru. I would accompany him to deliver a load of steel to Osaka. We would spend two days and one night on his 58-meter, 199-ton ship. First we would go to Shikoku to pick up a load of steel, then deliver it to Senboku Harbor in Osaka.

We boarded the Kaisei Maru at 6 a.m. and I was shown my cabin, which reminded me of Ohio: pressed wood paneling, vases of plastic flowers and a framed painting on the wall of -- get this -- a riverbank. But that was where the similarities stopped, as every new threshold on the ship required a slipper change. Slippers for the bridge, slippers for the deck, slippers for the cabin and, yes, toilet slippers. Even Japanese pirates probably wear slippers.

With the slippered captain at the helm sitting on his Hello Kitty cushion, we embarked for the port at Takuma, Shikoku, where we would receive our cargo: 47 coils of steel, each weighing 15 to 18 tons. Once docked in Takuma port, a touch of a button rolled back a metal cover at the front of the ship, exposing a giant hole 4.9 meters deep, 7.3 wide and 29 long. This is where the steel coils would be placed, ready for transport to Osaka.

Once out on the sea, I could have been on the Good Ship Lollypop as candy-colored cargo ships in purples, yellows and pastels passed us to starboard and port.

Even the tiny, perfectly cone-shaped Ozuchi Island near the Seto Ohashi Bridge looks good enough to eat. But on the other side of the bridge, near Nao Island, I couldn't help noticing an island that was mysteriously missing its other half. Capt. Harada explained that this was Nishi Island and that indeed someone had stolen half of the island with cranes and other large machinery and transported it to Kobe and Osaka to form the bases of Rokko Island and Kansai Airport. Nishi Island, now ravaged of its plant cover and exposing its cross section of pure rock, looks like a big, white, naked behind sticking out of the water. The sun was setting as we passed Shodo Island, and it was nighttime when we passed under the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge to Awaji Island, where the lights of the bridge change to rainbow colors at the top of the hour. Airplanes flew overhead like fireflies in the sky, and small fishing boats skimmed across the water like insects. We arrived at Senboku Harbor in Osaka Bay at 10:30 p.m. We would sleep on the ship and unload in the morning.

We awoke to "radio taiso" as the steel workers did their morning exercises in unison in front of the factory. From the unloading dock where the ship was tied up, I could see inside the pristine warehouses, where a little fantastic world existed. Sparkling machinery moved to the tunes of jewelry-box music, the floors were marked with lanes and stop signs for the forklifts. Everything had a fresh coat of paint in bright happy colors such as blues, oranges and yellows while the workers hurried around in jumpsuits, red hard hats and white gloves. Dr. Seuss would be proud.

When our ship was finally all unloaded, we headed back home at 10 knots per hour, arriving at Shiraishi Island at night. The Kaisei Maru's chain creaked as it let down the anchor, and the anchor hit the bottom with a thud.

Now when I hear the chug-chug of the ships as they pass in front of my house, I know where they're going and what they doing.

Visit Amy's One Dollar Bookstore at www.mooooshop.com


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