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Saturday, Aug. 12, 2006

JAPAN LITE

Bon -- the spirit of ancestor worship


The Bon holiday is here, when everyone returns to their hometown to visit family and pay homage to their ancestors. It's a built-in way of forcing your grown children to come back to visit you, even if you're dead.

News photo
"O-jii-chans" Man-chan (left) and Kio-chan bring living history in Hawaiian shirts to Amy's Moooo! Bar. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

On our island, they're truly getting into the Bon spirit, so to speak. Every evening since July, the islanders have been practicing the Shiraishi Bon dance to the beat of a "taiko" drum. All ages, from toddlers to elders, take part in the dance, which is a tribute to the Heike warriors who were defeated by the Genji in the great battle at Danno Ura in the Seto Inland Sea in 1185.

You'd think that after 700 years of doing this dance, no one would need to practice, but they still do. The elders pass it on to the young ones, who learn the dance in kindergarten and practice it throughout the elementary school years as part of their school curriculum. It's a wonderful way to preserve a culture. We could never have something like that in the U.S. Parents would complain about their children's compulsory Dancing for the Dead 101. They'd call it witchcraft.

Not only is the Shiraishi Bon dance a tribute to the fallen warriors, our island even hosts their ghosts. Hundreds of dead Heike warriors washed up on Kami Ura beach. There is a firm belief that the ghosts linger on that beach, one of the most beautiful spots on the island and an eerie reminder of days past.

But it's not just our island that holds the spirits of the Heike. Kitagi Shima, the island next to Shiraishi, also had warriors wash up on their shores, and thus they named the beach Chi no Hama, or Blood Beach. There are thousands of warriors believed to still be at the bottom of the sea in the form of crabs that bear a resemblance to the Heike warriors' faces and the helmets they wore in battle.

The Inland Sea is steeped in history. I often hear such stories in the evenings, after the tourists have left the island for the day and the locals come around to the Moooo! Bar.

Most tourists call me "o-neesan," which means older sister, a term applied to women you don't know and who are not "o-baa-chans" yet. But the drunk locals call me Amy-chan, because, much to the surprise of Japanese mainlanders, nearly everyone on our island is a "chan." To outsiders, we're all "sans," but among ourselves, we prefer to call each other Ya-chan, Ko-chan, Sho-chan, etc. Just pick a sound from the alphabet and we've got a chan to match it.

The bar is quiet after the tourists all leave on the 5:40 ferry, but it's not long before the ferry port manager comes around for a tequila sunrise, or the cargo ship captain drops by for a Mooey Blue Hawaiian. The captain always calls the dentist, and he comes by for a Moogarita, followed by the Buddhist priest, who orders a Pina Moolada. Then my two favorite "o-jii-chans," Man-chan and Kio-chan, come dressed in hats and Hawaiian shirts. Soon the whole bar is engaged in tales of the past while the sun, merely tolerating our gaiety, sets patiently over the sea behind us.

"Ne, ne, Amy-chan," says Kio-chan, whose stories always sing the praises of his 80-year-old best friend, Man-chan. "Man-chan wa ne? He's the best Bon dancer on the island." Man-chan sits there quietly ignoring the compliment. "It's true!" yells the ferry port manager from the other side of the bar. "The Shiraishi Dance is very difficult, but Man-chan has perfected even the slightest movements." They all put their hands up in the air trying to imitate Man-chan's graceful hand movements.

"Demo, ne," I break in. "I've seen Man-chan dance. He has a very unique move!"

The patrons roar with laughter as Man-chan breaks a smile, everyone recognizing my reference to the way Man-chan hams up his performances sometimes with a rather unorthodox butt wiggle.

I smile to myself, prepared for an evening of stories of a small population of people on a small island in the Inland Sea, bound by history and their own heritage -- two forces so strong that the island people are loath to leave their lifestyle behind. And this too, I know, is what keeps the spirits coming back for Bon year after year.

"Ne, ne Amy-chan . . ." I'm brought back to my senses by Kio-chan's insistent voice. "Man-chan wa ne . . ."

To be continued . . .

Experience a Shiraishi Bon on Amy's blog: dailymoooo.blogspot.com


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