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Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006

JAPAN LITE

Living the slow life -- at warp speed


Autumn on Shiraishi island -- the tourists are gone and weekends are for cycling, sailing and holding impromptu beer parties.

Amy Chavez Shiraishi Island
Hide, always ready for a party. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

Ring, ring, goes my mobile phone. "Moshi moshi?" It's Hide and he's on a cargo ship headed through the Inland Sea toward Osaka. He's been out at sea for three days now.

On Wednesday evening at my house on the port I heard him take up his ship's anchor.

"Nani shyouru? What are you doing?" he asks. "I'm sailing," I say. "We'll be back tomorrow afternoon."

"Me too," he says. "We'll be back to Shiraishi in the morning and I'll have the whole day free. How about a barbecue at your house?"

I can't possibly. I look at my partner, who is thinking the same thing: The steak is still in the freezer, we've got a ton of work to do before Monday, the house is a mess and we're going to get back home late tomorrow as it is. "Sure," I say, "Why not?" It's a done deal, because everything stops for friends on this island.

City people refer to island living as the "slow life." And I suppose it is a slow life if you're over 100 years old. Anyone else has no excuse not to be busy because on an island there are always things that need to be done: boats need to be maintained, vegetable gardens need tended to, pit toilets need to be pumped.

We're just as busy as everyone else, it's just that we know how to stop and smell the roses -- at warp speed.

We get back to the island the next day just before sunset, and Hide is on the dock to help us tie up. He hands me a bag of cabbage, onions and garlic. "Thought you might need these," he says. He's just saved me a trip to the supermarket.

We head home and once inside get straight to work. "You defrost the meat, cut the potatoes, boil the eggs and slice the veggies. I'll set up the barbecue, and make the potato salad!" says my partner. "Oh, and call the priest and invite him!"

I get on the phone to the Buddhist priest, knowing that on a Sunday, he won't be able to come. Sundays are when families plan hoji prayer ceremonies for dead relatives. But we've been meaning to ask the priest over for dinner for a couple weeks and now seemed to be perfect timing-for us.

"Sure, I'll come," said the priest, because everything stops for friends on this island.

"What shall I bring?" asked the priest. "Nothing," I said. "OK," he agreed and said he'd be right down.

Island people typically have irregular work schedules. While we have little opportunity to plan anything we have honed the skill of taking advantage of the moment.

Meanwhile, Hide shows up with a white Styrofoam cooler chock full of beer and the priest arrives with two bottles of wine and chocolate elephants. Hide gets on his mobile phone and invites the new young policeman to come over.

The policeman, on duty, arrives with mobile phone in hand, nervous. His wife is at the hospital and is going to have a baby any time now. He is waiting for the phone call to go to the hospital. A few minutes later, another islander shows up with some fresh fish.

Now, just an hour after tying up the boat, the barbecue is in full swing. Sake is flowing, the steaks are sizzling and we are talking about the good times we've had together so far this year: the summer evenings watching the sunset on the beach, the island Fall festival, the last impromptu beer party.

I look around at this group of people aged 30 to 70, from vastly different backgrounds, and I wonder how we can possibly have so much fun together. Is it because we all like to have a good time? Maybe.

Is it that we all love beer? Perhaps. But it must be more than that.

The only thing we really have in common is that we all live on the same small island in the middle of the Inland Sea. This is our island, and this is our moment.

Early the next morning I am awakened at 5 a.m. by the sound of the taking up of a ship's anchor. I look out the window and see Hide's ship outside the port with the running lights on. He's off to Kyushu. Two hours later, I see the policeman. He's on his way to the hospital -- at warp speed.



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